OPINION | Beyond Zoom calls: can business events and exhibitions help revive SA's economy?

The role played by social assistance and the protection of jobs remains a critical all-inclusive response, says the writer. (iStock)
The role played by social assistance and the protection of jobs remains a critical all-inclusive response, says the writer. (iStock)

"The economy is a forest, and each tree represents a specific industry, from automotive to aviation and from finance to pharma. Each tree is supported by roots: these roots are the events industry. The events industry does not exist to grow itself directly, it exists to grow other industries. Roots die without a tree; a tree cannot survive without its roots".

This is the analogy used in a UK Events industry article titled Long read: UK government must publicly recognise events industry:April 2020

To the above, we add this: that all the trees are part of an intricate ecosystem that must be managed and cared for with balance; so is our economy.

And we ask, what do we want South Africa to be remembered for once the world emerges from the global push back against the coronavirus?

The same invisible monster

At a high level, the world entered this battle together, albeit at different entry points, and faced the same invisible monster. Others have hurried to refer to the coronavirus as the great leveller. But we are not sure about that claim.

In any case, at local level, the pace and impact of the virus have either been aided or slowed down by how different countries have customised the tools and deployed the resources at their disposal in order to save people’s lives and to ensure that their economies are not destroyed irrecoverably.

In the end, each country will have its own report card to present, first to its own people and, secondly, to the rest of the world, especially the world of investors, leisure and business tourists, foreign students seeking to study in their tertiary institutions, and other foreign exchange earning opportunities and enablers.   

How did we score?

We must acknowledge that three weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown, and when a further two-week extension was announced, it became clear to many of us that a somewhat changed economy would be facing us by the time we finally emerge on the other side of the forced stay-home period.

Today, the casualties we are counting in the form of small to medium business closures in the hospitality sector alone is staggering; let alone the growing number of job losses. The result of all of this will come in the form of destroyed livelihoods of poor and middle-class South Africans and a bigger social service burden for the fiscus.

As things stand, South Africa might just have to swallow its pride and accept the requisite conditions that come with asking for assistance from international development finance institutions.  

The long list we have seen making the rounds on social media, naming dozens of restaurants that have been forced out of business, only covers one province; there is no doubt that the bleeding is nationwide.

And the bloody domino effect touches, on one hand, landlords who are sitting with either abandoned rental space or struggling to find anyone willing to commit to a long-term lease during these uncertain times and, on the other hand, tenants in limbo, having run out savings to continue servicing binding office leases they cannot come out of.

Each country will determine its own reputation

Government doesn’t have to wait for the economic situation in the country to worsen to the point of hard or impossible recovery, or to carry the burden on its own.

There is an opportunity to keep working with experts in organised sector associations - politics aside - to identify areas of the economy that can be enabled to gradually begin opening up, provided all agreed measures are put in place to protect lives.

The uniqueness of the business events and exhibitions sector lies in the fact that it serves vertical industries - with customers in all sectors - and is therefore well positioned to play a needed part in South Africa’s post Covid-19 economic recovery.

The business events, exhibitions and B2B trade events industry is one such area, as it feeds into a value chain that benefits several other sectors, and can enable many SMMEs along its value chain to come back to life and reinvigorate livelihoods for people in the sector, as well as their dependents.

It is a large, complex and well-balanced ecosystem of different disciplines and service providers covering business events, exhibition and event venues, event organising, agencies, freight forwarding, stand-construction, lighting, catering, cleaning, digital solutions providers, security and many more service areas. Many of the companies in the sector are SMMEs which create hundreds of thousands of jobs needed to give life to the economy and place food on the tables of households around the country.

The country’s tax system also has a lot to benefit.

The uniqueness of the business events and exhibitions sector lies in the fact that it serves vertical industries - with customers in all sectors - and is therefore well positioned to play a needed part in South Africa’s post Covid-19 economic recovery.

Together with the wider community of live events (meetings, incentives, conferences, and events), this sector was one of the first to be affected by cancellations and a total shut down at the onset of Covid-19.

Despite all that, it has also been proactive in its support of the response to the current health emergency when it availed key infrastructures around the country for hosting emergency field hospitals, testing facilities, as well as logistics centres for healthcare workers.

If allowed to resume business, this sector could begin to rebuild from the near ashes, give hope to companies that are still viable  - especially those that have not benefited from Government’s Covid-19 economic support measures - prevent further bankruptcies, save jobs that can be saved, and begin creating new ones. Our economy needs all of this.

In the same way that South Africans have now been allowed to gather in limited numbers and under controlled environments for funerals and religious ceremonies, and that schools have been allowed to reopen, it is hard to think of anything that could be preventing government from allowing a phased easing of restrictions on business gatherings of 50 or more with immediate effect.

Beyond Zoom calls

There are many good ideas that government can work with in the extensive health and safety protocols that have been developed under the auspices of the South African Events Council, comprising various associations within the business events, exhibitions and B2B trade events.

The said protocols come with clear measures and operational conditions that should give government the assurance it needs that business can resume in safety.  The proposed protocols go beyond mere physical distancing to cover the entire event management process before, during and after the event, placing the safety of event delegates and employees at the core of the proposed approach.  

Government has always considered the tourism industry as an easy creator of jobs, offering fairly easy and affordable entry points for many South Africans into the economy. It now has a chance to play its part, open the gates, and let the sector do what it does best for the benefit of South Africa.  

If we get this and other things right, others around the world will remember us by such victories – as we fully integrate the new economy - and be happy to count us at the top of the list of countries they’ll want to do business with.    

Solly MOENG, DonValley Reputation Managers and Glenton De Kock, CEO: Saaci. Views expressed are their own.

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