Chief medical officer Tony Holohan threw the proverbial cat among the pigeons this week by suggesting Nphet (the national public health emergency team) wouldn't have a problem with big outdoor events such as Electric Picnic provided attendees were fully vaccinated.
His comments were at odds with the current Covid-19 regulations, which strictly limit attendance at outdoor events and forbid indoor events such as large conferences and concerts.
They came as the Government faced criticism for allowing 40,000 people attend the All-Ireland hurling final in Croke Park last Sunday without any Covid checks and for alleged breaches of Covid regulations in and around the game.
Those in the live events/business tourism sector were left scratching their heads at images on social media showing large groups of supporters congregating at various points in or around the stadium when the wider events industry, for the most part, remains shuttered. No other sector has been so affected by the pandemic or been kept so entirely in the dark about reopening.
The Government is expected to publish its long-awaited roadmap for reopening the sector next week. But Nicola McGrane, chief executive of Conference Partners International and co-chairwoman of the Association of Irish Professional Conference Organisers (AIPCO), claims the plan will come too late to save what's left of the season, which typically runs from March to October.
Events in the conference sector are booked months in advance and because organisers have had no clarity on when the sector is to be reopened or what the vaccine protocols, social distancing rules, capacity levels are likely to be, they have been unable to take bookings.
“The season is effectively over. The big events have gone elsewhere,” McGrane says.
The only reason the Web Summit is taking place in Lisbon in November is because the Portuguese government issued guidelines months ago, she says.
“It’s extremely frustrating. We’re event organisers. We work in a very controlled environment. We know exactly who flies into the country; who comes on a coach or into a hotel; whether they’re vaccinated; if they’ve had a PCR test,” she says.
“We’re efficient at managing people and the Government just needs to trust us to do that,” she says.
Most businesses in the sector have seen an 85 per cent drop in turnover since the start of the pandemic, McGrane says.
“The sector can’t operate unless we can fill the venues and there is less social distancing. Why are we being penalised when sporting events and other festivals are allowed take place?” she says.
Prior to the pandemic, business tourism was booming. Fáilte Ireland estimate it was worth €720 million to the Irish economy in 2019 – split between promotable (business events and conferences) and nonpromotable (regular business travel).
This is about a fifth of the value of the tourism sector as a whole. A record 500 plus business and corporate events took place that year.
Since then, the sector has fallen off a cliff. According to Paul Keeley, director of regional development at Fáilte Ireland, approximately 220 events worth €131 million have been cancelled this year alone.
"This has had a huge impact... as it's not business that's dispersed across the country. For conferences, you've got to have space and good access," he says, noting the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick have been the most impacted.
Fáilte Ireland has been working with the industry to get those events deferred or rescheduled. To date, 68 events – worth €48 million – have been rescheduled for next year and beyond.
Business tourism is a highly valuable segment of the market for the wider economy. The agency estimates that a typical business conference delegate brings €1,600 to the economy, two to three times the value of a leisure visitor.
Keeley also notes that there is a pipeline of conference business to 2032 worth approximately €1.02 billion.
He expects the Government’s roadmap to involve a significant relaxation of the rules, starting in perhaps four to six weeks as indicated by Holohan.
Fáilte Ireland has been devising a set of guidelines for operators to help them adhere to any new regulations. They cover everything from food preparation and ventilation to social distancing and contact tracing.
“You’re looking for contact points where notionally infection could spread and what we’ve tried to do is anticipate those touch points and put in place guidelines around that,” he says.
On whether Ireland has been too slow to reopen in comparison to other countries, Keeley says, “different jurisdictions have had different appetites for risk and I think on the face of it, if we’re looking at infection rates in Ireland, the Government can probably argue that it has done a good job in controlling the infection”.
“By taking on board greater risk, other countries have been able to get the message that they’re open for business out. And because our roadmap has been more cautious, we couldn’t in a competitive bidding scenario give that certainty to potential clients,” he says, echoing McGrane’s point.
“The hope is that we’re now at a seminal moment, with nearly 90 per cent of the adult population fully vaccinated, that that risk is now manageable and we can once again open up to conferences and other big events,” he says.
Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin’s initial attempt to publish guidelines around reopening several weeks ago was reported to have been met with resistance from Cabinet colleagues and others.
Sources claim Martin wrote to the three Coalition party leaders two weeks ago expressing her “deep concern for the industry” and her unhappiness with the pace of reopening. It is understood she also noted the disparity between sport and music events in reopening.
When the pandemic first hit, the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD) was forced to cancel a string of big events, including the 2020 World Library and Information Congress, which would have played host to more than 4,000 delegates and brought an expected €6.4 million to the economy. The event will return to Dublin in 2022, the CCD says.
"The past 18 months have been difficult for all those in the business tourism industry. We have seen events rescheduled, cancelled and switched to digital events," Stephen Meehan, CCD chief executive, says.
“Many venues around the world have been able to hold live business events of various capacities for some time now,” he says.
“We were fortunate that many of the conferences that we had booked for this year could reschedule for 2022 and 2023. While we still have enquiries coming in, the key issues around access and permission are preventing us from converting enquires into bookings for Ireland,” he says.
“With air access, guidelines for events, and the digital Covid-19 certificate now in place, I am confident that when permissions are introduced, we will be able to deliver business events once again, in an exceptional and safe manner,” Meehan says.
Seamus Heaney of the Cork Convention Bureau, the body that manages business tourism for the city and county, says the conference cycle has been thrown out of kilter by the pandemic and it may take until 2025 or 2026 before the normal cycle resumes. What he means is that the cities that lost out in 2020 and 2021 have deferred their conventions until next year or 2023. The knock-on effect is that those which were due to hold them in 2022 and 2023 must now bid again for the business.
“In 2020, we got everybody to try and push their conferences out – hoping the pandemic would abate by the following year – but 2021 has been an absolute catastrophe because nothing has happened,” he says.
The problem is that the international conferences are on rotation so “the likes of Cork and Ireland” may have to wait longer – up to 10 years – before they can bid, Heaney says.
Conferences scheduled for 2022 are getting worried that they won’t get the international audience “as the world isn’t moving at the same pace” in terms of vaccination, he says.
The Cork Convention Bureau has overseen about €100 million in conference business since its inception in 2007. This is separate from what the tour operators and hotels get by themselves. The bureau operates an ambassador programme whereby academics pitch to hold conferences in their respective fields.
This was the basis for the Wind Energy Science Conference – organised on behalf of the European Academy of Wind Energy – being held in University College Cork (UCC) in 2019, contributing an estimated €1.3 million to the local economy.
Heaney says Cork has lost out on staging 12 big conferences as a result of the pandemic, including the European Aquaculture Conference. This was due to take place in September 2020 but when the pandemic struck, it was pushed out to 2021, before the organisers decided to host it online.
The global events industry was valued at $1.1 trillion (€935 billion) in 2019 and was expected to reach $1.6 trillion by 2028, according to UK group Allied Market Research. Covid has thrashed through those numbers with event planners pivoting to virtual formats. What’s not yet clear is how much of the original business will come back.