Noughts and crosses: Can Melbourne survive postponing its major events?

Noughts and crosses: Can Melbourne survive postponing its major events?

July 9, 2021

Since the start of this year, Andrew Westacott, the boss of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, has carried an increasingly worn and marked piece of A4 paper.

On it is written the schedule for the world’s Formula One, Moto GP and Supercar events for 2021, and increasingly it is covered with ticks, crosses and question marks. This sheet is Australia’s rev-head-in-chief’s way of trying to keep track of the races that have gone ahead as planned and those that have been postponed or, worse, cancelled. The pandemic has made it a movable feast.

Australian Daniel Ricciardo driving in the Austrian grand prix last week. The race will not come to Australia this year.Credit:Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, Mr Westacott learnt to his dismay that he would need to put a cross through his own grand prix and Moto GP events. That’s when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his cabinet decided they could not guarantee to drivers, riders and their big teams – thousands of people all up – that they would be spared 14 days in quarantine in October and November.

For many Victorians associated with, or reliant on, the state’s major events program, the cancellation of one of its landmarks for the second consecutive year was an unexpected and bitter blow.

A city and a state envied for its calendar of lucrative events has for the past 16 months been forced to go without the international film and comedy festivals; it lost its famed surfing world tour event to NSW; and, toughest of all, it was forced to watch an AFL grand final being played in Brisbane.

So what happens next? Can Melbourne pull out of its trough, or will its desire to stay safe from the pandemic mean its major events reputation is dead?

The man responsible for Victoria’s $100 million-a-year major events budget, Visit Victoria chief Brendan McClements, is optimistic. Better times were not far away, he said, for those who rely most directly on events – the state’s tourism and hospitality industries – because he had the political and financial support to not only protect Victoria’s major events calendar from would-be poachers, but to add to it.

Although he was unwilling to identify the events he was targeting, Mr McClements said he was in discussions with various international parties to bring further big sporting and cultural events to Melbourne.

“We are hell-for-leather going as hard as we can for 2022. I like the cards in our hand. We like big things. Scale is important. We like to fill the MCG. We like to fill the National Gallery.”

Tourism and hospitality operators will be hoping Mr McClements succeeds. A report delivered to the government last month highlights the devastation. Tourism Research Australia found tourism expenditure in the year to March had declined by almost 70 per cent, a net loss of $21 billion year on year. The pandemic had set Victoria’s tourism industry back 20 years, the report concluded.

Dougal Hollis, general manager of Tourism Accommodation Australia’s Victorian branch, said the grand prix would have been a “shot in the arm” for Melbourne hotel operators who had been dealing with occupancy rates languishing at about 30 per cent.

Like Mr Westacott himself, Mr Hollis said hoteliers were disappointed by the race’s cancellation because they had worked closely with the Grand Prix Corporation to develop a COVID-safe plan that would have allowed the largely vaccinated Formula One contingent to remain in a bubble away from the public.

Mr Andrews this week promised that the grand prix would be the last high-profile Victorian major event to be cancelled, given vaccination rates are expected to rise towards the end of the year.

Not everyone shares his confidence. Former premier Jeff Kennett, who is synonymous with Victoria’s major events strategy, said the decision suggested a shrinking state that risked becoming a “rust bucket” that would lose its status as a global sporting mecca. State opposition sports and tourism spokeswoman Cindy McLeish said the race had been viewed by many businesses as a “light at the end of the tunnel” which had now been extinguished.

Victorians had tired of the government’s “risk averse” approach to events, they said, and would welcome measures on display in the United Kingdom and Europe, where sporting crowds could show a vaccination certificate or undertake a rapid COVID-19 test to gain entry.

The Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, Martin Pakula flanked by Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief executive Andrew Westacott (left) and chairman Paul Little at a press conference to announce the cancellation of the Melbourne grand prix and Moto GP for another year.Credit:Jason South

Mr Westacott and Australian Open tennis chief Craig Tiley this week warned the Andrews government that its hardline approach to quarantine will no longer be accepted by their sports’ international participants. And as disappointed as he was for motorsport fans, Mr Westacott said he was most concerned about the financial hit the grand prix’s hundreds of contractors and suppliers would have to take.

“When I get most emotional is for the staff here who put their heart and soul into delivering this event and the 600 suppliers that we work with to deliver these events and all their suppliers and their staff,” he said.

One of those contractors is Melbourne restaurant and catering company, the Atlantic Group. Its chief executive, Hatem Saleh, said the company had been planning all year to feed up to 16,000 corporate guests at the grand prix in November. To do this, he would need 1100 staff.

Hatem Saleh of the Atlantic Group.

“The decision to cancel comes with a lot of shock and disappointment for our team,” Mr Saleh said. “When you see events like the Euro football championship in countries far greater affected than we are with COVID and stadiums at near capacity and people dancing in the streets, you just feel that we are so far away from that.”

Mr Saleh said his company relied on many smaller suppliers who had booked in the grand prix as an opportunity to catch up on some lost revenue. “The knock-on effect is catastrophic,” he said, adding he did not share the Premier’s optimism Victoria’s major events would no longer be affected by COVID-19 or snap lockdowns.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra said with Formula One’s owners requiring an answer from Victoria on quarantine requirements for November this week, the government had been left with little choice but to adopt a conservative approach.

But this had to be the last time a big event was shelved. “I was devastated. We don’t get these events easily.” He said it was time for the government to focus on ensuring big domestic events such as the AFL grand final and racing’s spring carnival went ahead with maximum crowds.

England fans watch their team play Germany in the Euro 2020 tournament at London’s Wembley Stadium on June 29.Credit:AP

Mr Guerra said he had also been talking to senior ministers and tourism industry officials about identifying ways to better leverage tourism around Victoria off major events in Melbourne.

He suggested someone with a high profile along the lines of media personality and former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire – a board member of Visit Victoria – should be enlisted to lead a “team Victoria” effort to re-energise the state’s major events strategy.

Prominent businessman and media buyer Harold Mitchell, a former vice-president of Tennis Australia and board member of the National Gallery of Australia, Opera Australia and Museum Victoria, said bipartisan support had been an essential pillar of Victoria’s major events success for 30 years and needed to remain so.

Former Labor premier Joan Kirner established the Victorian Major Events Company back in 1991 and appointed the chief fundraiser for the Victorian Liberal Party, businessman Ron Walker, as its chairman.

Mr Mitchell said a successful major events strategy was based on a simple formula of bipartisanship, a “build it and they shall come” mentality and a long-term outlook when committing to costly events. Victoria in 2022 should become a hunter rather than the hunted when it came to major events, he said.

“Aspirational in every way on a world scale. If you aren’t hunting and going forward then you’re standing still and going backwards,” he said.

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