CEO Geoff Donaghy on the impact of COVID-19

15 Apr 2020


Two weeks ago I spoke with The Australian’s magazine, The Deal, about how the business events industry has been dealt an unprecedented blow by COVID-19. I discussed the impact of the pandemic, how the industry has been responding and why I am confident that we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.

When I spoke with the journalist, I was aware that by the time of publication (this weekend) the situation may have completely changed. I prefaced nearly every response with “at this point in time” because while I have seen disruptions before – including the SARS and MERS pandemics, natural disasters and the global financial crisis – nothing has hit with the speed and scale of COVID-19 – or evolved as rapidly.

Despite this, when I reviewed the article this weekend the key points remained as relevant as at the time of discussion. Namely, how the industry must adapt and innovate to tackle the crisis at hand, while simultaneously keeping a sharp focus on recovery. Both are critical to our survival today and success tomorrow.

Here I want to share key outtakes from the interview. These are things which I have also been talking about with the team here at ICC Sydney, our clients, my colleagues from across the industry, Government and media, since the crisis first broke, and will continue to do so.

What sets COVID-19 apart from disruptions previously experienced is the scale of uncertainty and anxiety it has created. Without any indication of the full impact or end in sight, it is incredibly hard for businesses and communities to know how to respond.
For ICC Sydney, our business is built on bringing people together – for balls, concerts, exhibitions, meetings and conferences. We normally employ over 400 full-time staff and 1,000 casuals, however, in just a few short months this has drastically changed, as I explained to The Australian:
We have asked full-time staff to take leave or work from home, while some are working in separated teams at the venue. But we have no work at all for those casuals”.
With this comes a knock-on effect on the wider economy and communities in which we operate.
“Typically, when someone comes into the city for an exhibition or event, something like only 8 to 10 per cent of what they spend will flow through our P&L. The rest goes to hotels, accommodation, taxis, entertainment and restaurants.
But another unforeseen aspect of this is that ICC has a philosophy of buying directly from NSW farmers and producers. If we’re not putting food on the table or wine in wine glasses, it’s a product that we’re not buying from a NSW regional area. So, the impact of no events coming through here is amplified right across the economy, not just in Sydney.”


Like the rest of the world, ICC Sydney has had to rapidly adapt to life online in response to COVID-19.  I explained to The Australian that while not all events are suited to a digital format, we have been able to help many clients continue to connect with their audiences at this time by rapidly expanding our virtual events services.

Salesforce, along with a number of other multi­nationals, was one of the early adopters of a travel ban on all of their teams, so they converted their event to an online event using our rooms as studios and broadcast facilities.

“We’ve actually formalised [our virtual event offering] a little more by setting up broadcast-quality studios in our rooms and we’ve had one or two of the city’s professional associations taking advantage of that. We’re certainly making that known to our clients. But it’s only a partial solution.”


While there are no directly comparable situations to COVID-19, past experience tells us that recovery will come. For example, the business events industry saw a resurgence in demand and bookings following the September 11 terrorist attacks and global financial crisis of the noughties.

Once a crisis passes there is generally a strong desire to come together, strategise and plan for recovery.  So, while it may suit some clients to keep their events online, for most there will be a rapid return to business as usual. As I explained in the interview, meeting in person allows for networking opportunities and an experience which cannot be replicated online.

A very significant proportion of business exchanges, introductions and networking happens outside of the formal sessions within the four walls at these events. Even now, people are still booking and planning their events in four or five years, well into the future, and we’re working very hard on long-term business plans.

“But there is absolutely no doubt that when we do start to recover we will be a different business. There will still be that strong desire to get together, but there will also be that financial imperative to do things online.

The death of our industry has been forecast a couple of times since the advent of technology.

“But there’s a wonderful saying in our industry — that virtual meetings will replace real meetings when virtual honeymoons replace real honeymoons. There are some things that people need to do together.”

You can read the interview on The Australian here (subscription login required).