After 121 million cases and over 2 million deaths worldwide in just over a year, government-sanctioned border closures, lockdowns and restrictions on social gathering, the COVID pandemic still rages on.
Though many industries have been impacted by its ravaging streak, none has been more affected than the Live Events and Meetings sector, also known as MICE - Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions / Events - industry. This has led to major revenue losses and stalled the growth of several companies globally.
Events and Meetings generally play a key role in strengthening a nation’s global trade, intellectual, creative and leisure engagement, which in turn helps drive the development of its knowledge and creative economies. A strong events industry will produce broader transformative social and economic impacts that go well beyond the hospitality industry.
While the events and meetings industry is often regarded as a tourism market segment delivering tourism-related benefits, there is a growing awareness globally that the MICE industry plays a significant role in socio-economic development, and places the MICE industry at the very centre of the global economy with the underlying scientific, professional, academic, business, and social advancements that drive it.
In Ghana, many major sporting events, festivals, concerts, theatre shows, including conferences and exhibitions were cancelled in the aftermath of the pandemic. These events lockdown crept up on the industry, and the hiatus provided an impetus for practitioners to begin deliberations on their challenges, keeping a keen eye on developments and begin some advocacy for the protection and preservation of their sustenance.
The rapid growth of the Live Events and Meetings industry in Ghana in the past, has meant little coordination among stakeholders, with a lack of information sharing and collaborative planning. The relationship between the industry and its sector Ministry has also been effectively amorphous and needed alteration. A need, thus, emerged for practitioners to use the opportunity of the slowdown of business to form a guild, an association that could champion their interests.
Enter the Event and Meetings Professionals Association in Ghana (EMPAG).
Already, in its short existence, EMPAG has made some significant strides. It quickly became affiliated with the sector implementing agency and worked with the Ghana Tourism Authority to agree on the Covid 19 Protocols Guidelines that enabled the easing of some public gathering restrictions towards the end of last year.
It also commissioned world-renowned business advisory firm, KPMG, to assess the projected impact of COVID-19 on the industry. The findings were staggering, observing significant losses of over GHS100m in revenue and a total of over 4000 losses in direct and indirect jobs along the entire industry value chain, in just 12 months.
This gets put into perspective when you become familiar with a cross-section of some of its founding executives and members we spoke to. They include CEO of Contagion Ghana, Eric Kwakye; founder and CEO of Jandel Limited, Ms Afi Amoro; CEO of Big Ideaz, Kojo Poku; Charterhouse CEO, Mrs Theresa Ayoade and CEO of E-volution International, Fred Darko.
As individually successful as they all are, each of them laments the sudden and drastic decline of their businesses, and particularly how they have had to lay off staff. People they know were already struggling to make ends meet.
“We have been depending on our private resources, savings and few investments in other businesses unrelated to the event industry to survive. It’s been a real struggle from paycheck to paycheck,” bemoans Jandel's Afi Amoro, who is an executive council member of EMPAG.
As an executive council member of EMPAG, she affirms that none of the members of the association benefitted from any of the government stimulus packages.
She recalls initiating the application process, however, the numerous hitches and bureaucracies discouraged her. Like many of her colleagues, she decided to rather focus on strategizing on her own to solve her problems.
This sentiment resonates with all the members of EMPAG. During the pandemic, government rolled out the Coronavirus Alleviation Programme Business Support Scheme (CAP BuSS) Economic Stimulus package through the NBSSI - National Bureau of Small Scale Industries - to support affected businesses. No EMPAG member benefited from the scheme.
There was also a $9million Tourism Development Grant from the World Bank for the sector which also did not benefit any member.
Engagement with Key Industry Stakeholders
CEO of Charterhouse, Theresa Ayoade, is also President of EMPAG. She recalls how the announcement of the ban on gatherings, a few days after the launch of her company's flagship Ghana Music Awards Festival, shook the foundation of their activities. The Festival employs over 800 people directly and indirectly. The ban on gathering meant it had to be on hold immediately despite their investments, in cognizance of the safety of people and the rising fear across the country. "Even though the impact on the industry couldn't be assessed then, we all feared for how the industry was going to survive as our income flow was affected, and the ripple effects thereof," she observed.
Charterhouse initiated a mandatory leave for all staff during the lockdown and resorted to managing the issue from a human resource point of view. Due to the uncertainty that lay ahead, there were salary cuts so the company could save the jobs of its 100 employees. As the months progressed, some staff were furloughed and others eventually laid off.
Hopeful of benefitting from the economic stimulus packages announced, they applied for a grant from the $9million World Bank Tourism Development Grant, a special fund meant for the tourism industry, as a measure to help keep the Festival going and keep the livelihoods of the 800 odd people who work on it. However, the Ghana Music Awards Festival, as a tourism project, was also denied support.
With a lot of cancelled projects in the past year, the events industry is witnessing heavy revenue losses because they couldn't engage the public in any physical activities. If this continues without any intervention, the industry will face a major crisis.
The rise of online meeting platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, though great innovations, is affecting the jobs of event companies. Now happening virtually, and not physically, the current state of affairs is affecting the income flow of events companies. And though it is still possible to hold smaller events, for large capacity events companies like Charterhouse, besides having entire income streams cut off, they are also having to lose key staff. People whose livelihoods depend on their jobs.
As General Secretary of EMPAG, E-volution International's Fred Darko also confirms that no event organiser directly benefited from any funding support though they applied, especially for the $9million World Bank grant for the tourism industry. "My checks from various hotels and hospitality firms also confirms that they also did not receive any funds."
Fred notes that as the industry thrives on numbers and if venues are not opened, establishments that deliver events services have no jobs to do, and this means the revival of the industry is wholly dependent on the full eradication of the pandemic.
"Just as everyone else, we didn't expect the pandemic to last this long. We were just focused on protecting lives and that encouraged us to secure our human resource at the beginning of the pandemic. But, as it stands now, we have had to succumb and have downsized on staff," reflects a sullen Fred.
That notwithstanding, Fred advises event entrepreneurs to become innovative and learn to engage their audience on other platforms to receive the needed support to revive their businesses.
"It's been a sad year," observes EMPAG Vice President Kojo Poku, who is the CEO of Big Ideaz. “We provide services that bring people together, so the moment you stop people from coming together then we don’t have any business to do anymore.”
From downscaling operation to laying off staff, his company had to resort to innovative business ventures which included selling nose masks, face shields and sanitisers to provide enough money to keep the business alive and make ends meet.
CEO of Contagion Ghana Ltd, Eric Kwakye, says he had to cut salaries by 25%, put on hold all staff training and improvement activities for his companies during the shutdown. He also joins his colleagues to lament the lack of positive response from various economic stimulus packages they have applied for.
He is, however, optimistic that the industry will recover, “but we need to push harder for the vaccination drive to be a success so that we can return to the activities we engaged in before 2020.” Though he believes recovery for the industry will take a long time, in his opinion, “it will be most helpful if this industry and others that have been badly hit by the pandemic can be looked at specifically and given the much-needed stimulus to revive. While probably necessary to bring the national economy back on stream, the recent novel taxes will further press down those of us in this already badly stricken industry.”
Advice to Event Industry Stakeholders
Sharing some words of encouragement, Afi Amoro is hopeful that there is hope at the end of the tunnel and would like to encourage everyone in the event value chain who are smart people to think critically about solving their problem. She also suggested fighting together as a unit and inviting everyone to sit at the table to dialogue on how to develop the path to achieve the help or assistance the industry needs. In her final words, she noted, “If every event strategist or industry player thinks beyond this situation and uses it to plan their business – you cannot continue to do business as usual anymore.”
Fred Darko’s advice to event entrepreneurs is for them to become innovative about what they do and how they can engage their audience on other platforms to receive the needed support to revive their businesses. He also encouraged event organisers to preach the COVID-19 protocols as advocates until the economy is fully open.
As we look forward to the opening up of the economy and bringing things back to normal, we can be hopeful that the event industry will find favour in the eyes of the government. From multiple shutdowns which has all but slowed down the industry, it would not just be a blessing but a great incentive to relieve these key economic stakeholders of all the burdens that have carried for the past several months.
According to EMPAG President, Theresa Ayoade, the industry will take approximately two to three years to bounce back depending on how the control the spread of the virus is carried out and how our vaccination program is advanced. EMPAG is advocating for tax reliefs for the event industry as it would be unfair for new taxes to be introduced to burden it as they work to bounce back.
EMPAG has recently engaged the Tourism and Creative Arts Ministry on government support for the events industry, and with the recently signed compact agreement for post-Covid-19 transformation between the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture, Ministry of Trade & Industry and Ministry of Finance under the Ghana CARES Obaatanpa programme, she is hopeful the Events Industry will finally get the much-needed business support to sustain the industry since it is indeed the hardest hit Industry.
Prince Akpah & Ifeanyi Ahyia Adjei