The federal government’s Business Events Grant Scheme is causing confusion for Australian events organisers, with events being approved as eligible, only to find out later they shouldn’t have been.
George Hedon, who heads up digital startup and innovation conference Pause Fest, tells SmartCompany he’s found the whole scheme difficult to navigate, ultimately calling it ineffective for the industry in the current environment.
Pause Fest 2021 was initially approved as an event under the scheme. But, Hedon says he’s been passed between government departments to try to determine how his delegates can apply for the grant funding, only to finally be told they’re not able to at all, and that his event should never have been approved in the first place.
And, even if his event was eligible, the costs attending businesses must incur to be able to claim the rebate mean it’s inaccessible to most small businesses anyway, he claims.
Get daily business news.
The latest stories, funding information, and expert advice. Free to sign up.
First announced back in September, the $50 million grants program allows business owners to apply for grant funding of between $10,000 and $250,000 to cover 50% of the cost of attending an event.
The funding can only be used when attending eligible, pre-approved, events.
To be eligible, an event must span multiple days, and must deliver a “significant economic impact for the host region through overnight stays and supporting interstate travel”, the eligibility criteria document states.
And, for events held in Australia’s state capitals, there must be a minimum attendance of 100 people.
All of this means events held in an online or remote format should not be eligible.
However, Pause Fest 2021 is currently listed on the Final Schedule of Approved Events.
A spokesperson from Austrade confirmed that events that combine in-person and online elements would be eligible, but said they “must have a business-to-business component that brings together delegates and exhibitors for a product and service exchange”.
The spokesperson confirmed that any events that moved to an online-only format would be removed from the list of approved events.
Pause Fest 2021, as Hedon notes, was always going to be online, yet has still ended up on the list, for now.
Hedon’s gripe is not necessarily with the eligibility criteria that would have excluded events like his.
It’s the confusion, the lack of clarity and his own back-and-forth communication with government departments that is frustrating him.
Hedon expects Pause Fest’s revenue to plummet by anywhere between 60% and 90% this year.
“We’re close to death,” he says, and he was ready to grasp at any support.
The initial announcement looked like it would offer a lifeline for businesses like his, and he believes the government had good intentions.
“But, once they gave it to the bureaucrats, they stuffed it up.”
In practice, his experience in trying to secure this support has been “a huge disappointment”, he adds.
“It’s very confusing, it’s been misleading, it’s not really properly thought through,” he says.
“A lot of businesses that thought they would get help will not.”
Initially, Hedon was under the impression that all delegates could apply for a 50% rebate on their Pause Fest tickets.
Actually, as explained in the eligibility criteria document, the grant is geared towards businesses spending significant chunks of cash to sponsor events or exhibit at them, and send groups of team members.
The minimum rebate is $10,000, meaning a business must spend $20,000 on attending an event — including on travel and accommodation — in order to qualify.
Hedon calls this an “impossible test”, effectively excluding any small events, as well as small businesses hoping to attend large expos.
“There’s really not many businesses in Australia that could take the benefit of this,” he says.
Of course — to state the obvious — Australia is also still grappling with the COVID-19 crisis. The eligibility criteria for this scheme raises the question as to whether it’s responsible to encourage groups of 100 or more people to congregate and network.
“It’s unthinkable that someone like the federal government would not take into consideration that we’re living in a pandemic,” Hedon says.
The Austrade spokesperson said the program stipulates “various measures to support COVIDSafe events”, and that organisers and attendees must comply with all relevant COVID-19 laws and regulations.
The spokesperson also clarified that if an event is postponed due to the pandemic, the grant funding will remain with the applicant, to be used at the rescheduled event. That will be valid up to December 31, 2022, they said.
But, this puts the onus back on event organisers to make the tough decisions.
If you take everything online, you risk people not showing up, or not engaging. Your event will also, strictly, lose its eligibility for the grants scheme.
But, if you plan a scaled-down physical event, people may be reluctant or fearful to come along anyway.
Equally, as we reported earlier this week, outbreaks of COVID-19 can lead to events being cancelled at the last minute. And, there’s always the threat of last-minute border closures preventing inter-state travel.
“It’s a nightmare any way you turn it,” Hedon says.
“You just don’t win in this sort of scenario.”