A collective of tech and startup event organisers are demanding changes to the $50 million Business Events Grant Program, saying tight eligibility criteria means “very few events” will receive support.
The call for extended support comes in an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, penned by Pause Fest founder George Hedon and signed by 15 other event organisers.
Signatories include Southstart founder Danielle Seymour, SingularityU co-chief Christina Gerakitkeys, Spark Festival’s Maxine Sherrin and the organisers of TEDx events in Sydney, Melbourne and Docklands.
The letter calls on the government to reconsider the “very narrow” eligibility criteria for the scheme, to open up support to small and medium-sized businesses — both those attending and hosting events — which it says are currently excluded.
By favouring big business, the current eligibility criteria pose a threat to the diversity of the Australian events industry, Hedon explains.
“While not all small and medium events generate international prestige, diversity is essential to a strong and prosperous events industry,” he writes.
“Without action now, there will be nothing to be proud of in the future.”
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.
That means in order to secure any rebate, a business must spend at least $20,000 on attendance. The group has called for that to be reduced to $10,000.
They also want the government to scrap the requirement for events to span multiple days, and the requirement for events to include an ‘expo’ component.
And, they would like it to be easier for businesses running events to claim expenses themselves.
Currently, the package is also only available for in-person events that generate economic activity in the host region through travel and hotel stays.
For events held in Australia’s state capitals, there must be a minimum attendance of 100 people.
Signatories to the letter are demanding more flexibility for events in areas affected by COVID-19, especially given the ongoing uncertainty caused by the virus.
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Just this week, a COVID-19 outbreak in Perth caused the Fringe World Festival to cancel events and close venues.
“In framing this program, the Government has not fully considered the ongoing impact of the pandemic,” the letter says.
Speaking to SmartCompany in January, Hedon also said the administration of the scheme has been confusing and complicated. This year, Hedon opted to take Pause Fest entirely online.
Even so, the event was confirmed as eligible, apparently in error. Hedon was later told it would be removed from the list.
The value of virtual
For Summer Howarth, founder of The Eventful Learning Co, incentivising group gatherings while health concerns remain feels both irresponsible and impractical.
But, it also represents a missed opportunity for investment in Aussie-grown tech.
Among other things, Howarth’s business provides events and experiences, and runs purpose-driven workshops at larger events.
As the COVID-19 pandemic caused that activity to dry up, she and her team set up in a studio to start recording their content for online events. Eventually, they were able to run remote sessions live.
Her business is one of many that has had to adapt fast and innovate along the way. And initially, she thought the government support would allow the whole industry to build on that new infrastructure.
“We were really excited that they would be able to change the game,” she tells SmartCompany.
Howarth acknowledges that in-person events have flow-on economic benefits. But, the current focus on hotels, travel companies as the beneficiaries is a little short-sighted.
Online events organisers still need to procure services from third parties, she notes, suggesting that the criteria could simply be to prove that a certain number of other businesses will benefit, for example.
“That would open us up to a whole other way of doing things,” she says.
In fact, going digital-only offers even more growth opportunities. Last year, Howarth hosted an event that typically would have reached about 300 people.
Online, it attracted 1,800 people, throughout Australia and beyond.
Now, she wants to see the government backing businesses investing in augmented and virtual reality, who can bring global audiences to Aussie events.
Pandemic or no pandemic, Aussie businesses always face “this tyranny of distance”, Howarth says.
If we can open up events in the future to in-person attendees, while also offering a world-class digital experience, we can create global connections while showcasing Australian innovation.
The government is “underestimating the value of virtual”, she adds.
“It undervalues the kind of time, effort, energy and innovation that has gone into these events, which have been spectacular.”