If there’s a buzzword for business events right now, it has to be ‘engagement’. Engaging delegates. Engaging contractors. Engaging technology. Engaging the media. But when it comes to engaging staff and providing a stimulating working environment, the events industry, especially at the agency end, has a lot of catching up to do.
“The bulk of businesses in the events space have around half a dozen staff—small businesses that are under-resourced with the owner at the keel and everyone going flat chat to make clients happy. Meanwhile, staff needs get left behind,” says John Hackett, director of Event Recruitment in Sydney. “As a result, the cost of staff turnover is huge.”
High staff turnover is not new to the events industry, where work tends to be project-based and lends itself to contract labour. But a spaghetti of variables has compounded the problem in recent years. Issues include the transformation of events through technology, and the need for tech-savvy staff; the gutting of mid-level events positions in hotels and the F&B industry that has eroded clear pathways for staff succession; and increasing business uncertainty in the age of terrorism and economic bubbles.
“The events industry has always lent itself to fluid teams,” says Hackett, who’s been in recruiting for 33 years. “But there’s been a lot more emphasis on freelance work since the global financial crisis.”
Small- and mid-sized event agencies must also compete for staff with the rapid expansion in the arsenal of mega-venues. From Suzhou in China to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown in New Zealand, just about every major city in the region has a new convention centre—or one under construction.
So what can events professionals do to attract staff, especially millennials, who’ll comprise 70 per cent of the workforce within 10 years, according to IACC’s Meeting Room of the Future report? And once you’ve got the right people, how do you keep them?
The recruitment and retention issue has reached a head in Australia. A perfect storm of high labour costs (the world’s highest minimum wage of almost US$14.50 per hour compared to less than US$8 in Japan and US$1.80 to US2.80 in most of China) and high staff turnover (19 per cent across all industries and as high as 40 to 50 per cent in the hotel industry) caused by a super-buoyant economy has forced event professionals to place as much focus on their human capital as they do on their financial capital.
At the top end of town
In August, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) was named an Employer of Choice at the Australian Business Awards 2017 for its benchmark employee recruitment, engagement and retention practices.
“We spent three years working for the award by developing programmes that really benefit our staff,” says director of people and culture, Helen Fairclough.
“For example, we have an employee social committee that plans all our social events. We recently had a BBQ on the rooftop where the CEO cooked steaks and sausages, I manned the bar and other executives worked as waitstaff.”
Heading north, the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre (BCEC) breaks the mould when it comes to staff retention. For the past five years, it has enjoyed an average staff turnover of 12.4 per cent for full-time staff and 36 per cent for casuals.
The key to its success, says BCEC human resources director, Kym Guesdon—one of 37 employees who has worked at the centre for more than 20 years—is conducting staff surveys. “We ask our people what their key drivers are and learned it’s not money: it’s learning and development. So we do a lot of free skills training and also personal development programmes like Money 101, which teaches them how to manage their wealth.”
Another key driver identified by staff surveys is that employees want meaningful jobs. “We have a task force run by staff that drives our social corporate responsibility programme,” Guesdon says. “We also give all our staff, whether they’re chefs or AV professionals, real opportunities to be involved in innovation and design and delivering big events like the G20 Summit in 2014. It’s those things—not making more money—that keeps them here.”
At the agency end of town
Recruitment specialist Hackett believes young people are attracted to the glitzy façade of the events industry, but don’t usually anticipate the hard work required behind-the-scenes.
“People say, ‘I really want to get into the industry’ because they like sporting events and music festivals, and they like the creative end of the industry. But most of the work is in the business space and it’s not as glamorous, which is why a lot of young people end up leaving the industry.”
It’s a dilemma Lisa Roberts has thought long and hard over as the owner of Ultimate PR, an events and event recruitment agency in Melbourne.
“In the initial recruiting phase, so much of it is about taking the time to ensure a good culture fit and understand a person’s motivation for applying in the first place,” she says. “And even then you have to accept that any young person you may hire may still be finding out what they really want to do in life. Many see it as a stepping stone rather than a career path in its own right.”
Roberts has also become an old-hand at retaining staff. After eight years in business, she’s streamlined her team to a core group of seven, all part-timers, all long-termers, including one who’s been with her since day one.
The key to retaining them, she says, is flexible working hours and flexible roles.
“I once had a staff member who wanted to quit because she couldn’t imagine having a job here once she started a family,” Roberts recalls. “I told her what we do is not really a customer-facing job. The majority of the work is in account management and sales. So as long as she was contactable and got her quotes out on time, there was no reason for her to quit.”
She adds: “As a small agency, we can’t match the salaries of big corporations, but we can afford to be flexible.”