Horeca Magazine speaks to Howard Keith Debono, president of the Malta Entertainment Industry & Arts Association, who assesses the impact of various event cancellations on the Tourism and Hospitality industries.
The measures and restrictions brought about by the COVID 19 pandemic have had a substantial negative impact not only on the Arts & Entertainment industries, but also on the Tourism and Hospitality sectors. Can you give us a generic overview of the economic situation in the past 24 months.
The past 24 months have seen a number of set-backs for our industry. We are primarily a planning industry so events and projects planned to be launched in 2020 would have been initiated beforehand which of course means all expenses would have been incurred. So, the first thing is a direct loss on those entities who were unable to operate due to the immediate threat of COVID since the beginning of 2020. International cross over plans suffered even before that since late 2019.
The next setback was a major halt to all plans due to the uncertainty of this unprecedented reality. What followed was every person in our industry needing to stay afloat and survive the negative impact. As a result numerous skilled workers who have been trained throughout this past 10 years left our industry to other industries. This caused an imminent issue as well as serious problems for the years to come.
The Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association recently expressed its disappointment about the delay in the release of guidelines related to events. The association also mentioned ‘lack of clarity’ in this regard. Can you update us on this?
One of the main disappointments was related to the lack of understanding that we are a planning industry. Announcements of guidelines in a press conference were always met with a nightmare packed with unanswered questions the following day with panic driven realities our members had to face. Our industry and various sectors are complex in nature. Eventually we found a way with the Public Health Department to relay the info a bit more effectively. Also worth mentioning was the big mistake of releasing measures too quickly last Summer which we warned was going to have an imminent backlash.
MEIA predicted this and we voiced our alarms publicly. Unfortunately it was too late and Q3 of 2020 and the following months were ruined. It was clear that border control was not being managed properly and was weak, whereas ridiculous over the top measures were imposed in areas which could have been avoided.
Certainly we could have worked our internal tourism more effectively with bolder incentives during this interim period. The final concern was directly related to
the fact that announcing measures required a
buffer of at least one month for the industry to
respond due to the nature of our business.
The Association has issued a number of
recommendations for this year’s budget,
including a seat compensation scheme amongst
others. Can you elaborate on these proposals?
We had a very positive outcome of our budget
talks with the Ministry of Finance and most
of our recommendations were agreed upon
by all parties. One of them was the guarantee
facility. Producers and promoters need to be
incentivised to consider presenting new events
within the ongoing changing scenarios that
will be created in the coming months. In order
to incentivise the production of public events
within the period of restrictions and after the
recovery period, a guarantee facility would act
as an insurance to cover this possible scenario
which has now become our reality.
utilization scheme was intended for event
organizers to be compensated for each seat
that cannot be sold due to restrictions. We
also lobbied for a reduced income tax rate for
artists and looked at the implementation of
the pending manifesto measure for an income
averaging mechanism over a 3-year period to
help the industry recover and reflect a more
realistic picture of how the industry operates.
What will the sector need for a sustainable
recovery? What level of support is the
Association expecting from the authorities?
And what would you have done differently
when it comes to COVID-related measures?
We foresee a 3-year recovery period and
therefore wanted to address once and for all
problems which are not related to COVID but
which would have an even greater impact
because of the pandemic. The most and
foremost common complaint and one which
has been resonating for years is related to
the private sector constantly in competition
with government projects.
Not only that, but
in doing so there is no level playing field due
to the heavily subsidized projects. These are
simply not sustainable and the mindset needs
to change and change fast. I believe it is also
time to start thinking about what we mean by
culture. I prefer to use the word creative industry and creative economy. The support we expect is to support the private sector by enabling the tools needed to operate, look at internationalization opportunities and to ultimately work together for the better for our country. Malta has surpassed other countries when it comes to roll out vaccination so we cannot ask for anything better.
What we need to do now is take stock of the situation, accept the fact that we still have a couple of years probably with this virus and it cannot get any better in terms of vaccination. It is what it is so it’s time to move on. One thing which cannot be repeated is place a taboo over events as though we are the super spreaders who have contributed to the virus outbreak. We all know that in real life scenarios going to a supermarket, kazin or to indoor home parties was far more dangerous than an organised event. This has unfortunately also left its scars on our industry’s audience and clientele.
Can you highlight any unexpected positive effects on the industry during this calamity?
Indeed, the first thing that comes to mind is that all the industry was on the same page with no difference being made on sector, genre or status. This helped bring together competitors, people who normally won’t work together to actually find common grounds and concerns. The second, less obvious positive effect, is that it has brought more awareness on our industry in terms of economics as well as general well-being. Needless to say on the other end it has also exposed the unfortunate reality of how people generally perceive what is top priority and whilst our industry will never score high in this regard, it has definitely shown us that the quality of life depends on the freedom to let our hair down once in a while.
Some players in the industry claim that the Government actually competes with the Association through various ministries or entities - what is your take on this?
I am sure the intentions of the government are never to compete with the private sector but as mentioned already in this interview it is, was and will remain the common rant from most stakeholders. I genuinely believe if there was a time where the public sector and private sector had to work together and help each other it’s now. The authorities have been made aware of this common complaint and it is now time to act.
What is the ideal platform for a private - public partnership? I can mention a few. First example is one of the electoral promises to find a space suitable for rehearsal space, creativity etc. This should be facilitated and paid for by the government and managed by an association like ours. Another is award ceremonies.
This should be encouraged and facilitated but managed by the stakeholders, or an association representing the stakeholders. The other is lobbying for better fund allocations and management of distribution. We are here to work with the authorities, lend our experience to explain better how the industry operates and its needs. Internationalisation is another area where private and public sectors should work hand in hand. I have been to several industry conferences and this approach has been adopted by the UK, Australia, Canada etc - so I see no reason why we shouldn’t join forces on this. Having reps from trade associations on all matters concerning our industry is healthy, inclusive and ultimately will ensure good decisions are being made that reflect a better snapshot of our interests and needs.
Howard Keith Debono photos by Albert Camilleri
The Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association is a new non-profit association that was launched in 2020. This association has under its wing all creators, performers, promoters, producers, suppliers, cultural educators & all technical people who work in the Entertainment Industry and Arts covering all the different sectors including Music, theatre, Dance, Film, Art & Fashion. The aim of the association is to unite all parties involved in the entertainment industry, anyone who has an interest in the various sectors within this industry.