The region's peak networking body The Illawarra Connection held its first black-tie dinner since February on Tuesday but the COVID-19 edition was very different to any before and may be the last for a while.
The event started with pre dinner drinks for TIC directors and their guests held outside on The Deck at the Novotel Wollongong Northbeach rather than the boardroom and everyone had to sit spaced apart and not stand.
Then as the business community arrived for the main event Illawarra Security Guards proprietor Ray McCrimmon was checking everyone's temperature and spraying their hands with sanitiser before they were directed straight inside the ballroom to take their seats.
No standing around was permitted and the tables and seats were spaced further apart than ever before to ensure the no contact event was run as safely as possible with the help of Novotel staff.
There were no name badges handed out and no moving around the room.
But all present were grateful just to have the opportunity to network again with the six people at their table.
The decision to hold a networking dinner was made more than a month ago when social distancing restrictions eased but if COVID-19 numbers in NSW continue to increase Tuesday's networking dinner may be the first and last for a while.
TIC present Graham Lancaster described it as a night of re-connection in his opening address and acknowledgement of country.
"I welcome you all back, physically distanced and masked or unmasked," he said.
"It is great to see you though and at this time our connection should be compassionate and accepting that we are not all going through this the same. COVID-19 may take our breath away, it shouldn't take our hearts. Be kind where you can".
Mr Lancaster welcomed Terry Wetherall and his wife Jan Wetherall as special guests in honour of Mr Wetherall being recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours List with an AM for significant service to business and commerce, the superannuation sector and the community in general.
The value of people coming together in an appropriately respectful and physically distant way during these times to celebrate success in business is both inspiring and worthy of celebration itselfTIC president Graham Lancaster
Mr Lancaster acknowledged Glenda Papac and Illawarra Women in Business as well as Adam Zarth and the team at the Illawarra Business Chamber for the persistence to continue with their business awards.
The Illawarra Women in Business Awards were held on Friday and the IMB Bank Illawarra Business Awards in October.
"The value of people coming together in an appropriately respectful and physically distant way during these times to celebrate success in business is both inspiring and worthy of celebration itself," he said.
"The ongoing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have caused significant disruption to the lives of many Australians. For some, it might appear as if life has returned to relatively normal, but for others it may seem as if the situation is constantly evolving, and normal as they have known it seems increasingly uncertain".
Mr Lancaster said COVID-19 is having significant effects on our mental health, particularly with uncertainty being an ongoing challenge for us all.
He said that is why the One Door Mental Health in the Workplace Luncheon on October 9 is so important this year. And the hope is it can go ahead without any further restrictions.
At this stage the lunch is scheduled for the Novotel with Picking Up The Pieces founder Katie Tonacia OAM as the guest speaker.
Entertainer grateful for opportunity
Merrick Watts said it was a little weird to see a room of people so spread out and unable to mingle, especially at a networking event.
Merrick said it was also strange for him as an entertainer.
"As a performer my industry has been completely decimated. Most of my friends can't work and this is only the second time I have been on stage in four months," he said.
"I can tell you now my wife is pretty happy about it because I have been doing my jokes around the house. And I can't tell you how excited I am to be here".
Merrick said it was important to look at the positives at this time and this week's TIC dinner was one.
In giving the thank you speech at the end of the night Peter Buckley congratulated Merrick on being the TIC's first COVID speaker and said the laughter he generated was just what the connection of business people needed.
Challenging times call for adaption
The Illawarra Connection and the University of Wollongong are aware that during COVID-19 people are more prepared to commit to shorter courses of study.
As a result the University of Wollongong Sydney Business School has offered to replace the MBA scholarship with two TIC scholarships for Graduate Certificates that will consist of four subjects that will provide a pathway to an MBA qualification.
More details about how to apply for the two TIC scholarships starting in early 2021 will be announced soon.
The Illawarra Connection board is holding off making any firm decisions about future networking events until directors see what happens with the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria and New South Wales.
"If we can, we would prefer to be able to deliver events that will allow our members to safely connect, whilst providing them the ongoing value of their membership," Mr Lancaster said.
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