Ireland is losing out on a pipeline of new conference business worth €1.2bn with bookings "devastated" until at least mid-2021, according to the industry's chairman.
Ronan Flood, who leads the 10-firm Association of Irish Professional Conference Organisers, says hundreds of events have been cancelled, turned into lower-revenue virtual events, or postponed.
He says competitive bidding to win new business - a process that happens four to five years in advance of events - will not be significantly won by Irish firms again until they can compete on even terms with European rivals.
Event organisers "will be the last people in the tourism sector to come back", he said. "Our events won't take place until at least mid-2021, and clients even in that time frame are talking about staying virtual."
Mr Flood says most event organisers are keeping staff thanks only to the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme. As that State aid wanes, he expects firms like his own to cut staff or make them part-time.
'Business tourism' is a particularly high-value element of Ireland's normal tourist revenue. Last year it generated €740m, reflecting an average spend per head of €1,600 for industry and corporate events.
"Now that's completely dead. Devastated," said Mr Flood, managing director of conference and event management firm Advantage Group. Its next live event is set for mid-2021.
Mr Flood described the years it can take to land conferences by noting his firm's winning bid for the 2020 World Congress of International Society of Radiographers and Radiological Technologists.
Advantage beat rival firms here to make the Irish pitch in 2015. A year later, with Fáilte Ireland aid, he travelled to that year's congress in South Korea to sell Ireland versus rival bids from Denmark and Turkey.
Advantage was planning the event website and programme when Covid-19 cancelled the congress. It has been rescheduled for August 2021 amid expectations that many of the planned 1,000 attendees may log in remotely instead.
This means lost revenue for Advantage. It cannot book profits until the event takes place, and 'remote' tickets may cost up to two-thirds less. "You don't get the same revenue out of a virtual event," he said.
Mr Flood says Ireland cannot compete on cost with Spain and Portugal, where conferences enjoy VAT exemptions. Irish quarantine rules and lack of international flights pose bigger practical obstacles.
"You can't bring business to a country that's closed," he said.