How the Bay to Birdwood survived and thrived in a global pandemic

Posted by Alessia Marrapodi | March 15, 2021

By Lainie Anderson

When the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill in early 2020, it also threatened to derail one of South Australia’s biggest and best-loved community events: the Bay to Birdwood. With the event celebrating its 40th anniversary, and uniting vintage/veteran and classic vehicles in a single run for the very first time, The History Trust of South Australia and its National Motor Museum team were determined to keep the motors running. Guided by the overarching philosophy of “Don’t cancel, change!” they set about reshaping the iconic motoring event with minute attention to detail. The result was one of the biggest events to occur post-COVID in Australia – a unique, precision-planned Bay to Birdwood in pole position for future success. Here’s how they made it happen…

The dilemma

“I’m a bit of a sci-fi & horror fan, so my ears pricked up when news of a weird virus first began to emerge in January,” said National Motor Museum director Paul Rees. “Within weeks things became much worse than the world had anticipated, and we knew it would have a major impact on high-participation events like the Bay to Birdwood.”

By then it was March, and for the first time in the event’s history, Bay to Birdwood registrations had opened back in January instead of June. Some 1650 local and interstate entrants were already signed up for the 27 September event.

“Things were moving so quickly – countries were closing their borders and going into lockdown, events were being cancelled, the world’s best museums were closing their doors,” Paul said. “To buy ourselves some time we went out to entrants and basically said ‘Stay tuned, we’re about to assume radio silence, but we’ll be back’.”

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The black swan coincidence

Back in 2016, a decision was made that was to prove pivotal to the Bay to Birdwood’s survival in 2020. Key people in the then management committee started to think about the implications of being “one of the world’s great historic motoring events” and what that meant for the future. By 2017, they had come to the conclusion that the event’s governance needed a rethink to enhance operational professionalism, prioritise long-term strategic planning and ensure ongoing viability and preparedness for any ‘black swan’ event.

“Black swan events are those crises that are very, very unlikely, but catastrophic if they do happen,” said Bay to Birdwood Advisory Committee Chair and History Trust board member Michael Neale (pictured above during the 2020 event with SA’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier). “It’s quite fortuitous that the governance structure arrangements were finalised in late 2019 because this immediately allowed us to implement some strategies. One of these was opening vehicle registrations far earlier than usual to improve our preparedness. This proved very popular with our entrants and we were close to fully subscribed by mid-March – and suddenly we were facing a genuine black swan event in the shape of the global pandemic.

“Major events were being cancelled left, right and centre, but I remember saying to Paul and History Trust Chief Executive Greg Mackie, ‘Let’s not blindly cancel – let’s try to solve the problems that COVID presents to us’.

“I had enormous faith in Paul and the National Motor Museum team, and I also had enormous faith in SA Health. I knew that if the team came up with a plan that wasn’t approved by SA Health, we would have fulfilled our responsibility to do everything possible to make the event happen even if ultimately we had to cancel. And if SA Health did say it was a goer, I knew we’d have everything in place to ensure success.”

The planning

In those uncertain, globally turbulent months between March and July, the National Motor Museum team set about devising Plans A, B and C for varying levels of COVID restrictions.

“The real light bulb moment came when the Gepps Cross drive-in had a movie night,” Paul said. “We suddenly realised that cars are basically a giant piece of PPE [personal protective equipment] kit! A moveable bubble. Sounds like commonsense now, but that’s when I really knew we could make it happen.”

But the clock was ticking. Late July was set as “crunch time” for making a final decision, and it wasn’t until 10 July that SA Health released its template of COVID Management Plans for events over 1000 people.

On 15 July, History Trust CEO Greg Mackie OAM and Business Manager Hannah Schultz met with SA Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Chris Lease.

“We didn’t want to keep entrants waiting a day longer than necessary, so it was important to know at the outset if SA Health was even open to the idea of thousands of people taking part in the Bay to Birdwood,” Hannah said. “We flagged our intention to close the event to the public at the start and finish sites, and because entrants are primarily inside their vehicles, we got the go-ahead to draw up our plans.”

The next step was even more crucial: asking sponsors and hard-core, regular entrants if they’d want to be involved in a radically reshaped event.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the sponsors who stuck by us in this toughest of years, from the event’s longtime major supporter Shannons and businesses like Antique Tyres and AutoTransformers and Eastside Automotive,” Paul said. “The response from entrants was overwhelming, too. No matter what form the run took, they wanted to be involved. We calculated that even if 50 per cent dropped out it would still be worth doing – and in actual fact we needed a good amount of people to withdraw because we knew any COVID Management Plan was going to be much more viable with fewer entries involved.”

Ultimately, only 230 local entrants withdrew, along with 256 vehicles forced to cancel from interstate. Withdrawing entrants were asked if they’d like a full refund, or to donate some of their $75 registration fee to the event’s charity, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, or the museum’s Hartnett restoration project. Their generosity assisted in raising over $14,000 for the RFDS, well above the previous Bay to Birdwood charity record of $3500. (Those withdrawn entrants later received a unique Bay to Birdwood 2020 commemorative plaque – a prized item collected by all who complete the Bay to Birdwood – but with this special one-off for those that could not make it featuring a little coronavirus icon and the words “Non Omnibus Sorte Datum” which translates to “It was not granted to all by fortune”.)

“When we reopened the National Motor Museum with COVID restrictions in early June, we knew from market and customer research that feeling safe would be a major concern for visitors contemplating a visit to the museum, and we took that view with us into our planning for the Bay to Birdwood, “ Paul said.

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Two comprehensive, 16-page management plans were then drawn up for the start and finish line events, with every possible problem identified and overcome to ensure a smooth-running, COVIDSafe event.

Contact tracing information was captured by requiring all entrants to provide details for drivers and passengers BEFORE they received their registration window sticker. Stickers were then redesigned to include the proposed number of people in each vehicle – if the number differed on the day, the vehicle was to be diverted to a holding bay where contact details could be double-checked. Arrival times were also staggered to limit the number of vehicles and participants at the starting line at any one time.

Duty of care to entrants meant meticulous planning was also critical for the finish line.

“Physical distancing restrictions meant we couldn’t have thousands of drivers and passengers massing at the National Motor Museum, so we worked with Adelaide Hills Tourism and the South Australian Tourism Commission to encourage everyone to explore the Adelaide Hills after the run,” Hannah said. “But after such an early start and long drive from Glenelg, we had a responsibility to provide a rest stop before sending them on their way.”

The vast lawns at the National Motor Museum were divided into zones, each accommodating 80 vehicles every half hour. Coffee vans were asked to provide precision estimates on the number of coffees that could be made in half an hour, and specific numbers of portable toilets were brought in – all to ensure the vehicles and participants were on their way again in 30 to 59 minutes.

Because public events were cancelled at the start and finish lines, the museum also forged new media partnerships with The Advertiser and Channel 44 community TV to boost messaging around restrictions for the 2020 event, and produce a three-hour television program to be live-streamed as an alternative to watching from the roadside.

“With the event changing so radically from previous years, we were mindful to always tell participants and the pubic what they COULD do, rather than what they couldn’t,” Paul said. “For example, instead of presenting the problem of people not being able to get close to the cars at the start and finish sites, we presented a solution in being able to watch the livestream from the couch.”

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The day

As dawn broke over Adelaide on 27 September 2020, some 1250 vintage/veteran and classics were streaming into Barratt Reserve Glenelg for the 40th anniversary Bay to Birdwood.

“There was such an amazing sense of camaraderie and community,” said Hannah Schultz, who acted as COVID Marshal at the start site. “We couldn’t have the traditional speeches and ribbon cutting, but Kaurna elder Uncle Mickey did a wonderful Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony, which he continued until every vehicle had left. There was an extra special spirit – I think everyone just so appreciated that the event was able to go ahead.”

Participants overwhelmingly agreed.

Adelaide Fringe Festival Director Heather Croall, participating with her partner Nick Phillips in their gold 1974 Volvo, said the inaugural run of both vintage and classic vehicles was “unbelievable”. “We’ve seen a few of the older vehicles broken down on the side of the road, and it’s lovely how everyone’s just helping out, opening the bonnet and then they trundle off again.”

Bay to Birdwood veteran Jack Muster, astride his 1924 Indian Chief motorcycle, said the event went off without a hitch. “It’s very nice the way they’ve done it. The later-model vehicles that move pretty quick were out of the road early and now we’ve got the old ones pottering along enjoying it.”

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A whopping 86 per cent of participants who responded to an after-rally survey said they’d take part again even if COVID restrictions remained in place in 2021, while 97 per cent felt that their wellbeing was enhanced by the event.

South Australian Education Minister John Gardner, whose department includes the History Trust, believes the event boosted spirits right across the state.

“The Bay to Birdwood connects us with our history and has become a key part of our culture – the fact it was able to proceed meant an awful lot to so many people, not just car enthusiasts,” he said.

“The Bay to Birdwood team does a great job every year – it’s an enormous task even without the complexities of a pandemic. The fact that this year they were able to pull it off without a hitch is an enormous credit to this amazing team, and bodes well for the future.”

Channel 44’s three-hour broadcast – hosted by television stalwart Keith Conlon and livestreamed on The Advertiser and Bay to Birdwood websites and social media platforms – spanned the 72km route and seamlessly integrated live interviews at three locations, multiple cameras, special guests and a collection of pre-recorded segments. More than 41,000 people watched the livestream across five Facebook platforms and The Advertiser website. Another 75,000 viewers tuned in to watch the program when it aired later that night and the following week on Adelaide’s Channel 44 and Melbourne’s Channel 31. The full broadcast can still be viewed today on the Bay to Birdwood’s YouTube page.

The museum’s “anti-marketing campaign” aimed at discouraging spectators at the start and finish lines, or congregating in large groups en route, also proved highly effective. Police estimated that up to 70,000 people lined the 72km route, with all families adhering to physical distancing rules. And just seven people turned up at the museum in Birdwood, hoping for access to see the vehicles. Normally it’s up to 4,000.

Even South Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier, took part, joining event Chair Michael Neale in the museum’s 1935 Hudson 8. She later paid the ultimate COVIDSafe compliment, describing the event as “meticulously organised” – a badge of honour proudly worn by all who worked on the event.

The future

With very little fanfare, the Bay to Birdwood became a two-day event in 2020 as judging of 50 entries in the Concours d’Elegance and Preservation Awards took place at the Torrens Parade Ground in the Adelaide CBD on the Saturday. (Normally, the awards attract more than 100 entries and judging takes place at the finish line. Future events will see award judging continue to be held on the day before the run.)

The strategic plan will see the Bay to Birdwood’s program further enhanced into a multi-day motoring festival with interstate and international appeal to boost hotel occupancy and the wider tourism economy.

Plans include a charity dinner in the Royal Flying Doctor Service hangar showcasing a mix of RFDS planes and vehicles and a selection of Bay to Birdwood entrant vehicles; widening the awards judging into a major public event; further exploring the televising and livestreaming of the event; and pre- and post-rally vintage/classic vehicle tours of regional South Australia.

“We’ve learnt so much during this pandemic and it’s helped to reinforce how we can quickly accelerate the Bay to Birdwood into one of the best ‘destination’ historic motoring events in the world,” Michael Neale said.

“Seventy thousand South Australians lined the route this year and another 4000 participated in vehicles. We literally took this event from the threat of cancellation and turned it into one of the first and biggest post-COVID events in the nation.

“We can all be so proud of that – and genuinely excited about what the future holds.”


All images by Jiayuan Liang ARPS