Commentary: This is the end of business conferences as we know it
MICE tourism may never recover completely as many conferences and meetings are taking place online and as businesses seek to reduce costs, says Associate Professor Prem Shamdasani.
SINGAPORE: The meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions (MICE) industry has not been spared the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the supply - event organisers and exhibitors - and demand - corporate attendees and tourists - have literally evaporated.
Borrowing famed author Spencer Johnson’s best-selling change management fable, it is time for the MICE industry to “move with the cheese” and keep relevant with new opportunities.
According to GlobalData, MICE tourism may never recover completely. Many conferences and meetings are taking place online. Meanwhile, businesses seek to reduce costs in these difficult times.
Furthermore, business travel has been made more challenging due to travel restrictions, pre- and post-travel COVID testing requirements, and quarantine measures imposed by countries.
A SOFT OUTLOOK
As more travellers realise the convenience, value, and safety of conducting meetings and conferences virtually in the comfort of their homes and offices, the demand to physically attend may be further dampened.
Video-conferencing and live-streaming platforms coupled with augmented and virtual reality technologies enable MICE participants to have immersive and interactive experiences remotely.
However, there may be some upside after the pandemic as participants are motivated by the benefits of learning and experiencing products, technologies and solutions on display, and want to personally engage with exhibitors and vendors, and network with leaders in the industry.
Some of the most lucrative and iconic MICE events around the world, like the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos conferences, are also resisting going online completely.
In Singapore, it’s hard to imagine events like the Singapore Airshow and International Maritime Defence Exhibition, where participating organisations showcase new planes and ships melt completely into the virtual world.
IMPORTANCE TO SINGAPORE
There is a growing sense that Singapore’s MICE industry must be rescued. According to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), the MICE industry contributed nearly 1 per cent of Singapore’s GDP in 2019 and supported more than 34,000 jobs.
It generated an economic value-add of S$3.8 billion, where MICE business travellers spent close to double that of leisure travellers.
The sector is coming under fire, especially after stalwart Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre recently announced a retrenchment of almost half of its staff in various functions - sales and events, human resources, finance and food production.
If the threat of COVID-19 lingers, Singapore’s MICE industry’s outlook looks bleak for the next few years.
It’s hard to see how Singapore, which positions itself as a leading MICE hub, can break even this year, given its high dependence on overseas business travellers and the high operational costs of hosting these events.
During this break, its state-of-the-art infrastructure in terms of large meeting facilities, hotels and digital booking platforms, established tourist attractions, and a vibrant F&B, cultural and entertainment scene have become empty ghost towns.
Indeed, the future of the MICE industry may be that of a hybrid model – with a mix of online and physical events - as government support and incentives, safety management measures, health insurance, travel bubbles and advanced technology can help push the envelope for its reopening.
The Singapore Government has recognised the strategic importance of the MICE sector and is helping to maintain Singapore’s leading status as a hub, retain critical capabilities, safeguard jobs, and create multiplier benefits for the economy.
To this extent, the STB recently announced that it is allowing exhibitions and conferences with up to 250 attendees to return to Singapore from October, after a successful pilot in August for a 50-strong event.
There is also high-level attention from national leaders to reopen this part of the economy. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing recently announced that Singapore is also learning from the experience of other countries and working with overseas partners and event organisers to scale up MICE events in a safe and sustainable manner.
Recent industry surveys indicate that people are still afraid to attend MICE events due to the risk of contracting COVID-19, and the personal and business disruption it creates when vulnerable family members and work colleagues are infected and when business continuity is impacted.
As such, there is an urgent need for countries, airlines and MICE stakeholders to design and implement stringent end-to-end safe management measures and hygiene protocols to support MICE tourism.
While Singapore has a strong global reputation for managing the pandemic, it is also facing competition from other MICE hubs such as Dubai, which in July announced that it was opening its economy to tourism.
Working closely with its airline Emirates and the immigration services, and much like Singapore, it offers end-to-end safety management measures throughout the airport and in-flight journey, including free COVID-19 testing to every visitor who does not have a recent negative test result.
However, travellers will need to have health insurance and bear the costs of quarantine if they test positive upon arrival.
Even as travel bubbles with countries such as China, Malaysia, Japan, and New Zealand permit business travel, the MICE industry has to embrace hybrid events as the new reality to ensure long-term sustainability.
NEED FOR DIGITALISATION
In preparation for the new normal, STB has recommended that the industry move away from touch screens and adopt more face and voice recognition interfaces.
It is hoped that this will enable contactless interaction with the participants, leverage on augmented and virtual reality solutions supported by artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver personalised and rich content on-demand, and Internet of Things cloud platforms that enable the capture, tracking and analysis of visitor data in real time.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how the industry works and convention venues, such as the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) Expo and Convention Centre, have responded by investing in new technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Extended Reality (XR).
It recently launched a state-of-the-art hybrid event broadcast studio that has a three-dimensional stage and lighting systems to provide customised and immersive experiences to remote audiences, including beaming remote presenters "live" to Singapore through holographic presence.
The pandemic notwithstanding, the MICE industry also needs to build immunity to disruptions brought about by technology, geopolitics and climate change. As such, the need for digital transformation has never been more urgent for MICE players and its eco-system.
While technology cannot fully replace the in-person immersive and networking experiences, digital readiness will enable MICE players to offer alternative options to ensure business continuity in the face of the pandemic or other future disruptions.
MBS, is a good case in point, and currently offers three virtual conferencing options – full virtual webcasting and live-streaming events; hybrid events with in-person and online audiences; and hybrid events with holographic telepresence.
As countries learn to better manage the pandemic and allow larger hybrid and physical events to take place, industries that support MICE in Singapore will also benefit as attendances gradually increase.
While we remain cautiously optimistic, the MICE players need to start experimenting and futureproofing through hybridisation and digitalisation just as MBS has done in Singapore.
In doing so, they can stay in the game and reap the benefits of costs, productivity, security, scalability, transparency, and personalisation.
For example, hybrid MICE events can now readily scale to reach more diverse and larger global audiences who are unable to travel currently or in the future, and leverage on technology to provide more targeted, immersive, and personalised interactions and networking, without significantly impacting costs, productivity, and security.
Additionally, digitalisation will enable data analytics in real time and generate actionable customer insights for MICE organisers, exhibitors and participants, enhancing transparency and personalisation.
For the MICE players, the cheese has moved, exacerbated by the pandemic, and it is time they moved along with it.
Dr Prem Shamdasani is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Academic Director of the Executive MBA at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore.