Late last year, the World Economic Forum announced that, for only the second time in its 50-year history, the WEF Annual Meeting would not be taking place in Davos.

The 2002 event was held in New York to show solidarity following the 9/11 attacks. Decision-making around the 2021 iteration has been driven by pragmaticism in the wake of tragedy, rather than compassion. Later this year, world leaders will travel to Singapore – identified by organisers as the destination best equipped to host an event on this scale amid unprecedented challenges.

Singapore has recorded fewer than 30 deaths from Covid-19 at the time of writing – among the lowest in the world – but balancing containment with reopening is a delicate process. As the travel and tourism sector reels from the brutal force of worldwide travel restrictions, embracing change and innovation is essential for survival. As one of the earliest high-profile physical conferences on the event calendar, all eyes will be on the WEF event this May.

“We take a cautious view on reopening,” says executive director of conventions, meetings and incentive travel at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) Dr Edward Koh. “It is about balancing public health considerations and economic impetus. We are reopening gradually as the global situation evolves, and with necessary safeguards in place to ensure public health and safety remain a priority.”

Business travel takes a hit

As 2019 drew to a close, the year ahead for international business travel looked particularly rosy. According to the Global Business Travel Association, spending in this area was set to reach $1.7trn by 2022, up from $1.33trn in 2017. Asia-Pacific was forecast as the fastest-growing region, with projected gains of 8.6%.

In 2019, Singapore’s MICE industry supported more than 34,000 jobs with an economic value of $3.8bn. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board)

Within this fast-expanding market, the MICE sector has been a central driving force behind high-value economic development and inward investment. A study by Oxford Economics, conducted with the Events Industry Council prior to the pandemic, found that business events generated $621.4bn of direct GDP globally, contributing to a direct generation of more than 10.3 million jobs.

However, business travel came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of Covid-19. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international arrivals in 2020 declined by 70–75%, while global tourism plummeted to its lowest level in three decades.

For the MICE industry, it was a devastating blow. Large-scale in-person events were rapidly cancelled and professionals in the sector faced the mammoth task of figuring out how to pivot to virtual models almost overnight.

There are concerns that these efforts might engender a permanent shift in attitudes. Oliver Wyman’s second global survey in November found that 43% of respondents who travel for business plan on travelling less in future, up from 27% in the previous survey conducted in April.

Adapt to survive: the MICE sector

While such figures paint a troubling picture, the pandemic has created an opportunity for the MICE industry to embrace innovation and future-proof against further crises. Covid-19 has accelerated digital trends and the demand for more sustainable events.

As well as ramping up hygiene and social distancing measures, the sector has been embracing hybrid models that complement in-person attendance with additional virtual speakers. This enables event managers to target larger global audiences and capture valuable data from attendees to improve subsequent events.

“When planned well, both live and virtual experiences can be highly successful, with one serving to enhance the other to obtain optimal reach and results,” says Koh. “However, event organisers should be mindful that hybrid models need to make commercial sense and the hybrid attendee experience has to be engaging.”

There are encouraging signs that the focus on technology-enabled experiences has not diminished the value of in-person events. According to Reed’s Covid-19 Customer Needs and Mindset Barometer, 75% of the 9,000 event attendees surveyed felt either positive or neutral about returning to physical events once restrictions have been eased.

Singapore paving the way

Singapore is one of the first destinations to put these innovations and intentions to the test. In 2019, the city-state’s MICE industry supported more than 34,000 jobs with an economic value of $3.8bn, or 0.8% of GDP.

According to Reed’s Covid-19 Customer Needs and Mindset Barometer, 75% of the 9,000 event attendees surveyed felt either positive or neutral about returning to physical events once travel restrictions are eased. (Photo courtesy of Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre)

Awarded Asia-Pacific’s top meeting city for 18 successive years by the International Congress and Convention Association and positioned second in the World Bank’s ranking of the easiest places to do business, Singapore has a track record of securing prominent first-in Asia MICE events. The city-state is home to more than 7,000 multinational companies and a wide range of convention centres, meeting venues and exhibition halls.

Back up and running

STB, Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers has created an Event Industry Resilience Roadmap; a framework its authors believe paves the way for a return to in-person events. “In the current climate we recognised that it is paramount to instil trust and confidence in our domestic safety and reliability,” says Koh.

The comprehensive document has three lead objectives: to establish best-in-class standards for STB’s Safe Business Event Risk Management Framework, create an agile business model with a focus on hybridisation, and facilitate professional development and upskilling in the workforce.

In October 2020, STB opened applications for businesses to hold pilot MICE events for up to 250 attendees in accordance with the national Safe Management Measures guidelines. Special arrangements include pre and post-event infection control, splitting the total number of guests into zones of up to 50 people and meeting pods with protective plexiglass screens. Over 30 events across a variety of sectors have now been held.

Business travel came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of Covid-19, with international arrivals in 2020 declining by 70–75%. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board)

“Singapore’s event partners have always been a resilient community,” notes Koh. “It has been insightful to see how quickly some companies were able to adapt existing technologies to innovate and create new virtual meeting tools and products to ensure their clients’ shows go on.”

Back to business

The resounding belief within Singapore – and the events industry at large – is that it is not a question of if large-scale, in-person events will return at scale, more an issue of when and how. Trialling of various programmes and initiatives is ongoing, with the intention of reinvigorating intent to travel and stress-testing new solutions in what remains a rapidly changing operating environment. Reopening is a delicate process, but is an essential stage in delivering recovery from the economic impact wrought by the pandemic. After all, says Koh, “Singapore is a global business hub in the heart of Asia – borders cannot remain closed indefinitely”.

MICE industry leaders have demonstrated strength and flexibility in the face of Covid-19. While some of the measures introduced may be temporary, others are likely to shape the sector in the longer term.

Those that have spent the last year focused on investment and innovation hope to reap the economic rewards as business events resume. If the WEF’s decision is anything to go by, the value of creating forums for in-person meetings and dialogue remains undimmed.