By Chew Tiong Heng, Divisional Director, Business and Experience Development at Sentosa Development Corporation
It has been almost two years since COVID-19 engulfed the world. For an industry that relies heavily on international audiences, the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector suffered immediate repercussions, as physical events were cancelled or postponed within weeks of the pandemic’s onset.
We have come a long way since then. Increasing vaccination rates, along with the extension of schemes such as the Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) and the gradual relaxation of safe management measures, have given a strong confidence boost to the MICE industry in Singapore. For instance, come 16 November 2021, Sentosa island will welcome more than 300 delegates from 51 countries at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum at Capella Singapore.
Indeed, things are looking up, but we must work together to reimagine the future of business events and reignite Singapore’s MICE industry. To this end, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) conducted a series of interviews and focus group discussions with key MICE stakeholders, including the Sentosa community, as well as corporate event planners and Destination Management Companies (DMCs) to garner insights on the way forward.
Safety remains a top priority for corporate travellers
Safety is a top priority for MICE clients today, as industry players we spoke to unanimously alluded to. “Safety now overrides budget concerns,” said one corporate event planner.
DMCs are now selling destinations based on safety considerations to provide peace of mind to business travellers and MICE delegates. It is thus important that destinations demonstrate accountability and adherence to COVID-19-safe protocols. In Singapore, these include safe management measures under the Safe Business Events framework, and the SG Clean quality mark which signals a commitment to high levels of sanitation and hygiene. Such robust protocols and solutions have been a key enabler in the safe resumption of MICE events in Sentosa. For example, in conjunction with TravelRevive (Asia Pacific’s first international travel tradeshow since COVID-19) back in November 2020, Sentosa hosted delegates to a range of reimagined leisure offerings, contained within dedicated zones and a safe environment. Through such events, we have reaffirmed Sentosa’s position as a safe, trusted and forward-looking destination for both business and leisure, even in a pandemic.
In-person meetings still relevant
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we work and live, and with that, virtual meetings have become a regular day-to-day activity. However, virtual meetings cannot replace in-person engagements.
As one respondent from a large company said: “I believe Zoom fatigue is a real thing. It’s been fantastic to be able to keep the world turning through Zoom, however, long-term I don’t see it continuing. It can be very draining.”
Hybrid meeting formats will also likely take a backseat when travel resumes. Only a handful of DMCs we spoke to believed virtual and hybrid meetings would continue to last in MICE business, and even so, largely for conferences with an educational outcome. Some struggled to see the return on investment from hybrid meetings, noting that it is impossible to manage two concurrent audiences well.
Physical events smaller and more selective
Smaller events are here to stay, at least for some time. This can be attributed to various reasons: a perceived notion of safety in smaller numbers, reduced capacity at venues to cater for safe management measures, high cost of pre-event testing, and additional approval processes required for bigger events, among others.
On the ground, some Sentosa hotels have observed that local and regional meetings have shrunk to 30 to 50 guests on average, and as small as 10. Clients are also becoming more selective, limiting offsite meetings to just senior management for example. It is therefore not surprising that industry players are eyeing not just smaller meetings as a means to gain revenue, but also a more niche clientele such as luxury automotive and jewellery brands which still have an appetite for consumer events such as product launches.
This has placed Sentosa island in a strong position. With an ecosystem of 17 hotels, some 30 themed attractions, more than 150 food & beverage and retail outlets, golden sandy beaches, two premier 18-hole golf courses, a deep-water yachting marina, lush greenery and more, Sentosa island stands ready to welcome MICE events, big and small. The added draw for planners is that while Sentosa is just minutes from the city and airport, it also offers an island charm away from crowds and the usually busy city-centre venues, with open spaces, lush greenery and breezy sandy beaches – making it an ideal location for more intimate meetings.
Rise in bleisure (business + leisure)
Our guests have become more accustomed to flexible and remote working arrangements since the pandemic, causing the lines between work and leisure to blur. This, coupled with pent-up demand to return to the skies after a prolonged period of no travel, is likely to give rise to more corporate meetings and incentives involving spouses or even children. We also expect incentive travel to return with a vengeance, after a long period of such travel being substituted by other reward mechanisms.
Leveraging our island’s business-meets-pleasure vibe, Sentosa has a wide array of “bleisure” experiences to offer travellers. For example, Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa’s “Your Dream B-Leisure Lifestyle” package features over ten complimentary amenities, ranging from basic usage of co-working spaces to a full-board work and stay package for the entire family, enabling guests to strike a balance between business and leisure. For smaller groups with a minimum of five persons, Sentosa Golf Club and The Outpost Hotel also offer meeting packages which include free dining vouchers and Sentosa Fun Passes, allowing guests to enjoy their self-customised Sentosa leisure itinerary after a hard day’s work.
Sustainability is an important factor
It is encouraging to note that close to 80% of event planners in our study said that sustainability is an important factor in meetings, with all DMCs and corporate planners agreeing that Sentosa’s plan to be a carbon-neutral by 2030 is an attractive selling point. It indicates that sustainability is not only critical for the climate, but also for business.
While Singapore’s MICE players are at varying stages of implementing sustainability practices, almost all recognise its importance and are taking progressive steps towards making a change. For example, some are tackling this from a basic level, like eliminating water bottles and straws, while others are already looking into food waste, tracking and offsetting the carbon footprint of their meetings, and introducing sustainability-themed teambuilding activities.
Building a sustainable future requires the collective effort of all. This is why SDC, together with the Sentosa community – our Island Partners – are committing to major goals as part of the Sustainable Sentosa strategic roadmap. To achieve the island’s dual goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and becoming a globally recognised, certified sustainable tourism destination, SDC will, among other initiatives, roll out guidelines by 2022 to encourage all Sentosa businesses to strengthen their sustainability practices through initiatives, such as reducing disposables, increasing locally-sourced produce, and adopting renewable energy solutions. Sentosa will also offer green options for MICE and wedding packages by 2022, which could include options to neutralise the events’ carbon footprints.
MICE recovery will be swift
With pent-up demand to return to face-to-face meetings, all planners in our study reported high confidence in business events returning to Singapore. Even before VTLs were formalised, DMCs were already receiving requests for proposals for events in the fourth quarter of 2021, with most planning international meetings and incentives for the first two quarters of 2022, albeit for smaller group sizes.
However, the industry will need to be prepared to cater to shorter buying cycles due to the uncertainties that surround us today. As a few of Sentosa’s venues have experienced, clients are making bookings at a much shorter notice. There will also be more safety considerations and requirements, such as alignment with prevailing safe management measures.
One thing is for sure – life with COVID-19 will never be the same as before. But what we also know is that the MICE industry has become more resilient and agile than before, so I am confident that we are all ready to face new opportunities head on.