In Conversation With Dr. Edward Koh Executive Director Conventions, Meetings and Incentive Travel Singapore Tourism Board

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(Photo: RENDY ARYANTO/Visual Verve Studios)

ES. You have seen a great potential in the events, experiential marketing and activations space to promote Singapore as a destination for business travellers and tourists. Please share with us, how have you bridged the gap and brought Singapore closer to the business travellers through your unique initiatives?

Dr. Edward Koh. The Singapore government recognises that MICE and business travel is a strategic industry for Singapore, which brings about significant benefits to our overall economy. We also remain confident in the long-term prospects of MICE, because the fundamentals that make Singapore a key MICE hub and an attractive location for leisure and MICE experiences remain unchanged. These include our air connectivity, highly skilled workforce, and the fact that many global MNCs are headquartered here. Accompanying these fundamentals is the resilience of our MICE industry, putting Singapore in a good position to emerge even stronger from COVID-19. Our partners are also confident that Singapore can sustainably host safe, trusted and innovative MICE events on a larger scale.

For example, Singapore has already secured rights to host the Worldchefs Congress and Expo in 2024, and the 110th Lions Clubs International Convention in 2028. The latter is expected to attract around 20,000 foreign delegates. These successes build upon the country’s track record as a preferred MICE destination. We have recently seen the successful completion of Gamescom Asia 2021 (14 – 17 October 2021) and look forward to upcoming prominent conferences including Bloomberg New Economy Forum (16-19 November 2021) and 60th International Young Lawyers’ Congress 2022 (August 2022). STB’s key priority is to ensure that business events can provide a safe and fruitful experience for event organisers and delegates while minimising the risks of transmission.

STB also has a set of subvention schemes available to help secure MICE movements to Singapore, such as Business Events in Singapore (BEiS), Singapore MICE Advantage Program (SMAP) and In Singapore Incentives and Rewards (INSPIRE).

ES. SingapoReimagine Global Conversations is a thought leadership series which aims to catalyse discussions on how to reshape global travel post Covid. Please share with us the context and highlights of this initiative in relation to business travel.

Dr. Edward Koh. SingapoReimagine Global Conversations is a key part of STB’s SingapoReimagine initiative, which was launched last year to affirm our destination’s commitment to shape a new standard for travel, through safety, technology, experiences and sustainability.

The series comprises three key forums, with overseas adaptations. The first forum – titled “Reimagine Experiences” – is available on-demand in four video episodes released weekly on STB’s website and YouTube channel. The episodes will tap into the top minds in tourism and lifestyle, through a rich blend of interviews, rapid-fire questions, and data insights, to inspire new collaborations and ideas. The other two forums, which will focus on the themes of travel journeys as well as sustainability and wellness, will be introduced later this year and in the first half of 2022. We believe that the subject of sustainability will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of business travel and progressively, companies will be interested in selecting destinations where business events and meetings are conducted in a sustainable and responsible manner.

ES. Singapore has been a thought leader & has proven capabilities to support MICE. What is your observation on sustainability in MICE and issues like net zero carbon footprint & responsible business tourism?

Dr. Edward Koh. The current COVID-19 environment presents an opportunity for Singapore to reimagine tourism and design safe experiences for visitors through innovative formats and digital adoption. Our vision is to position Singapore as a top sustainable and innovative urban destination – a place where everyone can partake in bigger, richer experiences, with a smaller footprint. We have made good progress toward sustainability with the announcement of the Singapore Green Plan 2030, a whole-of-nation movement to advance Singapore’s national agenda on sustainable development. Driving interest in Green Events, Singapore is home to various sustainability events such as Ecosperity Week and Sustainability Reporting Summit. Various MICE venues have also incorporated sustainability in their events work. For example, the Sands Expo and Convention Centre became the first carbon neutral MICE venue in Singapore in September 2020. Sentosa Development Corporation, which manages the island resort of Sentosa, is also rolling out a slew of sustainability measures and initiatives with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality in 2030.

ES. Please tell us about your vision for promoting MICE travel to Singapore? What measures are you planning to take in this regard?

Dr. Edward Koh. As borders around the world gradually reopen, we expect business and MICE travel to Singapore to gradually resume. STB is constantly engaging our intermediary and corporate stakeholders across our key markets, including India. We have also stepped up marketing Singapore as a MICE destination known for Safety, Innovation, and Trust, in order to rebuild short- to mid-term consideration of Singapore among MICE event planners, through media partnerships, digital and social channels, as well as increased business development efforts.

In India, our recent engagement session with 30 corporate decision makers from various industry sectors provided useful takeaways and insights that will help us chart our pathway towards MICE recovery from India to Singapore. The corporates shared that incentive travel programs will continue to play an important part of their business relationship process in rewarding their employees, distributors and business partners. Even if COVID-19 protocols increase the cost of travel, this is unlikely to curtail their appetite for incentive travel. However, corporates also shared that they may be more selective about the types of trips and destinations, with flying time given greater consideration.

We are heartened to know that most of the corporates concurred that Singapore will continue to be an attractive mid-haul destination for the Indian market for incentive travel, once borders re-open.On top of securing more pipeline events and movements to Singapore, STB has worked with the meetings industry to help them upskill to deal with the increasing use of technology as well as to enhance Singapore’s products and experiences. COVID-19 has accelerated the MICE industry’s innovation, galvanising the industry to explore new ways of connecting stakeholders and organising events. MICE events also provide a safe and controlled environment, which gives us confidence to innovate and testbed new measures that can later be applied across other economic sectors and tourism industries. In July 2020, STB developed the Safe Business Events (SBE) framework to help our industry resume safely. Under the SBE framework, Singapore has piloted over 140 MICE events, hosting more than 15,000 participant attendees.

Riding on the successful pilots of large-scale events such as TravelRevive (November 2020) and Geo Connect Asia (March 2021), STB will continue to progressively resume larger scale events with rigorous protocols and innovative solutions in place for the end-to-end visitor journey. For example, the last quarter of this year will see two major MICE events – the Bloomberg New Economy Forum and Industrial Transformation Asia-Pacific. To guide the industry in developing innovative hybrid business models and pathways for new capabilities, the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS) collaborated with STB and Enterprise Singapore to develop the Event Industry Resilience Roadmap. In the coming months, we will also be sharing more information about new destination experiences and enhanced incentive programmes for meeting planners.

ES. Supported by STB, Singapore hosted its first international business event with fully vaccinated participants – the “Joint Leadership Summit of AEO / SACEOS / SISO / UFI”. More are in the pipeline. What were the main framework of the show and how it enables the industry to focus to reinvigorate the region’s business events industry and reboot inter-and intra-regional business travel?

Dr. Edward Koh. The Joint Leadership Summit, held from 5 to 7 October, convened regional government representatives, major global organisers and trade association leaders on an action plan for the safe reopening of the business events industry in the region. They discussed the critical need to re-open inter- and intra-regional travel routes while ensuring the health and safety of travellers as core policy measures. These are the foundations and assurances that business event organisers need to commit their resources and investments into the restart of events across the region. Accordingly, the leaders are calling on the authorities to put into place clear policy initiatives and common operating protocols across the region to be calibrated for a Covid-endemic environment. To support the industry’s evolution through a Covid-endemic operating environment, the event also saw the launch of the Asia CEO Summit, an annual dialogue for the exhibition industry to review the regional business environment and chart the next course of action and collaboration for the betterment of the industry. This event will take place in Singapore annually from 2022 onwards.

ES. Singapore Tourism Board, Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) and UFI (The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry) had partnered to launch a whitepaper titled “Reimagining Business Events –Through COVID-19 and Beyond”. What were the main findings of this report?

Dr. Edward Koh. Launched at the first hybrid Singapore MICE Forum x IBTM Wired at Marina Bay Sands on 28 June 2021, the white paper takes stock of how various sectors within the industry have transformed in response to COVID-19, and consolidated ideas from around the world to help business event organisers rethink their offerings and operations.

Some of the main findings:

  • As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, optimism among business events organisations has continued to grow over the past months and revenues have also started to pick up. This year, the exhibitions industry, which contracted by 68 per cent in 2020, is expected to register global revenues 106% higher than 2020 figures
  • Within Asia Pacific, there are strong indications of growth and innovation. Based on UFI, Explori and SISO’s Global Recovery Insights report 12, exhibitions in Asia are likely to see stronger growth in participation from both visitors and exhibitors, compared to the rest of the world
  • Visitors from Asia are significantly more likely to convert from attending a new event digitally to attending in person in the future – 64 per cent compared to 48 per cent of respondents from the rest of the world
  • Innovation will be critical to carry the sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. To begin, organisations should think about innovating across three pillars: Business Models, Delegate Experience, and Talent and Capabilities

ES. What would be your comments on digitalization and the prospects of utilising technology in propelling ahead the momentum in the industry?

Dr. Edward Koh. The pandemic has catalysed technological innovations and concepts in our events industry. Experimentation with event formats is an up-and-coming trend, with organisers trialling events in virtual or hybrid models. The integration of technology into the visitor experience, such as digital guides and contactless registration, will also become mainstream. In terms of innovation, this is the most fertile period in our industry’s history, and we have seized this by piloting and scaling many new solutions. For instance, one initiative we have been working on is our Augmented Reality (AR) Strategy, which aims to help tourism businesses develop interactive and engaging AR content for our visitors. We will be creating a repository of high-quality AR content that our industry stakeholders can leverage to enrich their digital platforms and will guide them on how to deploy this technology effectively. Recognising that digitalisation is key, STB has launched TCube (Tourism Technology Transformation Cube), which provides a holistic suite of tools to guide tourism businesses in Singapore to build capabilities to succeed in the digital age. These tools help tourism businesses learn more about themselves, test their concepts or ideas, and build solutions that last and meet customers’ needs.