Convention centres in Asia-Pacific are seeing busy days once more, now that travel barriers are lowered and social restrictions are easing off. By Rachel AJ Lee
Convention centres in the region – especially those in countries where more freedom has been restored – are looking to the future with renewed optimism, as international business events gradually return.
To tide through the pandemic, these convention centres got creative – large floor spaces were turned into quarantine facilities and vaccination centres, and lifestyle offerings such as attractions and F&B were developed for the domestic market.
Muscling up with tech
The most important step large-scale venues took, were to upskill their staff, and quickly digitalising their services to support virtual events.
Marina Bay Sands (MBS) was one of the first movers in the region. It created its own Hybrid Broadcast Studio – a holographic teleprescence and mixed reality stage – early on in 2020.
MBS’ vice president of sales, Mike Lee, shared: “We embraced technology further and launched the Virtual Meeting Place (VMP) in October 2021, becoming the first venue in the MICE industry to launch such a platform globally.”
VMP allows organisers to scratch-build their virtual venue and replicate real-life event spaces at MBS, and includes multiple functions such as live streaming capabilities, exhibition booths and a content library.
This rapid digitalisation effort is what led to MBS playing host to over 870 events in 2021, amid the pandemic.
This year, several large-scale events have already held shows at MBS, such as the Singapore International Water Week and Asia Pacific Maritime. PCMA Convening Asia Pacific will make its way there come September.
Across Singapore, Constellar Holdings has been running digital and hybrid events at Singapore Expo. One of these studios, ApeX, is Singapore’s largest hybrid studio. It was created as part of Singapore Expo’s upgrading efforts during the pandemic, shared incoming CEO Jean-François Quentin.
The move to beef up event technology has also benefitted ICC Sydney, which delivered over 600 events between March 2020 and March 2022. According to CEO Geoff Donaghy, these events attracted more than 660,000 visitors and hundreds of thousands more online.
Aside from transforming its brick-and-mortar space into hybrid and virtual studios, Alan Pryor, general manager, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, told TTGmice that a priority for its survival “was strict compliance, implementation and enforcement of the new SOPs”. These measures boosted confidence among clients and the public in hosting and attending events at the centre, which was also the first venue in Malaysia to obtain the MySafe BE certification.
Full steam ahead
As social and business conditions improve on the back of better pandemic management, convention centres in key cities are happy to show extremely healthy forward bookings for 2023.
Donaghy is seeing an increase in demand for in-person events.
“ICC Sydney has 300 domestic and international events for the first half of 2022. When looking at the full calendar year, we are working towards delivering another 300 events across all market segments,” he shared.
Australia’s relaxed border controls have helped to stoke interest, and Donaghy expects the number of confirmed events will only continue to increase in 2H2022.
Singapore’s commitment to reopening has not gone unnoticed among show organisers. Jewellery & Gem World and Cosmoprof Asia have chosen to escape the confines of a restrictive Hong Kong, moving their shows to Singapore in September and November respectively.
Two more mega events under the Food&HotelAsia (FHA) platform, FHA-Food & Beverage, the largest international F&B showcase in Asia and FHA-HoReCa, the world’s leading foodservice & hospitality event in Asia, are slated to return to the Singapore Expo in September and October respectively.
Quentin said enquiries have tripled from what Constellar Holdings got at the end of 2021.
“While we’re unlikely to see bookings return to pre-Covid levels for at least another year, we’re also cognisant that the landscape is vastly different now. For example, a few event organisers are rethinking their business models, such as scaling down from having several shows a year to just one or two,” he shared.
There is greater positivity in Kuala Lumpur too. Pryor is confident of achieving the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre’s sales target as measures have been lifted in Malaysia. Currently, 30 per cent of 117 confirmed events this year are international conventions and exhibitions.
“For 2023, we have secured five conventions and 15 exhibitions, and are looking to lock in 80 more from both segments in the next six months,” he shared.
For Loy Joon How, general manager of Thailand-based IMPACT Exhibition & Convention Centre, this year’s business outlook is “still weak” even as international bookings return for 2023. As the Covid situation continues to improve, Loy expects domestic events to be critical to industry recovery.
Even new-kid-on-the-block Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre has much to cheer about. General manager Ross Steele said “business is looking good”, and pointed to more than 100 events already on the books for the next six months, including 60 conferences, and a “solid pipeline” for the coming years.
It is a new dawn for convention centres in Asia-Pacific, but the road to recovery is still fraught with challenges. Manpower constraints and a hyper-competitive landscape are threatening to dampen venues’ ability to win more events.
Loy observed a critical need for venues to maintain cost effectiveness while balancing the implementation of Covid protocols, standards and practices.
For Quentin, manpower acquisition and retention have been a struggle. The perception that other industries are more stable than the events industry are of no help to recruitment efforts, while rising demand for hospitality professionals is pushing up salary expectations.
Beyond internal challenges, Quentin also shed light on a possible reduction in large-scale shows available for venues to court, as “many consumer show exhibitors are rethinking their participation level” due to supply chain challenges and rise of e-commerce.
Pryor also warned that most venues and destinations would be contending for the same piece of business, resulting in intense competition. As such, the host destination’s openness to international travel would influence the show organiser’s decision.