Cover Story - Build & they will come
More destinations beyond the big cities of Asia-Pacific are getting their own world-class convention centres. But are these facilities enough to lure international business events and turn the destinations they reside in into the latest hotspots for industry gatherings?
The 1989 movie Field of Dreams may have made famous the phrase, “If you build it, he will come” – particularly among businessmen who hold dear a similar version, “build and they will come”.
But does this phrase apply to Asia-Pacific’s ongoing construction boom in convention and exhibition centres that is taking place across second- and third-tier cities that are often not the first destination of choice among organisers of international business meetings and tradeshows?
When this question was posed to industry veterans Geoff Donaghy, president of AIPC, a global association that counts 175 leading convention and exhibition centres as well as more than 900 management-level professionals among its members, and Mark Cochrane, Asia-Pacific regional manager of UFI, the global association of the exhibitions industry, the short answer from both was “no”.
Donaghy said: “A centre is a critical element, but it must be complemented by all the other attributes a destination needs to be able to offer in order to attract business in today’s highly competitive market, including such factors as accommodation, air access, convention services and relevant destination attractions.
“Having said that, there are also destinations that have great potential in many other respects to attract business (events) but are being held back by the absence of good facilities. The key is to ensure all required components are in balance or to identify what is missing or in short supply and deal with that.”
Cochrane agrees that while “strong, world-class infrastructure is a key piece of the puzzle”, that alone “is never enough”.
Cochrane opined that second- and third-tier cities could build a convention portfolio if they possessed most of these key elements: a quality venue, a supportive national or local government, a dynamic group of PCOs and DMCs, good and convenient air links, safety and security, and an overall destination attractiveness.
Furthermore, tradeshows generally go where the trade opportunities are, he added.
Donaghy has seen destinations turning its business tourism fortunes around as a result of a new convention and exhibition centre, although he has refrained from naming specific examples. He noted that the centre is an important investment in destinations where seasonality is an issue, as it can better distribute travel demand throughout the year.
The benefits extend beyond the destination’s tourism industry. “Many elements of economic and community development (can) benefit from the (destination’s) ability to host events that attract knowledge, investment, new business and talent while also helping it to attract attention to its economic priorities and accomplishments from a global audience,” said Donaghy.
Cochrane disagrees that a venue could have a metamorphical effect on a destination, but admits that “we have seen time after time when an investment in a venue unlocks growth in a market and drives interest in a variety of MICE segments”.
He explained: “AsiaWorld-Expo unlocked growth in Hong Kong starting in 2006 and if the Hong Kong government goes ahead with plans to build a new venue in Wanchai near (Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre), that will also certainly boost the city’s MICE stats. Destinations such as Kuching, Bali and Jeju have done reasonably well building their portfolio of events on the back of venues – and other supporting factors.”
On the other hand, there are cases of new-built venues sitting empty.
Cochrane said: “There are many good examples in China in which second- and third-tier cities build (sometimes massive) convention and exhibition centres without giving much consideration to who would use the venue. To give a sense of scale, we have over 100 Chinese exhibition centres in our database. In Japan, there are just 13. This is solid proof that a venue alone can’t generate a sustainable MICE industry.”
So if all key factors were in place to ensure a destination’s success in attracting business events, what would be the hallmarks of a successful convention centre?
Donaghy, who is also CEO of the new International Convention Centre Sydney which opened officially on December 20 last year, offered these views: “A high quality of facilities, services and technology are obviously critical. However, the ability of a centre to respond to a growing need for flexibility and creativity in event delivery – often driven by the rapidly changing expectations of their own delegates – has become a big distinguishing factor among competing centres.”
“Affiliations are also important, particularly when they offer credentials. AIPC members all subscribe to the principle of Excellence in Centre Management, and can access a range of programmes to support this. At the same time, AIPC also maintains a Quality Standards programme that awards a designation based on an external audit of a wide range of centre features and management policies, and this can help planners ensure they will get what they need,” he said.
Cochrane also urged convention and exhibition centres in second- and third-tier cities to invest in human resources (HR) in order to compete well, saying that the HR strain “will be a central issue for venue operators for the foreseeable future”.
To help UFI members in this aspect, the organisation has made education a core focus in its programmes. Later this year, UFI will launch a venue management degree.
Penang – a case study
Business events are not new to Penang, but it was only in 2016 that the Malaysian state formed its own CVB and in March 2017 that it got its first large-scale dedicated business event venue, Setia SPICE Convention Centre.
In December 2016, ahead of its opening, Setia SPICE Convention Centre has already a stream of event bookings including two large international conferences, one of which is for over 8,000 people in May, said senior manager, Yeoh Kheng Ho.
With this centre complemented by 2,000 rooms within a 10km radius, Penang Convention and Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) will finally be able to bid for large conventions, said CEO, Ashwin Gunasekeran.
The evolution of Penang’s tourism appeal, from a much loved heritage city and food paradise for holidaymakers to a new generation business events city, is not solely the result of the new centre.
Before the bureau was formed, Ashwin noted that local industry players had to work independently “to their best capacity” to attract business events to Penang.
“Now with the bureau in the picture, there is a point of contact for the industry. Through the bureau, there is concerted marketing efforts which engage every segment of the business events industry, and we are all growing together,” he said.
Penang’s infrastructure growth will continue into 2022 when the Light Waterfront Convention Centre opens. But when the novelty of brand new convention and exhibition venues wears off, Ashwin said sustained interest in Penang as a business events destination would require continuous improvement in other areas.
“We understand the need (for) constant refurbishment of facilities to support the growing needs of the business events community. Connectivity is another aspect; Penang is getting increasingly connected with new markets so we believe Penang will always be a fresh destination for newer source markets,” he said. – Karen Yue
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