Second waves, infection spikes, slam brakes on Asia’s MICE recovery

MICE players need to start experimenting and futureproofing through hybridisation and digitalisation just as

Optimism on corporate travel recovery in early 2021 has been muted, as infection surges, new Covid-19 mutations, and border restrictions continue to have a stranglehold on the Asia-Pacific MICE industry.

We take a look at how industry stakeholders across three countries – Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan – are weathering the fallout from the prevailing global crisis.

MICE stakeholders have been dealt another blow, making the road to recovery even longer

Business events in Malaysia have once more fallen casualty to the rising number of Covid-19 infections in the country, with the federal government calling for a temporary cease of in-person meetings from January 13-26.

However, this is subject to further risk assessments to determine if an extension is needed before the two-week period ends on January 26.

Francis Teo, president, Malaysian Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers, said that stricter measures were necessary.

He said: “It is better to take action now, in January, which is a traditionally quiet period for business events. We hope this action will enable the business events industry in Malaysia to recover sooner.”

However, Teo pointed out that many industry players are struggling to stay afloat, and expressed concern as to how long these companies could hold out.

As such, Teo urged: “We seek the government’s consideration to extend our proposed wage subsidy structure of 50 per cent for employees with the inclusion of those earning RM6,000 (US$1,483) and below to sustain non-essential industries’ operations and workforce during these trying times.”

He also urged the government to allow production crews in a dedicated studio to be able to work, so as to provide technical support and continue delivering virtual events in MCO-affected areas while observing strict procedures.

And while Mona Abdul Manap, founder and CEO at Place Borneo Business Events, notes that business events could still be done virtually, she felt the impact would not be as great as in-person events.

Currently, Mona is undecided whether to carry on with her inaugural Gardenscapes Sarawak, a gardening and farming expo, scheduled to be held in late February.

She added that the sudden lockdown decision made by the Malaysian government does not bode well for the business events industry as “event organisers will lose confidence in the destination”.

While the long-term outlook remains unclear, Mona retains hope, and will continue to bid for international conventions from 2024 onwards, certain that by then, “this pandemic would have subsided and things would have normalised”. – S Puvaneswary

Amid the throes of a fresh Covid-19 outbreak – spawned in early December 2020 by migrant workers slipping illegally between the northern Thai-Myanmar border, and local gambling dens in Rayong – the Thai MICE industry has been hit with a slew of postponements.

At this point, the Thai government is doing its best to avoid a full country lockdown, and is working to get the situation under control by end-January.

Meanwhile, alternative measures include locking down only the hardest-hit provinces (currently, Samut Sakhon, Chonburi, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat), while 23 other provinces including Bangkok are considered “highly controlled areas,” with at-risk venues forced to close.

Exhibition halls, convention centres and hotel meeting facilities in “highly controlled areas” are allowed to remain open, but under strict disease control measures.

Although there have been no formal announcements from the Thai government regarding new restrictions on conferences and in-person events, the public sentiment on health and safety has already curtailed many events.

Sumate Sudasna, managing director at CDM – Conference & Destination Management and president of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association, said: “Public sentiment on health and safety is so strong that any move (the government) makes is sure to be criticised and, most of the time, overblown.”

While acknowledging that a second lockdown would be a further blow to the local MICE industry, he stressed that “a hard-line (stance) to handle the spread is the right thing to do”.

Loy Joon How, general manager of ‎IMPACT Exhibition and Convention Centre, stated that a lot hangs on how well the government can curb the second wave.

“During the first wave in early 2020, it took about three months for our industry to see a gradual recovery. We will have to wait and see in a month or two if the current outbreak situation improves or not,” he said.

“(A second lockdown) would hurt the Thai MICE industry. However, it is imperative that these actions be taken so that they can help the industry recover. It is a bitter pill for the industry to swallow, but things can only get worse before it gets better,” Loy elaborated.

Meanwhile, Max Boontawee Jantasuwan, founder of Events Travel Asia, pointed out that the domestic incentive travel market has also been impacted by the current situation.

“We were going to pitch a few projects with international clients based in Thailand. Even though we haven’t reached a lockdown phase, the projects including all the presentations – which were for events next quarter – have been put on hold,” he lamented. – Anne Somanas

Japan’s business events industry is coming under further strain with the tightening of measures to bring Covid-19 under control in the country.

The number of infections nationwide has hovered around 6,000 for the past several days, with the most rapid increase seen in urban areas. The detection of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus in four travellers who arrived in Japan in recent days has added to the concern.

The government has extended the state of emergency covering Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama to include Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, Aichi, Gifu, Tochigi and Fukuoka prefectures. Under the declaration, residents in those areas are being asked to avoid all non-essential outings.

The state of emergency, which is in place until February 7, is a further blow to the hard-hit hotel and restaurant industry, particularly in the prefectures under the declaration.

A Tokyo hotel that spoke on condition of anonymity said they have received a significant number of cancellations. Furthermore, they have received no new bookings for enkai parties (Japanese work parties) or receptions since the government’s announcement and do not expect to receive any until at least after February 7.

Still, some facilities are receiving bookings for the latter part of 2021. A restaurant who declined to be named said they are receiving bookings for corporate group lunches and dinners in the summer, autumn and winter. The spokesperson said they believe this is because customers feel more confident about being able to hold events later in the year.

Those who rely on the international MICE market, meanwhile, have been largely unaffected by the tightening of infection countermeasures.

Jarrod Stenhouse, CIS, managing director of destination management company Destination Asia Japan, said “the majority of our main source countries are doing much worse than Japan in containing the virus so overseas clients still look favourably towards Japan, especially when they compare the numbers here to their own country.” – Kathryn Wortley

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