Brave step forward

Montgomery Asia has the honour of producing Singapore’s first large-scale hybrid event in 2021, as the city-state begins to carefully resume big events. Managing director Chris McCuin says it takes a whole lot of courage and external support to lead that restart in unusual times.

How did pulling Geo Connect Asia 2021 off compare to a normal exhibition? Where did the support come from?
The scale of work in comparison to a normal exhibition is quite high (because our efforts were) succinctly put into 2.5 months (instead of over a year).

People genuinely want to return to face-to-face events, but for that to happen you need safe measurements in place. This is only possible with incredible support from the government and relevant associations.

You, in Singapore, are very lucky in how advanced a lot of your systems already are, and the support systems within the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) are brilliant.

STB didn’t just give us Safe Meetings Measures (SMM) advice. They were like an extension of our team. It wasn’t their job to contact us after office hours, but they did. That showed real commitment to bringing back Singapore’s MICE industry and recover general tourism.

We had the same fantastic support from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and GeoWorks, which is the geospatial initiative under the SLA.

I also think that what we were able to achieve with Geo Connect Asia 2021 was impossible without monetary support. The subsidies offered through programmes like Business Events in Singapore scheme, which we tapped into, got us through this challenging period.

The event ended up with over 1,000 attendees in person? How does that measure against your expectations?
We cannot look at attendance like that anymore. We cannot put up a hybrid event and then talk about in-person numbers or what was achieved onsite. That’s what everyone is still doing but the whole industry needs to move on now. If it is a hybrid event, it must be (appraised) in its hybrid entirety.

We have to look at the quality of people who attended the event, the quality of contacts that were made, and the value of business opportunities.

In that line of thought, Geo Connect Asia 2021 achieved what it set out to do. We had people online and in-person from across 55 countries. Would a launch event in Singapore be able to get attendees from 55 countries? I’ve launched many events around the world, and I know to secure participants from 55 countries is a challenge, no matter where the event is held.

The show will remain open for another two months, so people can still sign in, view videos on demand, and connect with other delegates. At this point, I cannot tell you how many engagements Geo Connect Asia 2021 will eventually achieve.

Are we happy? Yeah, we brought the global community together and the turnout meant that those people bought into what we were doing – that we were truly bringing the global geospatial community together.

Having people from 55 countries signing into Geo Connect Asia 2021 now also means that when we come back next March, I hope a lot of them will be motivated to step onto a plane and attend the event in person. That is a great start, and it gave Singapore the publicity she needs for a MICE restart.

Business events are the one thing that disappears and affects so many other businesses and industries. When we bring MICE back to Singapore, we are bringing one per cent of GDP back along with 34,000 jobs.

Why do you think so much hope is pinned on Geo Connect Asia in restarting Singapore’s business events? Is it just because it is a valuable testament to the city’s ability to return to major events? Does the event’s subject of focus play a part too?
We know that Singapore has specific aims to establish itself as a technology hub, and geospatial industry has a place there. It is a very fast developing industry that is new-ish, but affects many industries that are long-standing. So, yes, the subject matter matters.

At the same time, I think everybody wants to see positive things developing. Did it make a difference that the show was done by us? I sure hope so! Montgomery was probably the first major events company in Singapore. We launched a show here in 1977 in a hotel carpark, which is now one of the largest events in the region. We later relaunched as Montgomery Asia in 2016 with the approach to bring our world-class events to this region.

It was lovely that so many companies were behind us on Geo Connect Asia 2021. But the truth is if the first major large-scale event to return to Singapore was organised by someone else, we would have been behind them too.

It does not matter who leads the restart. It could be the largest event company in the world, or a mom-and-pop outfit. We all just want the industry to restart and someone has to be brave to take the first step.

Were there international delegates in-person at the event?
We had international speakers, exhibitors and attendees. The current border restrictions are difficult but we had help from the government to clear necessary processes.

Once more travel bubbles are established, entry will become easier.

Singapore has had 60 events and just three major ones, such as TravelRevive and PCMA Convening Leaders, besides ours. That provides a gradual work-up (for Singapore’s safe meetings resumption) towards the massive World Economic Forum.

Montgomery Asia will deliver four more events in Singapore this September. We have plans for other things too, in Singapore, potentially within this year.

Geo Connect Asia was supposed to take place in 2020. Between then and now, has any aspect of the programme or business direction changed as a result of the pandemic?
Would Geo Connect Asia 2021 have been an online event without the pandemic? It would not. Would it have had online business matching? Yes. We’ve run online business matching at our events for years, and I’ve never had an event in Singapore that didn’t offer online business matching.

Would any of our staff have known how to run such an online, virtual experience had the borders not been closed? No. And that’s one wonderful thing about this situation. Challenging is perhaps the wrong word to describe our situation. It is a learning experience but it takes time to get people who are experts in traditional face-to-face events to run digital events. Not all of those staff are techies, but exhibitions aren’t meant to be ‘tech-y’ anyway. People attending exhibitions want to touch, see, smell and taste experiences – like they would want in a shop.

We had to deal with a lot of digital learning and data management. We had to discover that using an online event platform is like dealing with a separate venue but you aren’t sure what questions to ask.

How did you eventually determine those questions and get your answers?
Our venue, Marina Bay Sands (MBS), was amazing. The team has experience in hybrid events through the venue’s hybrid studio, which we did not use. But we did use the MBS audiovisual and tech team. Without them, we would still have delivered the event but the journey would not have been as smooth.

Similarly, we couldn’t have been able to get through the long list of SMM without the MBS team. We would have gone in blind. Event organisers need the venue to write their SMM plan with them.

In the past, people in our industry used to say, oh, we are all partners. That statement was really about having some form of relationship. Now, if it wasn’t truly a partnership, the event wouldn’t work. Nobody can write an SMM plan without a true partnership with the venue or with STB.

We know conferences can benefit from a hybrid format – an expanded global audience, for instance. How does this work for exhibitions though? You said earlier that attendees typically expect to see, feel and taste the experience?
Exhibitions are there for face-to-face contact and interactions. To look at a product purely online is not what people are looking for in the longer term. People don’t want to spend all day looking at pictures of huge mining equipment, enormous wood making machinery or food and drinks all day online. They want to touch, feel, interact and experience those products. That is the joy of exhibitions, we excite those senses which in turn encourages business deals to get done.

Montgomery Asia has a further line-up of events for the rest of the year – one in Kuala Lumpur this June and four more in Singapore again come September. Is planning ahead for events this year more certain than in 2020?
Forward planning in 2020 was not nearly possible. I don’t think there was a single exhibition company in the world that didn’t re-forecast every month (laughs).

This year, we can see light at the end of the tunnel. Events are launching this year, and Montgomery is a part of that. We have many events happening in many parts of the world, and we are taking bookings again. We just sold our biggest stand for an event that has been around for 40-plus years, after Boris Johnson said events could come back.

Can we plan for 2021? Yes. We have moved our June event in Kuala Lumpur to November because we felt we needed a little more gap. That decision has been very well received, and we have started selling stands.

We are also taking bookings now for our speciality shows in Singapore. The signs are clear – we are really moving forward and are planning for growth.

The travel crisis and disruption to business events have shown how dependent the world economy is on knowledge and trade exchanges. Has this ‘awakening’ changed the way government agencies or professional associations appreciate the value of future trade shows and conferences?
Singapore is actually a shining example of government agency involvement in trade events. They offer great link-ups, and this has been happening for many years.

But I do think that professional associations and organisations are talking a lot more to one another now because communications have gone online. For Geo Connect Asia 2021, we saw an enormous pick up in support from Singapore associations (and organisations) wanting to be partners. They include the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers, Infocomm Media Development Authority, and Association of Aerospace Industries. I believe that came from associations (and organisations) talking a lot more to one another.

Does Montgomery Asia have its own ‘awakenings’ too? Are there, perhaps, other industry trade events that the company wishes to pursue and develop in Asia, beyond the ones already in the pipeline?
We launched Montgomery Asia to be a regional office based in Singapore. We intend to have events outside of Singapore as well as in Singapore. Singapore is a great hub for events, and we will definitely do more events and are open to co-locates here.

We launched events in Malaysia because we see great opportunities there. We are also very ready to look at other shows elsewhere in Asia.

Montgomery works in food, drinks, arts, photography, mining, wood machinery, humanitarian aid, promotional products, processing and packaging, security and a number of other industries around the world – it is quite wide, really. That won’t change anytime soon.

At this point in time, how do you think Asia’s business events industry would fare for the rest of the year?
As more events launch and relaunch this year, there will be an intense land grab from event organisers. This can be superseded by tourist boards that are desperate to win events for their country, whether they are conferences, exhibitions, meetings or festivals. The tourist boards know how influential events can be for other businesses (in terms of spend).

I think subsidies will play a huge part in tourist boards’ ability to win over events because many exhibition companies have had a tough year with very little or no income.

We can also expect intense competition among countries to reopen quickly and safely for business events.

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