Learn, adapt, and plan

Kenny Yong, founder and group CEO of Fireworks Trade Media shares how he pulled off several hybrid tradeshows in Thailand at the height of the pandemic, and why he isn't a staunch believer in completely virtual events

What are your current thoughts about the pandemic and its impact on the exhibitions sector?
It has been a challenging 16 months so far for the South-east Asian market. And I do not see anything improving until the final two months of this year in which shows could be staged domestically in Indonesia, the Philippines, and perhaps in smaller Malaysian cities.

Last year, I was able to pull off five events in Thailand with support from the venue, Thailand Convention & Exhibitions Bureau (TCEB), and exhibitors, but I do not think I have the “magic” to pull it off again this year.

Back then, the Thais were generally less afraid of the virus and more daring to continue exhibiting; also due in part to the government managing to keep the pandemic in check for 2020. I do not see the same thing happening this year due to slower inoculations and the peoples’ fear of the variants in the country.

How did you manage to stage five tradeshows at the height of the pandemic?
The five shows went ahead due to the domestic exhibitors playing a massive role in it. They wanted a physical event to take place and we simply heeded their call. The event was also hybrid to allow the participation of foreign exhibitors and visitors.

To organise a tradeshow during the pandemic, it is important to have support from stakeholders (such as associations and government bodies) and exhibitors alike.

It helps that in Thailand, the MICE industry is recognised by the government as a key pillar and TCEB provided ample support for our shows in the form of incentives and subsidies (both financial and non-financial) to ensure organisers like us were well-equipped and that the tradeshows could commence successfully.

I daresay South-east Asia region’s tourism boards have a lot to learn from TCEB’s creative ideas and useful incentives that have provided assistance to the domestic MICE industry during this pandemic.

How did being agile help you reap massive rewards for the company?
Being able to “bend” accordingly with the fluidity of the pandemic made us one of the trade expo companies that was able to weather the massive storm.

We went back to the drawing board in April 2020 and started exiting the expos business in several countries as nobody wanted to join an exhibition during those confusing times.

Being an SME, we were able to pivot to focus on our clients’ needs on how they would like to connect with their clients during the pandemic. Along with some manpower furloughs and effective trims – our financials were not fantastic in comparison with 2019 – we somewhat manage to pull off an amazing feat of survival!

Till today I am not a staunch believer in virtual events. I used to run an industrial directory, and the concept of the virtual events with online booths bears a strong resemblance to a directory business, which made me ponder whether I wanted to take my clients backwards instead of forwards. This is because we already have Google as a comprehensive search engine, so why am I turning my expo into another search engine?

There are many ways to pivot digitally, but virtual events are definitely not the complete answer.

Closer to home, Singapore’s tradeshows will face an uphill battle due to the lack of a domestic market and tight government reins which makes it a nightmare for tradeshow organisers. But I foresee a brighter 2022 for the Singapore MICE industry as it’ll probably be the only country in South-east Asia to inoculate most of its population, and this would instil more confidence in trade organisers, exhibitors, and potential visitors who would love to be here.

What were some of the challenges you faced when trying to break into the exhibitions market in frontier markets or third-world countries?
When it comes to starting up in any country, the greatest challenges will always be language, cultural barriers, and security. I remember starting up my office in Indonesia back in 2005 – it was our inaugural office – and the language barrier deterred me from being able to better coach my team. It was also tough to get legalities sorted out as everything was in the local language.

Culture-wise, the people in Indonesia are also known to be very polite, and even if they do not understand what you are saying they would still nod their head in agreement. This had a detrimental effect as it was tough to ascertain if a potential client is a real client, and also whether my staff truly understood what I was trying to communicate.

Sometimes, personal security can also be put at risk. I remember once being at a traffic junction in Jakarta and was approached by four bikers who attempted to smash the car windows, however, the driver started horning frantically and the neighbouring cars responded in unison which sort of scared them away.

Being very aware of these elements are key when setting up an office in a third-world country and knowing how to manage them would be integral in your success!

What do you think the South-east Asian exhibitions industry will look like moving forward?
This is a pretty broad question as South-east Asia is massive and its different countries would experience different spurts of growth.

However, one thing I am sure of is that the “Big Boys” of the industry would continue its acquisition spree post-pandemic. Mid-size companies would be working on more joint ventures to grow their portfolios in order to compete with the “Big Boys”. I also see the “Big Boys” working with mid-size companies to expand their portfolio further.

As for smaller event organisers, I reckon the pandemic is a massive challenge for them and many of them have already shuttered. I think that small and new event companies developing new tradeshows would find it incredibly challenging in the post-pandemic world.

What do you think about the survivability of the industry?
With all the negativity and lockdowns engulfing us during these turbulent times, many had thought that our industry would be gone forever! But if you look on the bright side, events in China, the US, Middle East and Europe are getting back on track post-vaccination.

This shows that we will always be relevant – regardless of what virtual platforms are saying – and face-to-face meetings are always the preferred mode of business.

Here’s my one piece of advice: Learn from 2020, Adapt with 2021 and start planning for 2022!

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