Large-scale events in Singapore face strong upwind

Green shoots for large-scale events in the thousands have sprung forth, but for Singapore to retain her lustre as a regional business events powerhouse, more needs to be done

Without clarity on endemic plans, large-scale organisers in Singapore will continue to have many hurdles to cross

Before the pandemic, Singapore was the place to meet for regional business, regularly welcoming large-scale tradeshows and exhibitions numbering in the thousands to its shores.

But after close to two years of border closures, due to slow reopenings, ongoing stringent restrictions, and ever-changing rules and regulations, the light at the end of the tunnel is not shining as brightly as it is supposed to.

Without clarity on endemic plans, large-scale organisers in Singapore will continue to have many hurdles to cross; Singapore CBD pictured

Potential exits
While larger countries such as Indonesia and China can sustain large-scale events buoyed by its local population, Singapore’s large-scale events sector was hit harder as it is still dependent on foreign delegates and visitors, many of whom are currently not allowed to enter the city-state without a costly quarantine.

At press time, capacity for business events is capped at 1,000 attendees at any one time, if all have been vaccinated. Speakers can also be unmasked.

But for organisers of larger-scale events such as exhibitions, where crowds of between 3,000 to 8,000 people were the norm pre-Covid, the current capacity ceiling is prohibitive.

Kenny Yong, founder and group CEO of Fireworks Trade Media, posited: “Singapore’s domestic market is not attractive enough to exhibitors. Exhibitors join shows in Singapore hoping to reach the region. But if rules stay in place, expos that target the regional audience may feel the heat. The bigger shows in Singapore are mostly regional, especially industrial ones like in the fields of oil and gas, and maritime.”

Managing director, Clarion Events Asia, Richard Ireland, agreed: “Other parts of the world have gone from many restrictions to no restrictions in a very short period of time.”

For instance, domestic tradeshows in China, the US, the UK, and parts of Europe have made a comeback, and are beginning to operate at scale. China, given the scale and depth of the domestic market, is operating between 70 to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic scale.

“Given the size of the domestic market, Singapore needs international attendees, and any restrictions on international travel makes recovery challenging. South-east Asia has been slower to reopen, and the cross-border participation of shows in South-east Asia, and especially Singapore, make this situation even more challenging,” Ireland said.

Yong further pointed out that Singapore’s overly cautious stance could mean she might lose out to other “more daring countries” like Malaysia, Indonesia and soon, Thailand, which are taking a “more calculated approach” towards large-scale events.

A potential competitor to Singapore’s global MICE city status is Dubai, which has reopened borders to business events when its population was 75.2 per cent fully-vaccinated – as opposed to Singapore’s current 80 per cent. An oil and gas event, supposedly meant for Singapore, was moved to Dubai as a result, Yong said.

Yong fears that more organisers may follow suit, especially industrial shows that are dependent on regional visitors. “I see more organisers moving out of Singapore and building bigger events in the region like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines where the market size is a lot bigger,” he added.

Resetting demand
With Singapore’s slower reopening pace, it brings to question whether business events will still find the city-state an attractive place to meet, and remain top-of-mind when compared with regional options that are fully open for business.

Poh Chi Chuan, executive director, exhibitions & conferences, Singapore Tourism Board (STB), expressed confidence in the city-state’s position as an “important gateway for event organisers and businesses to access the region”.

He related that in recent months, the Singapore government has been actively green-lighting pilot shows such as Bloomberg New Economy Forum and gamescon Asia 2021.

The high-profile Joint Leadership Summit also recently demonstrated Singapore’s persistent appeal for top-level meetings. Supported by STB and co-supported by Singapore Association for Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers, the event brought key industry leaders from global associations like Association of Event Organisers, Society for Independent Show Organizers and UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry together to work on an action plan for the safe reopening of the business events industry in the region.

These events build towards the government’s aim of gradually restarting conferences and exhibitions to support Singapore’s hospitality and travel industry, and help Singapore maintain its status as a hub city.

These pilots leave Ireland hopeful that relevant data would be released to facilitate “learning points factored into protocols”, and result in restrictions being removed and audience caps expanded.

Both Ireland, and Dylan Sharma, the co-founder and director of Tricom Events, have also pointed to the recent expansion of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) as encouraging and positive signs that Singapore is opening up.

“While the daily number of travellers remain modest, we are confident that these will increase when (the scheme) proves to be safe and secure. (It would also bode well) when more VTLs are added, and are able to operate at higher capacity,” said Ireland.

Sharma stated: “The VTLs with a number of key markets signals a strong commitment by the Singapore government to opening up our borders and economy. This gives a strong confidence boost to the MICE industry here.”

Other grounds for optimism, Sharma added, was an acknowledgement by the Covid multi-ministry taskforce that “large-scale events pose a low risk as a transmission cluster”, inherently attributed to existing Safe Management Measures practiced by event organisers.

Moving forward, Sharma shared that landmark events like the Shangri-La Dialogue have announced plans for a fully in-person event in June 2022, following its cancellation in May 2021.

Poh also pointed out that there is a “strong pipeline of events for 2021 and beyond”. These include the Industrial Transformation Asia Pacific, Milken Institute Asia Summit, and Singapore International Agri-Food Week. Recently, four MoUs were inked to launch and anchor new events in Singapore, such as SILMO Singapore, and the Asia CEO Summit @ Singapore.

“These commitments are a timely boost to our MICE industry and are testament to our strength as a launch pad for regional expansion,” opined Poh.

Calculated optimism
While STB remains confident in the long-term prospects of Singapore’s tourism and business events sectors, industry players see a long road to recovery, with room for improvement.

When asked what support the exhibition industry needs now, Ireland said: “A clear roadmap of reopening, and what data points will support the reopening”. (When it comes to) exhibitions, these timelines are critical to organise the sales, operations and marketing.”

Ireland added: “The last 22 months have been a very difficult period for many. As an exhibition organiser, we are looking and planning for a more positive 2022 and are hopeful that the pace and scale of reopening will help facilitate this.”

Yong said: “We need more clarity. We can’t plan anything in Singapore now as the regulations are still very fluid. This is the main challenge all organisers are facing now when they commit to running a show in Singapore.”

On STB’s part, Poh said the business events sector can expect continued guidance and support, as well as efforts to “build new capabilities and reimagine the future of MICE events”.

“STB will work closely with our industry partners to rebuild and recover together. The virus will continue to evolve, and so will our approach,” concluded Poh.

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