As Covid restrictions ease, destinations dial up in-person engagements

Representatives of Asian MICE cities that have had to rely heavily on online interactions with business event owners and planners over the past two years are finally able to dust off their shoes as they prepare to welcome buyers in person once more, now that travel bans and social restrictions have eased.

  • In-person MICE tradeshows and fam trips are returning
  • Event planners say in-person destination and venue assessments remain an important part of evaluation process
  • Convenient online destination information can remain relevant, but must be creative

Representatives of Asian MICE cities that have had to rely heavily on online interactions with business event owners and planners over the past two years are finally able to dust off their shoes as they prepare to welcome buyers in person once more, now that travel bans and social restrictions have eased.

Days at the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Philippines have been buzzing with excitement since the Department of Tourism announced on January 28 that the country would reopen to fully vaccinated international tourists from February 10. While TPB has maintained communications with business event owners and organisers through mostly online means, such as webinars and participation in virtual editors of international MICE tradeshows, the team relishes the chance to intensify engagements.

MICE destinations are bringing back opportunities to engage with potential buyers in person; a party scene at AIME 2019 (pictured) will come alive once more this year

Maria Anthonette C Velasco-Allones, chief operating officer at TPB, told TTGmice: “We are definitely preparing for an in-person invitational programme in the next half of the year, but we are also observing the situation of other countries as well as buyers themselves through the MICE shows that we will be participating in this year.”

For now, full attention is on preparations for the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, which the Philippines will play host to from April 20 to 22. The Summit is recognised as a travel and tourism industry heavyweight, as it brings together more than 800 top leaders from across multiple companies as well as tourism ministers and officials from influential organisations like UNWTO.

Over in Australia, where international travellers were welcomed on February 21, after two long years of border lock-down, Business Events Australia is intensifying conversion-driving activities that tap into the short- and mid-term business. These include the Business Events Australia Asia Showcase 2022, which will be held from March 8 to 11 in a hybrid format.

Days later, Melbourne will host Asia-Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event (AIME) from March 21 to 24 for in-person attendees. Traditionally known for offering impressive destination showcases of Melbourne and the wider Victoria region, AIME 2022 will kick off a day ahead with the Uncover Melbourne Program on Sunday. At press time, the Melbourne Convention Bureau is expected to offer more than 50 experiences to hosted buyers and media, taking them through the destination’s newest and most unique product offerings.

AIME attendees will also get to network at various Melbourne Convention Bureau events, including one held at Melbourne’s newest cultural icon – The LUME. The LUME is a 2,000m2 multi-sensory digital gallery immersing guests in the world’s greatest masterpieces. It weaves imagery from 150 state-of-the-art projectors on a curated tapestry of surfaces, all harmoniously choreographed to a dramatic musical soundscape.

In Singapore, in-person inspections and planning visits are happening more frequently, revealed Edward Koh, executive director, conventions, meetings & incentive travel with Singapore Tourism Board (STB), thanks to the country’s quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTL), a system that was launched on September 8, 2021, and progressively expanded to connect a host of countries and cities such as Germany, the UAE and the Philippines.

These destination assessments join STB’s ongoing efforts in trade engagements through webinars, virtual tradeshows like the SingapoReimagine MICE Virtual Show in March 2021, and in-person events – such as IMEX America and IBTM World Barcelona in November 2021 – in markets where international and business have resumed.

Koh: renewed demand for site inspections, especially for events that are scheduled for later this year, 2023 and beyond

“Compared to pre-pandemic times, we are in contact with (buyers) more frequently to provide destination updates,” said Koh.

Although Singapore has safely delivered a number of high profile business events amid restricted global travel in 2021, such as Geo Connect Asia in March and Bloomberg New Economy Forum in November, Koh said those were not enough to convince decision-makers to confirm their future events with Singapore in the absence of an in-person assessment.

“The ability to deliver high-profile business events is not equivalent to traditional fam trips and site inspections for decision-makers since each serves a different purpose,” he emphasised.

Seeing is believing
Indeed, even though business events specialists expressed appreciation for the frequent and convenient CVB and supplier virtual engagements seen throughout the travel freeze, they welcome the return of in-person site inspections and fam trips.

They told TTGmice that these assessments were necessary for shaping event decisions.

Nelson Khoo, head of events – Singapore & Indonesia with CWT Meetings & Events, explained: “On the one hand, planners have found that virtual site inspections can save them time and money, while also helping them lower the carbon footprint of their meeting and events programme.

“On the other, you just can’t go into the same level of detail with virtual inspections as you would by visiting a venue. Planners sometimes overlook certain logistical issues during an online inspection, which they may have noticed if they had been physically present at the venue. Buyers can also get a much better sense of what the attendee experience will be like when they see the space, the service delivery and other elements in-person, and that helps build confidence.”

Sanjay Seth, managing director, Asia Pacific for BCD Meetings & Events, agrees. “It is very difficult – especially for the customer as opposed to an experienced event planner – to imagine the gravitas the space might give you based on the virtual view. You can only feel that when you stand in that space, to determine that this is the grandeur, the sophistication, the emotion that you are looking to bring to your audience,” he said.

Khoo: virtual inspections of venues and destinations cannot be as detailed as in-person assessments

In-person assessments are especially crucial for complex business events, such as large conventions and incentive programmes that take in multiple experiences around the destination.

“These events typically require larger local tourism resources such as transportation, attractions, restaurants and manpower,” said Khoo.

Planners and clients are also able to feel the vibe of the destination by being there in person, added Sanjay. “Evaluating different aspects of the destination is a critical process because you want to bring people to a destination and have them think that they want to return,” he emphasised.

That said, Sanjay stated that even simple and “standard” meetings could benefit from an in-person inspection, as the event might require some hospitality segments.

“Imagine this: the client has a preference for rooftop cocktails after a meeting, and without actually checking out the hotel’s rooftop venue ahead of the event yourself, you may end up giving your guests a view of the city’s drainage system during the party,” he said.

With more governments lifting travel restrictions, event planners are eager to return to the in-person assessment process.

STB’s Koh has observed a “renewed demand for site inspections, especially for events that are scheduled for later this year, 2023 and beyond”.

“After two years of travel restrictions, we are aware that meeting planners are hungry to get back into face-to-face engagements since nothing can replace experiencing a destination in person. With the progressive reopening of borders and resumption of more international MICE tradeshows, we are also seeing interest from our stakeholders to attend and get back to business development efforts,” he added.

STB plans to attend major MICE tradeshows this year where the team and Singapore suppliers will engage their audience. With ITB Asia set to take place in Singapore later this year, Singapore will have a chance to showcase the destination to key decision-makers.

Truly, destination marketing has intensified in recent weeks, found Sanjay, evident in the “incredible” number of fam trip invites tied to upcoming tradeshows.

“Every tradeshow invite we get now is more than an offer of hosted buyer status; it comes with fam trips to many destinations. It is wonderful to see that our destination partners in Asia-Pacific are upping the ante on their marketing to bring business back,” he remarked.

However, with time always a limited resource, Sanjay said BCD would filter invites based on destinations where there is a planned or confirmed client event in 2022 or 2023, or where clients have expressed great interest in for future events.

Mix it up
It is unlikely that CVBs and business events suppliers will immediately replace virtual communications with in-person engagements, as some level of travel uncertainty remains.

Furthermore, TPB has found that communications through virtual means and digital platforms can match resources and suppliers beforehand, making an in-person site inspection or fam trip later on more efficient and focused, shared Velasco-Allones.

Sanjay believes that virtual site inspections and destination walk-throughs can continue to have a place in event planning, but destinations and suppliers must get creative.

“Most engagements (over the past two years) have been virtual or via direct marketing in the form of newsletters. It has been interesting to see over LinkedIn or other social media channels some very creative content from hotel salespeople. Some have shot videos of themselves doing a property walk-through. People have become entrepreneurial, and I love that they are not sending another boring brochure,” he said.

One video walk-through that stood out for Sanjay came from a sales director with a property in Macau. After introducing the property and reminding viewers of the warm welcome and fun experiences that await them, the sales director leapt excitedly into the swimming pool.

“I hope this creative engagement continues,” Sanjay remarked.

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