Lion city roars back to life

Singapore’s business events community has spent the last two years preparing for recovery, and efforts are paying off with a buzzing calendar of international events for 2022 and beyond.

Careful efforts to bring back large-scale events safely amid a pandemic have earned Singapore a vote of confidence from many an event owner, paving the way for a strong return of international business gatherings.

High-profile pilot events that put Singapore’s Covid-safe protocols to the test were instrumental in the city’s success story, and they include Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Milken Institute Asia Summit, and the 50th St Gallen Symposium.

Singapore International Water Week 2022 enjoyed busy show grounds

That sterling track record, along with several positive factors, such as streamlined Covid-19 safe measures for travel and events as well as returning flight capacity, has led Poh Chi Chuan, executive director, exhibitions & conferences with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), to find recovery swifter than expected.

In fact, Poh expects a full recovery of Singapore’s business events performance in two to three years.

“We have had an encouraging start to 2022, welcoming more than 150 events attended by over 37,000 event delegates in the first three months. To date, at least 66 international events have been lined up for the rest of 2022, with many more event organisers in the advanced stages of confirming Singapore as a destination for their events.

“This is a clear reflection of event organisers’ trust in our vibrant business culture, stable governance, and excellent infrastructure,” remarked Poh.

Notable events held so far include the Singapore Airshow 2022 in February; Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore in April; TFWA Asia Pacific Live in May; and Global Health Security Conference 2022 in June. Coming up in the remaining months are Milken Institute Asia Summit 2022 in September and Singapore Fintech Festival in November.

At Constellar, which develops its own events and manages Singapore Expo and Max Atria, confirmed venue bookings are at 60 per cent of pre-Covid levels in 2019 for 2H2022 alone.

Sands Expo and Convention Centre is also seeing busy months this year, carrying on from an active 2021 when it hosted over 870 events.

It is not just the mega venues that are celebrating the business rebound; business hotels with function spaces are singing too.

Since opening in February this year, Hilton Singapore Orchard, which boasts 16 event venues, has hosted many residential meetings and corporate socials. General manager Cedric Nubul revealed that these are performing 60 per cent above expectations.

“We expect to continue seeing a ramp up of large events almost every month with the easing of social distancing and travel restrictions,” he said.

Indeed, Singapore is on a roll, evident in the “huge increase in requests for site inspections by event organisers to visit Singapore to prepare for upcoming events,” revealed Poh.

As large events make a comeback, STB’s chief executive Keith Tan emphasised that the value of these gatherings be appreciated based on thought leadership, breadth and range of the companies represented, and their outcome, instead of the attendee count.

“Business events, especially high-quality ones, bring companies from around the world to Singapore, creating a marketplace for Singapore’s own companies that would not exist otherwise. Our MICE strategies do not just serve tourism outcomes, but also larger economic outcomes, placing Singapore at the heart of business flows. (These would be) flow of ideas and talents,” he detailed.

For example, the Singapore Airshow brings world aviation leaders and players together, providing a platform for the exchange of ideas and strategies to advance the interests of the global aerospace and defence industry. It also reinforces the city-state’s stature as a trusted aerospace and aviation hub.

Similarly, the Singapore FinTech Festival, which draws fintech innovators, technopreneurs, policymakers, financial industry leaders, investors and academics from around the world, enables an exchange of ideas for a more financially inclusive and sustainable world and boosts Singapore’s reputation as a global fintech hub.

Tan told TTGmice that attention is on events that complement Singapore’s strengths and are aligned with economic strategies and critical sectors, such as sustainability, urban solutions, food security, energy security, fintech and advanced manufacturing.

To do that, STB works with various government agencies to attract relevant industry associations to be headquartered in the city-state. The presence of these professional headquarters “creates critical mass and ideas in these areas”.

Amid bullish business sentiments lie recognition of obstacles in the city-state’s road to recovery. These include an absent market giant China, labour crunch, and short booking lead times.

When asked how big of a shadow does an absent China cast over Singapore, which is looking to grow her position as the global-Asia node for business tourism, Richard Ireland, CEO of Clarion Events Asia, said: “China and Hong Kong are in the top 10 source markets for MICE in Singapore, so any absence will be felt. However, there are also very strong source markets that are fully open, be they in South-east Asia, India, Australia, Europe or the US. And these markets (are eager) to come to Singapore (to do business).”

In response to the same question, Poh said Singapore attracts event attendees that are keen to do business with the whole of Asia and the rest of the world.

While STB does not expect a major uptick in Chinese business travel arrivals in the immediate term, Poh said China remains an important visitor source market for Singapore.

“To prepare for the eventual resumption of travel from China, we have continued with our MICE marketing efforts to build affinity for Singapore and maintain destination mindshare among Chinese event organisers and potential event attendees,” he added.

Meanwhile, the labour intensive nature of the events industry presents a talent challenge as business gains pace. Cognisant of this long-standing issue that has only intensified during the pandemic, STB has programmes with partners like the National Trades Union Congress to facilitate job matching for job seekers to get them back into the industry.

Ong Wee Min, vice president of sales and MICE, Marina Bay Sands (MBS), said: “The imbalance between market demand and supply for the same pool of workers, especially in F&B, and changing mindsets (of talents) due to Covid-19 have all contributed to the manpower issue.

“We have been actively hiring even before the pandemic, and we continue to do so today, especially for our key service departments such as hotel operations, F&B and security, as well as functions under corporate, meetings and attractions. We also continue to invest in our team members through upskilling so that they have the relevant skillsets for our industry today and in the future.”

MBS’ business events team is now armed with a Digital Event Strategist certification, allowing them to cope with an increasingly digital workplace.

Short lead times and a very cautious booking stance are other common laments among Singapore venue operators.

Ang Chee Chiang, senior vice president, centre management, Constellar, elaborated: “We’ve seen a significant increase in enquiries and demand for venue space since restrictions were lifted in April 2022, (but) event organisers and exhibitors are still taking a cautious approach for the rest of 2022 as they have a shorter runway to organise and increase event take-up rate while (considering) resource challenges such as inventory and manpower.”

With changes to travel and health regulations still a possibility, event organisers targeting an international audience have chosen to commit only to minimal space requirements in their venue bookings, with additional space on standby to enable capacity adjustments closer to the event, shared Ang.