By Ananya Mukherjee

It is estimated that close to 6000 business events are held in Singapore each year. Despite an unpredictable global economic swing, the MICE industry in Singapore has proved its resilience over the last few years. With the recent opening of the two Integrated Resorts, the industry is further witnessing an accelerated and robust growth.

Noteworthy, Singapore expects to draw 17 million visitor arrivals by 2015. This exponential growth also fuels a very high demand for the hospitality industry and complements other services sectors such as event organisers, travel agents and retailers. Overall, it is boom time for the MICE industry, but not without concerns and talent challenges on the way.

Manpower Crunch
As the economy continues to strengthen, more movements across the board can be seen, leading to a shortage of skills in the service sector. This is further coupled with the fact that everyone in the MICE industry is actually competing for the same pool of talent like its counterparts in the F&B, hospitality, retail and service sectors. Market watchers warn that the search for the right talent will further intensify in the near future. Whilst the best way forward will be to revisit the hiring strategies, training and developing the existing talent will move business upward to the next level of high performance and greater productivity.

Organisations like Singex are casting out their nets further and wider beyond just the event and MICE industry. “We’ve also realigned our recruitment practices to ensure they are dynamic enough for us to act quickly and acquire top talent. Internally, we strive to offer clear, long-term career paths and development opportunities to retain our existing talent,” Aloysius Arlando, Chief Executive Officer, Singex Group, shares.

Naturally, to grapple with the war for talent, many gaps have to be bridged. An emphasis on training and development of existing manpower becomes mandatory in this case. MICE industry players must continuously educate and train its current workforce for the professional development and up-gradation of relevant skill-sets. “Together as an industry, we need to focus on raising the standards of service professionalism and widening the knowledge base through ongoing education and (greater) recognition of the service profession,” Bibiana Lau, Director of Sales, Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, outlines.

Changing demographics, higher expectations
Interesting to note, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Asia was the strongest growing region in 2010. This growth, as Paul Stocker, VP, MICE Sales and Event Services, Resort World Sentosa, observes, is expected to continue through as the quick recovery of the Asian economies (coupled with the rise of the middle-class) will spur a more sophisticated, savvy and affluent group of business and leisure travellers – pushing the demand for higher consumer spending and more luxurious service offerings. Going forward, the industry will also see a greater cross-section of delegates, from across all sectors and all levels across a broader spectrum.

The last two years have seen revenue stream making a remarkable recovery in the MICE industry, but service providers must avoid taking the figures for granted. The challenge now is to offer additional value-added services, instead of just providing a meeting space. “MICE groups need to leave with a positive experience. We have to make sure our operations and sales managers are always around to fulfil the needs of our customers to their satisfaction. We need to exceed their expectations in terms of service experience. Looking ahead, there will be a need to provide additional staff who can and will offer these exceptional experience to our discerning MICE delegates,” Thomas Ng, Director of Sales, Orchid Country Club, points out.

Beyond this, the MICE industry also needs to seek continued breakthroughs in organising events which are unique and out-of-the-box. It is all about making a lasting impression for every guest, to create a truly unforgettable experience, Stocker highlights. It is clear that a younger generation of tech-savvy business travellers are expecting more out of each event. For example, social media is becoming increasingly important as both a medium of communication and gathering of information. “In this vein, we launched YourSingapore, a destination brand designed to specifically leverage the digital play field, and enabling a more holistic approach to customer engagement to be taken. The platforms include search engine marketing, mobile and social media interaction and travel e-commerce,” Melissa Ow,Assistant Chief Executive, Industry Development Group II, Singapore Tourism Board (STB), shares.

Exclusivity such as these will further drive the MICE dollars of Asia into Singapore. Needless to say, if effectively aided by the Singapore Tourism Board, the industry and its supporting service enterprises such as professional exhibition organisers, professional conference organisers, destination management companies, venues, logistics and freight firms and event management companies will all reap the benefits of a phenomenal growth.

HR’s check list
When HR knows what it is seeking, it is easier to align its requirements with facilities that vendors can offer. That alignment is not only desirable, but essential. For instance, Suntec Singapore currently hosts an average of 1000 corporate meetings and seminars annually. To tend to this clientele, it is important to understand their needs, admits Lau. “Typically, we know that most companies do not have a dedicated meeting planner. Depending on the function of the organisation, this role is usually handled by administrative personnel. These are often busy professionals who have other work priorities and little time. As such, our dedicated meeting specialists are trained to meet the needs of these organisers,” she says.

Nonetheless the onus of a successful conference lies with HR. So what must HR look for when selecting a MICE venue? “Organisers need to look out for the 3 Cs and 1 E – Capacity, Configuration, Capabilities and Experience,” Arlando from Singex points out.

-Capacity refers to the amount of space you require for your event, dependant on the number of attendees and scale of event.

-Configuration is the next consideration. Events are now more multi-faceted hybrid ones so spaces need to be versatile for various formats and layouts, for example, a conference within a tradeshow, a gala banquet after a congress, or a product launch followed by seminars.

-Capabilities come next. No event is complete without audio-visual, lighting and technical support. Technology at a venue plays a pivotal role in improving the overall event experience. Organisers are also looking at fixtures such as intelligent lighting to augment the look and feel of a product launch, sophisticated projection capabilities to improve presentations at a conference, and video conferencing technologies to support concurrent e-seminars.

-Experience is the last word. Organisers and participants alike are seeking that one memorable experience.

“HR would be looking for a venue that will cater to their varied needs, comprising various facets of work and play – from holding seminars to team-building activities, and not to forget, the partying when all work is done,” says Stocker. It is thus critical for them to find a venue that can offer the wide-range of facilities and service, giving the options of choice to their guests.

-Site selection: Make sure you have checked location and accessibility, including the venue’s proximity to the airport, subways etc. Ensure that there is adequate meeting, registration and exhibit space for your event.

-Budget: Many service providers may ask organisations to make a substantial deposit before the event takes place. Pay close attention to the contract and also study the cancellation clauses carefully. Be sure to allow your organisation the right to cancel an event with minimal cost damage. Review records from previous meetings and compare budget with actual cost. Identify major discrepancies.

-Feedback and review: Ask for references, check reviews with organisations that have utilised these MICE venues.

-Focused and experienced personnel: Having a team that is focused on your event as well as the ability of the venue to cater to the needs of the group is important. Also having a team that is constantly monitoring the meetings/events and steps in to anticipate the needs of the client is desirable. It is vital to have an efficient, reliable, experienced and dedicated team that is willing to go the extra mile — a team that has a great deal of experience in handling events of various nature and are familiar with the intricate requirements, event logistics and how to manage them successfully.

-Exhibit Hall functions: Make the exhibit hall an informative, interactive place to conduct business and market your brand.
Arrange for non-conflicting exclusive time in the exhibit hall that does cont conflict with your conference programme.

-Be visible: As the main point of contact it is important for you to visit all your exhibitors.

-Thank You Notes: Send thank you letters to all exhibitors and sponsors. It is an easy way to promote next year’s conference too.

Added Value
While the economy has largely recovered, budgets have remained relatively stable. Rather than just competitive prices, organisers are now focused on the value-added services and customised solutions a venue partner can offer, so as to enhance the overall event experience for their end-users. “We still see our clients taking a prudent approach — with an increasing emphasis on value-for-money product offerings, flexibility, creativity and personalised services, Lau from Suntec highlights.

Clearly, organisers are still cautious and mindful of their budgets, noting not only the recent financial melt-down but also rising costs and discerning consumers on the look-out for quality platforms. With Asians growing in affluence and spending more, it is vital that MICE industry providers understand the consumers in order to create an increased value. For instance, as part of its strategy to boost the value provided to visitors, and in line with the strategic clustering approach, STB has launched TravelRave in 2010. Fashioned as a mega travel and tourism festival, TravelRave in Ow’s words, creates “a value proposition not found elsewhere in the world, offering delegates opportunities to network with like-minded business partners from the entire spectrum of the travel and tourism industry within a compact period”.

But there are hiccups…..
-Long lead time: It is a common practice for an exhibition organiser to book the MICE venue at least 1.5 to 2 years in advance. Whilst MICE organisers claim that such a long lead time is necessary for a variety of reasons including tight bookings in certain months of the year or peak seasons, it is often difficult for HR to zero on a specific date, book and confirm well ahead of the actual event.

-Strengthening of SGD: The strengthening of the Singapore dollar against long haul markets like Europe and the America will make Singapore a more expensive city to host events and visits in the future.