Trade Shows and EventsTesting protocols need to be fixed while both wait for vaccine to work its "game-changing" effects.

Events and travel: We're all in the same boat

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David Blansfield (centre) and Vivek Kumar Neb, managing director, Grail Insights (right), with moderator Lauren Arena, editor, M&C Asia. Blansfield shared his experience travelling from the US to Singapore.
David Blansfield (centre) and Vivek Kumar Neb, managing director, Grail Insights (right), with moderator Lauren Arena, editor, M&C Asia. Blansfield shared his experience travelling from the US to Singapore. Photo Credit: Siew Hoon Yeoh

Singapore showed its determination to bring back life to its business events sector this week when it played “Global Broadcast Centre” and hosted “Main Stage”, the physical component of PCMA Convening Leaders 2021, at Marina Bay Sands.

For those not in the events industry, PCMA stands for Professional Convention Management Association, and its global flagship conference is considered the event for the events industry and so the stakes were high for both the association, destination and venue to put their best foot forward.

The event went omni-channel and you almost have to be an airline pilot to navigate through the programme, which was spread over five days, with content distributed across different time zones and tracks and some content streamed live, some on-demand.

A sign of the times as the events industry tries to get back on its feet, with travel in its wake. One feeds the other, one needs the other. And it is striking in Covid times how their fortunes and trends are increasingly intertwined.

Here’s what I learned and how the lessons tie back to travel.

On-site Antigen Rapid Testing was carefully managed.
On-site Antigen Rapid Testing was carefully managed. Photo Credit: Lauren Arena

Fix testing protocols and facilitate for compliance, otherwise cross-border travel can’t happen

For Singapore, this was the first physical event that went over 250 pax – it had seven zones of 50 people each – and, in a breakthrough, featured a live opening performance of three socially-distanced artists. All the safety and hygiene protocols were in place and this, being my third physical event since Covid struck, I knew the drill.

Register, get zoned, get ART (Antigen Rapid Test), wait in holding room, check mobile for results and voila, free to move within limits – you cannot co-mingle across different zones. Singapore has got this new process down to a fine art.

What is far from being a fine art though is testing protocols around cross-border travel – what’s required by different countries, different airlines – and unless that confusion is sorted out, it will be very challenging for any form of travel to restart and for any event in Singapore to have international delegates.

Take the example of my colleague, David Blansfield, executive vice president & group publisher, Northstar Meetings Group, who flew in from the US as a speaker in an STB “bubble”. Sharing his experience on stage, he said that first, finding the right test that was required and getting the appointment to facilitate the timing needed (72 hours before arrival) and getting the right report on time was confusing and time-consuming. He got his test result about two hours before he was due to leave for the airport.

There was also the issue of “wording discrepancies” between what STB required and what the lab provided, and he had to wait another half hour to get clearance.

“Lack of standardisation about what kind of test is required, when they need to be timed so you get the results in time for your trip, getting the appointment (really tough now with demand so high) and how the results are reported is a major hassle. Add on top of that airlines charging premiums in exchange for waiving change fees and you see how travellers might be daunted and not want to hassle with it,” he said.

In the end, he made it but you’ve got to ask, unless it’s really essential, who’d want to travel with such uncertainty and hassle?

“It really points out that if testing protocols are critical to recovery, the industry needs to get its act together and facilitate compliance in a coordinated fashion,” said Blansfield.

Vaccines are game changers, next few weeks will be critical

At the conference, Dr Paul Tambyah, president-elect of the International Society of Infectious Diseases and Prof Peter Doherty, Nobel Laureate professor, patron of the Doherty Institute declared the vaccines “game changers” not only for what they can do now, but what it could mean for the handling of future pandemics.

Prof Doherty said it’s a game changer for influenza as well – “we never make enough of them (vaccines)” – and Dr Tambyah shared a chart which showed influenza had all but disappeared in Australia.

He said there is good evidence of “lasting immunity” while Prof Doherty was more concerned about the “pandemic of misinformation”. And his advice to us in industry, whether travel or events, is “get good information out, your industry can do it, we all have to fight this trend coming through the Internet”.

Both agreed that one positive is the pandemic has restored confidence in professional expertise. Dr Tambyah said, “The nice thing about infectious diseases is we get the answer. The next few weeks will be critical. They have rolled out vaccine to 10-20% of people in Middle East already and if infections drop, people will be queuing up for it. With cancer drugs, you have to wait 10 years, with this, it’s a matter of weeks.”

Dr Paul Tambyah, Prof Peter Doherty and moderator Nikki Muller in talk about vaccines.
Dr Paul Tambyah, Prof Peter Doherty and moderator Nikki Muller in talk about vaccines. Photo Credit: Lauren Arena

APAC more optimistic about rebound in corporate travel

As for “The Future of Meetings and Corporate Events in the Year Ahead”, Vivek Kumar Neb, managing director, Grail Insights, believes that the rate of recovery depends on cultures which is linked to psychological disposition based around three factors – risk, trust and need to travel.

“It is accepted that the vaccines are a confidence booster, and how corporations and individuals act on it will depend on these three variables and it will vary from region to region.”

In the US, he commented, business is more structured while in Asia, it’s driven by growth and inter-market acquisitions. “If you don’t meet someone in Asia, that trust is diluted. So the level of optimism is different in Asia versus Europe and the US,” he said.

Citing a survey done by CNBC Asia in the fourth quarter of last year around travel budgets, he said, 50% in APAC believed budgets would come back this year to pre-Covid level compared with 26% in the US and 10% in Europe.

As for employees coming back to the office to work, 60% of executives in Asia believed that they’d be back by mid-year compared to 30% in US and Europe, and a further 50% of executives in US and Europe said employees would work remotely and won’t return.

PCMA delegates were free to network and move within limits – you cannot co-mingle across different zones.
PCMA delegates were free to network and move within limits – you cannot co-mingle across different zones. Photo Credit: Lauren Arena


Events, like travel, will go local and micro

What I also found interesting is that just as travel has gotten localised and micro, so will the events sector, both at the organisation level and the events they organise.

A sign of the times as the events industry tries to get back on its feet, with travel in its wake. One feeds the other, one needs the other.

On my panel about associations and how they have to evolve, Tommy Goodwin, CEO of Washington-based Miller Wenhold Association Management said global associations, who were most exposed, have to adapt to “establish a truly global presence with “boots on the ground” in strategic markets/regions around the world”.

“Think about where we are today: the situation is much different across the Global Association Hubs: Dubai and Singapore (250-person events, travel bubbles, etc) vs Brussels (lockdown) and Washington, DC (gatherings limited to 10).”

This means the ability to have “multiple different models” – think more micro events at the local level, and regional events where possible, minus the large global gatherings BC (Before Covid). What this means is opportunities for local, nimble suppliers and venues to tap into the fragmentation of the sector.

The “platform-isation” of everything, including Singapore

Another connecting thread I discerned is how everything is moving towards being a platform. Author Thomas Friedman, in his opening talk, said employers have to become platforms to provide lifelong, in-time learning for their workforce while Keith Tan, CEO of Singapore Tourism Board, shared Singapore’s ambition to be a platform as well.

Outlining Singapore’s aspirations, Tan cited three labels by which it wants to known.

• A standards centre, to set new stands to aspire to, for example, sustainability and its goal to reposition itself as a sustainable urban destination

• A convenor – to convene, and bring different companies and countries together

• A platform – “we are in a vibrant, growing part of the world, with great companies and thinkers, and there is an opportunity to bring their ideas and products to reach the whole world”.

Goodwin sees destinations as “Intellectual Capitals”, attracting knowledge, investment, and talent in key industries and clusters. The World Economic Forum coming to Singapore in May is an example.

Other examples are Copenhagen, clean tech; Houston, medical; and Boston, life sciences. “Going forward, working together, associations and destinations can collaboratively create platforms (including events) to catalyse global cooperation, connection, collaboration, and understanding at a time when globalisation is backsliding,” said Goodwin.

Of course, it was the tech giants who invented the “platform” to distribute everything from goods and services, to data – and titans like Amazon, Google and Facebook have more people using them than live in Singapore.

As I listened to two days’ worth of discussions at this event about events, the oft-used quote by science fiction author, William Gibson, came to mind. “The future is already here but it’s not evenly distributed.”

It seems Covid has brought the future closer and AC (After Covid) we will see distributed workforces, distributed content, distributed learning, distributed events… except wealth, I guess.

Source: Web in Travel

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