7 min read
MICE players faced a new set of technological and managerial challenges over the past year as the pandemic brought their industry to a standstill. For companies such as Marina Bay Sands, The Next Web and Web in Travel, the process proved intense yet ultimately rewarding.
For event organisers, nothing can be worse than a health crisis forcing a mass cancellation of in-person gatherings. As meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions—a segment of corporate travel known as MICE—navigate new safety measures imposed by the pandemic, companies are boldly trying out new formats. From fully virtual to hybrid events, the scope for experimentation is wide but the terrain can be rough, as seen by the experiences of Marina Bay Sands (MBS), The Next Web (TNW) and Web in Travel (WiT).
The three companies organise and host major conferences in their respective markets and they have had a wild ride last year. In Amsterdam, TNW is known for its annual tech conference that often feels like a music festival whilst Singapore-based WiT runs conferences and bootcamps that focus on tech and travel. The award-winning Sands Expo and Convention Centre at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, meanwhile, has been home to numerous international exhibitions over the years. Each successfully swapped large halls for web servers thanks to a few guiding principles that streamlined workflow.
Two heads are better than one
When the pandemic first struck, each firm quickly organised their teams to problem-solve and test out various tech solutions. The goal was to figure out the most efficient way to virtualise some conferences and plan a hybrid model for others, which involves a physical audience and livestreaming. Adopting a strategy of trial-and-error is hard to pull off during times of crisis but each company believes it’s essential.
“The best form of boosting morale is to keep busy as a team with meaningful work, to keep testing, to keep mixing it up, to keep having fun and to have everyone’s back,” said Yeoh Siew Hoon, founder of WiT, which hosted Singapore’s first travel pilot hybrid — a four-day long conference called WiT Experience Week — in September last year. Her team underwent a rigorous process of experimentation when choosing the right tech platform. In the end, they chose a customised platform with three local firms (GEVME, Jublia and Pigeonhole Live) “because we wanted to demonstrate what Singapore tech companies are doing to innovate at this time,” said Yeoh. The feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive — WiT Experience Week attracted 500 virtual attendees from 28 countries and 40 delegates attending in-person.
TNW experienced a similar situation as it prepared to host five virtual events called "Couch Conferences". At that time, the firm was deciding whether to build the necessary tech to go virtual or simply go with software available in the market. To answer that question, “we had a team of five people and we did demos every day, maybe five demos a day per person,” explained TNW Co-founder Patrick de Laive. After exploring as much as possible, TNW went with an existing software platform but they enriched that experience with in-house built software for registration, de Laive noted. That decision paid off— the TNW2020 conference attracted over 13,000 attendees, more than 120,000 sponsor-led interactions and over 820,000 website visits.
MBS also experienced an extensive brainstorming process when building a hybrid broadcast studio that officially launched earlier in August. During the research stage, the team not only examined trends within the MICE industry but also parallel sectors such as live news, e-gaming and sports broadcasts, said Ong Wee Min, Vice President of Conventions and Exhibitions at MBS. Incredibly, the studio was built in just seven days, said Ong.
It’s never too early to think ahead
For most industry players, the prospect of going virtual was a shock to the system. But TNW and MBS weren’t caught off guard thanks to forward thinking.
Well before COVID-19, MBS was already conceptualising the design and build of a hybrid broadcast studio, said Ong. “It was envisaged to serve as a key channel for our industry to transcend physical distances in what is essentially a face-to-face industry,” he explained. That’s testament to the MBS mandate of serving clients, he noted: “Customer-centricity is at the core of what Marina Bay Sands does, and we have always taken a more proactive approach towards engaging our clients ...While the pandemic has underscored the importance of adaptability, flexibility and creativity in responding to the evolving situation, we have always instilled a culture of innovation at Marina Bay Sands.”
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, TNW first decided to explore the idea of virtual tech three years ago. Back then, “the question was how to scale events,” but there was no appetite for going virtual due to the more appealing option of in-person events, de Laive noted. Still, that thinking three years ago has “helped us now,” he said. It also helped that the TNW team is digitally skilled, he noted.
Crisis leadership is tough
No executive can claim to have all the answers. During a time-sensitive crisis, leaders have to be honest with their team even if it causes uncertainty in the short-term.
“I probably have become even more impatient because a crisis means you have to move fast and be really agile, and it takes a while for people to switch from comfort zone to discomfort,” said Yeoh. For example, she described how her team had just three weeks to deliver after being given the green light to go hybrid. “At that speed, you need humans to speak to each other, across teams, across disciplines … We have all gotten used to working in silos. We all knew our lanes, what we were good at and how to get there individually. But with this, we couldn’t have silos. Everyone needed to look up and sideways.”
Open channels of communication is also critical for a healthy boss-employee relationship.
“Clear communication, being open to new ideas, being decisive in times of crisis are good reminders for leaders,” said Ong. “Being open and honest with my team on the realities of the situation through timely updates allows me to maintain team cohesiveness during this difficult time.”
“Transparency within your team is very important,” echoed de Laive. “We shared all the numbers on how our company is doing and how we were hit by the pandemic. Being that transparent helps, but it also raises a lot of questions within the team.” Still, it’s important for companies to honestly answer those queries, he said. De Laive admitted that he wouldn’t be a leader without the help of his managers. “What I noticed is that I personally don't have all the leadership qualities that one should have, but luckily I have a very good management team who did a great job.”
Bracing for the future of MICE
As industry players strap themselves in for a bumpy ride ahead, they are focusing their efforts on developing a flexible team to deal with future road bumps.
It’s imperative to equip staff “with the necessary knowledge and know-how,” said Ong of MBS. “The most important thing is the time and the willingness to invest in people, especially in a climate like this,” he commented. For example, MBS’ Hybrid Broadcast Studio would have been useless without “any talents to run it or to engage our clients and our partners in the right discussions,” he noted. To seize opportunities, employees must be prepared and it’s in that spirit that MBS has sent its MICE team for digital event strategist accreditation. That will enable them “to lead our clients and stakeholders in conversations of the future,” Ong said.
Adaptability is everything, echoed Yeoh. Her team didn’t have time for formal training when new tech tools were introduced for WiT Experience Week so everyone had to learn on-the-job, she noted. “I am extremely proud how each and everyone of them adapted and picked up new skills that will be super valuable to them going forward.”
As players try out new ways to connect audiences with speakers, the MICE sector is ripe for further innovation. Going forward, Yeoh at WiT believes every physical event will have a virtual element, but not necessarily vice-versa. “The question we are asking is, what kind of experiences do we want to create, what kind of content do we want to deliver, what will make the biggest difference to our community at any particular moment in time?” Ultimately, it’s not about the tech but “the talent, the ideas and imagination as to where the new world of events could take us,” she said. “From where I’m sitting, the journey’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Ensuring your company’s talent matches its technology is also key, added Ong from MBS. “The MICE industry is built on three needs: the need to transact knowledge, the need to transact business, and the need to transact networks,” he summarised.
Over in Amsterdam, TNW advises keeping a flexible mindset. “Going forward, I don't think we will livestream everything we do in person,” said de Laive. “For our flagship events, I do think there will be a hybrid model but, for smaller events, I think we will have to make a choice. Whatever the purpose of our event or the experience is, that's going to decide whether we go virtual or in-person.” The industry will be especially motivated to create great attendee experiences since the market may get fatigued with digital events, he added.
Special thanks to Marina Bay Sands, The Next Web, and Web in Travel for their support and contributions to the development of this story.
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