Inside Singapore’s first hybrid trade show pilot

Nasal swabs, QR codes and lots of signage — what it's like to attend a physical trade show in the era of Covid-19.

After nine months, the day has finally arrived. Time to dust off the blazer, polish my shoes and hit the road — these were my initial thoughts last week as I prepared for TravelRevive, the first international travel trade show in Asia Pacific since the coronavirus pandemic.

I was one of 1,000 delegates on-site at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre for the pilot event (25-26 November), which trialled a new hybrid trade show format, safe itineraries, and new digital solutions for crowd control and contact tracing. Sixty-five international visitors from 14 countries also took part in the two-day experiment.

It was exciting to see so many familiar faces (some with a few more grey hairs) and to return to an old stomping ground, albeit with a few new hoops to jump through. 


A joint initiative of the Singapore Tourism Board and ITB Asia, the event featured all the safety measures that we’ve become accustomed to in the last few months — mandatory mask wearing, hand sanitiser dispensers at every corner, and QR codes to scan upon entry and exit. But a few new ideas were also put to the test:

• Staggered registration and entry into the trade show. Motion-sensing and body heat cameras were installed upon entry while queue stands, and heavy signage created clear entry and exit paths. Felt like an airport, so not unfamiliar territory.

• Crowd density control and grouping attendees into cohorts of up to 50 people.

TR showfloor
With 10sqm per delegate, there was plenty of room to move on the show floor.

• 18sqm booths were complemented with 9sqm meeting pods fitted with plexiglass to facilitate safe one-to-one meetings between exhibitors and buyers. Only two people were allowed in both the booths and meeting pods at any one time. Thirty-minute pod meetings were pre-booked via a mobile app.

• Mandatory use of Singapore’s TraceTogether app and a 'MICE Pod' token to facilitate contact tracing for all local and international visitors. Data collected from the MICE Pod, largely focused on monitoring group sizes, will be analysed to help improve future trials.

• On-site antigen rapid tests (ARTs) were conducted for all international visitors and some local attendees. Four dedicated testing rooms allowed 12 concurrent tests to take place. Immediately after testing, delegates were led to a holding area, arranged according to cohorts, to await test results delivered via text message. ART results are only valid for 24 hours, so international visitors were tested each day. Some noted discomfort and irritation, but were happy to comply for the sake of the experiment — and the events industry.

TR testing
Antigen Rapid Testing was efficient and painless.

• Safe itineraries for international visitors. These included virtual tours, private museum site visits, a Vespa ride around Kampong Glam, and  a guided site visit to a Kelong (an offshore wooden platform used primarily for fish farming).

• Safe Travel Concierge: Developed by Changi Airport Group, this online tool (working prototype) provided a visitors with a customised travel checklist of pre-entry requirements — outlining the need to fulfil a SafeTravel Pass application prior to arrival, and swab tests conducted at the airport.

Speaking at the event, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry, Chan Chun Sing, said the industry cant afford to wait for a vaccine and should focus on managing risk, rather than eliminating it.

My SMF X MICE Connect fireside chat highlighted an eagerness to collaborate and share learnings among regional and global associations.
My SMF X MICE Connect fireside chat highlighted an eagerness to collaborate and share learnings among regional and global associations.

Biggest takeaway

Controlled experiments, like TravelRevive, are necessary to understand how best to manage risk and build market confidence. This two-day event was an excellent step forward, with Singapore leading the charge to embrace testing over quarantine. Even Hosea Andreas Runkat, chairman of Asperapi (the Indonesia Exhibition Companies Association), who flew in from Jakarta, said he made the trip “to show people back home it can be done”.

Biggest win

On-site antigen rapid testing was efficient and (relatively) pain free. Testing took less than five minutes, and I only waited 20 mins to receive my test results via text. With the right venue, it’s easy to see how such testing could be scaled up for larger events. 

A red army of Safe Distancing Ambassadors were ready to intercept unlawful intermingling at any moment.

Biggest hurdle

Crowd control proved difficult — not for lack of trying, there were plenty of minders and Safe Distancing Ambassadors dispatched across the venue — but after so many months of virtual meetings, a roped barrier did little to stop industry colleagues ‘intermingling’ between cohorts. For the sake of the experiment, most people were on their best behaviour, but as a general observation, people don’t like being told what to do, and don’t always adhere to allotted entry and exit times. This is simply human nature, and moving forward, must form part of an event organiser’s risk management strategy. Expect delegates to disobey.

Final verdict

Everyone appreciated the bold step to put ideas into action and trial new formats, but many still questioned the feasibility of an exhibition with such strict capacity limits (10sqm per person) and where exhibitors have to wait for various cohorts to enter and exit the space.

Between meetings, networking was severely limited and visitors were made to sit, one metre apart, in a waiting area if they had a break between meetings. Such a controlled environment is made for the strict purpose of transacting business, so the days of attending a trade show or conference to “catch-up” with industry friends may well be over, especially when the digital pivot has been so fervently embraced.

Industry applauded Singapore's move to experiment, but only time will tell whether the model will prove financially viable. For now, we continue to experiment.