Hong Kong’s MICE sector reacts to third wave with innovation

More than 75% of industry players report “extremely severe” business impact, with government funds not stretching far enough.

The Hong Kong Wedding Fair was held in May with social distancing and mask wearing measures, but since then events have been affected by the city’s third wave.
The Hong Kong Wedding Fair was held in May with social distancing and mask wearing measures, but since then events have been affected by the city’s third wave.

HONG KONG — the city's current social distancing restrictions are seeing MICE businesses suffer.

"Since January, almost all exhibitions and conventions scheduled to take place have not been held,” says Stuart Bailey, Chairman of Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association (HKECIA), painting a bleak picture.

“No events being held means that there has been zero cash generated by organisers, venues, and suppliers to the industry. For many of these companies their only source of income is derived from live events and they have no other means of doing business.”

Despite the government’s Anti-epidemic Fund, delivered in February and again April, of HK$30 billion and HK$137.5 billion respectively, the industry so reliant on international travellers remains in danger.

Meetings & Exhibitions Hong Kong (MEHK), the government arm of the industry in the city, declined to comment on the situation.

“As the local transmission cases of Covid-19 spiked from the 7th of July, our industry has continued to be adversely affected as more exhibitions and conferences have been cancelled or further postponed,” reported Bailey.

“The nature of the Scheme is devised to assist the exhibition and convention sector to rebuild following the pandemic, however it is becoming clear that the Scheme will not be sufficient to help the C&E industry to survive, given the length of time with no business events taking place.”

He cites the results of a recent survey among the association’s members about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses, with 76% replying “extremely severe”, 22% responding with “severe” and just 2% saying the impact had been “moderate”.

While the brief window of relaxation in May saw a few events happen, including the Hong Kong Wedding Fair (where precautions kept social distancing and mask wearing as priorities to keep attendees safe), one of the victims of the third wave was the recently cancelled annual four-day leisure and business/MICE travel event, ITE.

“Given the high fixed organising costs such as staff salaries and office rent – by July we have been spending for over a year to prepare for ITE2020 – the event would be a loss,” says K S Tong, managing director of TKS Exhibition Services Ltd.

“But we wanted to give a hand to those in the travel trade [who are] ready for an early recovery, so we tried as long as we could to keep ITE in 2020.”

He epitomised the frustration and uncertainty in the industry when he said,
“Before the third wave, people knew the recovery would take longer than expected, but it was a one-way street. Now, there is far greater uncertainty with many hurdles.

“When will the daily number of local infected cases stop growing? When will there be our first day with zero cases? When will there be a number of consecutive days of zero cases? Then, when will that be sufficient to relax restrictions similar to the level in May / June? This is terrible for any planner of events and exhibitions.”

Looking ahead

Between now and June 2021, when the next ITE event is now scheduled to take place, TKS is looking at creating an online marketing platform to help maintain and facilitate networking between sellers and buyers.

According to Natalie Ackerman, EVP of Greater China at Jack Morton Worldwide, “now is a critical time for brands to engage and connect with their audience. This is not a time for brands to go dark.”

For Ackerman, the key to survival is in creatively repacking event content for the current climate. “Live experience design is content rich and can be packaged and consumed in different ways, so it provides a lot to work with through the diverse technology platforms available today,” she says.

Of course everyone is missing the face-to-face engagement, which she calls a "compelling driver for human interaction and behaviour".

"Live will be back. But people also consume their information and interact using technology, so there are still many opportunities to tap into emerging technology, content and data to offer limitless creativity and scale. In Hong Kong, some brands are still erring on the side of caution when it comes to experiential. But when it’s done right, the results are truly compelling,” she adds.

One brand blending online and offline is Hyatt. The hotel brand has not only launched their Global MICE offer, adding flexibility of a complimentary postponement for all meetings in 2020, as well as exclusive value, but significantly they are working on a new model of hybrid event.

“Imagine a meeting of 200 participants that was planned in Berlin – but is now split into five smaller individual events all happening simultaneously in various Hyatt hotels, virtually connected with our global AV vendor PSAV/Encore,” says Charis Yim, executive assistant manger - sales & marketing of Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. "The idea to make a global meeting happen in various local set up is still very new, not only a solution under current travel restrictions, but also a sustainable alternative for a more environmentally mindful future.”

With the combination of innovation and the popularity of Hong Kong as a MICE hub in Asia, it is hoped the industry will recover — albeit slowly.

“Hong Kong enjoys a unique position and will continue to be a global exhibition hub for many years to come,” says Bailey.

“Given that the global pandemic is likely to affect international travel for many months to come, it looks likely that the rebound will take time, however we do expect steady improvements as restrictions ease and businesses return to what for many is their favourite city in the region. The timeline is difficult to predict, we hope that an effective vaccine can be found to speed up the recovery.”

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