Thanks technology, but we need the human touch

Industry leaders at Marriott's recent APAC hybrid event discuss the path forward for meetings and business travel.

Business travel and events industry leaders gathered in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore at Marriott's first APAC hybrid event since Q1 2020.
Business travel and events industry leaders gathered in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore at Marriott's first APAC hybrid event since Q1 2020.

In a post-pandemic world flooded with myriad digital tools, technology is no longer the competitive edge, according to industry leaders at Marriott's first APAC hybrid event in Asia Pacific on 1 September.

Oscar Cerezales, Chief Strategy Officer at MCI Group noted the proliferation of event technology products at EventTech 800, which leaped 400% from last year.

"A year ago there were only 200 tech vendors. Eventually, we all get access to the same technology, so that's no longer a competitive advantage — our mind is," he said.

George P Johnson Singapore VP and MD Anna Patterson agreed: "The platform with which we deliver isn’t the most important thing; it is the human emotion and being engaged that is most important when we design [event] experiences.”

For example, Patterson and her team recently reworked a three-hour keynote presentation into a 30-minute cinematic documentary for a global client, where stakeholders shared how the company has transformed.

Shared experiences are the real enablers

Industry stalwart and former PCMA APAC MD, Karen Bolinger, led the hybrid panel discussion that connected Marriott hotels in the Gold Coast, Hong Kong and Singapore. Despite the seamless connection, she posed a question that continues to baffle event planners: What will it take to enable connection in an online environment?

Patterson explained that the past 18 months have highlighted the power of shared experiences and that "people don't want to be put into a room or breakout lounge".

Such experiences include 1-to-1 virtual meetings with a CEO, celebrity or industry thought leader — the focus being exclusive access.

Consistency is another important factor. Patterson explained that GPJ usually creates a series of 15- to 30-minute segments over a set period, allowing attendees to grow together for a networking experience that's added "far more ROI than we ever expected".

Primary factors for businesses, once travel restrictions lift.
Primary factors for businesses, once travel restrictions lift.

Business travel will return

In a live poll, attendees from nearly 10 countries including Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Japan, China and Fiji said that once restrictions ease travel budget is not a concern. Instead, a seamless customer experience (7.6%), vaccination success (16.7%) and government travel policies (30.3) top the list. Close to half (45.5) voted for all factors to be fulfilled.

Bloomberg LP APAC Travel Manager, Andy Winchester, said: "When we started talking to department heads in China and Australia, where travel has resumed, there was no hesitation in heading back to travel — people want to be out there meeting their customers.

"[Corporate customers are reassured] about hygiene practices that our preferred hotel partners have put in place but as we look to the future, we need to automate the travel process." For Winchester this includes "touchless" travel experiences both at the airport and in the hotel.

Another topic that has consistently been a factor for travel and event planners: sustainability.

"Now we are asking what more can we do to enable our travellers to be more efficient, more green and put choice in the hands of our travellers," noted Kenji Soh, executive director APAC travel at Goldman Sachs, which is already carbon neutral.

On top of apps to toggle hotel and flight options, “the industry needs to develop a way where we can choose from a list of preferred partners on how sustainable the choices will be," added Winchester.

While sustainability is seemingly taking a backseat for the events industry due to the temporary cessation of live events with built environments (exhibition booth, stages, etc.), Patterson noted that "we have a policy on this and people do ask, so this should accelerate when we resume face-to-face events".

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