The local MICE sector looks for business opportunities in Mainland China and online, as international and regional meetings and exhibitions are expected to remain postponed or delayed this year
What happens to Global Gaming Expo (G2E) Asia, one of the major casino industry trade shows and conferences, is a good example to illustrate the predicament of hosting a regional – and international -level MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions) event in the city amid the COVID-19 pandemic: after three false starts before cancellation last year, the 2021 edition of the show has once again been pushed back from May to August because strict travel restrictions in place have made it impossible for exhibitors and visitors abroad to be present in the city.
With no end in sight at the moment as to when these curtailments will be lifted, the local MICE sector, one of the industries that is groomed to help the economic diversification of the city away from gaming, continues to look for solutions across the border and in the virtual world.
Lo Wang Chun, president of the Macau Federal Commercial Association Of Convention & Exhibition Industry, notes that like other industries the sector could not stay unscathed in this unprecedented public health crisis; for instance, the MICE business of his company plunged 70 percent last year owing to the cancellation of numerous events. “It’s still too early to talk about holding international MICE events this year,” he notes.
“As the pandemic now continues to persist, there are still many hurdles for carrying out international economic activities,” he reasons. “Though the vaccination plan has been rolled out here in this [the first] quarter, other countries and regions might have different timetables… [meaning] it still takes time for the prevalence of COVID-19 vaccination.”
Latest official figures indicated only 362 MICE events were held last year, plunging 76.4 percent from the same period a year earlier, while the number of attendees also dropped 54.6 percent year-on-year to 914,000. The tally of MICE events hit a trough in the second quarter of 2020 with 38 events, the lowest on record since such data became available in 2009, before rebounding to 147 events in the October-December period given the signs of stabilisation of the pandemic situation citywide and nationwide. The number of participants in the fourth quarter of 2020 also recovered to 515,000 from merely 22,000 in the second quarter.
With the start of the return of more mainland Chinese visitors since last September, when the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) to Macau was reinstalled across the nation, exhibitions and conferences targeting the local and mainland markets have become the supporting pillars of the sector. The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area is a particular focus this year at least for Mr. Lo’s group. “Our association plans to set up a Greater Bay Area taskforce for members to share their resources in the region to explore the Bay Area market together,” the president says, illustrating the association will host a wedding tourism forum in the city by the end of April to target the chambers and enterprise of the sector in the region.
The authorities also want to push for close integration and cooperation between the local MICE industry and the mainland counterparts. In a meeting with local MICE representatives held earlier this year, Secretary for Economy and Finance Lei Wai Nong noted that while the administration hopes more international large-scale MICE events could be held in the territory it would also facilitate more exchanges between the industry players in Macau and the Greater Bay Area for new business opportunities.
Concerning regional cooperation, Keyvin Bi Chi Kin has recently remarked the local sector has come up with the format of one event in two places; for example, the first two days of a four-day event could take place in Hengin first before coming to Macau for the last two days. “As the government encourages the local industry to explore other markets… it should lay down more incentives for these types of events,” the managing director of China-Macau Resources Advertising & Exhibition Co Ltd adds.
Following the government’s proposal of prioritising meetings as a principle in the development of the MICE industry in 2016, more international-level meetings had taken place in the city before the coronavirus outbreak, he remarks. “[We] hope the government could offer support for the industry to invite international meetings that will help the economic diversification of Macau to be permanently held in the city,” the industry veteran continues.
Understanding the government is cutting expenditure over less tax income from the gaming and tourism sector, Mr. Bi hopes the authorities could “maintain the same type of support as before” for the industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.
According to 34 exhibitions held in the gambling enclave last year polled by the Statistics and Census Service, the income of the 34 exhibitions only totalled MOP53.51 million while the expenditure amounted to MOP137 million, resulting in a loss of MOP83.49 million. Among the 34 exhibitions, 28 were held by non-government entities, whose income last year was MOP50.71 million, including MOP28.59 million from government subsidies. The major expenditure for exhibition organisers last year was the costs for installation, decoration and performance, accounting for 35.8 percent of the total expense, followed by marketing cost (13.7 percent) and venue rental (9.8 percent), the official data show.
A recent report on the fundamentals of the MICE sector by UFI – The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry – found that the revenue of the industry worldwide last year contracted 68 percent year-on-year, with a 73-percent decline in the Asia-Pacific region. The cancellations and delays of the MICE event resulted in the loss of 200 billion euros in revenue in other MICE-related sectors like logistics, transportation, accommodations and others, including a loss of 46 billion euros in the Asia-Pacific region, the UFI Global Barometer survey said, adding 52 percent of MICE firms reported a loss in operation last year while 30 percent claimed a decline of over 50 percent in profits. But the results of the report indicate an improved outlook for 2021, highlighting the revenue this year could reach about 58 percent of the 2019 level amid the ongoing pandemic.
Alan Ho Hoi Meng, who is vice-chairperson of the Macau Convention and Exhibition Association (MCEA), points out the future development and recovery of the sector relies on the extension of the MICE events to the virtual world. “Before the coronavirus outbreak the sector had already sought to host the event in both online and offline formats, a model that has been further expedited by the pandemic,” he says.
For instance, as visitors and exhibitors abroad could not come to Macau, the latest edition of the Macau International Trade & Investment Fair (MIF) held last October, one of the city’s major trade shows, introduced the so-called “online expo” for the first time, in which there were online business-matching sessions, online contract-signing sessions and live streaming of the event activities. The three-day expo saw 670 business-matching sessions, including 270 sessions online, resulting in the contract signing of over 100 projects.
“In the past it was difficult to invite large-scale mainland companies and buyers to attend local MICE events but a lot of them are willing to liaise with Macau firms through the online matching sessions,” Mr. Ho explains.
Reed Exhibitions, one of the leading multinational events organisers, also pinpoints online content has been more commonplace in the sector, as the pandemic has accelerated changes in consumers’ behaviours. The “COVID-19 and How it’s Changing the Event Industry” White Paper recently published by the firm says 94 percent of MICE visitors say they would like to carry out one or more event activities digitally, 59 percent of them would attend an online trade event, and 57 percent of them believe they could still carry out the majority of their event objectives online.
But the report reassured that the online services and content would not completely replace physical events. “COVID-19 has not diminished the value of in-person events for participants who are committed to returning as soon as restrictions are lifted,” the report adds.
Suggesting local MICE event organisers could collaborate with mainland Chinese technology giants like Alibaba Group to expedite the development of online content, Mr. Ho adds: “With technology advancement, as well as some anti-epidemic measures expected to be maintained in the post pandemic era, incorporating both online and offline content is an irreversible new trend for the MICE sector.”