Security and engagement key to growth in global MICE industry

Countries and regions across the world have long understood the potential of the MICE segment as a vehicle to drive high-value tourism and further economic development. In recent decades this has led to significant investment, with nations across the globe working to position themselves as centres for the industry, both regionally and internationally, aided by greater air connectivity.

At the same time, the sector has been shaped by new technologies and rising security concerns, as well as budget constraints brought on by such things as the 2008 global financial crises and the lower oil price environment that emerged in mid-2014. However, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the sector, which is predicted to grow steadily over the next few years.

Recent Performance

The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), a global industry network, reported in its “Statistics Report 2016” that the MICE industry had experienced exponential growth in recent years, with the number of meetings held around the world doubling from just under 6000 in 2006 to reach more than 12,000 in 2016. The top positions of ICCA’s global rankings of annual meetings per country were dominated by developed Western markets in 2016: the US, Germany, the UK, France and Spain comprised the top five. Notable emerging economies that performed well included Argentina at 19th, Mexico (21st), Thailand (24th) and Colombia (29th).

Looking forward, the emergence of disruptive new industries such as financial technology, driven by the arrival and growth of global markets for blockchain technology and virtual currencies like Bitcoin, are likely to have a positive impact on the sector, according to the Incentive Business Travel and Meetings (IBTM) Trends Watch Report 2017. “These markets create opportunities for entrepreneurs, trade associations and corporate organisations to share knowledge, network and communicate. They create new businesses, business growth and industry communities; exhibitions, meetings [and] incentive programmes,” the report said. IBTM World is a renowned trade fair for the MICE sector. Originating in Switzerland, the annual event moved to Barcelona in 2004, with the next edition scheduled to take place in late November 2018.

While IBTM was optimistic in its most recent report about the potential positive impacts of disruptive technologies on the growth of niche markets for the sector, it was more cautious about the shortterm growth prospects for core industries that have traditionally generated demand, particularly construction, pharmaceuticals and conventional banking, all of which have experienced knock-on effects governmental trends towards spending rationalisation and curbing risk.

Standing Out

The MICE industry is made up of many components, including event organisers and participants, sponsors, planners, and accommodation providers. This means that becoming established as a hub in the sector requires a time investment to develop ample infrastructure and awareness, as well as considerable financial resources.

In the Gulf, Dubai has done well in this and plays a dominant role: in 2015 the emirate accounted for around $351m, or 27% of the $1.3bn GCC-wide MICE market, according to the PwC subsidiary and consulting firm Strategy&. Much of this was centred around the Dubai World Trade Centre, the emirate’s largest and highest-profile conference centre, which contributed a record high of $3.27bn in retained value to Dubai’s GDP in 2015. The facility also saw an 11% increase in footfall in 2016 from a year earlier, according to the latest data available.

Meanwhile, in the Asia-Pacific region, Bangkok, Singapore and Seoul are the most prominent hubs for MICE, while in Latin America, Buenos Aires, Lima and Mexico City are the top-three destinations, according to the ICCA. Paris, Vienna and Barcelona lead in Europe, and Montreal, while Toronto and New York stand out in North America.

As the 24th most popular global destination in terms of the number of association meetings organised, according to the ICCA, Thailand’s MICE sector continues to deliver growth. In FY 2016/17, which ran from October to September, the country received 1.05m MICE visitors, representing a 4.7% increase on the previous year, according to data from the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB). With MICE travellers estimated to spend an average of two to three times more than leisure visitors during their stay, this underscores the importance of the industry, which contributed $3.2bn to Thailand’s GDP in 2016.

New Opportunities

A number of other emerging economies have also recognised the importance of expanding their facilities and building a reputation as a location of choice for conferences and meetings. “We are seeing growth across Africa [in MICE], and we need to construct state-of-the-art facilities in Kenya. Both here, and across the region generally, we are trying to catch up and to position ourselves in the market. We are on a positive trajectory, but not where we want to be yet,” Susan M Ongalo, CEO of the Kenya Tourism Federation, told OBG. “MICE is growing, and we are trying to ensure areas other than Nairobi have facilities that can hold big and small conferences,” she added.

Other countries, ranging from those in Asia to Latin America, are also trying to expand their offerings outside major cities as they look to tap growing demand for more social and cultural engagement opportunities, which are often available near natural, cultural and historic sites away from large urban centres. This can also have the positive effect of reviving traditional tourist destinations, as business attendees increasingly wish to travel with their partners or families, a trend that has been especially evident in Mexico, according to Blanca Rodríguez, managing director of Banyan Tree Capital México, a luxury tourism investment firm.

“As Mexico’s economy becomes more interconnected, more lower-middle income segments are travelling for work purposes. This, combined with their extra disposable income, often means they travel with their families for part of the trip, which has indirectly led to a boom in the demand for traditional tourism facilities for children alongside business-related activities,” Rodríguez told OBG.

Key trends

At a November 2017 meeting of the Events Industry Council (EIC), a non-profit federation representing over 104,000 individuals and 19,500 firms and properties involved in the sector, the top-five trends shaping the sector were outlined. These included safety and security; cybersecurity and data protection regulations; demonstrating relevance; workforce trends in relation to disruptive technologies; and diversity, inclusion and the value of global perspectives, particularly in terms of encouraging diversity in supplier selection and greater representation across the sector.

Security Concerns

There is a strong focus on added security in the sector, as countries need to prove that they are a safe option before organisers of large international conferences and exhibitions hold events in them. This includes risks related to violence and terrorism, cybersecurity, as well as natural dangers related to extreme weather hazards, such as the flooding seen in South Asia, the US and the Caribbean in recent years. When highlighting top industry trends towards the end of 2017, Karen Kotowski, president and CEO of the EIC, observed that safety and security was the number one concern for most members of the federation, with safety measures and precautions like metal detectors at public events now considered the norm rather than the exception.

While it is difficult to create a zero-risk environment, the perception of a safe and secure location has become a crucial necessity for MICE destinations. A report that was published in early 2018 by the Ostelea School of Tourism & Hospitality in Barcelona highlighted that Turkey had lost more than 45% of events it had previously hosted following the terrorist attacks and political unrest of recent years, presumably due to the perceived security risk.

“Kenya Tourism Federation has carried out terrorism awareness training for industry operators in conjunction with Western diplomatic missions in recent years, as it seeks to overcome perceptions of insecurity and risk following the September 2013 terrorist attack on Westgate Mall, which killed 67 people, as well as further sporadic attacks from Al Shabab militants,” Ongalo told OBG. “Kenya’s tourism authorities see MICE as a particularly important segment because of its positive multiplier effects. Once people come for conferences, they will shop, eat and spend money on entertainment. This has positive effects on the wider economy, not just on the tourism sector,” she said.

Cybersecurity has become another important area of focus in recent times, with both venues and organisers working to improve their methods of data protection for clients. While the European Union has pushed ahead with its General Data Protection Regulation, which is effective from May 2018 and provides a framework for the processing of personal data, all regions of the world are putting more emphasis on online security.

Technology

New technologies are expected to reshape the MICE industry in significant ways in the future, meaning that to stay ahead of the game, players need to embrace cutting edge of developments. A January 2018 report by Allied Market Research titled “MICE Industry by Event Type – Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2017-23” underscored this.

“Currently, technology plays a vital role in the MICE business growth as many corporations adopt e-conferences as a substitute for face-to-face meetings and conferences,” the report said, adding, “The major restraint for the growth of the MICE industry is the operational cost associated with these companies. However, the use of tele-seminars and virtual meetings to eliminate travel expenses may prove to be a significant growth opportunity in the future.”

According to a survey carried out by Meeting Professionals International (MPI), a US-based global meeting and event planning association, 63% of executives in the MICE tourism sector expect an increase in virtual attendance at events. MPI’s “Meetings Outlook 2018 Winter Edition” report also found that event planners were focusing on personalising user experiences through technology and data collection. As such, MICE destinations in possession of well-developed ecosystems for ICT innovation are poised to benefit.

Speaking to OBG, Florencia Scardaccione, CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel Argentina, underscored the growing influence of technology. “The role of technology and digital tools in the tourism industry, and more specifically in the MICE segment, is rapidly growing in the region, with Buenos Aires being one of the top five markets,” she said. “In this sense, the city is in a preferential position, ready to take advantage of new opportunities arising from the use of online tools given both the technological competence of our workforce and the proliferation of advanced IT companies.”

From a management perspective, technology is also helping organisers track everything from delegate movements, to overall participation and sentiment. In addition, the BCD Meetings and Events “What’s Trending” report published in September 2017 pointed to new technologies and activities, such as novel seating arrangements and personalisation, as ways to generate an experience that will translate into brand loyalty.

Increasing Engagement

While technology will continue to redefine the MICE landscape over the longer term, engagement will be the most influential factor shaping the sector in 2018, according to the global destination and event management company Pacific World, based in Barcelona.

Beyond business facilities, nations are leveraging their cultural heritage as a way of encouraging delegates to extend their visits and see local sites “In the last year, we have seen a change in the way our clients approach travel,” Patricia Silvio, global marketing manager of Pacific World, said at the publication of the company’s 2018 trend forecast in October 2017. “An incentive is not a nice trip to reward an employee; it is an opportunity to interact, learn and experience. We’re seeing a new generation of global citizens that are committed to the idea of an open and interconnected world,” she added.

According to the BCD report, destinations need to look at creating experiences, with travellers increasingly looking to participate in cultural exchanges, connect with nature and history, and have meaningful and environmentally responsible trips. “It’s no longer enough to provide the basics — people want to be ‘wowed’,” the report stated.

Two examples of nations that are leveraging their cultural heritage to provide engagement opportunities are Peru and Morocco. In the former, the capital Lima offers up its gastronomy and connectivity with the city of Cusco in the south-east, allowing delegates to extend their stay for a few days and visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Pichu. Meanwhile, in the latter, Casablanca is capitalising on its national and international transport links to present itself as a gateway to the Atlas Mountains and, along with it, the cities of Marrakech and Fes.

Face-to-Face

While technology has the ability to enhance the MICE experience, real-life engagement remains important. “Fortunately for us as a convention and exhibition centre, people still have the desire to meet. There is a strong demand for face-toface meetings, interaction with peers and listening to experts in their specific fields,” Trevor McCartney, general manager at the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre (OCEC), told OBG.

McCartney observed a trend from conference organisers in the Gulf seeking MICE venues that can offer facilities and accommodation close together to avoid traffic delays and the inconvenience of lengthy commutes. This trend is also present in Thailand, where it is being incorporated into development plans. “MICE venues are best when hotels, restaurant and entertainment facilities are next to each other. We understood this, so Thailand will look to develop this ecosystem further,” Chiruit Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya, president of the TCEB, told OBG.

Practical Training

Investment in training is usually a good barometer for the general health of the meetings and events industry. As the IBTM report states, “When the training ‘tap’ is turned on, it usually signifies an imminent uplift in incentive programmes, conferences and large meetings; and is an indicator of a company investing in staff and growing its business. At the moment this tap is on, and the confidence our members have is high.”

According to the EIC, a number of factors are affecting the industry employment, with the role of automation, outsourcing, new technology and disruptors changing cost models. “Workforce development, defining career paths, staying ahead of technology, and acquisition and retention of talent continue to be top priorities,” the counsel said.

Another key emphasis right now is on human resources and skills building. McCartney pointed out that organisations such as the ICCA, Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, International Association of Convention Centres and the Professional Convention Management Association have helped to create industry-wide standards.

Many countries are also focused on further improving skills and standards, creating specialised departments to handle development and working with educational institutions to offer courses that are tailored to prospective sector employees. For example, Oman Tourism College, recognising the importance of the sector in the sultanate, introduced a bachelor’s degree in event management in the 2014/15 academic year.

Looking Ahead

The next years are likely to witness strong growth in traditional and emerging MICE markets, buoyed by improving global economic conditions, the emergence of new industries and a growing appetite for travel. Alongside this, an increased focus on security, an effort to create new experiences, and the enhancement of existing offerings via technology will reshape the industry.

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