Countries and regions across the world have long understood the potential of the MICE segment as a vehicle to drive high-value tourism and economic development. In recent decades this has led to significant investment, with nations working to position themselves as centres for the industry, both regionally and globally, aided by greater air connectivity.
At the same time, the industry has been shaped by new technologies and rising security concerns, as well as budget constraints brought on by headwinds like the 2008 global financial crisis and the lower oil price environment that emerged in mid-2014. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about MICE, which is predicted to grow steadily over the next few years.
The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), a global industry network, reported in its “Statistics Report 2016” that the MICE industry has experienced exponential growth, with the number of meetings held around the world doubling from just under 6000 in 2006 to over 12,000 in 2016. The ICCA’s global rankings of annual meetings per country were dominated by developed Western markets: the US, Germany, the UK, France and Spain comprised the top five. Notable emerging economies that performed well included Argentina at 19th, Mexico (21st) and Thailand (24th).
Looking ahead, the emergence of 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 an international trade fair for the MICE industry. Originating in Switzerland, the annual event moved to Barcelona in 2004 and editions now take place in other major world cities.
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 short-term prospects for core industries that have traditionally generated demand, particularly construction, pharmaceuticals and conventional banking – all of which have experienced the knock-on effects of government efforts to curb risk.
The MICE industry is made up of many players, including event organisers and participants, sponsors, planners and accommodation providers. This means that becoming established as a centre of the industry 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 regard 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 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 $3.27bn in retained value to Dubai’s GDP in 2015. The facility 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 key hubs, whereas 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, 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.
“In the last year we have seen a change in the way our clients approach travel,” Patricia Silvio, global marketing manager of Pacific World, a global destination and event management company based in Barcelona, said at the time of 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 Meetings and Events “What’s Trending” report, which was published in September 2017, destinations need to look at creating experiences, with travellers increasingly seeking 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 leverageing their cultural heritage to provide expanded engagement opportunities for the MICE segment are Peru and Morocco. In the former, the capital city of Lima offers up its gastronomy and connectivity with the city of Cusco in the south-east, allowing conference delegates to extend their stay for a few days and visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu. Meanwhile, in Morocco, Casablanca is capitalising on its national and international transport links to present itself as a gateway to the Atlas Mountains, as well as to the cities of Marrakech and Fez.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES: A number of other emerging economies have 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 high-quality facilities in Kenya. Both here, and across the region generally, we are trying to catch up and position ourselves in the market. We are on a positive trajectory, but not yet where we want to be,” 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, from Asia to Latin America, are also trying to expand their offerings outside of major cities as they look to tap growing demand for social and cultural engagement opportunities, which are often available near natural and historic sites away from large urban centres. This can also help to revive traditional tourist destinations, as business attendees increasingly wish to travel with their partners or families – a trend that is especially evident in Mexico, according to Blanca Rodríguez, manageing 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.
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 industry, 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 in supplier selection and as evidenced by this list, representation across the sector.
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. This includes risks related to violence, terrorism and cybersecurity as well as danger from 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, with 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 necessity for MICE destinations. A report 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.
“The 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. People come for conferences, but they will also go shopping, dine out and spend money on entertainment. This has positive effects on the wider economy, not just on the tourism sector,” she added.
Cybersecurity has also become a key focus, with venues and organisers working to improve methods of data protection. While the EU has pushed ahead with its General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect in May 2018 and provids a framework for the processing of personal data, all regions are putting more emphasis on online security.
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 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 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 teleseminars 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 MICE tourism expect an increase in virtual attendance at events. The MPI’s “Meetings Outlook 2018 Winter Edition” report also found that event planners were focusing on personalising user experiences through the application of 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 and data. “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.”
Technology is helping organisers track everything from delegate movements, to overall participation and sentiment. In its 2017 report, the BCD 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. Emergent disruptive technologies are changing the MICE landscape. As such, engagement with these technologies will be the main factor shaping the sector in 2018, according to Pacific World.
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-to-face 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 current trend among conference organisers in the Gulf, who are increasingly 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.
As in many sectors, investment in training is usually a good barometer for the general health of the industry. 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 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 council said.
Another key emphasis is on human resources and skill building. McCartney pointed out that organisations such as the ICCA, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, the International Association of Convention Centres and the Professional Convention Management Association have helped to create industry-wide standards. Many countries are similarly focused on further improving 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.
Overall, the next few 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, trends such as an increased focus on security, an effort to create new experiences and the enhancement of existing offerings via technology will shape the industry in the near and medium term.