Setting the agenda: A mainstay of the global tourism sector faced disruption, but also innovation, due to the Covid-19 pandemic

Amid international travel restrictions, social-distancing protocols and prohibitions on mass gatherings in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment has been forced to adapt, with some events shifting online and others being deferred. Before the outbreak of the virus, MICE presented a promising growth avenue for emerging markets to diversify their tourism offerings. For example, Sharjah has set a 10m visitor target for 2022 and in early 2020 the Department of Commerce and Tourism – Abu Dhabi launched a Dh600m ($163.3m) fund to attract business and entertainment events to the emirate.

Pandemic Adjustments

Some headline events were postponed in 2020 until after the pandemic subsides, including the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, which was to serve as the deadline for countries to meet emission-reduction commitments under the Paris agreement. The event, initially planned for October 2020, was rescheduled to November 2021 to enable countries to focus their resources on the health crisis.

However, with much of the global workforce shifting to the digital sphere, some government and multilateral bodies have moved summits online. Major virtual events during 2020 included the G20 Leaders’ Summit in March of that year, which aimed to coordinate members’ Covid-19 response strategies. Elsewhere, the 36th ASEAN Summit was hosted by Vietnam via video conference in June, facilitating discussion on post-pandemic recovery plans throughout the region.

Other events were held as a blend of online and offline experiences to minimise physical contact. The 2020 Mining Investment London conference and exhibition, first planned for September, took place as both an in-person and virtual event in December. Thailand, for its part, continued to host physical events throughout 2020 with numerous health and safety protocols in place – an approach facilitated by the country’s low Covid-19 case rate and appetite for business as usual.

Sharjah has a number of physical events planned for 2021. Most have been pencilled in from September onwards when it is hoped that vaccination campaigns both at home and abroad will have allowed daily life and international travel to normalise to some extent.

Future Projections

As with the majority of Covid-19-related adaptations, it remains to be seen whether changes in the MICE segment will continue once the health threat has subsided. “A swift pivot to online platforms can virtually bridge some of the interactive gaps caused by restrictions on mass congregations, and should therefore help to soften the blow of Covid-19 on the MICE segment,” Ed Gallinero, managing director at PCM Asia, which hosts investment-focused events for industry professionals, told OBG. Yet early signs of the desire to return to traditional events and the implementation of health guidelines to facilitate a return to in-person meetings may reassure industry players of the prospects for recovery as restrictions are eased and global travel resumes.

New Normal

Regardless of the appeal of traditional events, a virtual strategy enables exhibitors and speakers to reach a wider audience without the need for participants to travel. This could lead to a broader range of events offering a remote attendance option in the future, particularly as people around the world become more familiar with online communications software, live-streaming technologies and the cost-saving aspects of remote gatherings. Indeed, this blended model may provide a buffer against Covid-19-related cancellations in the medium term, as some countries may need to retighten restrictions amid fluctuating case numbers. Furthermore, remote options can be monetised – offering an additional revenue stream to help MICE hosts in the recovery phase.

To some degree, a blended approach could enable emerging markets to use technology to showcase their facilities, infrastructure and unique offering to a wider audience, raising their profile on the global stage.