And the sky is black and still now
On the hill where the angels sing
Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring
But it’s far, far from me – Far from me, John Prine (RIP)
It’s almost daybreak over Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. I guess that I have witnessed more daybreaks this year than in my previous 63 years on the planet. Such are the labours of trying to steer one’s own business through a global pandemic and the most tumultuous business crisis in most of our lifetimes.
Tuesday’s front page of the South China Morning Post carried a simple, stark headline – > 1,000,000 – a reference to the number of COVID-19 deaths worldwide (one of them being John Prine, the great American singer songwriter quoted above and below, taken so tragically by this damned virus, who I mourn each day as if he was family. How I miss you in the morning light/Like roses miss the dew).
The photo below shows a team in hazmat gear lowering the coffin of another victim into a grave in Jakarta, Indonesia, a poignant reminder of the real cost of this crisis.
Such statistics and images put any business concerns firmly into perspective, especially my own. As I have said before, I am luckier than so very many in travel retail. Not only do I own the factory, as it were, but I am its chief assembly line worker. I can operate the machines, manage the production flow and, most of all, ensure that the factory stays open. Others are not so fortunate. Over the past few days I have heard of no fewer than four travel retail-related businesses of different scale and geographies failing. And with them, the jobs of numerous people.
I got hired Monday morning
Downsized that afternoon
Overcome with grief that evening
Now I’m crazy as a loon – Crazy as a loon, John Prine (RIP)
There have been many other examples and there will be, alas, many more. Many travel retail departments are being downsized or repatriated into domestic operations. The relentless march of COVID-19 across much of the world, combined with multiple examples of government ineptitude (and sometimes sheer stupidity) and lack of collaboration has left our industry in a parlous state.
Across Victoria Harbour, the majesty of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre looms over the water, its swirling, curved architecture an elegant offset to all the high rise that surrounds it. It was there in the mid-1990s that I first addressed an industry conference, during the days that Duty-Free News International (which I headed at the time) organised the then-fledgling TFWA Asia Pacific conference which preceded the related exhibition.
I remember shaking like a leaf before making my stage debut, my nerves churning like the waves on the wind-tossed harbour outside. Public speaking gets easier with experience and age although in terms of enjoyment I still put it on a par with visiting the dentist for root canal treatment.
There hasn’t been too much activity in the Centre this year since the calamity of COVID-19 struck. The year of the rat hasn’t done much for the public image of rodents and it has certainly proved disastrous for MICE (Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions).
Mass face-to-face meetings and a global pandemic represent an unpalatable cocktail, one that has led to a wave of postponements and cancellations worldwide. That’s had a disastrous impact on the previously burgeoning MICE sector and therefore on the whole travel industry.
This Saturday the Hong Kong SAR government launches the Convention and Exhibition Industry Subsidy Scheme, which covers a 100% venue rental cost for organisers of exhibitions and international conventions held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and AsiaWorld-Expo through to October 2021. Expect many other countries to follow suit – good news for TFWA perhaps if the typically proactive and always ultra-competitive Singapore authorities do so.
According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the MICE industry contributed nearly 1 per cent of Singapore’s GDP in 2019 and supported over 34,000 jobs. Writing in Singapore-based Asian media title CNA.com this week in a piece called ‘This is the end of business conferences as we know it’, Prem Shamdasani drew on Spencer Johnson’s best-selling change management fable, noting that it is time for the MICE industry to “move with the cheese” and keep relevant with new opportunities.
I would qualify Shamdasani’s perspective and put the emphasis firmly on the words ‘as we know it’ (or rather ‘as we know them’). Spurred by government incentives and appropriate insurance schemes, purely physical exhibitions and conferences will return over time, particularly once COVID-19 vaccines are in place. But, like Shamdasani, I believe the future of the MICE sector lies in a hybrid model that combines the best of both in terms of quality, reach, time and cost.
On the evidence to date, there will also be a heavy attrition rate among 100% virtual events. Some of the many examples we have studied to date have been frankly awful and we should not forget that very 2020 ailment of ‘Zoom fatigue’. Countless panicked publishers and events companies have reached for short-term, off-the-peg solutions, driven by a legacy model-mindset that says all will return to normal soon.
I don’t see it that way. I remember the David and Goliath tale reprised as ‘When digital (David) met print (Goliath)’. Just as in the biblical narrative from the Book of Samuel, the smaller, more agile combatant won. But I think that the contest between virtual and physical MICE will play out differently, not with one protagonist triumphing but with them often joining forces in a common front, in the shape of two-tier, physical & virtual formats.
The virtual survivors will be those who truly invested (time, money and expertise) in quality and delivered value for attendees; the physical survivors those who rode with rather than resisted the tide of change.
We are now just 11 days away from our own Virtual Travel Retail Expo. It’s an initiative into which we and our admirable Singapore/London event partner FILTR have poured thousands upon thousands of man and woman hours to curate something that we could be proud of and that exhibitors and delegates would be impressed by.
It has been a thrilling, complex, hugely arduous journey (now you understand my reference to all those daybreaks), and we are learning lessons all the time. Some of the ‘Virtual Stands’, though, are extraordinary.
I previewed the finished work yesterday of a leading beauty house, for example, and I believe it is better and way more ambitious than anything I have seen at any physical exhibition. Many of our exhibitor partners (helped immensely by the impressive craft and dedication of FILTR) have simply knocked it out of the park.
It is now dawn. Another day, another month begins. Across the harbour, the lights of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre are burning bright. Any mice inside might be waiting a while before they find any cheese.
Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you’ll own a home
That’s as big as a house – It’s a big old goofy world, John Prine (RIP)