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Asia MICE tourism tries to escape trap with AR and holograms

Canadian tech startup provides new exhibition services for post-COVID era

A Tesla car on exhibition in Las Vegas viewed through augmented reality developed by NexTech AR Solutions. (Photo courtesy of NexTech AR Solutions)

TOKYO -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues to curtail international travel, a Canadian startup is offering companies a platform that uses augmented reality and holograms that will enhance the experience of virtual meetings and conferences.

NexTech AR Solutions formed a partnership with Coex, a South Korean convention and exhibition hall and the largest of its kind in Seoul, in November.

This is a start of the launch of its platform in Asia where the industry of meetings, incentives, conferences and events, known as MICE, has grown more rapidly than in North America and Europe and governments are keen to promote it.

"If you augment your physical space, then you are no longer limited to it [and] your value proposition changes," Yau Boon Lim, president and managing director for Asia Pacific at NexTech told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview.

"An interactive platform is needed for the MICE space, as digital is no longer a support for [a] physical event but it creates an integrated experience as a whole," he said.

Listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange, NexTech already has a presence in North America and Europe but its partnership with Coex is its first such relationship in the region.

Lim believes that "consumer adoption of technology, especially in North Asia, Singapore and Australia, is much faster than what we see in Europe and the America." NexTech has since then been building new partnerships in Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore. It also hired in December a MICE veteran in China as a senior director.

Lim said that the company's technology could be deployed at meeting venues and exhibition halls to give users a "hybrid" experience. For example, instead of employing staff for an exhibition, a client company can use the NexTech platform to create holograms of greeters to meet those arriving at its booth.

Users simply have to scan the QR code and a hologram will appear to relay information. This also allows clients to reduce the number of staff at such venues to meet social distancing rules. As for meetings, its platform also offers automated captions and translations to over 64 languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

NexTech's AR technology allows you to place an exhibition booth anywhere. (Photo courtesy of NexTech AR Solutions)

NexTech's platform can also be used in fully virtual events, thanks to its AR technology. For example, users can view a new car on a smartphone as if he or she were at an auto show. The technology allows users to view the car in scale and even allows them to enter the vehicle and book a test drive in their locations. Such interactive technology is not offered by web conferencing services like Zoom, Lim said.

"Visitors don't need to stay at the venue the whole day anymore. They can attend several key notes and visit booths in the morning, and go back home or to the office and continue attending sessions and visit booths between meetings," Lim said, adding that the rollout of fifth-generation technology will enhance the service.

NexTech, founded in 2018, has originally focused its business on e-commerce. Its AR platform, which has been integrated with services including Canadian e-commerce entity Shopify, allows shoppers to view products in their own room before buying, increasing customer product engagement.

The startup's stock surged during the pandemic and is now four times higher than a year ago. The company has expanded its focus not only to MICE but also to education, offering laboratory experiences to students stuck at home during lockdowns. The company posted a record revenue growth of nearly 200% to 4.7 million Canadian dollars ($3.6 million) for the third quarter through September.

Over the past decades, many countries and regions across the world have invested significantly in the MICE industry, hoping to drive tourism and economic development.

The MICE industry in the Asia-Pacific generated revenue of $229 billion in 2017, according to Allied Market Research. The region is the fastest growing market, fueled by high penetration of technology, the luring of investors by emerging countries and strongly influenced by government policies in China, the U.S.-based market research company said.

In 2019, 13,254 business meetings were held across the globe, an all-time high and a 26% increase from 2010, according to the International Congress and Convention Association. But the trade group said in a report published in June the industry could "in all likelihood, never be the same due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Yau Boon Lim, president of Asia Pacific at NexTech.

Against this backdrop, Lim said the company received enquiries from many event organizers in Asia, including Coex. "We are looking for a partner to grow Asia and Coex is a fantastic partner in terms of capacity and reach," he said.

Whether exhibitors and MICE organizers can adapt to the new technologies, Lim said: "the next 12 months will be critical as a lot of us are still in a mode of having to do things virtually."

Governments in Asia are also putting in effort to minimize the damage to the industry. Singapore, the largest MICE host city in the region according to the ICCA, will in February partially open meeting spaces in a short-stay facility allowing foreign visitors to join without needing to serve quarantines.

Named Connect@Changi, the facility will be renovated from the city's large exhibition hall and will be equipped with 340 meeting rooms and 1,300 hotel rooms for its completion by mid-2021. Floor-to-ceiling dividers separating travelers will be placed in meeting rooms, while visitors will not be allowed to go out in the city to prevent spreading the virus.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the industry supported more than 34,000 jobs with an economic value-add of 3.8 billion Singapore dollars ($2.88 billion) or, around 1% of the city-state's GDP, in 2019.

But some forecast that business travel will remain weak even after the economy begins to recover from the pandemic. U.S. travel consultancy firm IdeaWorksCompany said in December that up to 36% of airline business travel in terms of number of trips may never return.

It forecast that convention and trade shows will see a relatively small portion of losses reflecting the need for companies to physically attend such events, but the picture remains grim for the industry as a whole. Hotels, restaurants and retail will all be hit by online MICE events.

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