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Travel & Leisure

Singapore touts 'hybrid' conventions as COVID shrinks $3bn industry

City-state raises audience cap to 250 but still far from hosting full-on conferences

SINGAPORE -- With coronavirus cases on the decline here, Singapore wants to become a global hub for "hybrid" conventions that combine online and in-person elements for greater economic payout with less infection risk.

Since the coronavirus pandemic gained momentum in March, many large-scale gatherings have been canceled or moved online.

The Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association forum on Sept. 24 was one of the first hybrid conventions held in Singapore, a format the government thinks will protect the country's reputation as a hub for international events even under the "new normal."

"Let's hear what our overseas participants have to say about the role of technology in hospitals," a moderator said at the event. The moderator spoke from a venue in Singapore, giving the virtual floor to a technology expert calling in from Norway.

The physical APACMed venue in Singapore was open to a maximum of 50 people, who had their temperature taken and were tracked using their mobile phones. The venue also was divided into zones to reduce infection risks.

Nearly 1,400 registered to join the event online, more than the number of physical attendees last year. Organizers set up six virtual networking sessions so that people could interact with the speakers as well.

"This year, we have approximately 50 sessions during the course of the day," APACMed CEO Harjit Gill said.

The APACMed forum in September featured in-person speakers in Singapore as well as online panelists. (Photo by Takashi Nakano)

"We see so many benefits of virtual and digital -- benefits like being able to talk to people globally, benefits like having the ability to prerecord some great content," Gill said. "But at the same time, it's important to have live sessions as well. So I think the future is hybrid."

Based on the experience with APACMed, Singapore will start allowing up to 250 individuals at preapproved events in October. The city-state will divide venues into zones of not more than 50 people to prevent clusters of infection.

An overall cap of 50 for an event meant that after accounting for panelists and staffers, only a handful of audience members could attend. Raising the ceiling to 250 will open the door to more attendees and encourage greater discussion.

Singapore also will accept overseas delegations to such events in November, offering them a selection of recreational activities. Business travelers used to spend almost twice as much as tourists in the country before the coronavirus outbreak. With international travel resuming, Singapore wants to revitalize adjacent industries as well.

The meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry was responsible for more than 34,000 jobs nationwide before the pandemic, with economic added value of 3.8 billion Singapore dollars ($2.79 billion), or almost 1% of the country's gross domestic product.

While Singapore is still far from hosting mammoth events attended by tens of thousands, hybrid events provide a bigger boost to the economy than online-only alternatives.

The country is looking into unique opportunities enabled through online tools. The Singapore FinTech Festival, set for Dec. 7-11, will feature speakers from major cities around the world, providing programming around the clock.

Last year's event drew over 60,000 participants from 140 countries and regions. Though few, if any, from overseas are expected to attend in person this year, it could demonstrate the potential for a different kind of international conference.

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