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Coronavirus

Singapore leads world in opening COVID-safe MICE facilities

City develops new tech to lure business as World Economic Forum gives thumbs up

The auditorium was separated into zones at the Geo Connect Asia 2021 exhibition to restrict close physical contact between attendants. (Photo by Mayuko Tani)

SINGAPORE -- Singapore is gearing up to reopen to the meetings and conferences industry, as a first step to reviving the travel and tourism sector hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With vaccination programs making progress in many countries, Singapore companies are hoping that they will soon see business travelers and tourists heading back to the city state over the coming months. Many companies are ramping up investment in new technologies that will help to prevent infections at their facilities as part of efforts to attract visitors who are still nervous about the virus.

Singapore is hoping that a recovery in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector will catalyze a resurgence of its vital tourist industry.

British exhibitions expert Montgomery Group showcased some of those efforts in the Geo Connect Asia 2021 exhibition it organized in March. The event was held at the expo and convention center of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, a luxury hotel and casino operated by America's Las Vegas Sands.

In addition to 700 online participants, the event also attracted 500 visitors who had to follow meticulously planned and strictly implemented measures to prevent infection.

Meeting rooms at Connect@Changi are outfitted with airtight glass panels separating visitors to reduce transmission risks.(Photo by Mayuko Tani)

Small gadgets equipped with radio communication devices were lent to all visitors so that the organizer could keep track of their movements. When large groups gathered, the visitors were sent reminders via a smartphone app or by staff members to ensure social distancing.

Seats in the auditorium were separated into zones that were cordoned off to prevent participants from coming into close contact with each other. Participants also had to make reservations for visits to booths on an app.

Rupert Owen, Montgomery Asia's event director and co-founder, said these safety precautions would provide a template for future MICE, marking a fresh start for the industry.

The MICE sector is key to Singapore as business travelers tend to spend more than tourists. Its convenient and strategic location, great infrastructure and vast range of hotels, restaurants and nightlife also makes Singapore an attractive place to hold events. For any city, holding key events gives them great branding benefits and kudos for the future. Singapore, notably, was one of the locations for the Grand Prix, which draws the extremely wealthy and brings in huge corporate deals.

Small gadgets equipped with radio communication devices were lent to all visitors to the Geo Connect Asia 2021 event so that the organizer could keep track of their movements and ensure social distancing.   © Reuters

Singapore was ranked seventh -- and first among Asian cities -- in the International Congress and Convention Association's annual city rankings in terms of the number of MICE it hosted in 2019 before the pandemic gripped the world.

In 2020, however, 92% of scheduled international events were canceled, postponed or converted to online formats around the world amid travel bans and restrictions.

The number of foreign tourists who visited Singapore in the year plunged 85% from the previous year to 2.7 million, the lowest figure in about four decades.

The government is now beginning to ease restrictions for MICE, with an eye to resuscitating its tourist industry in the post-pandemic era. It has raised the upper limit on the number of participants to 750 for each of these events from April 24 on the condition that they are subject to COVID-19 tests.

Medical staff at a COVID-19 rapid antigen test center at the Geo Connect Asia 2021 trade conference held in Singapore in March   © Reuters

Companies operating convention centers and other MICE facilities have started racing to develop and introduce new technologies to hold such events safely.

Marina Bay Sands has set up a new studio for livestreaming that promises high picture quality. It is equipped with technology to produce holograms of remote participants.

Singapore state investor Temasek has launched a "Connect@Changi" project, jointly with partners including The Ascott, which operates serviced apartments, and Changi Airport Group. The building has been designed to allow face-to-face meetings that some businesses may feel are still essential.

Located at an international exhibition center near the airport, the facility has 150 guest rooms and 40 meeting rooms that can each accommodate from four to 22 attendees.

Overseas visitors will not have to quarantine if they remain only in Connect@Changi. Guests there can meet Singapore residents as well as visitors from other countries in specially designed meeting rooms outfitted with airtight glass panels separating them to reduce transmission risks.

The facility has already received reservations from France and Japan, among other countries.

Meeting pods fitted with plexiglass at the Geo Connect Asia 2021 trade conference in Singapore   © Reuters

Singapore's government is also providing policy support to such efforts, including subsidies to help finance the development of new technology to ensure COVID safety.

Singapore wants to cultivate an international image as a city fully equipped to face this challenge, with a view to emerging a winner in the post-COVID race to lure back tourists. It wants to market itself as a city capable of hosting major events safely and as such, is focusing on gaining expertise in managing human flows, implementing social-distancing measures and other virus-prevention ideas.

Its efforts are already paying off. The World Economic Forum said in December it would hold its annual meeting in Singapore over May 25 to May 28, instead of Davos, a Swiss ski resort that traditionally hosts the event.

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