Of MICE and Myths

By Daniel Cheng

Japan has made the highly lucrative MICE business one of the key pillars of its integrated resort policy, though it’s unlikely to knock Singapore off its perch as the regional leader any time soon, even with its shiny new properties.

The global meetings, incentives, conferencing, and exhibitions (MICE) market may in its broadest interpretation be approaching the trillion dollar mark, according to Allied Market Research. The level will be breached in the next six to twelve months based on its compound annual growth rate forecast.

It’s a mind-boggling figure by any measure, and likely aggregates the full gamut of the supply chain from upstream ancillary services and supplies, all the way down to every single cent spent by a consumer identified as a MICE customer.

The global travel industry hails MICE as its new darling, and national tourism bureaus are scrambling to gain a slice of its lucrative revenue stream.

Moving to IRs

In the last decade, the buzz has revolved around Integrated Resorts, an all-in-one destination facility that is widely heralded as the linchpin of the MICE industry.

The rise of the Integrated Resort brings to the market for the first time a venue with the versatility to host the entire MICE range of meetings, incentive travel, conventions, and exhibitions.

Once exclusively the domain of mega-properties on the Las Vegas Strip, the Asia region has not only taken a leaf from the Sin City but has now stolen its thunder with more opulent and spanking new developments sprouting up all over the Asian continent.

As a tiny nation with few natural resources, Singapore has been the first to take the leap and benefited as the early adopter. The two Singapore IRs helped reverse a declining trend in annual tourist arrivals, and contributed to it being consistently named Asia Pacific’s top meeting destination in the past few years.

Singapore’s success spurred some of its Asian neighbors to emulate its achievements. However, none has been able to attain the same lofty heights.

Lofty Ambitions

Japan is set to be the next guinea pig embarking on the IR experiment and has sky-high expectations.

It is a multibillion dollar gamble topped with dollops of political capital, and too big to fail. MICE and tourism growth are trumpeted by the government as the chief grounds to develop IRs in Japan.

However, for MICE business to thrive, it needs to be reinforced and supplemented by a conducive ecosystem where MICE is but only a subset.

Hence it might have been more than a little off the mark to place MICE at the center of its universe, even though it is an important cog.

MICE works best in a place which has the full deck. Consumers go where their needs are met, and their wants are fulfilled; the former is mandatory but the latter cements the decision.

The former is rendered generally by the direct MICE-related businesses; planners and organizers, convention and exhibition venues, hotels, airlines and transportation providers.

Suffice to say, the ‘wants’ are of a greater value than the ‘needs,’ and it is logarithmically more difficult to create a ‘want’ than to develop the ‘need’ foundation.

Consumer ‘wants’ are entertainment, rich culture, exotic cuisine, adventure, variety, and a positive experience.

Weak Hand

In that sense, Singapore perpetually faces an uphill battle because it holds the weakest hand. Everything has to be created, both the ‘needs’ and the ‘wants’.

Singapore is the epicenter of MICE in the Asia-Pacific not only because it dotted all the ‘i’s and crossed all the ‘t’s in the MICE supply chain; it also had to put in place an efficient and convenient urban infrastructure, and offer an environment of safety and security. Most importantly, it had to imbue itself as a welcoming cosmopolitan, globalized village, and artificially create entertainment and attractions where none exists.

That last mandate falls mainly on the shoulders of the Singapore Tourism Board to conceptualize and realize, with the bar always set higher, in the ever-changing dynamic global landscape; so it was world-class zoos and safaris before, then retail and shopping experience, next developing an education hub, centers of wellness and medical tourism, thereafter it was Integrated Resorts, followed by the Formula 1 night race, and onward and upward.

The IR occupies a space somewhere between a ‘need’ and a ‘want.’ Integrated Resorts offer the comprehensive ‘need’ hardware of hotel accommodation, and meetings and exhibition facilities of every scale and tenor to satisfy a wide breadth of MICE venue requirements.

IRs then augment their value proposition with a rich profusion of ‘wants’ all under one roof, from theme parks to retail and dining, sports, and entertainment galore; pushing the envelope constantly in the experiential stratosphere.

So while it is understandable that resource-scarce Singapore possesses a half empty cup complex, the Japanese government is still mired in the confounding myths around MICE, and remains placidly clueless that their cup is already half-full (and even on the cusp of running over) as they brace for the arrival of Integrated Resorts in Japan.

Attractions Aplenty

The government had pronounced four key pillars for Japan IR development: world-class entertainment; an array of hotel accommodation; MICE, and a gateway to Japan.

The Japanese view the MICE component in the IR as some sort of magic potion that would open the tap for MICE business into Japan. Many are still unable to grasp that MICE merely represents the meeting facilities, and while it’s a necessary ‘need,’ its utility is only manifested with the ‘wants’ that an IR offers.

Even more critical is the underrated fact that Japan as a whole is already half-full and blessed with bountiful attractions, culture, nature, beauty, and culinary smorgasbord. The IR is the easy part. What little entertainment and attractions housed inside an IR is only a minuscule sliver of what Japan as a country already offers.

Regional Crown?

Do Japan IRs spell the fall of Singapore from its pinnacle in the MICE sector in the Asia Pacific? Not quite. IRs in Japan will plug an important missing piece in its effort to vie for a larger slice of the regional MICE pie with more modern and larger host venues, and state-of-the-art facilities.

Though a Japan IR will fulfill an important ‘need’ element to help further unlock the value of its rich depth of ‘wants,’ Singapore still retains three key ‘need’ cards that give it the upper hand.

First, Singapore is an established international business center where thousands of corporations around the globe have business operations.

The premise of MICE revolves around an ecosystem of business and corporate customer groups. It is a further advantage and a preference of these customer groups to hold their meetings, conferences, and events in a country where they also have a local office. In this aspect, Singapore has no equal in the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, the bulk of MICE business is international and not local, involving air travel. Here again, Singapore excels logistically as an international travel hub and Changi Airport is consistently voted the best in the world.

And third, because of the very international flavor of MICE business, the host country needs to be proficient in the universal language of English in order to effectively facilitate the complex planning and logistics of large-scale MICE events.

Language Skills

Not only is Singapore highly English-literate, but it is also competent in Mandarin, being one of the main second language of Singaporeans; giving it an upper hand for the enormous China outbound MICE market.

Language will remain the Achilles heel for Japan for some time to come as it takes one or more generations for an entire nation to become adept in another tongue. Only then might Japan be able to wrest the regional MICE crown from Singapore. If there is a time where Japan needs an English-speaking mouse, that time might be now.