Japan’s MICE Industry Requires Right “Software” for Success

The Japanese government has made little secret that it sees the expansion of the MICE industry near the heart of its ambitions for the three IRs, but experts warn that it will take more than shiny new convention and exhibition centers to deliver success. Rather, it needs a social and educational transformation in Japan that has hardly begun.

Glenn McCartney, associate professor of International Integrated Resort Management at the University of Macau, is an optimist about the future of the MICE industry in general, pointing out that even the advance of digitization and across-the-world meeting technologies such as Skype still lack some of the human element needed for business.

“People really want to shake hands,” he notes. “People really want to meet face-to-face, to get to know you before they do the deal.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that having the convention industry hardware is not itself sufficient to guarantee good results. Sometimes these facilities become an economic drain rather than an engine.

“That has been a scenario played out in cities around the world—where you build a big convention center, but the issue now is how do you fill it, how do you put bums on seats, and get traffic into it.”

“It takes one year, two years lead time. You can’t just open the doors and have meetings,” he adds.

Moreover, even if Japan creates IRs in places like Osaka and Yokohama that have MICE facilities which a much larger and more modern than current venues like Tokyo Big Sight and Makuhari Messe, that doesn’t necessarily mean that larger trade shows will appear in Japan.

“They are going to have to compete with the Shanghais, the Guangzhous, the Hong Kongs, and the Singapores, which are very aggressive MICE industries already,” McCartney notes.

He points to the importance of “city branding” that makes businesspeople around the world come to see Japanese locations as international “meeting hotspots” which are active and engaging.

Jason Ayers, founder and CEO of Sector Five, a Tokyo-based recruiting firm that specializes in consumer marketing and communications in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, agrees with McCartney, observing that “it’s about selling Japan as a destination.”

In some ways, Japan does have an advantage. Many people around the world admire Japanese culture, the beauty of the landscape, and the cleanliness of the cities. Many foreigners want to visit Japan and see the country with their own eyes, and that is certainly a major draw for attracting participants to conventions and exhibitions.

On its own, however, it is probably not sufficient, and more attention needs to be given to the “software” of the MICE industry. For example, while Japan is widely regarded as a polite and hospitable country, the language barrier remains an enduring difficulty. International businesspeople will want to be able to communicate with the staff in their hotels and the managers of the MICE facilities.

Ayers points out that careful attention will be needed to develop human resources. Currently, the best and brightest Japanese university students are probably not seeing IRs as their preferred employment option. IRs may be seen as risky, ambiguous in their social reputation, and involving quite difficult work.

Ayers believes these issues can be overcome and that intelligent, bilingual Japanese can be found, but this will involve the IRs offering high pay rates to the young graduates.

The overall picture is that MICE at Japanese IRs might indeed be successful, but it will depend on hard work, effective strategizing, and perhaps a higher degree of culture change in Japan than most people currently appreciate. (AGB Nippon)