Long Road Back

The DOT in 2018 launched an ambitious MICE Roadmap 2030 to raise the country’s MICE revenues to some P25 billion by 2030, from P4.6 billion in 2016. Covid-19 has derailed the roadmap, which was “based on the mechanisms of the conventional MICE that relies heavily on face-to-face encounter and gathering of business people.”

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IN 2021, the Philippines will be hosting the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, a prestigious event that attracts close to 1,000 participants, among them, the presidents and CEOs of the leading private travel companies in the world.

Although the Department of Tourism (DOT), which lobbied hard for the country to host the event, has declined to comment on it, the hosting was confirmed by Nigel David, WTTC’s regional director for Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, in a recent web interview on travel aired over ANC.

“We are actually going to be hosting a big event in the Philippines in Manila next year, 2021, it’s our Global Summit, where we bring the leaders of the travel and tourism sector together,” he said. (Due to the Covid-19 crisis, this year’s Global Summit slated in April in Cancun, where the formal announcement for the 2021 event should have been made, had been postponed to autumn, although no definite date has yet been set.)

As far as Meetings, Incentive tours, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) events go, landing the WTTC Global Summit 2021 is a feather in the cap of the Philippines. The event would give the DOT the chance to show off the country’s breathtaking tourist destinations, and allow local tourism stakeholders to listen to inspirational speakers on many pertinent global topics, as well as hobnob and share their views and insights with the world’s travel giants. (Last year, former US President Barack Obama was the headline speaker at the Global Summit in Seville, Spain.)

Roadmap to 2030

The event will hopefully put the Philippines back on the radar of MICE organizers, and help the country reclaim its popularity as a world convention destination, which had its roots in its hosting of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund Annual Meeting in 1976. For that event, the Marcos administration had constructed the glamorous Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), still in use today.

By 1982, the Philippines ranked eighth worldwide and first in the Asian region in the annual listing of leading world convention destinations in 1982. By 2016, however, the country placed 48th out of the 116 countries worldwide, and 14th of 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East regions in terms of having the most number of meetings, according to the International Congress and Convention Association. In terms of exhibitions, data provided by the DOT showed that of the 334 exhibitions held in large-scale venues in the country in 2016, only 11 percent were international events.

Thus, the DOT in 2018 launched an ambitious MICE Roadmap 2030, which aims to raise the country’s MICE revenues to some P25 billion by 2030, from P4.6 billion in 2016. The DOT also targets to increase the total number of usable space for exhibitions to over 170,895 square meters by 2030, from some 71,000 sq m in 2017, as well as an annual 3-percent rise in MICE arrivals.

“With this roadmap, we can reclaim our rightful place as a MICE powerhouse,” said DOT Undersecretary for Tourism Development Benito C. Bengzon Jr. during the roadmap’s launch.

The DOT estimates that MICE accounts for 8 percent of the country’s total foreign arrivals, or 660,800 of the 8.26 million total inbound tourists in 2019. Although this appears to be an overestimation, compare this with Singapore, which pegged its MICE arrivals at some 3 million in 2018.

Covid-19, of course, has derailed said roadmap, which was “based on the mechanisms of the conventional MICE that relies heavily on face-to-face encounter and gathering of business people,” Bengzon told the BusinessMirror in an e-mail. The roadmap’s targets will have to be “revisited in view of the current situation,” he added.

Losses from Covid-19

“With the travel restrictions in place, and with virtually no guests arriving in the country, MICE as an industry is suffering from enormous losses being out of business for the past seven months,” he noted.

A group of MICE organizers, the Philippine Association of Convention/Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers Inc. (Paceos), estimates revenue opportunity losses of P2.1 billion on canceled exhibitions and conferences to date, due to Covid-19 restrictions. And with this, said Paceos President Joel Pascual, at risk are almost 9,000 jobs.

The organization spent a good part of the pandemic lockdown lobbying the government to “separate us from their general definition of mass gatherings because MICE is run under a controlled environment, and to craft our own hygiene and safety protocols to show government our efforts to mitigate the situation. Unfortunately, we have had no success on the separation from mass gathering definition, but at least the government has applied most of our recommended protocols and has given us official guidelines we can abide by once we are allowed to do MICE events,” he said. (The MICE guidelines are contained in Administrative Order 2020-006, which is available on DOT’s Facebook page.)

Aside from Covid-19, however, Pascual noted that among the challenges in the Philippines’s regaining its niche as a MICE location is its limited convention capacity. “With most venues fully booked, it is difficult to create new MICE events.  Most venues are also privately owned. Unlike in other countries where most of the venues are owned by government with the realization of MICE’s contribution as catalysts to great economic activity, their governments continue to build convention centers.”

Among the large-scale convention centers, with leasable space of at least 3,000 sq m, are the Iloilo Convention Center; PICC in Pasay; SM Megatrade Hall in Megamall; the SMX Convention Centers in BGC, Bacolod, Davao and Manila; and the World Trade Center in Pasay. An SMX Convention Center will also be completed at Clark, Pampanga, by 2021.

Virtual meetings

Perhaps, the Covid-19 travel restrictions may just be the solution, albeit temporarily, to this backlog in convention space in the country.

The DOT is helping MICE organizers cope with the pandemic by issuing health and safety guidelines in the holding of events. “The pandemic has compelled us to rethink our strategies,” said Bengzon. “On the directive of [Tourism] Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, we will bank on technology to mount ‘hybrid’ MICE events. These events will maximize technology and will be deemed ‘safer’ as it will lessen physical interaction among participants.”

As such, many will be looking to the Philippine Travel Exchange (Phitex) on September 22-24, 2020, as a test case for a MICE event in the country, while Covid-19 rages.

According to Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Chief Operating Officer Ma. Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones, more than 100 Philippine sellers and 100 foreign buyers will gather in one online platform for business-to-business sessions and networking for the event, aptly themed, “Phitex Pivots: Business Unusual.”

“Amid the immense challenges for the tourism industry, TPB is leveraging on digital technology as a platform to sustain and explore new opportunities and markets,” she explained. “With this e-conference setup, we endeavor to update our tourism market stakeholders from all over the world with the latest Philippine tourism offerings.”

What makes this year’s Phitex even more exciting, she said, is the hybrid aspect in which Philippine sellers will get a first-hand experience of travel in the new normal. Panglao Island in Bohol will be the official venue of the sellers for the virtual networking with international buyers, where strict safety protocols are implemented to ensure participants’ well-being. This initiative will provide stakeholders new approaches to boost tourism.

“Only local sellers who agreed to stay in Panglao [24 confirmed out of 112], will be flown to Bohol for Phitex,” said Allones. “It is good that Bohol has its own RT-PCR lab ready for the swab upon arrival tests. But we are also coordinating with [Bohol] Gov. Arthur Yap on their protocols regarding swabbing of attendees,” she added. TPB is also coordinating with local carriers for the flights to Bohol.

Looking forward

The DOT is eyeing Panglao, with its new airport and an array of natural and manmade attractions, as one of the first islands to reopen to international tourism once travel restrictions are lifted worldwide. More known as a wedding destination, Bohol may yet show the way in which virtual MICE events can be held.

(See, “DOT eyes international ‘travel bubble’ with virus-free zones,” in the BusinessMirror, June 10, 2020.)

Before Covid-19, the DOT singled out Metro Manila, Cebu, Iloilo and Davao as key MICE destinations for physical meetings.

Under the MICE roadmap, the DOT has also recommended the improvement of broadband service by “removing legal as well as economic barriers impeding fast and inexpensive Internet connection.”

With the reported approval of 1,502 out of 1,930 pending applications for telecommunications towers by local government units all over the country, major telcos assure better  Internet connection—a must for virtual setups such as hybrid MICE events.

Moving forward, Pascual’s “optimistic forecast” is that the MICE industry can return to normal levels by the fourth quarter of 2021. “In the meantime, we are pivoting toward virtual events.  Though we are still strong believers that there is no replacement for the face-to-face meetings, we, nonetheless, have to explore the possibilities available under these new circumstances. There have been mixed results, but as they say, ‘Rome was not built in a day.’”

WTTC’s David also says changes might be in the offing for the group’s Global Summit next year in Manila, owing to Covid-19 concerns: “I’m sure there will be some changes to the format in order to adapt to the new changing normal, but we are committed to hosting this event in, with the Philippines next year.”

For now, virtual is all that matters.

Image credits: Mikhail Davidovich | Dreamstime.com

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