ITB Asia 2020 shows how resilient travel industry can be

TD speaks with Katrina Leung, managing director, Messe Berlin (Singapore)

TD Editor

Professionals within the travel trade industry know that the last quarter of the year is known as MICE months in the pre-COVID world as several events and conferences are happening during this time of the year.

One of the highly anticipated events held annually is ITB Asia in Singapore. I remember my first attendance to ITB Asia in 2018 and I saw how exhibitors go all out in their booths. Tourism boards bring all the fanfare to promote destinations to attendees and buyers.

TD caught up with Katrina Leung, managing director, Messe Berlin (Singapore) about ITB Asia going virtual this year.

Travel Daily: Why it is essential for the ITB Asia show to go on virtually?

Katrina Leung: As Asia’s leading travel trade show, we saw the need for the travel industry to band together with regulators and partners to strengthen confidence and build resilience during this extraordinary time. We recognised that many in the industry look to us for direction as the industry gears toward recovery, and so undertook the responsibility to adapt and serve the travel trade community.

As part of the recovery, there is a need to raise the best practices and content for the travel trade. This meant that we had to rethink how we can ensure the continuity of our annual show. At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of various industries that were previously not considered or seen to be possible.

With technology now playing an even bigger part of our lives, this gave us the opportunity to demonstrate our agility and ability to innovate, as well as work around the various social distancing measures. Taking this into consideration, going virtual was a way for us to continue providing businesses in the industry a platform to connect – uniting and enabling business meetings to take place for seamless knowledge exchange. By taking the show virtually, we are also hoping to set a good example of how digital disruption can benefit the industry and revolutionise travel.

TD: What are the preparations you made (or are making) for this new set-up?

KL: As part of going virtual, we launched ITB Community in Asia (ITB Community), a new platform offering a comprehensive user experience and virtual events (including the upcoming ITB Asia 2020 Virtual 2020, ITB India 2021 – Hybrid event with Live & Virtual component – and Travel Meet Asia series). In making the transition online as seamless as possible, and to provide an experience as close to the physical event, we will be continuously improving the platform leading up to ITB Asia 2020 Virtual.

On the backend, this includes working closely with our platform developer to ensure ITB Community will be able to support a large user base during the ITB Asia 2020 Virtual and other virtual events planned throughout the course of the year. This translates into smoother user experience with reduced lag while on the platform.

We also launched the Travel Meet Asia series of virtual events which serves as a value-add to the industry’s efforts of attendee engagement. ITB Community and its hosted virtual events will also feature the same Business Matching functions, conferences and keynotes, and exhibition booths that we have become synonymous with. This will now be made available for access for one full year and will create an avenue for increased engagement between buyers, suppliers, and industry players.

ITB Community was also built to incorporate and make available content and resources, which include various features to enable business meetings and allow knowledge exchange. These include the platform’s integrated business matching and communication tools, such as a messaging board, forums, focused groups, live chat, and video call functions.

TD: How ITB Asia will unite the community to enable business meetings and allow knowledge exchange?

KL: ITB Asia will be hosted on the ITB Community platform as part of moving the stage online. We endeavour to ensure that the virtual ITB Asia experience is as similar to the physical experience as our attendees have come to recognise. Due to the challenges in travel and gathering in numbers, the platform serves to mitigate these difficulties by bringing networking opportunities online, as an avenue for engagement between buyers, suppliers, and industry players – where our global database of travel suppliers and buyers will still be able to continue business meetings as usual.

In addition, in a time when steps towards recovery are still uncertain, we continue to curate expert speakers from across the travel industry as part of our conference programme. These speakers will continue their conversations and contribute insights to best practices and content for the travel trade, serving as a guide for other industry players to reference as they navigate and rewrite the new normal.

In addition, as part of ITB Community, ITB Asia 2020 Virtual event will also make content and resources available, where the platform includes features such as:

Community Activity Feed – An interactive social networking page to share latest insights, articles and participate in group discussions.

Business Matching – Live platform to exchange business contacts and schedule virtual appointments. Delegates can benefit from business appointment via social video and messaging functions.

Conference – A robust line-up of key industry speakers with thought-providing insights or showcases of innovative technology and solutions.

Supplier Directory – A comprehensive view of all suppliers, such as company profiles, product resources and downloadable articles.

Knowledge Library – Resource library of trade articles, white papers on travel destinations, research reports and content by industry bellwethers and trade partners.

On-demand Videos – Access to exclusive videos from virtual events or industry contributors.

TD: One of the things I remember the most in ITB is the exhibition and keynotes happening at the same time. How will the ITB experience change this year?

KL: One of the biggest differences attendees will notice in ITB Asia 2020 Virtual this year is that it will be hosted virtually via ITB Community. The various networking opportunities, knowledge exchange and industry exhibitions will take place via the ITB Community platform instead of physically at the usual Sands Expo & Convention Centre in Singapore.

In moving online, attendees will be able to simultaneously attend keynotes and conferences, while interacting with other attendees and exhibitors. Additionally, videos of keynotes and virtual events will also be made available on the platform, and attendees will be able to enjoy watching the playbacks on demand. Taking into account feedback from attendees during the previous years, where many felt the need to choose between simultaneously run keynotes and conferences, this new function will provide a workaround, and hopefully allow them to enjoy a fuller ITB Asia experience.

We are also pioneering a year-long engagement programme for ITB Community. Through this, attendees will be provided increased opportunities to network or attend conferences – beyond our initial dates in October. This ensures the longevity of engagement between our attendees who can continue to conduct business, networking and knowledge exchange throughout the year. Suppliers will now also be able to extend their conversations and interact beyond one-off meetings, as well as make more business connections through the platform.

TD: With travel still dampened by restrictions, what is the silver lining in the “new normal”?

KL: Indeed, even amid tough times, we need to seek the silver lining – in this case, positive experiences that have helped the industry grow, thrive and even learn from. The pandemic has shown how resilient the travel industry can be – where various players have turned to creative methods to sustain themselves throughout the tough times. It is also heartening to see that different sectors of the industry have banded together to support one another, This sees two sectors of the industry, from different countries, work together to stimulate demand for travel when borders are reopened.

Additionally, as many businesses have turned digital as part of work-from-home arrangements, travel restrictions have pushed the travel industry to accelerate its digitisation. This includes offering virtual tours to travel-starved travellers, to enhancing digital connectivity to boost contact tracing efforts and even being supported by the government to utilise smart services to allow businesses to drive innovation and guide business via shared data and content. Once thought almost impossible, large scale events – including ITB Asia – have taken the opportunity to pivot to a new event model, demonstrating the travel trade’s ability to innovate, continue forging partnerships and engaging various stakeholders in this challenging time. This new normal will also allow us to embrace a future of hybrid events where physical shows are complemented with digital infrastructure – allowing us the flexibility of embracing both face-to-face and virtual meetings.

In addition, this slowdown has provided opportunities for many businesses to revaluate strategies to move towards a more sustainable tourism model – where tourism boards and destinations have the chance to strategize to attract more foreign tourists but also protect the needs of the ecosystem. These are valuable opportunities for the industry to rewrite norms and find new ways to continue engaging the masses, consumers and businesses alike, paving the way for resurgence when travel resumes again.

Right after Messe Berlin has announced that ITB Asia 2020 will go virtual this year, Singapore is restarting its MICE industry allowing small conferences. Leung confirmed that ITB Asia 2020 will remain as a virtual event from 21 – 23 Oct 2020 while we gear up for TravelRevive happening later this year. We are proud to be able to play a leading role in the restart of the industry by working with Singapore Tourism Board to host the first pilot event, TravelRevive, in November.

The MICE industry is an important contributor towards Singapore’s economy and the gradual reopening of business events is a sign of confidence in the industry’s resilience to overcome challenges that have surfaced because of the pandemic. The hybrid event will see us working closely with the government and industry players to explore and pioneer innovative experiences that will transform the way business events are run in the future.

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