The future of Taiwan tourism
The second in the ECCT's Next Generation Business and Leaders Series was held on the topic "The future of Taiwan tourism - MICE, business, and leisure travel". The Premium Event lunch featured a panel discussion with guests S Steven Pan, Executive Chairman of the Silks Hotel Group and FIH Corporation and James CF Huang, Chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA). The discussion was moderated by Michael Wu, Co-chairperson of the ECCT's Travel & Tourism committee.
The moderator began by asking both panellists to give an update as to how they had adjusted to life during the coronavirus pandemic. James Huang noted that TAITRA manages four major conference and exhibition facilities, which were left mostly idle over the past year due to the cancellation of major events. Given border closures, TAITRA was forced to learn how to host online events. It did this by cooperating with online vendors and platforms to plan and run virtual events. He noted that a recent cycling show held in a purely online format managed to attract 100,000 visitors. While obviously not the same as a live event, by contrast he noted that Taiwan's trade shows used to previously attract around 100,000 overseas visitors per year, with the largest show, Computex, alone receiving 40,000 overseas visitors.
Huang went on to say that after cancelling the show last year, this year's Computex will have a hybrid format. The exhibition portion will be virtual while the tech forum portion will be live and feature CEOs from top global technology firms. He said that TAITRA is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) to make special travel and accommodation arrangements for visiting CEOs to allow them to participate in the live forums as keynote speakers and panellists.
In his response, Steven Pan said that the past year has been like a tale of two cities (or regions), noting that Taipei-based hotels had suffered badly from the drop in overseas visitors but that resorts in popular destinations had seen a boom in business. He said that the first two months of the pandemic were the worst period but that since about May last year, the domestic travel market has seen a brisk pick-up, benefiting his group's resort hotels and the banquet and catering business of hotels in Taipei.
Pan praised the government for its support during the pandemic. Thanks to government support, hotels were able to not only keep staff employed but also enrol them in training programmes. His group used this opportunity to give employees cross-cultural classes and "cross-training", which Pan described as teaching employees multiple skills that would allow them to do work in several different roles. The time of low guest numbers has also been used to upgrade promotional and social media platforms.
Pan noted that right after borders were closed, the knee-jerk response by many hotels was to cut prices but that such a strategy was not ultimately sustainable and that hotels realised that they needed to find new ways to earn revenue and upgrade their services to improve their competitiveness.
On a question as to the strategy for the interim period until the end of the pandemic, James Huang said that the impact on the Meetings Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) business will, to a large extent, depend on border control policy, both in Taiwan and globally. Obviously most people will not be willing to travel while there are still strict quarantine requirements in place. Huang said that we will likely see a system of testing and verification put in place to allow people who can verify that they are not carrying the virus and have antibodies to be able to travel without the need for quarantine. Huang said that he believes that rules to this effect will be implemented soon. In the meantime, TAITRA will continue to host hybrid events and explore alternative business models.
In his reply to the same question, Steven Pan said that the pandemic experience had forced people and businesses to become more creative. Training in his group allowed people to develop multiple skills while catering and marketing teams worked to devise a much more diverse range of packages.
Looking ahead to beyond the pandemic, Huang said that no one can predict with certainty how things will develop and we are still in the learning process. However, he expressed the view that the hybrid model for exhibitions is likely to continue. He cited the example of the global research and advisory firm, Gartner, which used to hold three major global events annually but switched to a virtual format last year. According to attendees, the virtual format was better than the previous live versions. Besides not having to deal with the wasted time and logistics of travel, an added benefit of the virtual format was that participants could post questions during the session that were answered in real time by Gartner staff. In addition, all sessions were recorded and available to view for weeks after the event, meaning that instead of having to choose between overlapping events, participants were able to see all sessions of interest to them at their leisure. That said, Huang believes that there is no substitute for personal contact for building personal relationships. Therefore, the future of MICE is likely to be hybrid. However, the percentage of virtual/live activities and the format of each event will depend on specific factors, including the type of business being promoted.
Steven Pan said that pandemic has led people to no longer take for granted things like health, sanitation and the safety of food and water. The hotel industry will have to step up their efforts to meet heightened consumer demand for health and safety in order to be competitive.
In the Q&A session both speakers expressed doubts that MICE and international business travel will ever return to pre-pandemic levels and that they will need to adjust their business models to the new reality and different expectations of customers.