The COVID-19 pandemic brought the MICE segment to a near standstill. Over the past year, the hospitality industry has been forced to innovate and embrace technology to adapt to consumer needs that changed nearly overnight. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the segment in the coming months.
In recent years, India has been poised as a rapidly emerging market for MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism, despite being a late entrant to the segment. A 2018 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) pegged MICE tourism in India at Rs 25,000 crore with a projected 8 per cent growth year-on-year, and the union government had its sights set on the country achieving 2 per cent of the global MICE market share by 2025.
Then COVID-19 struck, putting a severe damper on the segment. Business and corporate tourism has remained stagnant even as domestic leisure travel picked up when nationwide restrictions eased towards the end of 2020. “The MICE segment was one of the first areas of travel and tourism to be hit by the global pandemic, and, as it so seems, it could be one of the last to return to its full capacity,” says Akshay Mangalagiri, Director of Catering, Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru at Embassy ONE. While large events and conclaves are at the mercy of ever-changing government restrictions, stakeholders hope small scale events and corporate meetings will provide some respite for the beleaguered sector by mid-2021. But most agree a full revival is unlikely till Q4 of 2021-22.
Social events to drive the MICE segment
In the meanwhile, social events and weddings are expected to drive MICE business through 2021. With international travel restrictions still in place, the focus will be on the domestic market. “Over the next few months, besides weddings that continue through the auspicious dates in Q2, we also see increased requirements emerging from production and entertainment sectors for shoot needs as well as the active sports segment with the IPL announcement in India across six cities,” Parul Thakur – Senior Area Director Sales and Distribution, South Asia, Marriott International tells us. “We expect some recovery by Q3, especially in direct marketing companies, pharma and insurance sectors. We hope that the gathering size restrictions also will be relaxed by then, further improving the outlook,” adds Meena Rewari, Director Sales & Marketing, Park Hyatt, Chennai.
Technology, safety and hygiene are key
Virtual events and meetings have become the norm over the past year, and safety and hygiene will be of prime concern for companies considering in-person interactions in the coming months. The first step for hospitality brands to coax MICE customers back has been to build trust. “The biggest factor being considered today is the level of preparedness and readiness from hotels to work with the current cleanliness and hygiene standards laid out. Hotels that have been able to instil confidence in the customers on their hygiene and sanitation protocols have seen repeat customers conducting their meetings and events,” explains Thakur. Accor, for instance, introduced their ‘Welcome Back Program’ in partnership with leading airlines such as Vistara, SpiceJet and IndiGo. As part of the initiative, the hospitality group invited clients from the corporate, leisure, wedding and events segments for familiarisation trips to its properties to showcase their safety protocol first-hand.
With social distancing the new normal, hotels have turned to technology to adapt to changing consumer needs in the MICE segment. The hybrid event is one of the biggest trends to emerge from the pandemic, with planners investing in technology such as online registrations, live streaming and virtual reality booths. Novotel properties across India have launched ‘Vivaah at Novotel’, which extends a hybrid approach to weddings. Guests can choose to have a small in-person gathering at a host hotel and live stream the event for attendees at other sister properties around the country. Marriott has also begun offering virtual site inspection tools for customers seeking to host an event.
Hotels have also been strengthening their technological infrastructure in the boardroom to facilitate both physical and virtual corporate interactions. Accor has collaborated with Microsoft on All Connect, a hybrid meetings concept supported by Microsoft Teams. Four Seasons Bengaluru at Embassy ONE has a similar initiative in the works.
While the pivot to hybrid events may have been born out of necessity, Thakur says these changes are here to stay. “Many companies have seen cost efficiencies through hybrid events without impacting the participation and engagement levels of their audience. The post-COVID era shall never go back to the past considering we have technologically leap frogged and much of these digital advancements can continue to coexist in the future.”
“Another key aspect in 2021 to encourage MICE demand will be providing flexibility on commercial terms and conditions, given that these are unique times,” says Rohit Chopra – Regional Director – Sales & Distribution – Accor India & South Asia. Marriott, for instance, is offering perks to those who book meetings and events up until December 31 at hotels and resorts across Asia Pacific participating in its Marriott Bonvoy loyalty programme.
As the past year has evidenced, the hospitality industry has been forced to reimagine the way meetings and events should be conducted. As life limps back to normalcy in 2021, hotels will have to continue to demonstrate agility and innovation to win back the MICE segment.