SPH unit submits joint bid to manage Singapore Expo

Singapore Expo is the country's largest exhibition venue, with 108,000 sq m of indoor space. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is currently evaluating the proposals for the tender, which closed Feb 14.
Singapore Expo is the country's largest exhibition venue, with 108,000 sq m of indoor space. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is currently evaluating the proposals for the tender, which closed Feb 14.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - A unit of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has thrown its hat into the ring for a government tender to become the managers of Singapore Expo for 10 years from 2019, in a three-cornered fight involving incumbent SingEx Venues and a unit of Singapore entrepreneur Ron Sim's V3 Group.

The Business Times understands that SPH's wholly owned events arm Sphere Exhibits and concert organiser Unusual Development jointly submitted a S$60 million proposal for the 10-year contract for Singapore's largest exhibition venue, which has 108,000 sq m of indoor space.

Sphere has been considering expanding into the venue-management space since 2013.

Sphere Exhibits, which started in 2008, organises 40 exhibitions and events each year in the region, including BuildTech Asia and Singapore's COMEX and IT Show.

Unusual Development, a unit of Catalist-listed Unusual Limited, already co-manages Max Pavilion at Expo, which has hosted concerts and fan meets for stars like Fall Out Boy, Lee Min Ho and Michael Bolton.

Mainboard-listed mm2 Asia acquired Unusual Limited in 2016.

In another corner is the S$60 million bid by Futuristic Store Fixtures, of which Mr Sim acquired a majority stake in 2017 as part of his V3 Group, which also owns brands like OSIM and TWG.

BT understands from industry sources that sports and entertainment company AEG has partnered Futuristic, and that other Singaporean brands such as Razer could be on board.

Mr Sim declined comment on this.

US-headquartered AEG owns arenas globally such as O2 and has a festival and exhibition arm called AEG Live. It has promoted shows here such as the Ed Sheeran concert.

They are up against incumbent SingEx Venues and its S$50 million proposal. It is a unit of Temasek Holdings and its 20-year contract to manage Singapore Expo expires at the end of this year.

Mr Sim told BT in an exclusive interview that he has been mulling such a bid for at least a couple of years, prompted by his years of attending expos in Europe and Japan.

"An expo shouldn't just be a leasing space; it should be engaging, entertaining and experiential," he said.

He believes that his entrepreneurial chops can give him the fresh eyes to elevate Singapore Expo's global standing. He declined to answer more questions about the specifics of the tender or his proposal due to a non-disclosure agreement signed by all bidders.

Unusual Development declined comment, while SingEx told BT: "We look forward to the results of the tender."

SPH also declined comment.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is currently evaluating proposals for the tender, which closed Feb 14.

The appointed party will operate and manage Expo between 2019 and 2028, said Chew Tiong Heng, executive director for infrastructure planning and management at STB.

"We are looking for an operator that is able to market and operate the Expo at a high standard, comparable to other leading international meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions (MICE) venues, and be a critical player in the next phase of growth in Singapore's exhibitions and conferences sector," he said.

Experts told BT that this could harken a new direction for Singapore Expo, which comprises 10 exhibition halls, and hosts around 600 events and an average of six million visitors each year.

Opened in 1999, it was designed as a space for mega trade shows, but Singapore has since come up against competition from venues in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia said Edward Liu, group managing director of Conference and Exhibition Management Services.

The Business Travel and Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conventions and Exhibition (BTMICE) visitor arrivals slipped five per cent to 1.75 million visitors in the first three quarters of 2017.

"The landscape is changing rather fast, and if Singapore is to remain a key player, we may have to reinvent ourselves," said Mr Liu.

Janet Tan-Collis, the president of Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS) said SingEx has "done a good job" and had been innovative in recent years.

Under SingEx's management, the venue has diversified into hosting consumer shows and large-scale events like the Singapore Fintech Festival.

But Futuristic and Unusual's bid signal that they may have ideas up their sleeve for events that go beyond just traditional trade shows, Mrs Tan-Collis said.

An industry expert who declined to be named said that SPH's strength lies in its portfolio of events and conferences, such as the Asia Pacific CEO Congress.

Zarina Othman, director of PCO (Professional Conference Organisation) at MCI Group, observed that Unusual may have an edge as it has been "a long-time partner of Singapore Expo".

Other parts of the Unusual group of companies, acquired by mm2 in 2016, market and organise events and provide stage, sound and lighting inventory for shows.

But SingEx also brings a history of both event and facilities management. "They've got the experience and lay of the land, but creativity is something that will bring them across the line," Ms Othman said.

An industry expert who declined to be named said Futuristic's bid could be the "dark horse" in the mix with its AEG partnership and Mr Sim's connections.

But Expo is unlikely to shed its trade show purpose entirely, the expert said, given the importance of the MICE industry to Singapore's economy.

Moreover, Expo caters to a specific type of exhibitor here due to its ceiling height of up to 16m and high floor-load capacity.

Other venues here include Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre, and the Resorts World Convention Centre.