SINGAPORE - Singapore's economic recovery has taken another big step forward with the start of Restaurant Asia 2021 on Thursday (Nov 18) - which is expected to be the largest meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (Mice) event held here to date since Covid-19 curbs were eased.
The three-day food and beverage symposium and trade show is slated to draw 1,000 people a day.
The event joins two others this week - Milken Institute Asia Summit and Bloomberg New Economy Forum - among pilot events in a scheme that allows for large business gatherings with fully vaccinated attendees who have been tested for Covid-19.
Around 300 international business and government leaders attended the ongoing Bloomberg forum on Wednesday, while the Milken summit, which ended on Tuesday, saw networking zones of up to 200 people.
Unlike the other two events, however, no pre-event testing is required for Restaurant Asia 2021. The Straits Times understands that all the participants are locally based individuals, including non-Singapore citizens, who are fully vaccinated.
The F&B event, which returns after an almost two-year hiatus, will run till Saturday. Enhanced safety measures include the pre-registration of all participants, and limits on the time they can spend in one of five zones.
Around 500 participants are allowed for each of the morning and afternoon sessions, and the event space is disinfected between sessions.
At the opening ceremony, Mr Andrew Kwan, president of Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS), called for an increase of dining capacity to eight people to help the battered F&B industry get back on its feet.
"I must make this one respectful request - that it is perhaps timely to tap not on the brakes, but the accelerator, to increase the momentum of recovery with eight people dining for all who are vaccinated and who are medically excused," he said.
"RAS and our members will pledge, as an industry, to do our part to screen and to serve our patrons safely and responsibly."
Currently, the group size limit for dining in F&B outlets is two fully vaccinated individuals, or five fully inoculated people from the same household.
With the F&B sector in recovery mode, the event's guest of honour, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong, announced the launch of a guidebook for entrepreneurs.
"Each year, we see one in five F&B outlets being replaced, and one in two F&B businesses does not make it past the four-year mark, even as more entrants enter the sector," he said, noting that F&B sector is a challenging one.
"It is thus imperative for new entrepreneurs to plan carefully before starting on their F&B journey," he added.
Called Turning Passion Into Profits, the book by RAS and Enterprise Singapore contains key elements for long-term success, tips on menu engineering and financial management, and advice from seasoned operators. A copy can be downloaded from the RAS and Enterprise Singapore websites.
Restaurant Asia, which is co-organised with the International Coffee & Tea Asia symposium, will see 113 exhibitors and brands from 12 countries showcasing machinery, equipment and ingredients.
The organiser, Conference & Exhibition Management Services (Cems), is also expecting to host around 3,000 to 5,000 exhibitors, buyers and visitors digitally over the course of the event.
Over the coming weeks, Cems will host other large-scale Mice events, namely Architecture & Building Services 2021 and Singapore International Jewellery Expo 2021.
Mr Edward Liu, managing director of Cems, told ST that it is expecting similar, if not higher, numbers for the upcoming events.
"In normal years, our shows would have been four to five times bigger and we would have had over 200 exhibitors, and we could even reach 5,000 to 10,000 trade visitors," he said.
"With Restaurant Asia 2021, we are testing the limits of how we can manage this with the safe management protocols in place... Singapore has always been the hub for the Mice industry in this part of the world, so any baby steps towards the total revival would be good for the Singapore economy," he added.
F&B players ST spoke to welcomed the arrival of large-scale Mice events such as Restaurant Asia and the Bloomberg forum.
"All these things are a signal that things can normalise, and it's a sign that more things should be allowed to open up," said Mr Loh Lik Peng, chief executive officer of hospitality group Unlisted Collection.
However, a lot more needs to be done before the F&B scene can confidently say it is on the path to recovery, he said.
"As F&B operators, we are still under a lot of pressure, with factors like inflation as well as food and labour costs," added Mr Loh, whose company runs brands like contemporary Chinese restaurant Majestic in the Central Business District, and barbecue restaurant Meatsmith which has outlets in Telok Ayer and Little India.
"We don’t mind continuing things like vaccination checks as more of the population gets vaccinated, and people have started to get booster shots... but major milestones we’re looking forward to are things like the (current 10.30pm) limit on alcohol sales and consumption being lifted, as well as the limits on the number of diners allowed to dine in."
Like him, other F&B operators, are also hoping for news that restrictions on dining-in capacities will be eased ahead of the lucrative festive period.
"It will be good to know soon if eateries can allow five or eight people to dine in soon, because we need to start planning for Christmas and New Year’s... The festive season is the time when restaurants can make money," said Ms Joy Chen, business partner of seafood restaurant HolyCrab.
Increasing capacities will come with rule changes, hence Ms Chen suggested that F&B groups should be consulted in focus groups before every round of new measures is rolled out by the authorities.
"There are a lot of mixed signals each time, and all the confusion can be worked out if we are consulted first," she said.
Mr Keith Chua, executive chairman of ABR Holdings Limited, which runs restaurant chains like Swensen’s, also asked that consumers be understanding.
"There will be changes in regulations as we open up, so we seek their understanding as new guidelines come out each time," he said.
As operators look to bounce back, they will also need the cooperation of "landlords as partners in recovery".
"The area of food delivery will also be quite a key part of the revenue structure for restaurants, but delivery platform costs remain high... so we need to work with them to find win-win solutions," he added.
Last month, a thousand spectators were present at the Singapore Premier League match where Lion City Sailors beat Balestier Khalsa to win the championship. Fans had to produce a negative antigen rapid test result or be fully vaccinated to gain entry.