The new year had got off to a good start for Mr Dylan Sharma. His wife was expecting their first child and his event management company was set to repeat its strong showing of 2019.
Then things took an unexpected turn in late January.
Each day brought more bad news of a mysterious viral plague, sending jitters around the globe that trickled down to Tricom Events, which he had set up in 2006 with a business partner, Ms Janice Swee.
They had been colleagues at another event company when Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit in 2003. "We were mindful that it could be a replay," said Mr Sharma, 43.
Since then, the seasoned event planners have weathered other shocks and jolts - the 2008 global financial crisis, the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, for instance. But nothing could have prepared them for the scale of devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought.
The day after Singapore raised its disease outbreak response alert to orange on Feb 7, worried clients called to cancel or postpone events lined up for February and March. The two battle-tested directors were concerned, but not overly so. "At first, we thought it might be a three-month thing, like Sars," said Ms Swee, 41.
The bottom fell out
But just as their 20-strong team was gearing up for the peak season that hits full swing from April, the bottom fell out of their world. Borders began closing and screws were progressively tightened to limit physical interaction and curb the virus spread in Singapore.
In late March came the decision to call off the high-profile Shangri-La Dialogue, slated for June 5 to 7. Tricom Events had been staging the annual defence summit involving ministers and delegates from over 40 countries since 2012. Its other events scheduled for June and July were axed too.
The company had posted a healthy revenue of more than $13 million in 2019 and was projecting a similar yield for 2020. But the hopes quickly evaporated. "Ours is a binary business - either you have an event or you don't," Mr Sharma explained.
Even as Singapore cautiously reopens its borders and eases restrictions, the two founders expect turnover this year to plunge by about 90 per cent. The pandemic has dealt a brutal blow to the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (Mice) market, which typically banks on large crowds and high-yield business travellers - both unlikely prospects in the near future.
The sector is a key player in Singapore's tourism industry. Last year, it contributed $3.8 billion in value-add to the economy, or nearly 1 per cent of the GDP, and supported more than 34,000 jobs. But with demand cratering almost overnight, it was one of the first industries to be hit - and will be among the last to recover.
Commitment to staff
The Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (Saceos) appealed for more aid in May, warning that more than half the companies in the sector would go under by year end if the Covid-19 outbreak persisted and support was not enhanced.
Saceos is a member of the Alliance for Action on Enabling Safe and Innovative Visitor Experiences, convened by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce in June to quickly prototype ideas on redesigning safe business events and leisure itineraries amid the pandemic. Saceos has since launched the Event Industry Resilience Roadmap that details ways to help Mice players bounce back.
Players like Tricom Events have been thrown a lifeline with wage subsidies under the Job Support Scheme. Still, it has had to slash costs to keep its headcount. "Early on in the crisis, we made a commitment to our staff that we would not retrench anyone due to Covid-19," said Ms Swee. "So we had to seriously consider our options."
From April to June, all the staff took a few days of no-pay leave each month, effectively working a four-day week. They reverted to a five-day week in July but with tiered pay cuts, ranging from 20 per cent for junior staff to 50 per cent for Mr Sharma and Ms Swee.
Even then, the two partners knew that would not be enough to keep Tricom Events afloat, with zero billings in sight and their reserves fast dwindling.
Moving the business online
"We knew that if we just carried on and waited it out, the entire business would be at risk. We would be rendered irrelevant," said Mr Sharma.
So they did what scores of other businesses big and small have been doing to survive: pivot. Their first step was to explore moving the business online. Just as quickly, they realised there was no template on how to stage a virtual event, a novel concept then.
"Training was on the fly," Ms Swee recalled. "Everyone (in the industry) was playing catch-up. We are all still learning."
The team researched the requirements of going digital, invested in the necessary tech solutions and looked at how to plug their skill gaps. The battle for survival was industry-wide. Faced with the threat of collapse, different players banded together to share their knowledge and explore solutions.
"I found myself talking to guys that I would typically be in competition with or other service providers that I don't necessarily engage with," said Mr Sharma, who co-leads a group examining the hybrid event format under Saceos' industry roadmap. "We all realised we are in this together."
All that hard work paid off. After a seven-month drought, Tricom Events was hired to run online events in August and September.
Driving the hybrid model
The Singapore International Energy Week (Siew) 2020 was the first pilot Mice event, hosting up to 250 attendees on site, under the Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) Safe Business Events Framework. Tricom Events, which had long pencilled in the event for October, quickly adapted training for a hybrid event, studying the logistics, technologies and potential pitfalls of staging a physical event with a virtual component running in parallel.
At the same time, the Alliance on Enabling Safe and Innovative Visitor Experiences, co-led by Ms Kwee Wei-Lin of Singapore Hotel Association and Mr Lee Seow Hiang of Changi Airport Group, has been working closely with a diverse range of industry stakeholders; and as part of the public-private collaboration, has developed a prototype for safe trade shows and exhibitions. (See "Emerging Stronger Together", below.)
The annual energy conference, held at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) from Oct 26 to 30, was not just Tricom Events' first in-person event since January. It was also Singapore's first large-scale physical event since the pandemic, with pre-event Covid-19 swabbing using antigen rapid tests.
As a crucial test and showcase of the country's reopening strategy, the stakes were naturally high. There were, as Ms Swee put it, "many more interested eyeballs than there would originally have been".
The team emerged from the baptism of fire with precious takeaways. For one thing, they found there was far less wiggle room in a hybrid format, which is in essence running two events at the same time. Plus, extra variables thrown up by the digital segment meant having to ensure scheduled speakers dialled in on time, and constantly checking on technical aspects such as the connection and audio quality.
New scalability opportunities
The pilot event has helped Tricom Events develop a playbook on how to enhance user experience and reinvent networking, a prized element of business conferences, for a virtual audience.
A digital component also opens up new business opportunities. Organisers can reach a wider online audience once the infrastructure is in place. Mr Sharma said, "I could be setting up for 20 or 200 on site, but I could have in fact 2,000 people watching online. The scalability is enhanced."
Siew hints at this potential. While it used to draw about 10,000 attendees across five days, this year's edition saw 20,000 online viewers from over 50 countries.
Mr Tim Rockell, who chairs the Energy & Utilities Committee of the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore, believes the country can lead the way in the new model. A trusted host city and wired business hub, Singapore has demonstrated its medtech capabilities, such as rapid testing, and boasts the broadband infrastructure needed to run a successful digital segment in tandem.
Mr Rockell, who moderated a session on the first day of Siew at MBS and hosted a roundtable discussion remotely on the fourth day, shared that the on-site experience was "seamless… testing worked like a dream and all the protocols were put in place".
His LinkedIn post on the event drew 14,000 views in three days, a personal record which he said demonstrated the keen interest in how to safely hold events amid the pandemic.
After many trying months, things are slowly looking up for Tricom Events and its founders.
Mr Sharma welcomed a baby girl in September and will be flying to Bahrain with a team in December to run the Manama Dialogue, the Middle East's premier security summit. "It has been a prolonged unknown, and we are still trying to navigate the uncertainty," he said.
But there is, at least, some light at the end of the tunnel.
"Even if the reopening is slow and gradual, it's fine as long as there are tangible steps being taken," he added. "Whatever it is, we just have to make sure we are equipped with the right skill sets and ready for what lies ahead."