Coronavirus: Mice and tourism sectors prepare for slowdown

Organisers face cancelled, postponed events while businesses take measures to cope

People walk along a bridge past Marina Bay Sands on Feb 5, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

It may be the Year of the Rat, but things are not looking rosy for the Mice (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) sector, an industry leader quipped yesterday.

Mr Aloysius Arlando, president of the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers, told the media that several hundred events have been postponed or cancelled since last Friday, when Singapore raised its disease outbreak response to orange amid local transmission of the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry has advised organisers to cancel or defer non-essential large-scale events as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Three events scheduled to take place next month, including the IT Show - a popular consumer electronics exhibition - have been postponed until further notice, organiser Sphere Exhibits said yesterday.

While events scheduled for the second half of the year are still on the calendar for now, Mr Arlando said, "we might run into the phenomenon of a bunching of events looking for inventory". He was speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) annual performance review.

The association is figuring out how best to accommodate postponements, he added.

STB chief executive Keith Tan yesterday said Singapore's tourism sector is facing its biggest challenge since the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

Tourism industry associations said that while their members have been hard hit by the slowdown, no business closures or layoffs have been made public yet.

But cost-cutting measures such as shorter operating hours and work weeks are being put in place by some businesses as plans for government aid are being worked out.

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Cash flow will be a growing problem if the situation continues, industry members said.

Mr Charles Tan, secretary-general of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore, said its members are looking forward to support for the industry being announced next Tuesday, when Budget 2020 is unveiled.

"Wage supplements, training credits and other ways of helping us during the recovery phase" are high on the industry's wish list.

Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association, said preserving jobs is a key priority as manpower is the industry's most precious asset.

No workers were let go during the Sars period, she said, as government support helped hotels to tide over the nine months or so that it took to recover, and the hope is that none will be let go in the current crisis.

Some tourist spots, like Sentosa, are looking to grow their base of local visitors.

Businesses on the island have reported a drop in visitorship and sales of between 20 per cent and 50 per cent since the start of the month, said Sentosa Development Corporation chief executive Quek Swee Kuan.

The island's admission will be waived for all during the March school holidays, and it may be extended if the situation does not improve, he added.

Services and programming aimed at drawing more locals will also be implemented in time to come.

Dr Kevin Cheong, executive committee member of the Association of Singapore Attractions, agreed that getting more Singaporeans to visit tourist attractions will provide a much-needed boost. "I think the fear factor has hit home, people are afraid of going to crowded places... We need to encourage residents to come back," he said.

A task force comprising industry and government agency members will be formed to help with recovery plans and boost confidence in Singapore's tourism establishments. More details will be announced at a later date, STB said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Mice and tourism sectors prepare for slowdown. Subscribe