Macao needs to find its niche to further the meetings, incentives, conference and exhibitions (MICE) sectors, local scholars and professionals said. [Special coverage]
Just like the city is a gaming hub, it needs to become a major MICE destination, they added.
Macao is no stranger to hosting international events, exhibitions and conventions, thanks to its strategic location, prime venues and diversity of entertainment offerings. In the first five-year development plan, unveiled in September, Macao laid out its plan to diversify its economy.
But many challenges lie ahead.
"Macao can't just be a copycat," said Agnes Lam Iok-fong, president of political commentary group Macao Civic Power. "If a jewellery exhibition took place in Hong Kong, you can't have another one here. But what about a wedding gown fair."
Lam said the local MICE industry should aim to launch related, but not similar events and exhibitions to those that took place in neighbouring cities.
"In communication, we call it 'pitching the right idea'," added Lam, also an assistant professor of communications at University of Macao. She said positioning is the key for the city to launch itself as a MICE brand, especially as Macao is not a manufacturing base to support any trade shows and exhibition.
Simon Li, general manager of Concept Communications, an event marketing agency which has offices in Hong Kong and Macao, agreed that Macao lacks a specific position in the convention and exhibition industry.
"Although Hong Kong and Singapore do not have a large manufacturing industry, they are well-known financial hubs. Many investors, industry executives, and large-scale business, financial conferences, events and exhibitions can be found in those places," Li said.
Li considered entertainment offerings and facilities are the strong edge of the city.
"The SAR performs adequately in exhibitions and trade fairs, but remarkably in events and conferences. The diverse leisure and lodging options offer a strong destination appeal," he added.
But such appeal is somehow dwarfed by the city's substandard transport infrastructure.
"The poor public transport and traffic, particularly the airport and connections, is not on par with one in Hong Kong and Singapore," said Glenn McCartney, assistant professor of hospitality and gaming management at the University of Macao.
Li, the MICE veteran, agreed and urged for more airlines and international direct flights, as well as a prompt airport expansion.
He indicated another obstacle ahead: the dearth of human resources. Despite an upsurge of event management graduates in Macao, Li saw not many of them could catch up with the market's rapid development.
Quotas for imported labours and red tape in applying for work visa in Macao is also a problem in hiring MICE talents, as many graduates from Institute of Tourism Studies and local universities are from Chinese mainland and Southeast Asian countries.
"In Hong Kong, immigration arrangement guarantees a one-year working visa for non-local graduates. Here, one has to wait no less than three months for a working permit," Li said. "It somehow discourages them from working in the city."
Davis Fong Ka-chio, director of Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming, saw local MICE sector in Macao only as convention industry.
Not many large companies in the city can support the event market. "Exhibitions also don't have an edge here," Fong addeed, "especially when Guangzhou delivers tradeshows every spring and autumn."
Instead, he regarded an integrated package as an advantage the industry in Macao, where many resort hotels MICE operators itself. They can provide one-stop services from space planning, venue design, technical management, first-class lodging options, transportations and even entertainment facilities. In Hong Kong, different operators specialise in each part of the event management, resulting in higher cost and more need of coordination across companies and hotels.
When asked about the developing of MICE sector in this gaming hub, industry insiders are expecting an upward trend, which is unlikely to be threatened by flagging tourism and gaming revenues.
"The downturn may mean less profit earned by the casino-resort operators, but it also means more venues and rooms available for events and conventions," he added. "For the past four years, despite a plunge in VIP junkets, Macao hosted more MICE events during the period."