From snow to sand: WEF’s journey from Switzerland to Singapore

From snow to sand: WEF’s journey from Switzerland to Singapore 1920 1280 Shipra Khanna

Video killed the conference star? The Covid-19 pandemic changed the face of the event industry; it brought virtual connectivity tools into the spotlight with the majority of events in 2020 conducted online by organisers who tried to replicate the in-person experience digitally.

The effectiveness and convenience of simply logging on to be transported into a virtual event setting came as a surprise and was a welcome change for many. It meant that attending a conference caused minimum disruption to a working day or week; with no extensive travel time and logistics required, as well as being more cost-effective.

It appears though that the novelty has worn off, with people experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’. The mere thought of dialling into another e-session fills some with dread, demonstrated by a decline in attendance of virtual events and a greater number of no-shows compared with live events at the end of 2020. The shift to spending our entire day online has reduced attention spans further, making audience engagement in digital conferences one of the challenges. Content is still king.

There is certainly something unique about interacting face-to-face (although you can’t blame your internet connection for your lag in reacting to someone’s joke.) On the other hand, Simon English, senior city correspondent at the Evening Standard recently noted that ‘it’s common to think that online conferences are tedious. I think they are way better than the real thing, since it’s easier to take notes and, perhaps, to ask rude questions that you might find daunting in front of a live audience,’ possibly appealing to people who disliked the impersonal nature of large gatherings.

In the sea of virtuality, it’s an interesting outlier that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has announced that it will hold its 2021 annual summit in the tropical city-state of Singapore, instead of its home of Davos in the Swiss Alps, in light of the Covid-19 situation in Europe.

WEF brings together global political and business leaders and is aiming to attract 1,000 delegates in May, with the iconic Marina Bay Sands (MBS) as the proposed venue. If it goes ahead as planned, the event would be the first full scale, in-person international conference since the pandemic.

Singapore has often been coined the ‘Switzerland of Asia,’ I beg to differ. I feel the term downplays the country’s achievements since gaining independence 55 years ago. Moreover, the nation’s efforts in tackling Covid-19 cases and its government’s approach in proactively communicating to the public have been commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and from experts around the world.

The country drew many lessons from the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002, which made Singapore more vigilant and prepared to deal with pandemics. A strong healthcare system, manageable population size, effective use of technology and social media, as well as a culture of collectivism, contributed to the nation’s success in combatting the virus rapidly. The economy has gradually reopened since June, and new cases have dwindled in recent weeks to single digits or zero.

To test its reopening strategy, Singapore has conducted pilots of smaller-scale events with 250 attendees on site such as the International Energy Week and TravelRevive tradeshow in October and November respectively. These trials showed that the country’s strict regime of pre-event testing, social distancing measures and contact-tracing helped to create a safe and trusted environment for in-person conferences to take place.  And of course the island has regularly played host to important global events such as the Singapore International Reinsurance Conference (SIRC) and the Shangri-la Dialogue, giving it useful experience.

Sceptics have said that any in-person conference in 2021 could be a ‘super-spreader’ and lead to a further healthcare disaster. The global vaccine deployment in the coming months would likely also dictate attendees’ willingness to fly to the Lion City for WEF in May.

There is still much uncertainty and only time will tell what form and scale WEF will adopt this year. There are pros and cons to digital and in-person events, but the pandemic seems to have resulted in the formation of a new hybrid model for conferences; to have the best of both worlds with physical and virtual components.

It has also demonstrated the increased importance of strong content and for businesses to maintain their own distinct voice amongst the noise – appropriate thought leadership illustrates and reinforces the expertise and insight that the brand brings to the market.

Conferences – whether virtual or hybrid – can play a critical role in raising awareness of your business and enhancing engagement around your new offerings or latest news. Digital events remove space limitations, meaning that a speaker or spokesperson can draw an almost limitless audience. This can be backed up by a communications strategy that helps to relay your message, stay relevant, navigate these uncharted territories and uncover new opportunities to drive visibility.

However and wherever one is presenting, offering valuable content, yet staying concise enough to capture attention is key to being viewed as a leading commentator on the industry and generating long-term interest.

This blog was written before the announcement by WEF to postpone the summit in Singapore from May to August 2021.