This past week, the Taiwan International Trade Association (TAITRA) very kindly invited me to speak at the Asia MICE Forum 2017 in Kaohsiung, where I met a number of local (Chinese & Taiwanese) companies providing event technology in China and across Asia.
As both a provider of technology to events and an attendee at events in the far-east I thought it beneficial to share my experience.
The attendees at this "Meetings and Exhibitions Industry" conference were international. Venue owners from Malaysia, Macao, the Philippines, China and elsewhere. Organisers from those same regions as well as from Germany (Messe Frankfurt’s CEO, Wolfgang Marzin), India, and beyond. Representatives of global associations such as IAEE and AFECA, and finally the best-in-class in event technology represented by a half-dozen well known global brands such as Zappar, InfoSalons, Poken, GES, and VISIT.
Numbers in Asia are huge. Numbers of events, of venues, of attendees, of potential suppliers – my objective is not to go over the numbers. What triggered my desire to share some thoughts is the fact that in our global world, events like this one are not only exposing our Asian counterparts to our technologies, our successes, and our challenges, but that our own organisers, our clients, are increasingly exposed to what is « out there », in terms of technical prowess, expertise, and now, vast experience developing, using, and improving upon some impressive and promising event concepts and technologies. Some Western suppliers catering to global customers already have feet-on-the-ground in Asia and are aware of the state-of-the art: Learning from and improving upon our products to stay in the global event tech race (GES, who last year opened an office in Hong Kong, is to be mentioned here). But seeing a widening technology gap forming between the standard event technology offering in, say, the USA, UK, Spain – and China - what companies like 31 Meetings, Acupass, Virtual Method, TeamLab and others have to offer - it’s clear that most Western tech suppliers and event organisers are not performing their technology watch on Baidu (Chinese google), Sogou, or at Asian events.
Most of Asia did not have much of a formal events and exhibition industry a hundred years ago. While Messe Frankfurt boasts their 777 years in existence this year (a signed tract by Emperor Frederick II officially launching the Frankfurt Autumn Fair in the year 1240 can be admired under protective glass in their HQ), Asian venues are for the most part very modern due to the recent apparition of this industry. Not only are they modern, but the elegance, architectural prowess (often provided by European architects), and highly efficient visitor experience illustrates a capacity to observe and learn from the world. The Kaohsiung Exhibition Center is a great example – even a minor city in a small province (Taiwan has a population of only 23 million, to China’s 1.2bn) has a venue that rivals that of Paris, Prague, or New York.
Event design & build
The Asian events which I have attended so far have pristine design and creative, elegant build. In complete contrast to America’s « pipe and drape » quick structural approach to creating an event space, beautiful custom built structures with advanced lighting and other services (state-of-the-art AV, wifi, navigation, etc.) contribute to making most events feel incredibly high class, and a pleasure to visit. I am certain that exhibitors and sponsors feel the level of care and effort their organisers put into showcasing their wares. Other than in the bustling night-time food markets (which are great fun) I have never seen pipe and drape style structures.
No, I’m not going to say that Asian food is exceptionally tasty and varied (it is, of course), but that I notice a much greater attention to limiting food waste. Quality over quantity is trendy. I think we all know our world needs more of that approach. Smaller portions, with a very nice presentation, does a better job at impressing attendees (and leaves more time for conversation than overflowing plates!). The food is prepared & displayed in quantities that seem more in line with attendee numbers.
Technology for Registration
Event tech is fast advancing all over the world, with a huge focus on providing better, measurable ROI to exhibitors, organisers, and additional value to attendees. In the consumer technology market, Asia is, in general, one or multiple steps ahead of the West, and while for event technology this may not be the case yet, if all of us Western tech suppliers don’t keep learning, building, acquiring skills, and observing what is out there, we will eventually be left behind. Kudos again to those tech companies that have a foot in Asia, not just to sell their wares but also with product management & some local engineering.
I met with leading Chinese exhibition & conference registration software platform « 31 Meetings » CEO Tony Wan, who presented their event registration and marketing automation platform – illustrating a full end-to-end lead acquisition & nurturing vision equivalent to our own speciality at GES. As a leading player in this space, I must say that I was impressed at seeing how quickly a Chinese company has followed suit. Now that they have reached the stage where their engineers will focus on new, innovative features, what will they come up with? Western tech suppliers will need to boost their own innovation capabilities to stay ahead.
Speaking with Freeza Huang, APAC GM of Acupass, I was stunned by how their platform, equivalent to Eventbrite (and not too shy to envision eventually « taking over the world » of Eventbrite’s one million plus yearly events…), is only one of « hundreds », he claims : Every province in China (each the size of a large European country) has its own copy-cat of their platform – and having caught up, they are now all focusing on pushing the envelope as well.
Holding their ground still with tech leadership in this space GES (Poken & Visit by GES) and InfoSalons both claim the « disneyland-like » experience for events is available today, with « one pass for local travel, access control, networking and lead scan » allowing our platforms to also learn by capturing the « big data » picture of the event. But that is quickly becoming standard across all registration tech providers (in Asia). What do we need to innovate on next? (I have some very clear ideas of that – but sorry, not sharing them here!).
One common denominator in China & most of south-east Asia is WeChat – originally a copy-cat of WhatsApp but which rapidly evolved into a behemoth providing much more than secure chat : Event registration, payment, access control... Just focusing on WeChat’s capabilities relating directly to events, we see how Asian technology providers will be able to evolve their service offering much faster than the West, thanks to embedded services and a strong appetite for integrations & partnerships at WeChat. Imagine receiving your event invitation (including personalised, tailored discount codes) straight into WeChat, being able to register without entering hardly any of your data (which the app already knows), paying with the integrated WeChat wallet, and using the unique multi-dimensional QR code generated as your access credential. Now imagine at the event, being able to purchase anything (food, beverage, product samples from exhibitors) simply by scanning a QR code (the WeChat standard QR codes are used everywhere, in China and rapidly expanding). No cash, no struggle, no currency conversion issues (it supports most native currencies), no time wasted. That is the China experience.
As a side story, I was told that often, even street-food (think hot-dog stand) vendors are angry if you want to pay with "paper money" or bank cards : It’s wasting their precious time to have to turn to the cash register, to have to touch money (they then have to wash their hands), give change, etc: They could be serving more food, and more customers! How do people pay ? The hot dog stand has a set of WeChat QR codes printed along its side (along the menu) and customers lined up can simply can the codes of what they want, and pay in WeChat. The vendor, instantly notified on his mobile device (with ear-piece for audio notification and precise order) can keep working, keep his food gloves on, and simply serve, serve, serve. Fast customer service, at its best – both from the vendor and from the technology developer providing this platform!
Standalone event apps are not common. Most events simply have a WeChat page, with all their content provided in a mobile-friendly format, including direct mobile action codes. Some events (mainly those with international visitors, as AMF2017) provide a downloadable app, but with bare minimum info (speakers, agenda, list of participants); most other info is available to everyone on their mobile, through WeChat or other common tools. The future of event-focused apps as we have in the West is not bright.
Staying in Touch
Lead generation as we call it in the West isn’t a well-known topic in Asia. The reason : in-person meeting, physical greeting & business card exchange, leading to possible WeChat scan-my-code-so-we-can-stay-in-touch is the cultural norm. Do events in Asia use GES’ Smart Event Technology (NFC readers, developed by Poken)? Yes – the topic of measurement is still important. But the approach to selling our “Touchpoints” is different.
One final note – to justify more pictures: As the experiential portion of attending an event is always key, I will have fond memories of the Asia MICE Forum, with not only images of the beautiful modern convention center, the night market, and the wonderful people met there – but the surfing will stick in my mind!
The "you should really stay one extra day to check out what Kaohsiung has to offer" from the organiser, and “Oh you MUST go to the coast, to KenTing” from my colleague Nancy Chan (GES / Visit / Poken Managing Director in Hong Kong) were the personal touch that illustrate how the “human touch” will never go away… even as technology finds its place providing us with more convenience.
Originally posted to Linkedin