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by Padraic Gilligan

For many of us in the Meetings Industry the major dread of any trip to Asia is the knowledge that most conversations about our business will be liberally peppered with “MICE”. And we’re not talking small rodents here, we talking acronyms – meetings, incentives, congresses and events. Despite our best efforts in Europe to outlaw its use and to replace it with “The Meetings Industry”, our industry counterparts all over South East Asia and into India, China and Japan insist on trotting out the “MICE”. However, terminology aside, let me state that MICE in Singapore are truly well served.

With Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, Singapore is one of the 4 Asian Tigers that have out-lived, out-performed and out-roared the now extinct Celtic Tiger that once prowled proudly around Ireland. And, with apologies to the literati for whom these mixed metaphors induce deep nausea, there’s little sign of impending weakness for this curious oriental cat and mouse affair. In 45 years this tiny island has become a major financial centre and the world’s top hub for logistics. It has no obvious cultural heritage and no stunning scenery and yet it’s Asia’s number one meetings destination for international business and brings in almost 1 million visitors each month.

On the final approach to Changi International Airport, you’re politely informed that possession of drugs or narcotics is punishable by death in Singapore. The rule of law is absolute here and is applied without exception even to the point of caning individuals who decide to express their artistic bent by writing on public buildings. This no-exceptions, no-excuses culture is probably a key ingredient in the meteoric rise of Singapore as a economic entity and major business hub. The data and the figures speak for themselves – GDP is in double percentage figures, unemployment is way below 2.5%, tourism growth is at a staggering 15% etc. But is there more to Singapore than its implausibly stunning success as an experiment in social and economic engineering? Is there a unifying cultural identity that makes over 5 million people feel part of something that, throughout the centuries, individuals in other nations have been willing to give their very lives for?

A 5 day visit to Singapore can hardly be sufficient to absorb the myriad, subtle,  and nuanced truths that underlie the responses to such a question. Yet I’ve never encountered such a harmony of response from such a divergent demographic – native Singaporeans like our amazing tour guide Alan Liu, long established ex pats, company owners. limousine drivers, married Asian women, gay European men all agree that Singapore offers them comfort, safety and quality of life. They unanimously agree that it is a great place to live, work and play and they feel deeply connected to its story of courage, determination and pursuit of a dream.

Pat and Roger at the Long Bar, Raffles

The vast extent of the Meetings real estate in Singapore contrasts dramatically with the tiny size of the island – less than 4 times the size of Washington DC! Serviced by a 4 terminal airport with a route map that radiates like the equatorial sun it’s not difficult to get there, regardless of where you’re coming from. And new infrastructural developments continue unabated with the latest developments rising up on land reclaimed from the sea. My MCI colleague Nikki Walker remarked that on her first visit to Singapore in the late 80s Raffles, that icon of hotel icons, was on the waterfront! It may still celebrate its colonial past and continue to serve Singapore Slings at the Long Bar but now there are several thousand additional 5 star hotel rooms between it and its former privileged location!

For corporate meeting activity with a reward or motivation dimension to it, the Orchard Road area is your perfect hub. Many of the major 5 star hospitality experiences are located here and, as you walk from one to the other, you’re lured into a spider’s web of retail temptation with YSL, Fendi, Coach, Armani, Versace et al practically side by side. Standard guest rooms at Four Seasons, St Regis and the Valley Wing at Shangri La balance either side of 50m2 so you can’t get a bad room there. The St Regis has amazing art and a ballroom that’s over 8m high, the Four Seasons has its 3rd floor oasis of calm and amazingly flexible event space and the Shangri La has the truly innovative Line Restaurant and, since 2008, throughout its entire property portfolio, free wifi!!! Big respect to the Kuok family! Others please copy!

Raffles, the Fairmont and the Swiss Hotel share meetings and events facilities and offer over 2000 guest rooms under one roof. These hotels connect easily with the hugely impressive Suntec City which includes a convention centre within its multi-use development. A completely modular floor plan, replicated on several levels, gives full flexibility to congress organisers regarding room configurations. Designed by Tsao & McKown the buildings are arranged to look like a left hand when viewed from the air with the Fountain of Wealth appearing like a gold ring in its palm.

In Singapore it’s OK to change your mind on decisions previously written in stone, particularly if you believe you can control the negative outcomes that caused you to be against the issue in the first place! Influenced, no doubt, by the success of the gaming industry in Macau and aware of being surrounded by literally millions of people who like to gamble, the Singaporean Government entered the Gaming Industry last year. Sentosa Island – or the island of peace and tranquility (I do not jest!) – now hosts one of the two Casinos in Singapore although, by law, the space occupied by the casinos is less than 5% of the total area of the resort. Unlike Las Vegas or Macau where the gambling is pretty much front and centre, in Sentosa the Casino is discreet and lost on an island paradise that includes a Universal Studios Theme Park. A Starwood W will shortly open and there are currently several operating hotels including the Hard Rock Hotel, a tasty looking Capella and a brash and breezy Shangri La Resort with 400 rooms presided over by the delightful Ben Bousnina, larger than life like a 2nd row forward from his native Pyrenees.

The other casino is located at the Marina Bay and is part of what is now referred to as an “integrated resort” – a balanced development of retail, convention, exhibition, hotel and gaming space. The Marina Bay Sands Resort is operated by the eponymous Las Vegas based corporation (who also operate the Venetian in Macau) and gives you everything super-sized and more. Singaporean discretion (and the rule of law) keeps the casino part in the background allowing, instead, an architectural and truly iconic behemoth to rise up commandingly facing the port.  Designed by Moshe Safdie the MBS is nothing short of breathtaking. Three tower structures containing retail outlets, 2500 hotel bedrooms, a casino and a 120,000m2 convention centre support a 340m long sky park, the north end of which extends out 67m, cantilever-fashion into mid air. This 40 hectare complex is then competed by two Sands Theatres, 2 floating pavilions and a stunning Art and Science Museum.

Implausible? Not in Singapore! Despite some delays due to global recession and local labour difficulties the facility opened in April 2010 with “Riverdance” as its first international show. MBS brings a touch of Las Vegas swagger, scale and audacity to a rather more naturally reserved island in the east. It’s Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew meets Las Vegas Sands Sheldon Adelson – Asian vision meets American know-how. And with the sales efforts led by a Scotch drinking genial Irishman, Mike Lee, MBS will is certain to attract lots of MICE to Singapore.

Padraic Gilligan, Managing Director, MCI Dublin and Vice President Ovation Global DMC

Ovation Singapore will shortly launch – www.ovationdmc.com

Acknowledgement: Padraic and Patrick would like to thank Robin Lokerman, David Goh and all their MCI colleagues in Singapore for setting up their visit and particularly for providing Alan Liu as their guide. Alan is a true ambassador for the Republic of Singapore and provides thoughtful, intelligent and stimulating commentary on a country he clearly loves.

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