What International Business Travel Looks Like Right Now

Singapore Meetings Pilot Program
In conjunction with

In Singapore, PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 was among select business events with an international audience held since the start of COVID-19. The Singapore Tourism Board facilitated the entry of short-term international MICE travellers for PCMA CL on a pilot basis, with Northstar Meetings Group’s David Blansfield among them.

View the video above and read the diary about his first international business travel experience post-pandemic.

No, this is not a hospital. It’s JFK, Terminal 4, Friday, January 10. Nobody there. I’m on my way to Singapore, for my first international business trip since the onset of the pandemic. I had my temperature checked, answered all the pre-screen questions, and I had my negative Covid PCR test result handy. I couldn’t be more excited to be traveling again!

My berth aboard Singapore Airlines from New York to Singapore, the world’s longest flight at 18 hours 45 minutes. It was as comfortable as it looks. Having been stuck in my home office and on Zoom calls for months, with my phone by my side at all times, attuned to the latest news related to Covid and just about everything else, I likened the flight to a day at a spa.

After getting my temperature checked at the jetway, I got a PCR test before passing through immigration. It was early in the morning (6 am). There were few travellers and I was able to get tested with hardly any delay.

Once through immigration, I was greeted by a member of the Singapore Tourism Board who gave me my TraceTogether token, a physical device that exchanges Bluetooth signals with other devices to aid digital contact tracing efforts. I carried it everywhere and followed a strict controlled itinerary limiting interactions with the wider community during my 6-day stay.

I went directly to my hotel – the iconic Marina Bay Sands, just across from the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center, where PCMA CL was to be held.

I stayed in my room until I got the results back from my airport Covid test, about 36 hours after arrival. All international travellers brought into the country as part of the pilot program for PCMA participated in Zoom meetings, tours and workshops while we waited for our test results. Negative results for all of us, though we were asked to check and report our temperatures twice daily throughout our stay, just to be safe. A digital thermometer, masks, wipes and hand sanitizers were all part of the SWAG bag!

Our first dining experience among many unforgettable ones during this visit: Lunch at The Blue Ginger, a Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient for three years running, and one of the first Peranakan (a unique local subculture of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage) restaurants in Singapore. The food was phenomenal, and the company even better. Here I’m joined by (l to r) Sophie Mohktari, Global Head of Travel, and Amanda Habener, Event Producer, both from Riot Games, and our friendly guide, Ron L.T. Chew of TradeWinds Tours and Travel Pte. Ltd. Note we’re all seated safely distanced from each other, and we were maskless only when eating and drinking.

After lunch we took a tour of Kampong Glam, known as the Muslim quarter and formerly home to Singapore’s Malay aristocracy. With the Sultan Mosque as its landmark, the neighborhood has been restored and is comprised of a very cool blend of art galleries, cafes and restaurants with traditional businesses like textiles and carpet shops. The light rain didn’t dampen our spirits or mute the vibe of this neighborhood’s unique mix of old and new.

There’s no better way to see Singapore’s neighbourhoods than riding Singapore Sidecars. We explored in and around Kampong Glam, including several back alleys with unique shops enlivened with local street art and murals. Known for the dynamism of its modern skyline, seeing the city and its neighborhoods brought the vitality of the city to a hip, urban street-level.

I forgot how much I enjoyed dining out with friends and colleagues (I love my family, don’t get me wrong)! Especially at the amazing restaurants my group was able to sample during my visit. Here we’re enjoying memorable evenings out (from l to r) at Open Farm Community, Singapore's pioneering urban farm and restaurant concept showcasing local produce. Our group was hosted by STB’s Sabrina Heng (far left) and Lee Pei Juan (to my right); at the Majestic Restaurant at Marina One, an award-winning eatery featuring inventive, contemporary Chinese cuisine, where we were joined by Megan Barron, Client Services Director, Jack Morton Worldwide; and at The White Rabbit, a charming restaurant set in a restored colonial chapel serving European dishes paired with the finest wines. There our group was joined by Patricia Alford Beaudoux, Director International Sales, Marina Bay Sands (top left). We were celebrating Megan’s birthday!

After breakfast in our rooms, we toured Gardens by the Bay. Though I’ve been to Singapore countless times, this was my first visit here; I will return, and bring friends and colleagues. Magnificent botanically and architecturally, Gardens by the Bay is a model for sustainable development and conservation. The Flower Dome is the largest greenhouse in the world; my mother-in-law, once the head of her Garden Club, would’ve loved it. Though Gardens by the Bay has delighted over 50 million visitors since it opened in 2012, we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves. Amazing!

Another crazy good lunch and view of the city at 1-Atico, Fire Restaurant. I caught up with Sophie about her events and PCMA CL, which she was attending for the first time. I can’t tell you how great it felt to be back doing a business lunch. Sophie felt the same way I did about the protocols for visiting Singapore and attending PCMA CL. “The protocols were different from the norm obviously, but they were completely manageable,” Sophie told me. “It’s nothing that people should be worried about. Quite the opposite because here the processes are nailed down.” Thorough, necessary, and – oddly enough, comforting. We were more than happy to comply in order to travel and meet again.

Next up was a meeting at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center to prepare for our panel discussion session at PCMA Convening Leaders. Lauren Arena, Editor, M&C Asia, and Vivek Kumar Neb, Managing Director, Grail Insights, and I reviewed the topics we will discuss. Comparing business travel across regions and talking about our own personal experiences was illuminating. Needless to say, it was so exhilarating, sharing and learning with each other face-to-face, that we lost track of time. I’ll also add that it never crossed my mind during the conversation that we were wearing masks or seated distanced from one another. Just the fact that we were together in the same room sharing similar personal and professional interests was all that mattered.

Arriving at PCMA Convening Leaders for the big event. All attendees were assigned into six zones of a maximum of 50 pax per zone, and we stayed within our zone – staying physically distanced and masked – while onsite. First stop was to get my Antigen Rapid Test.

After filling out a standard health questionnaire, the test was quick, painless and safely administered. The entire process took less than two to three minutes.

I waited in an adjacent conference room with other members of my zone for my test results. The test results were delivered on my phone in twenty minutes. Once I had my sticker on my badge designating I was “good to go,” it was on to the show!

Attendees were able to network a bit in a lobby adjacent to the conference room, all organized by zone. We were then escorted into the main ballroom with each zone demarcated by stanchions. Once in the conference room, we were able to continue networking within our zone. Each table was spaced according to distancing protocols set for four attendees per table. Needless to say, the networking was much welcomed by all, and it wasn’t easy for the event organizers to get everyone quiet for the show to start!

One surefire way to get folks to quiet down is to open the show dynamically. And that’s exactly how PCMA opened Convening Leaders 2021. “Making Moves” was the theme. It was upbeat and inspirational. Music, dancing, and video programming – check out the video to catch the vibe!

Sherrif Karamat, CEO of PCMA, joined us “live” as a hologram from a studio in Toronto. He was seamlessly integrated into a panel discussion on-stage with Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large and Chair, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Keith Tan, CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board, and Laura Citron, CEO, London and Partners. It was an excellent example of the integration of hybrid with live, right there on the main stage.

Not only did Sherrif engage verbally with the members of the panel, ever conscious of social distancing protocols he fist-bumped moderator Nikki Muller at the conclusion of their session.

A highlight was a session in the Marina Bay Sands new state-of-the-art hybrid event broadcasting studio, led by WeeMin Ong, Vice President of Conventions & Exhibitions at Marina Bay Sands. I tried to capture a lot of the show-and-tell with my phone, but you have to see it to believe it. The functionality is amazing.

After day one of PCMA CL, WeeMin Ong and Ailynn Seah, Vice President, Sales, Marina Bay Sands, hosted the entire group of PCMA CL pilot international travelers for a plated 5-course, wine-paired dining experience choreographed by Joshua Brown, Executive Director Culinary at Marina Bay Sands. Unforgettable, too much wine notwithstanding!

One of the major benefits of my trip was the opportunity to meet in-person with the Northstar Meetings Group Singapore team in a conference room at the convention center. So much better (and more productive) than a Zoom call! Note the emphasis on safety: Every chair at the conference table was placed within a designated area marked by tape on the carpet to ensure safe distancing.

All pilot international travelers were transported to Raffles Hospital for PCR tests to clear us for our outbound flights less than 72 hours later. Once back at the convention center, we undertook another rapid test prior to gaining admittance to the conference. All were quick and easy — and negative.

Lauren Arena, editor for M&C Asia, moderated our panel discussion on trends in business travel. My fellow panelist, Vivek Kumar Neb, noted recent research that shows business travel in Asia is recovering more quickly than in other parts of the world. Business in Asia, “is driven by a culture of trust, where personal meetings play a key role,” he said. Sectors such as manufacturing, pharma and construction, which include a higher degree of touch points and interactions, are likely to see an earlier recovery.

As noted, networking at the event was a highlight. Here you see attendees networking during the breaks, all within their designated zones. Masks were taken off only when eating and/or drinking. There is no substitute for live events for developing relationships and making new contacts, and this was clearly proven out not only during Convening Leaders but throughout my visit.

I participated in a few interviews about the event after the conference concluded. I emphasized how, with all of the new protocols, travel industry suppliers have reduced risk to such a degree that the biggest risk factor now are the travelers themselves! We can travel and meet safely if we accept the responsibility.

The following morning our group of international guests enjoyed a tour of Singapore’s Chinatown and its colorful sights and shops. The architecture is fascinating. Many of the shophouses were built in the style of painted ladies, and have been restored in that fashion, with pastels the dominant colors. An artisan at a gift shop painted a fan for my daughter, spelling out her name in Chinese characters. Can you read it?

Another highlight of my trip: lunch with the Singapore Northstar team at Samy’s Curry, a Singapore gastronomic landmark. If you like Indian food, Samy's is the place! It’s that good, and an authentic Singapore experience. (An “Anthony Bourdain” kind of place.) Here Irene Chua, Vice President and Group Publisher (left) for Northstar’s Asia team, leads us in a toast. The delicious curries were topped (and cooled!) off by fresh coconut for dessert. A fitting way to finish a fabulous trip with my colleagues!

I returned to Marina Bay Sands for a farewell (for now) with our travel group – (L to R) our trusted tour guide and good friend Ron, and fellow international travelers Sophie, Megan and Amanda. It was great to meet them, learn about their events, and consider how we can help each other in the future. All the more special and memorable to do that during pandemic time! I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know them, and look forward to meeting them again, soon!