A Conversation with Francis Teo, President of MACEOS and S P Setia’s Head of Convention Centres


~ Be Resilient – Continue To Strive Towards Creating Event Experiences ~

What drew you into the business events industry over two decades ago?
I would say that I am a very people-oriented person. I embarked on an exciting career in the hospitality industry as I wanted the opportunity to meet and socialise with new people representing a wide range of nationalities.

Eventually, I specialised in the events industry as it encouraged me to be creative especially about how to transform the same venue into different set-ups to cater to various functions such as corporate meetings, weddings, gala dinners, and more. Back then, we did not have a very robust events industry. Most of us who are in the BE industry today actually originated from the hospitality industry. 

As the BE industry continued to evolve, I further ventured into larger events that required more complicated settings and therefore more planning. However, I am really enjoying what I am doing now.

What is your drive as the new President of MACEOS? What do you plan to change or achieve within this presidency term?
I have been serving MACEOS as a committee member for over 14 years, since 2006. Amid the pandemic, some may think that it might be not the right time to take up the presidential role, but I decided to take up this challenge as it would be an opportunity to lead this industry which I cherish so much. 

We will continue to work in line with the long-term philosophy set by the previous committee led by our past President, Dato’ Vincent Lim, and push forward the IDEA vision, which stands for Innovation, Development, Education, and Advocacy of the industry.

Coming from a venue operator background, I deal with all types of industry players and partners. My close engagement with a wide range of stakeholders allows me to understand their challenges better during this pandemic and how we can adapt to be a more resilient industry. 

Today, in order to have a better tolerance level, businesses can no longer depend on only one revenue stream. We have to be more creative and persistent to move on and venture into other areas. For instance, booth contractors could look into interior design work or tap into other industries that are not fully impacted by this pandemic. 

My philosophy these days is: “Don’t waste the crisis, as a crisis will make you do things that you normally don’t do!” Through this crisis, we would realise new ways to run the business more effectively and efficiently. For instance, small cost cutting measures implemented in operations will create big savings and impact to the sustainability of a business.

What is the association’s main mission and its main focus in the recovery journey of business events especially during this Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) period?
MACEOS is here to assist our members in any way possible and member engagement is very important to us. At this current moment, MACEOS will continue to lobby to the general public and the policy makers on the role and importance of BE industry in rebuilding the economy.

We are also trying to convince the authorities to allow the BE industry to continue operating under strict safety measures regardless of the MCO stages. At the same time, to safe guard our industry, we are constantly educating and updating MACEOS members and BE industry players on the latest government SOPs to ensure compliance.

Recently, MACEOS announced a 30% discount for the annual renewal membership fee for 2021 to reduce the financial burdens on existing members.

Recently, MACEOS initiated the #SaveOurConventionCentres campaign. How was the outcome from this campaign and are there other campaigns that MACEOS is intending to initiate? What would you hope to achieve from these campaigns?
The #SaveOurConventionCentres campaign was intended for the BE industry as a whole where the main focus was to highlight the plight of the industry players who have suffered up to 90% decrease in their 2020 revenue, which converts to approximately RM2.25 billion loss to the industry.

Convention centres were used as the icon for the campaign as the public are able to relate to a physical convention centre better. Besides that, convention centres generally have a larger workforce in the industry. The campaign emphasised on the impact faced by the people behind the convention centres during this pandemic.

The #SaveOurConventionCentres campaign is the first phase of MACEOS’s campaign which is to create awareness on
the issue of BE industry to the society. Moving forward, the next phase of the campaign will focus on the importance and contribution of the BE industry for national and local economic recovery.

I consider this initial phase of the campaign to be a success to date as we managed to garner the support from the relevant Government agencies and ministries such as the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) and the Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB). Besides this, the campaign was well received by the public and gained wide media coverage in print and digital media, and was also broadcast through Astro Awani and BERNAMA TV.

Business events (BE) is a platform where people from different companies or industries meet to share ideas and establish potential collaborations. It is a marketplace for product owners and investors to form partnerships. It is also a platform for knowledge sharing where academics and industry experts gather to find solutions to world problems. It is the fastest way for businesses to connect with each other and rebuild the economy again.

Guided by a comprehensive framework, business events industry players in Malaysia are well-prepared, trained and able to implement the standard operating procedures required to ensure a high level of safety at all our events. This is the assurance we able to convey to the government, our clients, our partners, and business events’ attendees.    

Is digitalisation a challenge for the MICE industry in Penang? How do you think MICE industry players in Penang are able to adapt and blend in the new trend of digital usage?
As part of the Penang2030 vision under the themes to increase liveability to enhance the quality of life and to upgrade the economy to raise household incomes, the Penang Chief Minister has included Digital Transformation to enhance the momentum under Industry Revolution 4.0.

In line with PCEB’s plan of action, we will continue to explore further into new technology for events and follow up with the latest trends to stay relevant in the industry.

How do you encourage MICE industry players including MACEOS members to adapt and blend into the new trend of digital usage?
There are many digital platform options in the market today, and many industry players have turned to the digital model, whether virtual or hybrid, to comply with the restrictions on physical events.

However, we believe that physical events will not be replaced entirely by digitalisation in the BE industry. Face-to-face events and engagement will still continue to be relevant and in demand and, in fact, they will be considered as a premium experience moving forward.

However, virtual and hybrid events have the advantage of attracting more participation from speakers and attendees who may not be able to attend the event in person. Event organisers have to find a business model to monetise through these digital platforms.

In order for digital events to succeed, event organisers will have to ensure that the event experience contains value to online participants. The main thing to focus on is on quality of content
as online delegates can only gauge their experience on this. With their engagement limited to what they can access virtually, online delegates will demand for top notch content to measure against the time they’ve invested in the event.

What do you think are the biggest challenges business events industry will face in the road of recovery or within the next 3 to 5 years?
Many commented that digital events will replace physical events. These sentiments are similar to what happened about 20 years ago during the birth of the Internet when people commented that the exhibition industry will no longer be in need as this online platform will replace the physical exhibition industry.

However, this did not happen as online or digital events could not provide the live engagement and experiences that physical events could offer.

Right now, the BE industry players have to emphasise on the value of face-to-face engagement and experience, and how it differs from the digital experience. Within the next few years, the focus will be to rebuild the confidence of all stakeholders to participate in physical events once again.

As the S P Setia’s Head of Convention Centre, what progress and development would you hope and expect to achieve for the coming years?
As the top property developer in the country, S P Setia included a convention centre into its integrated township to create a focal point where community events could be held. This is based
on its LiveLearnWorkPlay philosophy, where Live represents life events such as wedding or any celebrative occasion; Learn refers to educational programmes; Work indicates conducive environment for meeting and seminar; and Play shows the lifestyle component like concert, festival and social events.

Currently, we have both Setia City Convention Center (SCCC) in Selangor and Setia SPICE Convention Centre in Penang. We are focused on catering to medium-sized events which we believe have its own unique market. Although we may not have the biggest or the best location for our convention centres, Setia is currently the only operator which has two convention centres in this country. In addition, there are four club houses equipped with banquet hall facilities, which can accommodate a capacity of 200 to 700 people.

Looking forward, what are your professional goals for the future, in regards to the business events industry for the country?
At the moment, the entire BE industry has been reset and everyone has to operate under the “new norm” in which success comes to those who are quick to respond and adapt to the new requirements in order to stand out from the competition.

As for me, I will say that we should spend this down time to increase the professionalism of the BE industry within the region. We need to maintain our workforce during this difficult time as it will be more costly to re-employ and re-train new workforce.

Let us take this opportunity to think, plan, and execute a better offer for both the domestic and international market during this low season and be fully prepared to gear up when the industry reopens.