The Japanese government has made no secret of seeing the growth of the MICE industry close to the heart of its three IR goals, but experts warn that it will take more than brilliant new conference and exhibition centres to achieve results. Instead, Japan needs a social and academic change that has hardly started.
Glenn McCartney, Associate Professor of International Integrated Resort Management at the University of Macau, although optimistic about the MICE industry’s future in general, pointed out that even the advance of digitisation and global meeting technologies such as Skype still lack some of the human elements needed for business.
“People really want to shake hands,” he notes. “People really want to meet face-to-face, to get to know you before they do the deal.”
However, he acknowledges that having the hardware of the convention industry is not itself sufficient to ensure good results. Such facilities sometimes become more an economic drain than an engine.
“That has been a scenario played out in cities around the world—where you build a big convention center, but the issue now is how do you fill it, how do you put bums on seats, and get traffic into it.”
“It takes one year, two years lead time. You can’t just open the doors and have meetings,” he adds.
Moreover, even if Japan creates IRs in places such as Osaka and Yokohama with MICE facilities that are much larger and more modern than current venues such as Tokyo Big Sight and Makuhari Messe, that doesn’t necessarily mean that bigger trade shows will appear in Japan.
“They are going to have to compete with the Shanghais, the Guangzhous, the Hong Kongs, and the Singapores, which are very aggressive MICE industries already,” McCartney notes.
He points out the importance of “city branding,” which brings business people around the world to see Japanese locations as active and engaging international “meeting hotspots.”
Jason Ayers, founder and CEO of Sector Five, a recruiting company based in Tokyo specialising in consumer marketing and communications in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, agrees with McCartney, noting that “it’s about selling Japan as a destination.” Many people worldwide admire Japanese culture, landscape beauty, and city cleanliness. Many foreigners want to visit Japan and see the country with their own eyes, and this is certainly a major draw for attracting conference and exhibition participants.
However, it is probably not enough on its own, and more attention needs to be paid to the MICE industry’s “software.” For example, while Japan is widely considered a polite and hospitable country, the language barrier remains a persistent challenge. International business people will want to be able to communicate with their hotel staff and the MICE facilities managers.
Ayers points out that the development of human resources will require careful attention. At the moment, Japan’s best and brightest university students probably don’t see IRs as their preferred job option. In their social reputation, IRs can be considered risky, ambiguous and involve quite difficult work.
Ayers believes that these issues can be overcome and that it is possible to find smart, bilingual Japanese, but this will involve the IRs offering the young graduates very high pay rates.
The overall picture is that MICE may indeed be successful at Japanese IRs, but it will depend on hard work, effective strategics, and perhaps a higher degree of cultural change in Japan than most people now appreciate.