When people think back to the ‘90s it often evokes memories of androgynous fashion and grunge music. But for many in the events industry, the ‘90s marked a golden era of large-scale events with budgets to match.
“The internet was in its infancy and you had big technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle going toe-to-toe on a regular basis,” says Darren Kerr, executive producer at Factor168 Creative Event Company. “They saw live events as the most effective way to bring their solutions to market and align people with their suite of products, but there was a huge educational component too. It was not uncommon to be running 20-30 workshops at any one time.”
After running several of these events across Australia, Kerr then worked with clients like IBM and Oracle on expansion into Asia. At that time Hong Kong had recently been handed back to China, and China itself was opening up, while in Singapore, the Suntec Convention Centre and Singapore Expo had recently opened.
Phyllis Teo began her career with Pico in 1988 when its Greater China business was based out of Hong Kong and solely focused on exhibitions. In 2001 she joined George P. Johnson when it opened a Beijing office on the back of signing IBM as a global client and, 17 years later, now serves as the agency’s COO for Asia Pacific.
“When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000, a lot of hotel development started, exhibition centres started opening in second tier cities and conferences started coming in,” she says. “We were managing thousands of events for clients like IBM. There were lots of conferences as they moved away from product demonstrations at exhibitions to more direct conversations with targeted audiences.”
In 2003 the central government changed its ruling on foreign ownership and agencies no longer needed a local partner. Teo then convinced George P. Johnson to take on 100 per cent ownership and multinational clients from the States like Chrysler, Intel, Cisco and Oracle signed on.
The new millennium also brought with it an influx of international agencies such as MCI Group, HelmsBriscoe and Jack Morton – often accompanied by multinational clients looking to access the region’s rampant economic growth.
Major corporate conferences and exhibitions like financial services gathering Sibos also began regular visits, or in the case of Mobile World Congress and many others, set up regional offshoots. Associations too looked to grow their membership base amongst the region’s increasingly professional middle classes.
Crisis and austerity… for some
Ben Taylor came to Hong Kong in 2005 with Jack Morton to head up its Asia division, which was originally established for the Hong Kong handover in 1997, and spent the next 10 years diversifying the agency’s client base and expanding its Asia-Pacific footprint.
Taylor was no stranger to flamboyant events himself, having come up through London’s decadent ‘90s party scene buying and selling event production companies while organising huge parties for city banks, and legendary bashes for the likes of Elton John, Madonna and the Beckhams.
But with the global financial crisis in 2008 came an immediate halt on spending in the events space. “The financial sector typically accounted for 90 per cent of event business for agencies in Hong Kong or Singapore,” says Taylor. “These markets typically dropped to below 20 per cent in 2009 and while the region as a whole bounced back soon after — largely due to China — the financial sector in Hong Kong has never really regained.”
And as austerity entered, costly events fell out of favour. “The banks basically insourced what was typically agency work and took all the flamboyance out,” says Taylor. “The financial conferences became very controlled by the regulators and there was a lot of rigidity and compliance involved.”
While the rest of the region reeled in the immediate aftermath of the GFC, for China the 2008 Beijing Olympics is regarded by most in the industry as a tipping point of a different kind.
“From 2008 to 2011 a lot of companies and brands were coming in because China was the hot ticket for events,” says Taylor. “In 2010 the Jack Morton Beijing office did something like 14 programmes over US$500,000 for large global organisations. Our China business grew 300 per cent that year.”
For brands with an eye on the world’s largest consumer market, splash-making events in China were seen as the way for brands to reach out.
New era of tech giants
“Where the resurgence has come really is the tech sector,” says Taylor, “and it’s not just China, it’s throughout the region.” But how are the tech giants of today using the incredible new tools at their disposal?
“In the 90s and 00s it was all about the infrastructure, whereas the technologies we’re using now are not about environment or the wow factor, they integrate a message or create interaction,” says Taylor. “These days a programme like Pulse projected onto the Hong Kong Cultural Centre not only tells an animated story, you can interact with the content on your phone as opposed to just looking at it.”
It is this combination of theatre, content and technology that Kerr would like to see more of at brand events today.
“The technology today is incredible but a lot of clients are not creatively courageous and they haven’t allocated the resources, the attention or the empowerment of vendor partners to really get the best they can out of technology,” he says. “Along the way we’ve mistaken technology for a silver bullet and we’ve dispensed with the importance of content.”
With tech tools providing greater personalisation and the ability to amplify live experiences through digital channels, the future looks bright for event organisers, but only if the content is worth sharing.