“You have to realise that what gets affected first, and is going to be the last to recover, is really corporate MICE travel,” says groups and conventions manager at the Jamaica Tourist Board, John Woolcock, as he explains the impact COVID-19 has had on that segment of the market.
Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) make up about 20 per cent of Jamaica’s overall tourism product. Within the MICE niche, incentives account for about 50 per cent. These are usually rewards companies provide to staff or clients.
“For many individuals, it may be the only time that they have received this type of reward from their company, and so it’s a big deal. The incentive travel side of our business is the largest portion and we do quite well with that,” says Woolcock.
As expected, when companies around the world began feeling the effects of COVID-19, the MICE market took a big hit. Human resource and legal departments frowned on travel that may put employees in harm’s way and, as companies floundered, paying for staff or clients to go have fun was the last thing on their minds.
“Our business really did get hit pretty hard. We saw globally where I think the business fell off to US$215 billion in maybe 2020,” says Woolcock. That was down from being a trillion dollar market, he explains.
The good news is, as the world finds a way to live with COVID-19, things are beginning to look up.
“We’re seeing where the research is showing that it is growing back again, and it is estimated that by 2028, it will be right up with US$1.3 trillion. So it is steadily coming back,” Woolcock says of global trends. Jamaica mimics these movements in the market.
Companies, he says, are once again feeling the need to re-engage with employees and clients; they want to get back to in-person events and move away from the virtual ones that became the norm during the pandemic.
“We’re still dealing with all of the safety measures, taking the necessary precautions, and exercising good judgement. But certainly, that is where we are right now, that is the path that we’re on, which we’re very excited about. We’re returning to some level of normalcy,” he says.
Woolcock, who has been in his role at the JTB for more than 20 years, knows exactly what needs to be done now to ensure Jamaica gets its share of the pie as the global MICE market gets back on track.
“We must maintain visibility, we must keep engagement high, we must keep giving out accurate information, we have to make sure that we are participating in industry shows,” he urges. “And we have to make sure that we keep close ties with our stakeholders as well in Jamaica: our hotels, our DMC [destination management company] partners, our attractions, our off-site venues, our convention centres. We have to make sure that they are part of the whole process, that we are working closely with them, that we are sharing opportunities with them, and that the mission is clear that we’re working together.”
He notes that venues such as the Montego Bay Convention Centre, for which the tourism ministry has oversight, are vital. While one hotel would not have enough meeting space or rooms to host a major event, the convention centre venue ensures that Jamaica can bid for a chance to hold large international events, such as the global board of directors meeting for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE). Europe is typically chosen for SITE events, with the global conference wrapping up in Dublin, Ireland, in April. Winning the bid to host the June 20 to 23 meeting is seen as a feather in Brand Jamaica’s cap.
“This presents an opportunity for leaders in the area of incentive travel to experience Jamaica and share the destination on the SITE Global website along with their social media platforms, providing global exposure for Jamaica to incentive planners,” explains Woolcock.
There is also the upcoming World Free Zone Annual International Conference & Exhibition (AICE) that runs from June 13 to 17.
“That is a big event for Jamaica. It is a great opportunity for individuals to explore the investment landscape and see what is available in Jamaica. This is going to attract a lot of potential investors… as they look at the free zone space and see exactly how Jamaica is positioned. Having a venue like the Montego Bay Convention Centre — with first world facilities, all of the necessary infrastructure, and they’re able to host an event of this magnitude — it benefits the destination on so many different levels,” he says.
It’s also good news for area hotels that will be busy providing accommodations for event participants. The hope is that in their spare time conference attendees will visit local attractions and, even better, they’ll return for a vacation.
“When you get a company coming into a destination like Jamaica, you never know what opportunities that will bring. It could bring tremendous opportunities even beyond their having a meeting or convention or an exhibition or taking care of their incentive clients. They may even want to invest in the destination,” says an optimistic Woolcock.