By John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – It’s not only the weather that might come as a shock when the World Economic Forum moves from Davos, the Swiss ski resort after which it takes its informal name, to the tropical Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore in May.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual gathering of world leaders, billionaires, celebrities and media often referred to as a “circus” is expected to be a trimmed-down, tightly controlled affair, Singapore-based business groups and consultants said on Tuesday.
Although seen as another coup for the country that hosted the 2018 Trump-Kim summit, questions remain as to how Singapore – with its borders effectively shut and strict anti-virus rules and limits on public gatherings – will put on a show that usually attracts thousands just five months from now.
“Singapore does not take risks,” said Christopher Khoo of Singapore tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, adding that he expected fewer attendees and that virus curbs would make it hard to recreate Davos’ networking environment.
“In Davos, it is an opportunity to rub shoulders with somebody taking the lift or in the hotel lobby, and exchanging thoughts that way,” Khoo said. “How do you create those networking opportunities? … That is a challenge.”
Others said the success of global vaccine deployment over coming months would most likely dictate the scale of the event, planned for May 13-16.
Announcing the change late Monday, WEF’s chief Klaus Schwab said the decision was made to safely ensure the first “in-person” meeting of business executives, government leaders and civil society since the start of the pandemic to discuss recovery.
In its statement, Singapore – which restricts conferences to 250 people, split into groups of 50 who cannot mingle – talked up the virtual component of the conference, which it also said would be a first.
Neither the WEF or Singapore have yet given specifics on the number of attendees expected at the event, the first in Asia and only the second to be held outside of Switzerland since its inception in 1971.
TOEING THE LINE
WEF usually plays host to about 3,000 official participants, but much of the action happens outside the conference at side meetings and networking events. The population of the hard-to-reach Alpine town of Davos swells from 10,000 to about 30,000 during the summit.
By contrast, Singapore averaged around 400 arrivals daily in October, the latest official figures available, less than 1% of those arriving during the same period in 2019.
The city-state remains largely closed to visitors and has agreements for limited official and business travel with seven countries, all in Asia. A plan to open a quarantine-free air travel bubble with Hong Kong last month was postponed at the eleventh hour.
Other factors may keep attendance down too, said Hsien Hsien Lei, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.
“It is not necessarily whether Singapore is ready to welcome them but whether people are ready to start travelling,” said Lei, adding that many companies still restrict travel, especially for their top executives.
Lei said international praise for Singapore’s handling of the coronavirus, including from the World Health Organization, as well as vaccine rollouts early next year, should lend firms more confidence.
The success of smaller-scale events like the 250-strong energy week in October also shows that Singapore’s strict regime of pre-event testing, safe distancing measures and contact tracing works, said David Kelly, head of the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore.
Other virus-safety measures for Singapore’s WEF could include defined itineraries for delegates, restrictions for media coverage and a series of smaller events and online networking sessions to reduce mingling, the business groups and consultants said.
“They need to make sure that the delegates toe the line,” said Toby Koh of Singapore-based security firm Ademco.
(Editing by Gerry Doyle)