"We're investing in founders who are executing remotely, and that previously would never have happened. It's a major red flag. But I think everyone has become so accustomed to remote working that you have the founding team not in the same country, and people are still ready to write cheques." - Chia Jeng Yang
Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. Welcome to the South East Asia tech panel on travel. We're having a free flow discussion about what we think about travel, the impact of pandemic, and the upside as well. I think what the interesting things that come up front is travel has been a hot investment thesis all around the world. One of the things that we think about all the time is what are the various opportunities, how do we do things differently, how to disrupt incumbents. I think we can talk about those macros but also it's been interesting to see how the pandemic of 2020 has really put a whole spin on things. What do you think, Gwen and Dmitri, about travel fundamentals versus the pandemic?
Dmitri: [00:00:44] Oh, wow. I don't even know how to comment on something so sad. Let's just start with the obvious, that as of March, OTAs in Southeast Asia, I think, saw minus 90%, minus 95%, all of them. Internal travel started perking up a little bit from what I know in Malaysia in May, but then died again, and the sequence of MCOs. There was a little bit on attempt to get it going in Thailand and Indonesia with government money. But from what I understand, it hasn't become travel within country, give or take Jakarta-Bali route. Even that was squashed. It ended up being really just quite a few staycations paid by various government budgets. From what I know, Gwen's all-seeing eye at Facebook might know more, this is still status quo today. People travel within cities, cross-country travel, give or take, again, Indonesia I think is not alive as of yet. That's pretty much it for the macro of travel
Gwen: [00:01:47] Jeremy, do you mind defining when you talk about travel fundamentals — and Dmitri just gave a little bit of the macros — what are you thinking in terms of travel fundamentals? Consumer, business, all-around?
Jeremy Au: [00:01:59] Yeah, I think that's a great definition. Traditionally travel can defined on the verticals between consumer spend, which is for leisure and commuting. Then we also see travel at the business level, which is on the B2B, which tends to be on your premium and other types of travel as well. Of course, we see the horizontals, which I think you can look at it as country-by-country domestic. But also routes between different countries as well as different horizontal segments of that. I think that's how we could look at the market as well. Of course, I think there's a deeper layer of people tackling the travel industry at different levels, at the OTA level versus the portals, versus a deeper B2B, supporting travel agents and airlines approaches to tackling the tech travel industry.
Gwen: [00:02:52] One thing I do think this pandemic has bought is consumer awareness of the possibility of more domestic travel. For all the staycations and intracity or whatever, whichever country you're in, which I think is a big thing, because a lot of industries you are driven by consumer demand. If consumer demand, consumer behavior in travel is a little bit more open-minded. Again, so to speak, it's not always about traveling outside. I do think that can change a lot the other variables around it.
Jeremy Au: [00:03:24] Yeah, I think that's very true, which is that there's been a lot of domestic discovering. I think we see that in the US, travel has shifted. I think Airbnb's latest S1 report shows that as the growth story that you're seeing in the US and different markets. Definitely agree with you there. I think we're seeing that. Haven't seen too much data around it, I don't know if you've seen some data around it. But at least colloquially, anecdotally, definitely hearing that people are traveling within the different markets. Of course, that varies by the size of the market. Like Singapore is so small so I don't think there's a very obvious domestic travel dynamic beside the government subsidies. But I think that might be more obvious in Thailand and Vietnam where there's more of a city and tourist destination dynamic for rediscovery by locals.
Gwen: [00:04:13] Yeah, and I don't have the stats as well. I don't know whether Dmitri has. But you always say, when I go to Vietnam and when I'm like, "Oh yeah, I want to do the local tourist site, the Cu Chi Tunnels or something." For me, I still haven't done it yet but my local friends will be like, "Oh wow, it's literally just beside me but I haven't done it." It's the whole consumer travel's always been the exotic is way better, and so again, it will be interesting to get the stats on that opening of mindset.
Dmitri: [00:04:45] Indeed. Yeah, you're right, Jeremy and Gwen. There is quite a few segments and they all roll their different ways. I would imagine, let's first of all split travel and hospitality separately because both things have whole bunch of things to say about them. Within travel, international travel, whether it's business and consumer we can put aside for now, and the one with cross countries. But travel within countries, it looks like there is a segment that is the regular business travel people from Hanoi have to go to Ho Chi Minh for work and vice versa. Then there is this new segment that is trying to get stimulated by governments and local hotel groups, that is the local leisure travel.
And I'm starting to see the emergence of just not inter- but intracity travel. Just basically people moving around town getting themselves a staycation. I don't know if it qualifies as travel or just hospitality variation. If that makes sense. I would not bash Singapore for being too small a market. Whatever hotels have opened, Sentosa seemed to be booked for weeks ahead. Singapore travel authority really went to town on those subsidies by the looks of it.
Jeremy Au: [00:05:54] There's a lot of truth in that. We carve out the airlines and those that are in the business of moving people across borders, which we know has been defined as shut, effectively, by governments, based on the restrictions around stay-home and quarantining efforts. I think if you look at hospitality, I think we see that they have been, Darwinian natural selection, have pushed themselves to evolve and adapt, and re-target the local domestic audience like we said, so for local staycation packages and things like that.
I think what's interesting is that anecdotally from these travel operators is that I think there's a point of view which is that if they are able to survive this and have the recovery, they may actually have ended up building a much more ambidextrous business. Because traditionally in Southeast Asia, travel has primarily been seasonal, based on American summer vacations and holidays, and the countervailing Australian summer vacations equivalent. Domestic is a way to backfill and get that in a more stable revenue point of view, and stronger for those to actually do make it out through the other side.
Dmitri: [00:07:01] And have you guys seen any evidence of those let's-promote-local-travel initiatives actually working? I've been keeping an eye on Thailand. I think the funds that the government allocated for locals to use to help them pay for the hotels and all, they haven't been fully claimed. The deployment of the program was a bit slower than they thought. But I'm not sure if it's lack of demand or lack of efficiency. In Singapore, it seems to be working fine. In Malaysia, subsidies were stopped and MCO orders were slapped. I don't know how the government in Indonesia are doing. Have you seen much?
Jeremy Au: [00:07:39] I would give a crack at it first, and I'd love to hear Gwen's point of view after this. I think for Vietnam, from what I've heard, is that for them things have not changed. They've never gone through an internal control order. Obviously, they don't have the inflow of tourists, especially from China, which has been a huge driver. I don't think there's a way for domestic tourism to ever replace the huge amount of traffic they were seeing from China group travel, as well as global travel. That being said, I think what's interesting is that we could look at tourism, but I think now that we're looking at it is as there's growth and experiences, that's much more attuned to local taste, or whatever we'd define as millennials or the new generation of experiences that are a little bit more handcrafted.
Dmitri: [00:08:24] Jeremy, I think another thing that I'm trying to track down as of now is just some stats on the buses, ferries and trains, and whether passenger volumes have been dropping heavily or not dropping at all. It's hard to extract from local governments.
Jeremy Au: [00:08:40] The perfect person to talk about travel has joined, Viren as well. What do you think about the state of travel these days, it's obviously ranging from planes to more traditional routes like train and bus and car? Viren?
Viren: [00:08:56] You're saying across borders or within?
Dmitri: [00:08:59] I was actually asking within countries. Cross-borders, I know it's dead.
Viren: [00:09:02] Oh, yeah. Within countries, it's really country-dependent. When I looked at the data, it's been mixed depending on the countries. For example, in certain markets like Japan or Australia to a certain extent, and US as well, travel has rebounded quite heavily. For a lot of these guys it's been above pre-COVID levels. In countries who are like India, I think it has gone down. But it really depends on the context. If you're talking about business travel, obviously I think that has declined significantly. Leisure travel specifically, it depends on the type of customer. If you look at luxury travel, that has rebounded way past pre-COVID levels. If you look at Taj, Taj is one of the top hotel chains in India, which is owned by the Tata Group, five and six star resorts. Their properties which are not in cities are being fully booked out, so it's really context-dependent.
But leisure specifically, and more on the medium to higher end side of leisure travel, is definitely past pre-COVID levels in a bunch of markets. China's fully rebounded. Japan, when I look at the data, is rebounded, Australia. India not as much but, again, the India luxury travel has rebounded. It really depends.
Dmitri: [00:10:28] We were just chatting before you joined about some of the more less visible markets like Vietnam and Indonesia. Do you have any data on those?
Viren: [00:10:37] Vietnam? No. For Indonesia, I looked at Traveloka. I think 50 or... I might be getting the number wrong. I think they're 50 to 70% back to pre-COVID levels. I don't whether that is leisure travel or business or blended. My guess is that it's blended. There's a lot of bump in local staycation short travel. Vietnam, Philippines, I have zero data on it. Or rather, I have not looked into it. The ones that I've looked at are the ones which are like Korea, Japan, Australia, India I've looked at it. China's fully back. I think China is overall, number of travellers in the same part of last year, I think it's up 25%, something like that. Again, depends on the region.
Jeremy Au: [00:11:30] You're talking about the low-end/domestic. Then you discuss implicitly mainstream, then you talk about luxury and business. Those seem to be four different verticals, strata of travel. Do you see any patterns in that? Do you see some things rebound faster? You're implicitly saying low-end/domestic has rebounded first, obviously. But are you saying that you see any other patterns for the price segments?
Viren: [00:11:57] Yes, the main one is that the luxury has been the first to rebound, and even throughout COVID, if you look at the numbers, I think luxury was relatively strong. Now you can define luxury in many different ways. You have luxury in the sense where people take their private jets and they go and chill in some random place. That is very, very high-end luxury. I think the reason why we saw luxury travel rebound faster is because the luxury travel resorts are the ones taking better precautions, COVID-specific precautions. I think that's one part. I think the second part is that people who can afford that type of holiday are people who are able to travel in a way which they are secluded from other people. That's the one which I've seen. The other thing is that the mid- to high-end market people have just more income to throw at holidays. Versus, I think, on the lower end of the spectrum, you have people who have been really affected job-wise by COVID.
That's another big factor, where people who are not doing your very, very low and cheap type of leisure holidays, I think a lot of them have been either laid off or don't have jobs, their businesses have shut down or whatever. Versus on the mid- to high-end luxury, it's not happened. It's not impacted as much. That's what I've seen so far.
Dmitri: [00:13:29] While we're looking at various segments, can I try to see if another one exists? There was a little bit of intense coverage, I think circa April, May in the US first. Or was it June? Around the trend of not extremely high-level travellers, just working professionals, who tend to relocate from major cities to second- and third- tier cities, taking advantage of lower cost of hotels and facilities to wait the pandemic out, and be away from movement restriction orders and all that. Have we seen anything like that actually come to pass in Southeast Asia? Jakartans moving to Bandung and some such?
Gwen: [00:14:07] Anecdotally, yeah. I've seen several people move from Jakarta to Bali to wait it out because it's much cheaper, blah, blah, blah.
Viren: [00:14:15] What I've seen in India, a lot of people have just gone back to their home cities. Like I live in Bangalore, and their rentals have just dropped so significantly because people have gone back. If you're in Bangalore, you may be from regional city. Those rents have dramatically dropped and it's because people have gone back to their own cities. In terms of expats in India, have all gone back, so very, very high-end rentals like the ones which are your 4 to 5K a month. I know in Singapore that's not as high. Here in India, it's very high if you're paying that much. Those have just dropped, there's zero demand for it. That's what I've seen so far. But again, like Gwen, it's very anecdotal rather than anything else.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:01] I think one way to think about it from the same Bali's perspective is you first saw an outflow of expatriates and digital nomads who, again, were headed back to where they had, from their perspective, more security in terms of the border closures but also a better understanding of the healthcare system, and also just flight to safety. It's being close to family during lockdown, et cetera. Also, I think there was also some sense of friction between the digital nomad and the expat population versus the domestic Bali citizenry, which was just expected in a pandemic. You have constant fear of outsiders. I think now the inflow, like you said, is within Indonesia, of people moving. I don't think it's driven by domestic people. But I think it's also driven by how much they're able to work remotely, whether they lost a job and that's why they're moving back as well.
Whereas I think in America the wage differential is higher, in some ways, in terms of maybe pure absolute numbers USD. Between SF, for example, to just what we hear in the news, versus somewhere in the mid-west or the south, or Florida. Then I think also in America companies have been very good at pushing for remote work as well. That's actually an interesting case where even though people are moving back to their hometowns, they're also moving back with their income security still high. That's pushing up the price of homes in some segments, like the top segments in tier two, tier three cities. There's actually a lot of competition and prices are heating up because SF engineers who are still getting paid remotely are looking for a house in New Hampshire, which didn't exist. I think that's a little different in terms of the pattern of relocation, domestically, from the US. Versus, say, somewhere in Indonesia, where the person may be moving but may no longer have a job or may not have remote work capabilities, for example.
Chia, we were just talking a little about whether you've seen in your groups how domestic relocations for work purposes, how that has shaped up, because that has an impact on local housing for example, and accommodation. Shaun, maybe you have a point of view on this as well, maybe you might have some friends who are travelling around the region.
Chia: [00:18:02] You mean domestic relocation, or what do you mean?
Jeremy Au: [00:18:04] Yeah, we were just talking about whether we're seeing a trend of people travelling and working remotely, for example. Relocating back to their home cities.
Chia: [00:18:14] I think we did mention this briefly, maybe a long time ago, where it's just remote hiring. We're investing in founders who are executing remotely, and that previously would never really have happened. It's a major red flag. But I think everyone has become so accustomed to it that you have maybe the founding team is not in the same country, and people are still ready to write cheques. Maybe that's a mistake in the long run, who knows? But I know things like that that would have been an immediate pass has now gone to this completely okay, where we're completely okay with this type of arrangement. I think that, on the founders' side, happens a lot. On the employees' side, definitely happens. You've got a lot of startup companies where the first few hires are remote also, and not even in the same country and everyone's okay with that. That's been, I think, more of what I see.
Gwen: [00:19:06] Adding to that a little bit, and this is not Southeast Asia specific. There's the bigger question of the infrastructure and willingness of the company hiring, obviously, to allow that. James' example of startup founders, of course, they're much more open and willing to experiment more on remote working. Immediately, in my immediate colleague circle, they want it but it's difficult.
Jeremy Au: [00:20:38] It's interesting because we've started talking about travel but it's organically gone into conversation of remote work, which is that if you're allowed to remote work, then you're travelling all the time, technically. Or that you have much more flexibility. I think what's interesting is that if we do see the rise of remote work, and I think of course we're seeing it. But if that's really sustained and keeps going to be the trend, I think we might see the travel market may actually increase.
Because people are much more flexible with travel, so I think the digital nomad lifestyle of going to one country for a month at a time was very, very on the fringes and not doable for most people. Unless you were freelance engineer, or someone doing contract and gig work. But it may actually be available to a lot more people doing supposedly more mainstream jobs. If you were at, this is off the top of my head, a couple of the companies that announced full remote work, like GitHub and other places. Then that lifestyle is totally available to you consistently.
Gwen: [00:21:39] If we're talking a lot about the second order consequences and effects, it's going to impact a lot of things. Family structure, precisely if you can live a digital nomad lifestyle which is more accessible. Or maybe you rent a trailer, you literally drive around and work from a desert one day, and beach tomorrow, and stuff like that. How would it change the society? Society typically is very grounded and in the past, villages, 150 maximum kind of thing, that's where you pop out. As well as all the social structure involved in supporting a family to grow, essentially. With remote working, it really changes the structure, the fabric. Did I bring this too off topic?
Chia: [00:22:22] No, I think it's interesting. It's allowed us to hire a bit more diversely than we would have otherwise been comfortable with, which I very much enjoy. You get to hire people without necessarily having to meet them. I remember, we have an associate sitting of India, and there used to be a rule where everyone that came in through the firm had to have at least one face-to-face, and that included the interns, which obviously wasn't an insane rule back in the past. But now it would clearly have been insane.
I've had an associate working with us for nine months, never met him face-to-face before. I really appreciate the diversity of talent that you're able to hire. The impact of society, I think that's an interesting one. For me, it's mostly net positive. I think when travel bubbles open up and everything, we'll still go back. I think a lot of this COVID impact is relatively short-term. The social impact is still going to be relatively short-term, in my opinion.
Jeremy Au: [00:23:17] I think for me what's most interesting is once the vaccine comes out, how much of it remains. What's interesting is that I think a segment or a customer persona of the digital nomad. A digital nomad in the past was always considered to be a scruffy non-Asian person, with long hair and dreadlocks, and work as they go but not very high wallet size to go for. It'll be hostels and backpacking and, to some extent, co-working spaces were starting to emerge. But I think one lasting impact, at least, will be a customer persona or digital nomads who are now professionals.
They have a business suit in their suitcase, and they are being paid well because they're working for an American or European company, and they're willing to spend at not necessarily a luxury hotel, but a luxury accommodation or a premium house. Spend well, as if they were living domestically. I think that's going to be birthing quite a few interesting questions, are we starting to see some emergence in that nomad industry of companies that are trying to be like, "We have the same house experience in multiple cities," for example. The same global community. I'm interested to see how mainstream that will get.
Dmitri: [00:24:30] For what it's worth, a couple of pictures came out where, even though we don't really do real estate, from people who try to do developments, and that's even before COVID, in Phuket and in Bali are all micro-complexes being built, villas and that kind of a semblance of an open plan office under the palms. For subsidiaries of Chinese, Russian, Belorussian companies, that just with 30, 40, 50 people on the ground somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Thailand or Indonesia permanently. Remote compounds for digital companies. I've been hearing rumors of a couple of villas being developed specifically for livestreaming influencers, a little bit like the LA stuff. I guess that's accelerated by COVID, it should at least.
Chia: [00:25:17] Actually Gwen, I'd be super curious to get your thoughts as well. Questions about virtual conferencing. Do you think it will exist in a big way post-COVID?
Gwen: [00:25:27] When you say that, meaning all the physical conferences like the Tech in Asia ones all have gone online. Is that the kind of conference you're thinking about?
Chia: [00:25:34] Yeah. My personal bias, I passed on one of the FOMO virtual conferencing companies as an angel, COVID. I'm really, really bitter about passing on that. I'm trying to find data points that suggest that actually that was a genius move. So far I haven't found any. But yes, that's why.
Gwen: [00:25:51] A good question. I have a few thoughts, excuse to defer from both the speaker's and the consumer perspective. For me, I think as a consumer, there is a lot of legs to having global access, for instance. Time zone apart, if you want you can stay up at 2 AM if you want. Plus it's recorded. It's a few things: it's much more normal now to watch a Zoom interview, that's one. Number two, you can literally walk up in your pajamas so it's much more easily accessible. But three, you have global access to content, if you know about them. If you know about a conference happening, you can sign up, pay for a ticket and sign up. Again, barring the times of conferences. For the attendee, I think it makes a lot of sense. With that, expands the ticket full size of a conference organiser, your audience is "a bit more global." Maybe plus minus three, five hours' time zone differences if you want to talk about a live Q&A.
On the speaker's side, this is where I think it's not so clear-cut. Myself, I rejected speaking at a few stuff because I'm like "topic is fairly interesting but not super interesting". Or not as interesting enough for me to actually want to say yes to it. Because for me being in a conference is really about hanging out with fellow speakers and chilling out before the conference, so I think for global conferences, from a networking perspective and from a speaker's perspective. All of you I'm sure you're invited to speak and you've been speaking also over the pandemic. I'll be curious as to your thoughts because for me, on that front I'm less inclined to actually speak at global conferences.
Chia: [00:27:29] Okay, that's interesting. From that point of view, FinTech Festival, it's gotten, I think, better speakers than it's ever gotten before, it's really amazing, that are showing up, that would probably have been a bit difficult to get all of these guys in a room. My challenge and also the reason why I passed on the investment is that people go to conferences to have that photo taken with themselves shaking hands with a Nobel Peace whatever. Or look like they're receiving wisdom, to say that they've met that person once. Or maybe try to pitch something for 10 seconds. You can't really do that on Zoom. You don't have the same intimacy and proximity, it's the fundamental reason to do that. I don't believe that people go to conferences for the content. That's where I'm coming from. It's interesting you're sharing the speaker side. But I wonder if you would agree on the attendee side.
Gwen: [00:28:23] Well, I can see your point. I don't belong on this segment of needing a photo opp so I don't feel that. But I do agree, a lot of people do want that. Content, I also agree is the least of the priorities. It's always about meeting people, ultimately. But I'll separate it into two. I still think global access of content has been quite valuable. That's one. Second, on the physical part, photo ops, "saying that you met someone one time in media." I don't know how much can really impact... I think if that's the case then that's become less important because it's moot. It cannot happen. Unless you're going to fly 13 hours to wherever somewhere, to Iceland or something, to meet a speaker.
Chia: [00:29:14] But that's the Clubhouse, I would even go so far as to say this is the Clubhouse thesis, which is that it's about peer-to-peer interaction, no matter who the speakers are. For example, Singapore FinTech Festival. Would it be awesome to listen to the Nobel Laureate who's speaking at the Singapore FinTech Festival? Yeah, kind of. Do I think I'll learn anything? Not really. But if I was offered the chance to meet this person, would I definitely take it? Yeah. I don't know what I'd say to them. But yeah, I'd love to meet the person.
That's what Clubhouse is supposed to be offering, the chance to speak to Marc Andreessen on a topic, as long as you have something intelligent to say. That's supposed to be the same value prop of a conference, which is the chance, if you have something smart to say to that person directly. And the job to be done there is because you want to be able to somehow build a connection to that person. But then that job to be done can't be fulfilled on a virtual conference. That's where I'm struggling a little bit.
Gwen: [00:30:10] Yeah, I like that. I think back to your original question, whether these virtual conferences, my opinion on whether they'll continue to exist, I think yes. I do think the form factor, it's just another product. Physical conferences will exist, so will virtual conferences, and in my opinion a virtual conference is a continuous thing, and grow even more. Second to your point about the value add in terms of precisely the Clubhouse model, connecting with someone really far away or someone "famous," having that direct relationship now, you and I exchanging words. Yes, I agree.
The current conferences for now, at least the ones I've been a part of, I don't have that. The tools are not yet matching to that experience. The Clubhouse direct interaction model is not really there yet. Sure, if I watch you where I give a talk, I could ask you a question in the live chat in Zoom. Or I could unmute myself, if they allow me to unmute myself to ask you. But it's still very different. It's not a conversation at a bar that we could be having. It's still very one to many, if anything.
Chia: [00:31:07] Yeah.
Gwen: [00:31:07] But I think that will change. If that changes, if they incorporate more of the Clubhouse way, I'd like that. I do agree that would get in much more
Jeremy Au: [00:31:13] I think the crux of it Jeng, is that you're right to say that when we talk about the explicit goal of conferences is not necessarily to hear people speak but it's the serendipity of the attendees and those conversations you get to have. You're right to say that virtual conferences today don't have that yet because they're so new on average. But I will say I think it's only a function of tools, and I do agree with Gwen that it's only a matter of time that organizers are listening to the feedback of that and seeing, "Okay, we've got to either buy a new feature."
I think we've seen some interesting tools that let people do that thing. That's going to kill, to some extent, travel for conference type of travel. But I think I will also say that I think at the end of the day what we're going to land up on is every physical conference is now going to have a much stronger virtual dial-in basis.
They'll probably tier it down one level. In-person would be $1,000, and then it would include the remote for you to dial in, and there's a remote-only which is going to be $100. But they can sell 10X of those. I think the answer is not going to be one or the other. I think all physical conferences will pretty much have a remote component generally, unless it's super exclusive for private or confidential. Then I think the second thing that's there is that I think there will continue to be virtual-only conferences.
I think if we were to look at very niche interests that are not sustainable at a physical... In order for a virtual conference to happen, it's basically in the next one year or half a year, the people who can turn up at this conference must be in the same country, have the same time availability to be there in person, and must care about the topic. That's three pretty large jumps in order for that conference to happen. That's why you see Singapore FinTech Festival, which equivalent is like Southeast Asia.
FinTech is a large topic, Southeast Asia is a relatively large geo, Singapore is a hub. But I think we're going to see a lot of niche-ing down of interests. I think one way to think about it is instead of looking as Singapore FinTech Festival, as Bali FinTech Festival. I don't think it's really going to be geography. I think it's really going to be topics, and I think these virtual conferences are going to be huge. Imagine a global Left 4 Dead 2, or Left 4 Dead 1 as an old outdated game. But it's there's quite a passionate fan base for that, that could hang out. I'm seeing a lot of weight loss or fitness communities who are very unhealthy and very uncool to be a conference full of unfit people. But they're gathering online on virtual communities as well.
Gwen: [00:33:46] Jeng, no formal regarding the next angel investment. Look forward, look forward.
Chia: [00:33:52] Yeah, I actually want to dive from something you said. I like the way you phrased it, "one to many versus spontaneous". That's a good phrasing because that's actually I think how conferences are like. Most interactions in the world, especially if you're at that level, are highly optimised. What that means is that you have your secretaries, pre-screening everyone and making sure that you're optimising on your time, every 15 minutes, 30 minutes, blah, blah, blah.
Then here's a conference setting, where to some extent the interaction can't be pre-screened. You have a group of people that line up, they want to talk to you and take a photo, whatever. You can't really screen that. You just trust that, "Okay, the conference ticket was a 1,000 bucks, no randos can come in." But in fact, actually a bunch of randos come in anyway. The lack of screening is part of the value to the attendee because like, "This is my opportunity to reach out to this guy." No one really attends a conference of people that they'd meet for coffee every day.
The challenge here is that I don't think it's a tool thing because if you believe that it's a screening, and lack of optimisation that provides that spontaneity, then the mere fact... Right now, with a lot of Zoom conferences, organisers are explicitly trying to screen and optimise for the time, especially because now the barrier to entry is basically zero. It's an incentive issue, I think, when it comes to virtual conferences versus physical conferences. Did that make sense?
Jeremy Au: [00:35:23] I think you're just describing something that's happening today, because people are grappling with the tools. But this is exactly the same issue that Facebook had with the feed and moving towards an invite-only to an algorithmic feed. My prediction, and I'd put 50 bucks on this, is that we're going to see conference guests, attendees which used to be listed alphabetically at best with some tags, blah, blah, blah. They're going to become database searchable format so that people can sort better.
But more importantly, I think there's going to be a feature where they move towards an algorithmic sorting of that kind of serendipity, which is that instead of you going to get donuts at a line and you bumping into someone and then saying no to that person. Then moving on to another person there who is actually someone relevant. I think we're going to see algorithms do that for us for that slice of the conference and travel dynamic, for guests and attendees talking.
Chia: [00:36:17] Okay, but that's where I have an issue, because I definitely agree that's how you would replicate the physical setting. But the problem is that that's not what the speakers want. It's the same issue that Lunchclub faced, which is the beginning when you can ensure only high quality invites, you can build serendipity around that. But at scale, that doesn't work because you just simply can't filter. Then at that point no one goes, "Let me randomly sign up for people with zero guarantee on the quality control."
It's always that promise of quality control that allows people to do it. But then when you're physically there, you can't run away from someone. I mean, you can but you'd be very rude and that would come across. That's the difference. Then the problem is the platform itself, which is a conference organiser is incentivized to come across as having high quality screening because otherwise you would have wasted that time. That's why I call it incentivization.
Gwen: [00:37:16] I like that, Jeng. Putting ourselves back to physical conferences: All of you as speakers, where do you hang out? I ask this because I would mostly hang out in the speaker's lounge.
Chia: [00:37:26] Where do I hang out? I mostly hang out at home because no one invites me for anything.
Dmitri: [00:37:33] Oh, so sad.
Jeremy Au: [00:37:34] What's always been interesting for me is that I do some speaking as well and I definitely like hanging out at speaker's forum. But this year I think you're right to say that. It's interesting because I get to continue speaking at forums of my affiliation, in that sense. I got to speak, for example, remotely this year, I got to speak at the Deutsche Bank, kind of like the APAC Club. They were asking me to speak about that, which technically is New York, I was speaking in Singapore, but I still got to speak, and I enjoyed, and got actually quite a few connections there. I also spoke at the Boston Startup Festival as well.
I think from the panel organiser's perspective, it also makes it easier for diversity and inclusion purposes, D&I. I think a lot of people don't have access to be able to speak, based on timing or geography, or whatever it is. I think it also helps organisers with their diversity and inclusion efforts as well, to get speakers.
Gwen: [00:38:29] To go back to your point about incentives, I think that's a great one. Linking that with filtering and stuff like that. I see where you're coming from, and to bring back your other previous point about the how the FinTech Festival this time has many more speakers. Yeah, because it's easier to now speak locally, and to access. I'm sorry, that's not a coherent point but I wanted to say that I see you. I don't have clearly thought-out points regarding that at the moment.
Chia: [00:39:02] Well, the other alternative is that's the wrong way to look at it and just look at how much money you're throwing into conferences, and just invest accordingly. Which is basically less than I earn.
Gwen: [00:39:13] Which has to be. Traditionally, all of us know that conferences take a while to actually make money. They need the first two years to spend a lot of money, outflow first, negative, in the red and only they start making back in the third year. That's why I think for the pure monetary perspective— this is not all wise — this will definitely continue. And they will not be screening as much, which means if someone is willing to pay 500, even if that person's a rando, that rando person has 500 to pay for the ticket. I think for now in the medium term, I think it will be that. It's just really expansion of audience. I think that will be the priority, I'll index on that first.
Chia: [00:39:48] Yeah, so I feel my conclusion, which is you can have a business model that long-term ruins the quality of the... I'm being a bit ungenerous but long-term ruins the quality of the industry. But still can make a lot of money. That was my learning.
Gwen: [00:40:03] That's probably.
Jeremy Au: [00:40:04] I would debate that. I don't think it would ruin an industry. Its just people have a chance to opt in and vote off their feet. In the short term... If you're willing to pay 500 bucks or 1,000 bucks to get in, you probably are going to be of value to that event and conference, that's number one. Otherwise, there's no value. You want more $1,000 ticket holders globally, rather than more 1,000, 500 and 100 physically in the same place. That's one. Then two, organisers still have the underlying incentive to keep it going. They're always acting on feedback. Basically I think the underlying incentive of getting feedback, trying to drive up audience, and NPS. From their perspectives it's still going to go through as a cycle.
Viren: [00:40:52] The reality with all these conferences is that they're making a lot of money from corporates and people who are buying tickets in bulk. I think giving it away. The whole idea of you set a high-ticket price means everyone will come, high quality is not really true. It's like they are distributing free tickets to Goldman and Goldman has 20 tickets to give away for free. Then rando people show up. I know there's a correlation between ticket price and quality but the relationship there is also a bit more nuanced.
Jeremy Au: [00:41:29] Dmitri, anything you want to add to close this out before I wrap this panel?
Dmitri: [00:41:33] Not on conferences, anyway.
Jeremy Au: [00:41:36] Awesome. Thank you so much everybody. I think that pretty much wraps our panel today. See you guys all at the same time next week.
Produced by Adriel Yong