Will COVID-19 Zoom meetings spell the end of business travel?

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Amit Taneja, Chief Commercial Officer of Cleartrip
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There are signs of optimism for the business travel industry, which, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, made up 0.7 % of global GDP in 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 March 2021

Will COVID-19 Zoom meetings spell the end of business travel?

  • The pandemic has meant executives have become used to not having in-person contact with clients

DUBAI: A survey of 5,678 respondents living in the UAE and Saudi Arabia has offered much-needed hope to the travel and hospitality sectors. Carried out by online travel agency Cleartrip, it found that 72 percent of respondents said that they were happy to travel within the next six months once safety procedures were in place and restrictions lifted.

Digging deep into the results, while 70 percent said they were looking to travel to see family and friends, only 1 percent said that this was for business purposes.

With employees stuck at home and not seeing colleagues, let alone clients, does this mean that the rise of Zoom calls and online meeting platforms will do away with the need to travel to meet clients in person?

“Yeah, definitely, I think corporate business travel is going to see a sea change, which probably would have taken, you know, a decade or so (before COVID-19),” Amit Taneja, chief operating officer of Cleartrip, told Arab News, adding that the rise of video conference meetings with clients had accelerated the demise of business travel.

The impact on the region can be seen in the monthly poll by the US-based Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), which found that in February, 63 percent of respondents said that they had canceled all business trips to the Middle East because of restrictions related to COVID-19, with only 2 percent saying they had not canceled travel.

Looking to the future, just 7 percent of respondents in the February GBTA poll said that they planned to resume travel to the Middle East in the next three months. While 44 percent said they may travel to the region again, they had no timeframe in mind, and 28 percent said they had no plans to travel.

In August 2020, global consultancy firm McKinsey carried out a study into the corporate travel sector. It concluded that “given the volatility of business-travel patterns, on top of significant modern technological and connectivity advancements, the economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic will have critical implications for the rebound of business travel — and indicates a long road ahead for the sector.”

However, there are some signs of optimism for the global business travel industry, which, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), made up 0.7 percent of global gross domestic product in 2019 and has doubled in size in the past 20 years to be worth roughly $1.28 trillion.

This week, a survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that more than a third of respondents said that they could not do business normally without air travel. “People want to get back to travel, but quarantine is the showstopper. As testing capacity and technology improves and the vaccinated population grows, the conditions for removing quarantine measures are being created. And this points us again toward working with governments for a well-planned reopening as soon as conditions allow,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.

The McKinsey report predicted that travel for conferences and large-scale meetings will recover, but not until well into 2021. Cleartrip’s Taneja was confident that while trips to meet clients might not recover, travel for conferences, networking events and team building sessions would come back.

“People didn’t necessarily need to travel to meet your clients or meet your team in different parts of the world,” he said, but added that what we will “probably see a bigger surge in is the conference kind of travel.”


How the pandemic helped 3D printing became mainstream

Updated 13 May 2021

How the pandemic helped 3D printing became mainstream

  • Demand in the Kingdom is coming from critical sectors, such as oil, gas, defense, and utilities

JEDDAH: The global uncertainty created by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic was a challenging time for many industries. However, for some, such as Zoom or Amazon, it was a blessing in disguise and a catalyst for accelerated growth.

The 3D printing sector also saw a rapid surge in demand.

Dubai-headquartered Immensa Technology Labs reported that its business grew by nearly 400 percent in 2020, as global supply chains were disrupted, and operators scrambled to find an alternative.

“The pandemic was probably one of the biggest propellers for this technology, the year of COVID-19 is the year that 3D printing grew up and became mainstream,” CEO and founder of Immensa, Fahmi Al-Shawwa, told Arab News.

“3D printing saved the day,” he said, adding: “Whether it was in the medical sector, where we started producing components for hospitals to utilize, or things as big as old refineries, where there had been components that failed, and they could not resource the spare parts, we produced them.”

As one of the biggest markets in the region, Saudi Arabia was an obvious target for expansion. In April, Immensa was the first company in the Kingdom to be awarded an additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — license by the Saudi Ministry of Investment.

Immensa launched into the Saudi market in November through its acquisition of two Saudi 3D printing startups, Shakl3D and LayLabs. Shakl3D was established in 2016 and LayLabs two years later. By combining with Immensa, the larger entity is aiming to scale globally and target opportunities in Europe and North America.

“By acquiring their existing setups and investing in what they have started, we can expedite the development of the industrial 3D-printing sector in the Kingdom and provide both teams with the international platform of Immensa,” Al-Shawwa said.

HIGHLIGHTS

● In April, Immensa was the first company in the Kingdom to be awarded an additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — license by the Saudi Ministry of Investment.

● Immensa launched into the Saudi market in November through its acquisition of two Saudi 3D printing startups, Shakl3D and LayLabs.

● The company has also acquired a 10,000 square foot industrial facility in Dammam and is planning to establish a network of other 3D printing hubs across Saudi Arabia.

The company has also acquired a 10,000 square foot industrial facility in Dammam and is planning to establish a network of other 3D printing hubs across Saudi Arabia.

3D printing is a production method in which materials such as plastic or metal are stacked in layers to create products. It is also known in the industry as additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping.

Immensa is focused on industrial 3D printing, making mechanical and functional parts for the oil and gas, utilities, power, and water treatment sectors. Al-Shawwa is planning to expand the company’s reach to other sectors and industries.

“We already have our plastics and polymer machinery up and running,” he said, adding that its “metal facility will be operating in the coming weeks.”

As part of its overall strategy, the CEO said he is planning a big investment drive in the Kingdom. “Over the next three years, I think we will be investing significantly.”

According to Statista, the global 3D printing market was valued at around $13 billion in 2020 and is forecast to grow at a rate of 26 percent per annum between 2022 and 2024.

At the same time, in its latest report issued late last year, research firm UnivDatos Market Insights said the 3D printing industry in the Middle East and North Africa was valued at $521.4 million in 2018, which is expected to rise to $1.374 billion by 2025.

“Globally, the adoption of 3D printing is growing at around 30 percent per year. I think what we are going to see in Saudi Arabia is it growing by more than four times that, of 150 to 200 percent per year,” Al-Shawwa said.

Demand in the Kingdom is coming from critical sectors, such as oil, gas, defense, and utilities. These sectors pave the way for other sectors, as other industries are slowly adopting the technology in areas like tooling and injection molding, he explained.

The company boasts eight full-time engineers in Saudi Arabia, with plans to increase that to over 20 this year. Al-Shawwa said one of the reasons for their focus on Saudi Arabia was the availability of local engineers.

“The pool of talent in Saudi Arabia is phenomenal,” Al-Shawwa said.

“One of the reasons why we are shifting to Saudi because we don’t have to rely on expat talents. You can actually rely on local talent.”

Al-Shawwa envisions Immensa eventually becoming a Saudi-American company in the next five years. Its primary base will be in the Kingdom, servicing the rest of the Gulf, which has been the company’s main focus market for the last two years. However, it has recently expanded to the US, which will focus on clients in Asia and northern Europe.


Oil industry spending cuts hammer services firm CGG

Updated 13 May 2021

Oil industry spending cuts hammer services firm CGG

  • A recent pick up in oil prices helped Europe’s major energy companies to post big increases in first quarter earnings

GDANSK: French oil services group CGG posted a 71 percent plunge in first quarter core profit on Wednesday, reflecting a year of drastic spending cuts by the oil industry in the pandemic and sending its shares sharply lower.

In a call with analysts, CEO Sophie Zurquiyah said the quarter had been slow as expected, but predicted more spending in the second half of 2021, noting a resumption of commercial business and contract awards in March and higher oil prices.

“I believe we will see the need for our clients to increase their activity to not only catch up on the work postponed from 2020, but also to compensate for the depletion of their existing reservoirs,” she told analysts in a call.

Zurquiyah confirmed the firm’s 2021 targets.

A recent pick up in oil prices helped Europe’s major energy companies to post big increases in first quarter earnings.

That could bode well for CGG, which cut jobs and sold out of businesses last year as companies such as BP, Total, and Equinor slashed spending.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on Tuesday stuck to its prediction of a strong recovery in world oil demand in 2021, as growth in China and the US counters the coronavirus crisis in India.

OPEC and its allies, known as OPEC+, agreed in April to gradually ease oil output cuts.

CGG posted a first quarter core profit of $36 million, while its multi-client business — which offers seismic data and geological studies — had just one active project in offshore Brazil. Its stock was down over 9 percent at 0725 GMT, the worst performer on France’s SBF 120 index.


SoftBank joins top earners with $37bn Vision Fund profit

Updated 13 May 2021

SoftBank joins top earners with $37bn Vision Fund profit

  • SoftBank has hiked its committed capital in the second fund to $30 billion from $10 billion

TOKYO: SoftBank Group Corp. on Wednesday reported a record fourth quarter 4.03 trillion yen ($36.99 billion) Vision Fund unit profit from an investment gain on Coupang, putting it among the world’s biggest earning firms a year after an unprecedented loss.

Group net profit was 4.99 trillion yen ($45.88 billion) in the year ended March, beating the $42.5 billion made by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in its last business year.

It also compares with a 962 billion yen loss a year earlier after teetering tech bets depressed the value of Softbank’s portfolio.

“It’s clearly validation of Masa’s thesis,” Navneet Govil, Vision Fund’s chief financial officer, told Reuters in an interview, referring to company founder and CEO Masayoshi Son.

Market enthusiasm for tech stocks drove the public listing of SoftBank-backed e-commerce firm Coupang and used-car trading platform Auto1 Group and the rising share price of ride-hailing firm Uber during the quarter.

To sustain Softbank’s position among the global corporate elite, Son will have to replicate that fourth quarter performance with other yet-to-list companies in the Vision fund portfolio. Son has likened that to laying golden eggs.

Candidates including ride-hailing firm Didi, TikTok owner Bytedance and truck service platform Full Truck Alliance have strong revenue growth, healthy market share and a clear path to profitability, according to Govil.

These companies are “sizeable investments with significant value to be unlocked,” he said.

Much of Vision Fund’s gain, however, is on paper with the value of the portfolio locked up in the stock market amid concern over frothy valuations and a boom in special purpose acquisition vehicles (SPACs), which has drawn regulatory scrutiny.

The total fair value of the first $100 billion Vision Fund and the smaller second fund was $154 billion at the end of March, with SoftBank distributing $22.3 billion to limited partners.

SoftBank has hiked its committed capital in the second fund to $30 billion from $10 billion, reflecting the breadth of investment opportunities, Govil said.

Two of SoftBank’s highest profile bets, space sharing firm WeWork and ride-hailing firm Grab, have outlined plans to list via SPAC mergers, with Vision Fund reportedly in talks to use its own such vehicle to list portfolio company Mapbox. The Grab deal offers further upside for the Vision Fund should the transaction go through, Govil said.

The group’s trading arm, SB Northstar, is expanding deal making this week leading a $1 billion investment in acquisitive e-commerce firm THG.

SB Northstar and the broader group recorded a 233 billion yen loss on investments in listed stocks and derivatives as efforts to work cash reserves outside the Vision Fund sputter.

SoftBank has completed a 2.5 trillion yen buyback program launched last year, which pushed the stock price to two-decade highs in March. The end of the buyback pulls support at a time when shares are sliding in line with weakness in US tech stocks.


Global demand for diamonds rebounds

Updated 13 May 2021

Global demand for diamonds rebounds

  • Sales by the state-controlled company totaled $1.6 billion for the first four months of 2021

MOSCOW: Russia's Alrosa, the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds, said on Wednesday its April sales of rough and polished stones rose by 12 percent month-on-month to $401 million after demand for diamond jewelry strengthened in the main markets.

Global demand for precious stones has been recovering from the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic since the second half of 2020.

Sales by the state-controlled company totaled $1.6 billion for the first four months of 2021. At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, Alrosa’s sales were only $15.6 million. 

They rose to $357 million in March this year.

Alrosa, which competes with Anglo American unit De Beers, is gradually restoring its production after last year's 22 percent reduction. It plans to return to its usual annual output of 36-37 million carats within 2-3 years from 31-32 million carats in 2021.

Rough diamonds account for the bulk of Alrosa’s sales, although it polishes those of rare colors or of large size for sale in auctions.

“Our April sales were well supported by the successful results delivered by auctions of high-quality large rough, as well as by strong sales of polished diamonds,” Evgeny Agureev, its deputy chief executive, said in a statement.

A 100.94 carat stone called the Alrosa Spectacle — the largest polished diamond ever cut in Russia — will be auctioned by Christie’s in Geneva on Wednesday.


Japan steps up marketing push to win back Saudi tourists

Updated 9 min 54 sec ago

Japan steps up marketing push to win back Saudi tourists

  • The number of tourists from GCC countries who have visited Japan has doubled in the last five years

RIYADH: Prior to the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Japan had witnessed a surge in the number of tourists from Saudi Arabia, and the country’s tourism board is keen to revitalize this once international travel resumes on May 17.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), a total of 11,152 Saudi tourists visited the East Asian country in 2019, a year-on-year surge of 50.6 percent.

However, due to global travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic, Tomoko Kikuchi, executive director of the JNTO’s Dubai Preparation Office, told Arab News the numbers declined rapidly last year.

“Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the number decreased more than 90 percent in 2020. We do not expect it to recover soon, but we hope to return to 2019 levels at the soonest,” she said.

Tomoko Kikuchi

In a bid to revive interest from visitors in the region, the JNTO has put in place a strategy to raise visitor numbers to their pre-pandemic levels.

As part of its goal to attract 60 million international visitors per year by 2030, the JNTO announced in April that it is planning to establish a regional office in Dubai and to exhibit at the Arabian Travel Market, the Middle East’s largest tourism exhibition, which starts in Dubai on May 16.

The number of tourists from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries who have visited Japan has doubled in the last five years, reaching 28,222 in 2019.

With Saudi visitors making up nearly 40 percent of GCC visitors before the pandemic, the JNTO partnered with global travel and tourism sales and marketing firm AVIAREPS Middle East to promote Japan in the Saudi market.

“Many travelers from Saudi Arabia visit Tokyo and Kyoto to enjoy the unique cityscapes that fuse traditional and contemporary culture, to try Japanese food and to do some shopping, but there are many other attractive aspects to Japan. Nature is abundant, and you can enjoy the beach in the summer and skiing in the winter. We would like to promote various Japanese tourist attractions in the Saudi market this year,” Kikuchi said.

“It is great to know that vaccinated Saudi citizens will be allowed to travel overseas from May 17. When the COVID-19 situation improves internationally and domestically in Japan, we would like to welcome tourists from Saudi Arabia,” she added.