International Women’s Day is celebrated annually in March and focuses on the movement for women’s rights. International Women’s Day 2021’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ – #
To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021, we sat down with Ailynn Seah, the Vice President of Sales (MIC & Association) at Marina Bay Sands to hear her thoughts on how women can get into the MICE industry and her personal experiences throughout her career.
Hi Ailynn, thank you for joining us today. Let’s start by getting to know you a bit more – how did you make your way into the business events industry?
Hi IBTM, it’s great to chat with you.
I always wanted to perform in the West End but after a few failed auditions, my parents felt that I needed to find a more serious job. So I did an MBA in the UK and that was where I met my Singaporean classmate, who’s also one of my closest friends, who married a Swiss hotelier.
Through our conversations, I heard about all the amazing things about being a hotelier and that sparked an interest in me. When I returned to Singapore, I started my first job at the Mandarin Orchard Hotel. Back in the 80s, Mandarin Orchard was the biggest hotel in Singapore and it was before Suntec City Convention, Raffles Hotel, Fairmont and Swissotel and other hotels were built around the Marina Bay area.
I started my sales career with Mandarin Orchard’s Sales team. The first major event that I handled then was the World Dental Congress. Beyond the scale of the event, the cause that the association was championing – advancing dental education and inspiring the next generation of young dentists, left a deep and lasting impression on me. It was also through this event that I realised the social and economic impacts that MICE events bring to Singapore.
What do you think is the current position of gender equality in the business events (MICE) industry?
Unlike some industries, I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling for women in the event industry.
In fact, I believe there are more women than men in this high-touch and stressful industry. I’ve even read that event planning is one of the top five most stressful jobs in the world and I do recognise that women seem to be better at multitasking as well as coping well with the demands and stress of this job.
Having been in the industry for so many years, I personally feel that the MICE industry is one that doesn’t discriminate between genders and there are equal opportunities for everyone if one is willing to work hard.
How does Marina Bay Sands, the venue where you work, accommodate gender equality?
Marina Bay Sands is an equal-opportunity employer, providing a level playing field for all employees. This is evident in our human capital strategy where it is also balanced against a merit-based hiring and recognition system.
What are your top tips for women looking to enter the MICE industry?
In the events industry, the hours are long and the stress level is high. Hence, I think it’s crucial for one to enter the industry with the mentality to maintain a work-life balance.
The vibrancy of the industry might cause one to burn out quickly if they don’t take care of themselves. Newcomers, especially young ladies, may find this initially daunting. Therefore a mentor can play a very crucial role in guiding the juniors while teaching them how to strike a good work-life balance.
The MICE industry is also one that values relationships, so it is important to be authentic and stay true to who you are. Trust is built over time and over the years, I’ve built many great friendships with my clients.
One last advice would be “don’t sweat the small stuff”. The dynamic nature of the events industry requires one to be agile, resilient and adaptable. Even with the most detailed planning, we must always be prepared for changes, think on our feet and resolve any potential issues to the best of our ability.
Have you been mentored or have mentored another woman in the industry? How has that helped or supported you/them?
I am a big advocate of mentorship because, when I first started out in the industry, I didn’t have any mentors guiding or advising me and had to learn things the hard way. The closest mentor I had was my mother, who also wore a secondary hat as my support system.
Younger female colleagues have often commented about the challenges of balancing work and personal lives due to the demands of the industry. They feel lousy at times when they realised that they are not able to prioritise what’s truly important to them in life. My advice has always been, when it’s time for them to go home to be a mother, to be a wife, they should do so. No one should be pressured by external factors around them. In fact, my managers and I have regular one-on-one sessions where we share the challenges faced and simply just catch up.
Back in 2018, a couple of female executives at Marina Bay Sands got together and we started a Women’s Connect Lunch. We started small but we hope that more female employees can join the group. These no-agenda lunches are great – we get to know each other better and over time, build friendships with our fellow co-workers, even those from other departments.
You mentioned that women need to find a good work-life balance between their demands at home and at work. What are your views on flexibility around parenthood? Can this be a barrier for women coming into the industry and what do you think could be done to change that?
Parenthood definitely isn’t a walk in the park for any couples, especially working mums. At the peak of my career, I have had a lot on my plate and having to wear many hats both professionally as well as on the personal front. There’s always a constant need to juggle the long working hours and being there for my family, especially my two school-going children then. Having flexible working hours and having a strong support system, be it an understanding boss, my helpers, supportive spouse or even parents, helped me tremendously and it definitely took some pressure off being a working mom.
Very often as mothers and wives, we give ourselves to everybody but are often harsh to ourselves. Over time, I realised the importance of loving myself more. I never had to apologise or feel bad about having my own personal downtime to just relax and unwind. When one is not so uptight, we will in fact bond better with our loved ones.
Having a supportive spouse really helps too. When my kids were younger, I usually get my family involved by bringing them down to the events. It gave me the opportunity to share my life in the events industry and allowing them to truly understand the demands of my job.
Every job has its demands and stress, but it boils down to priorities and time management. I used to stop working late in the office so I can go back home, pick up my children and have dinner with them. Once I’ve put them in bed, I will get back on with my work.
Do you think there are any cultural challenges that could affect women entering the MICE industry around the world?
Like in any other industries, we work in a globalised world where we are constantly interacting with people with different cultural backgrounds, beliefs and working styles.
A way to navigate cultural differences is to keep an open mind, be humble and listen.
Finally, do you have any role models within the industry that you think other women could also look up to?
Janet Tan-Collis is a cherished peer and is someone whom I look up to.
As the ex-President of the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS) and owner of an event agency, Janet has made significant contributions to the industry in the region. An inspiring veteran, Janet’s bold and vocal views on women and industry issues continues to have an impact on Singapore’s vibrant MICE sector.
Janet’s longstanding experience, her mentorship and advocacy of industry education and professional development is widely recognised by the international MICE community.
On the personal front, she is also a great mother to two lovely and successful children and is definitely a force to be reckoned with in our industry.