Taiwan’s ubiquitous Lunar New Year-end parties have taken on new formats after the pandemic forced many events online. Will this be a new upgrade for the MICE industry?
No occasion is as indicative of the health of Taiwan’s corporate events industry as the annual year-end party, or weiya (尾牙). The longstanding tradition, which has deep cultural roots, continues to play a significant role in boosting morale among Taiwanese companies, from “mom ‘n’ pop” stores on the high street to multinationals in science parks.
On a practical level, weiya season is when year-end bonuses are doled out to employees – a dollop of cash when needed most. Follow the money and it trickles down throughout the holiday season in the form of red envelopes to friends and family. It’s spent on fancy meals, new clothes, big-ticket items, sojourns to visit family, or even on something more adventurous, like skiing in Japan.
From an emotional point of view, a weiya provides engagement, acts as a social function, and presents an opportunity for employers to show their employees appreciation.
Although many weiya events were either canceled or downscaled for the past three years, they returned in full force this year, a boon for caterers, venues, performers, and organizers in the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) industry.
The word weiya partly reveals its history and function. Ya (牙) literally means “tooth” but also refers to a “market trader.” Weiya is the last of the bimonthly Ya Festival, a celebration associated with Fude Zhengshen, or the God of Wealth and Merit – hardly a coincidence.
The venue for a weiya can range from a table outside a store to a restaurant or hotel. Traditional banzhuo (辦桌), or roadside banquets, can be held on company premises, with makeshift tables and plastic chairs and a stage for toasts and entertainment. Industry giants, however, rent largescale venues such as Taipei 101 or Taipei’s Songshan Cultural and Creative Park for their year-end parties.
Entertainment at these events is a serious business, says Russell Chang, director of Fun Marketing Co., which arranges weiya, outdoor events, and product launches for major companies like TikTok, DuPont, and ASUS.
The high-pressure environment and long working hours that characterize Taiwanese work culture often lead to high turnover, Chang notes. To mitigate this, companies try to build stronger bonds with employees through activities such as team building, family days, and year-end parties.
“The main purpose is for employees to identify with the company, so the activities use entertainment as a tool,” Chang says. Entertainment at these corporate activities is used as “a way of showing off,” he adds. “Since social media is so omnipresent, employees will share news of these kinds of corporate benefits so that friends and family recognize the company and want to work for it.”
Although a weiya is meant to be a festive occasion, not everyone enjoys spending the night with their colleagues and bosses. To protect workers’ rights to remain at their desks or at home, the Ministry of Labor in 2017 defined year-end banquets as extracurricular activities. Employees are not obliged to attend, and employees responsible for organizing the activity are entitled to overtime pay. Employers who demand attendance or force their workers to apply for leave if they cannot attend can be fined between NT$20,000 and NT$1 million.
Adapt or evaporate
The pandemic and subsequent suppression of social interaction prompted a transformation of the MICE industry, Chang notes. The massive scale and social nature of many weiya banquets meant they acted as a litmus test for the industry’s resilience following strict restrictions on social events. You might think being unable to meet face-to-face tolled the death knell for the industry, but that wasn’t the case, as “virtual employee nights” and “virtual weiya” were born.
The virtual weiya has proved an especially suitable alternative for multinational corporations with employees in locations spanning different parts of the world. These virtual events are a marriage between modern technology and traditional values, featuring activities such as digital red envelopes and computer games where employees compete to catch the envelope with the highest payout.
These events can be hosted by a studio emcee and feature guest appearances by prominent artists, addresses from company leaders, and expressions of gratitude from fortunate prize draw winners. The online format resembles a dynamic end-of-year TV variety show complete with all the usual razzmatazz.
Whether a company hosts its weiya virtually or in person, putting on a good show is essential. A weiya is not just a company party; it serves as a reflection of the company’s performance during the past year and indicates its future prospects. Therefore, companies must ensure that their year-end parties are executed flawlessly to create a favorable impression among stakeholders and boost their public image.
“Corporate PR likes to mention what artists the company has invited and how big the draw prizes were as media headlines so that the brand has more exposure,” says Chang.
As for what makes a successful weiya, event planners take into consideration audience demographics and try to encourage participation and engagement via games. Shows by the company’s office workers, like skits or dances, are surprisingly popular, while entertainers include DJs, musicians, magicians, comedians, and lion dances.
Edmund Huang, also known as DJ Dali, plays at Ce La Vie and other Taipei hot spots like Club Vu. An experienced DJ, he has performed at weiya events for Intel, Citibank, and many smaller companies.
“It’s a bit like doing weddings,” Huang says. “There may be hosts and people playing games to win prizes, so the music stops, or I’m asked to provide music for the activities. We have to tailor the music to the crowd, so pop music is on heavy rotation. We often work with other artists like bands, magicians, [and] performers, to make the event more colorful.”
Larger companies typically generate greater revenue. Charges for a DJ performance range from NT$15,000 to $20,000 for major events but can go as low as NT$5,000 if it’s a short set for a smaller crowd.
Meanwhile, Chang’s company charges from NT$3 million to $6 million for a top Taiwanese singer to NT$30,000-150,000 for artists from talent shows. He adds that K-Pop is the “main trend in Taiwan, so young people are very receptive to this area.” Overall, though, he believes there is a paucity of commercial entertainment options, and “most of them are imitations of performances in other countries.”
In recent decades, it has been common for the most extravagant weiya to be hosted by one of Taiwan’s especially prominent companies. Before the pandemic hit, Taiwanese multinational Foxconn’s (Hon Hai Precision Co.) weiya had become the gold standard. The company shocked tabloid readers annually with the lavish excesses of its weiya, the size of its bonuses, and its ability to draw the most popular performers.
In 2021, Foxconn’s virtual weiya saw cash prizes of NT$1 million paid out to 47 lucky draw winners, as well as 10 Luxgen luxury cars offered in a giveaway. Additionally, iPhones were handed out, and employees were treated to performances by popular Taiwanese singers Jam Hsiao and A-Lin.
This year it was the manufacturer Compal Electronic’s weiya that received the most media attention, as it managed to secure a performance by Taiwanese band Mayday. Tickets to Mayday’s regular shows are hard-won and this intimate performance, with only 900 employees in the crowd, was considered a big deal.
But this year’s weiya events also brought some bad news, especially for one industry. Taiwanese insurance companies took a beating in 2022 when they had to pay out insurance claims related to Covid. Their losses were reflected by some of the year-end parties, as reported by several local media outlets. The worst of these, covered by Formosa News, showed a weiya lunchbox consisting only of a couple of bread rolls, a small cake, a can of Taiwan Beer, and some apple juice. According to the article, red envelopes contained just NT$888.
Fun Marketing’s Chang says bad corporate performances have had knock-on effects on MICE and event planners who “have been struggling for more than three years during the pandemic.” He notes that “originally, companies had a fixed budget for regular events, but due to the pandemic, the budget has changed to online and social media spending and is only half of what they originally spent on physical events.”
Chang says that in the post-pandemic economy, “companies are only spending the original unspent corporate budget” on employee activities. He adds that due to the anticipated economic turndown in 2023, marketing and corporate activities are likely to continue to be reduced. “We are not really in recovery now,” Chang says.
But despite these expected headwinds, Chang hopes that a more robust economy and upgrades to the weiya experience will unlock corporate spending in the coming years. As for online services, Chang says they will be the way forward for the MICE and events planning industry. And those who don’t adapt are likely to fade away.