When the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference convened in Hawaii in 2011, President Obama noted that the global economic center was shifting from Europe and North America to Asia, making it a huge draw for many North American groups. The vast region encompasses far more than we can include here. But the six destinations below and the experience and strategies of those who booked conferences in them provide valuable insights on how to make meetings across Asia-Pacific successful.
Perhaps no destination says “Hawaii” more definitively than Waikiki, Honolulu’s oft-photographed beachfront neighborhood. That’s where the Electrochemical Society holds its PRIME event every four years, including 2016. The main host hotel is Hilton Hawaiian Village.
“The target audience for this meeting is Pacific Rim scientists in our discipline, and it’s geographically ideal,” says Roque J. Calvo, the society’s executive director and CEO. “We draw attendees from around the world, but the core is Pacific Rim, where we have partnered with two other professional societies; The Electrochemical Society of Japan and The Korean Electrochemical Society.”
The program runs at the Hawaii Convention Center. “We have about 4,000 attendees,” Calvo says. “The correlation between attendees and presenters of technical info is almost one to one. It’s a very technical program — we require more technical setup than most other types of meetings, not necessarily in terms of specialized equipment or requirements but in terms of capacity and execution. It takes considerable manpower and equipment to put on a meeting of this type and size.”
Reliable execution is critical. “Our execution has to be very, very good,” Calvo says. “We can’t be late and we can’t be down. We have to be precise with timing because of the number of presentations we offer over the course of the meeting — we present 4,000 papers — and because attendees and presenters travel long distances to be here, maybe for a 20-minute presentation. Every presentation must run on time. We’ve found over the years that the convention center has good capacity and execution, as does the hotel.”
Additionally, he says, room sizes are good, the distance between rooms is not significant and people can easily find rooms. “This facility is the perfect size for us. Because of our size, we’re the only user of the facility, which provides a good experience for attendees in terms of intimacy and programs.”
For this group, Honolulu is the obvious choice. “None of the other islands have the meeting space we need. We have a long relationship with Hilton Hawaiian Village, which accommodates the majority of our attendees. Because it’s set away from downtown on Waikiki Beach, I feel it gives guests a real Hawaii experience, which most city hotels cannot. It’s very functional as well,” Calvo says, adding that the resort has a good culture in terms of service.
“The aloha spirit comes through from the staff, and that makes it a special experience for our people. It is a bit of a walk to the convention center so we provide shuttle buses.”
Calvo says he has to provide diversity of price because the group has a large student population, so they also use the Ala Moana hotel, which is closer to the convention center.
The biggest challenge, Calvo says, is “overcoming the belief by some managers and organizations that Hawaii is a boondoggle and serious business doesn’t get done there. Obviously that is not the case. We suppress that notion by focusing on our meeting and what it is — the largest, most relevant meeting in our field. This meeting comes every four years, and it’s the place to be in our industry, which helps us overcome that challenge.”
Partners make the difference. “The biggest driver for our attendance since 1987 has been finding the right partner and right destination,” Calvo notes. “Oahu works for our demographic and partnerships because it’s well located geographically, and the lure of the destination is strong among our attendees, presenters and partners, most from the Pacific Rim. It’s a huge destination for Japan, for example, and the Electrochemical Society of Japan was our first partner. Now we partner with The Korean Electrochemical Society as well, and it’s also a place Koreans like to visit. Hawaii is a place many attendees want to visit, and if you can help them get there with a good technical program, that’s a benefit and helps drive attendance.”
The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) has held its annual convention in Asia several times, including October 2016 in Wenzhou, China, with about 300 attendees based at the Wenzhou Shangri-La Hotel. With many members having experienced China before, meeting outside of the traditional two or three big cities provided exposure to the regional culture and aspects of the Zhejiang Province.
A benefit to organizing the meeting was that SATW’s management company, Kellen, has personnel in China. “Since we have a staffed office in Beijing, with multiple meeting planners and account executives, it’s relatively easy for us to propose a conference anywhere within China,” says Kellen’s Phelps Hope, CMP, senior vice president meetings and expositions. “Using our Chinese nationals in the Kellen office to interpret both the language and the meeting’s needs into an RFP-type document outlining the needs for the convention, the Wenzhou Tourism Board was able to accurately propose to host this conference.”
That said, Hope notes that contracts in China are tricky. “Contracts in China are simply a confirmation of the order, and they require full payment ahead of time as credit cannot be established at Chinese venues. Additionally, the country and all infrastructure are literally owned by the government, which includes convention centers and many hotels. If the government decides to renovate, close, expand or change one of the venues, it’s done without much (or any in one case we experienced!) advance communication to the planner.”
Communication itself is another difficulty. “Communications in China is always the toughest challenge. If you do not ask a specific question you will not necessarily be informed of a nuance that differs from your experiences and processes,” Hope cautions. “This means you must always be questioning, in many cases multiple times, to confirm that plans are on track. The biggest skill needed by a meeting planner heading into China for the first time is to be flexible and patient. The Chinese have adopted many business practices from the Western world, but they still are very unique in many approaches to meeting and event planning. Don’t assume what is standard elsewhere is standard in China!”
With so many challenges, is it worth holding a meeting in China? For SATW, the answer was a definitive yes. “It’s worth it,” says Hope, “to reach the huge economy and diverse experiences that China offers.” But connecting with local experts is imperative.
“Work with a certified DMC and professional conference organizer in the area where you want to meet,” he says. “It will make all the difference.”
SIGGRAPH Asia, a conference and exhibition of computer graphics and interactive techniques, took place at The Venetian Macao last year, with 5,000 attendees and exhibitors from across the world. Speakers included experts from Google VR, Facebook and Pixar Studios, among others.
Prakash Ramajillu, Singapore-based conference strategy director with Koelnmesse Pte Ltd., which organizes trade fairs, exhibitions and events, calls Macao a one-stop destination. “We previously held SIGGRAPH Asia in nearby locations including Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but Macau was different as our entire event, including accommodations, was under one roof. It was easily accessible, and Macau provided our attendees with a mix of modern and traditional experiences.”
Among the highlights, Ramajillu says, was “The grand scale of the venue, which provided state-of-the-art conference and exhibition facilities, with more than 25,000 square meters of flexible conference space and 12,000 hotel rooms — all within five-minutes walking distance. It’s one of the best venues in Macau. Everything was integrated, which made things easier for us. SIGGRAPH Asia is only held at world-class venues so we wanted to ensure that these standards were kept.”
One thing for planners to consider: The Venetian Macao’s immense size. “For some people it may be overwhelming,” Ramajillu notes, “but to us it was perfect. Our event was held over three floors. Exhibition and conference rooms were very accessible given the strategic location of the escalators, which made the journey from one location to another seamless. The Venetian also provided all entertainment, which added another dimension to the delegate experience.”
But attendees should get out and explore. “Ensure that your attendees get the opportunity the explore Macau as well.” Ramajillu suggests. “Guests can walk down to Taipa, which is nearby, a great way to experience the less concrete Macau. Delegates can learn about the fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, architectural legacies and authentic cuisine,” he adds.
Planners should understand that The Venetian hosts many events. “We were informed well in advance that a huge group was arriving during the tail end of our event so we were prepared, and The Venetian ensured there was no disruption to SIGGRAPH Asia.”
Ramajillu advises planners to do a site visit before planning starts to get a feel for the space and options. “There are always challenges running an event in a location other than where you are based,” he notes. “The key is to ensure that your partners have good communication and are agile. The Venetian was great with both. There were restrictions with what we could do due to certain rules and regulations, but we always found alternative solutions with the help of the venue.”
Of note for planners, the world’s longest bridge is under construction here. When completed this year, it will connect Macau with Hong Kong, 39 miles away (passports required). The second MGM hotel is open this year, and in 2018, Lisboa Palace, the first hotel designed by Karl Lagerfeld, will open.
In May 2016, 5,800 delegates gathered in Singapore for the 24th annual meeting of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM), headquartered at Pan Pacific Singapore.
“Singapore met our requirements as a suitable city in Asia given its location, airlift, ease of access, cost, etc. In addition, the visa requirements were really beneficial to our group, which represents over 60 countries worldwide,” says Roberta A. Kravitz, ISMRM executive director.
“The city was so welcoming and willing to work with us when we identified a public area where we wanted to do a very large party,” she says. “This apparently had never been done before in Singapore, yet with the help of East-West Planners, we were able to have our very successful closing party at Glutton’s Bay. Truly memorable.”
Another highlight, Kravitz notes, was “The beautiful Suntec Convention Centre and its technical capabilities, electronic signage and strong internet framework. We took over the center, locating most of our hotels within walking distance.”
Kravitz calls the meeting a positive experience for staff and attendees. “The service level is so high in Singapore. When combined with the willingness of local contacts to assist in every detail, from visas to parties in public areas, it makes Singapore a truly essential option for those planning a meeting in Asia.”
She advises planners to reach out to others who have held similar events in Singapore. “Identify what worked well for others and what did not,” she says, adding that, “There is always a solution or another option in Singapore.”
Singapore continues to evolve. In 2017 four new hotels opened or are scheduled including Andaz Singapore, Hotel InterContinental Robertson Quay, Courtyard by Marriott and Yotel Singapore.
Singapore attendees who want to add a post-convention trip to Malaysia should know that the first-in-the-world 20th Century Fox World theme park is slated to open in Genting Highlands in 2018. This year, SkyAvenue hotel and mall opened nearby, offering five stories of retail shops and restaurants at the top of a mountain.
Planners looking for an expert championing New Zealand as a meeting destination need look no further than Jan Tonkin, managing director of The Conference Company, an Auckland PCO.
“As I travel, I’m always intrigued by how New Zealand and New Zealanders are described by others — a country on the edge of the world, a country of breathtaking beauty, a place where the wine and food are fabulous, a place to try new activities, people who are open and friendly, safe,” Tonkin says. “They talk almost as if it’s a place beyond imagining. But I’m a practical conference organizer, so I focus on how that sense of something beyond imagination can be captured and turned into reality.”
Perhaps most important, she says, there’s a closely knit business-events community throughout the country. “We’re lucky to have the perfect mix of people — those who have made the meetings world their life’s work, those who come back from working in the industry offshore bringing valuable skills and learnings, and those who are enthusiastically starting out and can see possibilities with fresh eyes. There’s a camaraderie and sense of teaming up to create something great for a client. Underpinning it is the spirit of “manaakitanga,” which, in the language of the Maori, refers to hospitality, kindness, generosity, showing respect and caring for others.”
As an example of all that, Tonkin points to the International Union for Health Promotion and Education Word Conference, which will convene in Rotorua, a lakeside city in the central North Island.
“On paper it may look like a challenging location for 2,000 plus delegates,” Tonkin says. “But the Rotorua business-events team was not put off for a moment. They listened to what our client wanted to achieve and looked to see how they could facilitate planning in so many ways, always staying true to the sense of place.”
By bringing in local government and local health professionals, inviting local Maori to participate, and thinking creatively about venues, Tonkin says, “they described how we can deliver social events that, while for large numbers, have a boutique feel about them and are true to the region.”
There’s no question that New Zealand’s dual assets of spectacular landscapes and exceptional food and wine are powerful draws for attendees, and Tonkin says it’s easy to incorporate activities into conferences because they’re within easy reach of almost any area. As for “wow events,” these, too, are easy to come by.
“Where would you hold a dinner in a shed stacked with boats other than in Auckland, which has some of the highest boat ownership in the world? Or a rustic dinner in a barn on a sheep station, no distance at all from a lively conference town? Beautiful vineyard settings abound as do opportunities to hold functions in museums as unusual as Te Papa in Wellington and Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim and art galleries as beautiful as Dunedin’s and New Plymouth’s.”
Fortunately, North American planners don’t have to be experts on New Zealand as there are plenty of experts available. Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme is particularly valuable. “Not only is funding available through that program but also introductions to experts to help with bidding and marketing. The convention bureaus nationwide are equally helpful. The very best way to turn what might have previously been a thought or a possibility into a reality,” Tonkin says, “is by tapping into the local know-how of convention bureaus, independent meeting planners and destination management companies.”
In July, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) gathered in Sydney for their International Conference, with 2,000-plus participants from across the globe. Hilton Sydney served as the primary hotel.
“Business Events Sydney assisted with the successful bid to bring the conference to Sydney,” says Tamara Kavalec, CEO of Arinex, a PCO. “Arinex delivered a depth and breadth of experience that supported IIA and paved the way for best practice with an Australian flavor. It worked like a well-fitted hand in glove and contributed to a well-oiled working experience that was a pleasure.”
The conference was staged at International Convention Centre, Sydney (ICC Sydney), which opened in early 2017. “This brand new international venue is set to become Asia-Pacific’s premier integrated convention and exhibition center,” says Kavalec, noting its many highlights including, “The ease with which ICC staff integrated their duties in an unobtrusive way, state-of-the-art technology that provided clear signage and the ability to switch directions and information at the flick of a switch, and the high quality of the food and beverages.”
Kavalec says ICC Sydney can accommodate 750–8,000 attendees in plenary spaces and offers 35,000 square meters of exhibition space as well as banquet space for more than 2,000.
IIA needed accommodations in a range of price points within walking distance of the convention center, and Sydney delivered. “Hilton Sydney, Swissotel Sydney, Hyatt Regency Sydney Darling Harbour, Parkroyal Darling Harbour Sydney, The Westin Sydney and Sheraton on the Park covered off a number of global brands enabling delegates to use loyalty programs and stay where they feel at home,” Kavalec says, adding that it’s “Always best to appoint the PCO to handle hotel bookings and gain the local advantage of strong relationships with hotels when the town is full and favors are needed.”
The main challenge was that the center wasn’t yet open during the planning process, meaning there was risk until it fully launched. However, Kavalec says, Arinex’s strong relationship with the venue staff and knowledge of how things would work was a plus. “A lot of inside knowledge made it an overall smooth experience.”
For planners considering ICC Sydney, Kavalec advises working with a local PCO to determine which rooms and spaces are needed and how best to assign those spaces in terms of logistics because it can be a long distance between exhibition halls and the conference center. “Allow extra time for this travel during breaks and turn the experience into a plus by conducting a ‘steps’ competition on the app,” she says. “Most centers around the world cover distances but few have such spectacular views such as ICC offers.” AC&F