Over the last several decades, prime locations for meetings and incentives have naturally shifted as old favorites skyrocket in price, new destinations smooth their rough edges and open luxury resorts, and new markets beckon with huge client opportunities.
While Europe has become a less frequent incentive destination due to ever-rising airfares, and a meeting destination only when necessary for similar reasons, more and more planners are looking far, far east. Increased ease getting around in English, ever strengthening MICE and tourism infrastructure and an appetite for something new are the lure, and the benefits that come with the change of scenery do much to offset the travel cost.
Though the world’s largest continent and the lands dotting its largest ocean offer endless destinations to explore, some are more welcome to outside planners than others, namely major cities in China, India, Australia and Japan, and islands such as Macau, Singapore and Hawaii, due to a number of factors, ranging from language to physical accessibility.
In recognition of the changing tide, ITB, the world’s largest travel trade show, created a new ITB Asia installment of its packed European program, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to a convention area larger than many small European towns.
“Seven years ago, we decided for numerous reasons to locate our event in Singapore, within which we were spoiled for choice of venue, with three major conference venues,” explains executive director of the Asia edition of Berlin, Germany-based ITB, Nino Grüttke. “Why? The advantages. The opportunities. More than half the people of the world live inside the circle you can draw around greater Asia,” he explains. “It’s hard to generalize, but I primarily think of the opportunity, the growth that is there. If you’re a young start-up coffee joint, you can do that in L.A. But once you’ve cornered the market, it’s time to think about Asia. The hunger and thirst there is enormous.
“The general thing we looked for was political stability and tech requirements,” Grüttke explains. “We internally looked for a place with good MICE facilities and good local partners. A place where DMCs were reliable. It was also important for target groups to have easy accessibility. We wanted a location with no visa restrictions, good infrastructure onsite, lots of connections with airlines, and an easy commute between the MICE venue and hotels.”
While the potential rewards of moving certain meetings, particularly those of a sales nature, to Asia do exude a certain siren’s call, the language, travel and cultural barriers can raise quick red flags for many planners, but choosing a cosmopolitan city can help bridge the gap.
“Singapore, I daresay, is the most international country in the world,” Grüttke continues. “You have all ethnicities and religions living next to each other, and it’s a very guest friendly country. You have such an international team to work with. As Europeans, we have a different culture, and so do the Asians, but if you find a peer from your part of the world that helps a lot. ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ they say, and it’s so true.”
Immersing themselves in such diverse and different cultures can in fact be one of the biggest draws for attendees of events in the Asia Pacific region. “During my Hong Kong meeting, my favorite part was having the rare opportunity to tour the city,” explains Anita Nazario, CMP, director of meetings management for Mountainside, New Jersey-based L&M Healthcare Communications. “Hong Kong offers so many distractions to your attendees, so try to build ‘free time’ into your agenda. It’s a shame to bring people all that way and not let them see the location.
“If you plan offsite events, build time into your agenda and a guide into your budget that can provide information on the local area while in transit,” she continues. “In Hong Kong — and any and all foreign cities — take as many of the hop-on-hop-off double decker bus tours as time will allow. They give a great overview of the city, allow you to spend relaxing time outdoors if you sit up top and you get out of the hotel.”
Some comforting cultural differences in the Asia Pacific region work out very much in a planner’s favor. “I’ve planned meetings in China, Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, India and Hawaii,” says Stephanie Infantino, CMP, experiential marketing and event manager at San Francisco-based Dolby Laboratories. “Quite honestly, in all the destinations, I’ve loved going there because of the service. It’s honestly unprecedented in the world. Taipei is unbelievable. The aim of service is to really provide that extra level of amenity. Hotel buffets are huge, like they’re almost trying to outdo each other. You can get anything you want: Indian, American, European, etc. You end up gaining five pounds on every trip.
“It was the same in Hong Kong,” she says. “I’ve done some executive incentive type of events there, and they’re all about thinking about all the different touch points when you have special events or incentives there. I don’t know what it is about Asia, but I think sometimes people get nervous, because it’s not a Roman alphabet. I mean, these are foreign travelers I’ve been to cities around the globe with, but I knew this would be the case, so I worked with the hotel on this. For one event, from the second that people landed, they were there. They had guides that greeted us when we got off the plane — literally at the gate, because they somehow have access — they provided plane-to-hotel back and forth service.
“In the rooms, they actually had five-inch diameter chocolates with the meeting name and logo propped up like a frame, and each person had a personalized frame and gift with chocolates and truffles all around, along with these little boxes with drawers that had snacks,” she continues. “That’s what people got when they arrived in their rooms, and they were just blown away. They learned our names and knew who everyone was, so when we went down to meals — where they had menus with our logo — they would greet you and walk you over to your seat, which had your name.
“We had a similar experience in Beijing,” Infantino explains. “When we arrived, we didn’t go to a check-in desk. Someone came to meet each guest and walk them to an individual desk for personal check-in. Then, even though these are grown adults, when people walked in their rooms, they were jumping up and down like they had won the lottery. In India, it’s extremely high tech, white glove. They radio in when they pick you up. By the time you arrive at the hotel, your personal assistants and escorts are all assembled. When I got sick, they had a doctor onsite who came to my room and treated me!
“The country that ranks the highest for superior service is Japan,” she says. “When I was planning executive level events there from 2008–2011, you could get five-star hotels for four-star pricing, but now people have caught on. You’re paying much steeper prices. In Europe, it’s a different reception, and especially in the U.S., it depends on the property. There can be a magic feeling from traveling internationally, but people can be a bit more critical. I think everyone was really pleased with our Asia Pacific events and happy to be there. We had people who were picky and wanted things a certain way. The right hotels appreciate having that information in advance, so if so and so has a wife, they’ll upgrade them and greet them with roses and a card and champagne.”
While Australia often gets overlooked by planners as, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like a different enough destination than North American locations to justify the travel cost, planners are finding the service lines up with high Asian standards, and the food and cultural opportunities are worth the trip. “Australia really delivers a wow factor,” says Scott Siewart, divisional vice president of sales for USMotivation.
“We had an incentive event in Australia that was primarily for USA top performers,” he continues. “The top performers were sent to Sydney, Australia, to stay at the Four Seasons Sydney for five nights. They had a great time in the beautiful city of Sydney — who wouldn’t! We offered extensions to whoever was interested in the group since people that have made the trip to the Southern Hemisphere really wanted to see more of Australia than just Sydney.”
“The fact that the average performer had not been to Australia drove revenue and interest in the incentive program,” Siewart explains. “Our company is always looking for experiences that the average performer would not be able to afford or could not plan what we offered. The flights are longer than going to most destinations, but when you think that you are flying non-stop out of Los Angeles, it is not really as far as you think. Eat a meal, go to sleep, watch a movie or two, and tahdah, you are in Australia.
“Australia has a great service culture,” he says. “Top performers felt welcomed and very well taken care of. The food and beverage options in Australia are unmatched. It’s a great place for foodies to go. I love Australia and would recommend it to any group looking for a wow. It is a unique destination worthy of any top performer or high-level meeting group.”
To navigate cultural and language barriers, involving local help is often more of a necessity in the Asia Pacific region than in most destinations. “In general, if you come to Asia for an event from the Western world with a successful product or blue chip, you have to start over,” Grüttke explains. “It’s not about what you have, but about how it fits here. You need to approach it with the mindset of an entrepreneur. You have to build up, give yourself more time than it would take on your own ground and be willing to tweak your product or procedures.
“If you come to Asia for an event from the Western world with a successful product or blue chip, you…need to approach it with the mindset of an entrepreneur.”
— Nino Grüttke
“Generally, it is easier and faster to build relationships in the Western world, and I say this as a Caucasian, but they’re way more business-driven and opportunistic. Buy or don’t buy,” explains Grüttke. “In Asia, it takes longer, but it’s a lot more personal. You get to know a person, their family, background, values, experience and history, and then you start talking about business. It has its advantages: Local partners are very important, because they have knowledge and culture, and can open doors and give you tips on things you can adjust.”
Planners also have found that there may be a language problem even in the most modern Asia-Pacific cities. “Though Hong Kong was once held by the British, language is as big an issue here as in the rest of China,” explains Nazario. “We used Hong Kong for an internal global meeting for a specific division of pharma consumer health that was expanding to the Asian market, and found that ground transportation greeters, local onsite staff and offsite locations rarely have truly fluent English speakers.
“If you’re looking for onsite assistance at your meeting be sure to tell the DMC that you do not want a hostess,” she continues. “Tell them you want a meeting planner that is fluent in English, and tell your DMC that you expect your airport greeters to be fluent in English and/or any other languages that will be represented at your meeting. In general, you need to be very specific about what you want and need from the hotel and all vendors. Have the AV vendor provide you with a CAD drawing and if possible, use a U.S. vendor for your AV. Food is also an issue when you have Westerners attending the meeting.”
Infantino concurs that AV is one of the more difficult parts of setting up Asian meetings. “As an international event manager you need to understand that there are differences in voltage, lighting and AV equipment, starting with the metric system,” she says. “You need a completely different set of requirements for cord length. You need to change your mindset and really know and understand what you’re doing there, and don’t try to fit what they have into your model. You might simply not be able to find gooseneck microphones that you always use.
“A lot of times Internet is separate, and they charge a lot for that. While this is something that meeting planners always complain about, before even signing a contract, I would ask for the prices upfront,” Infantino continues. “A lot of times people would provide broad strokes in terms of pricing. Say, ‘This is the type of Internet they need. We’ll be running video. Who else will be on the same bandwidth for the hotel?’ Ask very specific questions.”
While planning your bandwidth requirements, it’s also important to keep in mind that people will be consuming a fair amount of data on their phones during the event that you wouldn’t see during U.S. meetings, because attendees will use hotel Wi-Fi rather than their own data plans, as they would at home.
This spring, Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, which opened in April 2010 with a 600-table casino, 2,600 guest rooms and 1.3 million sf of meeting space spread over two exhibition levels and two conference levels, and its sister property The Venetian Macao, part of the Cotai Strip Resorts Macao, will be the first properties in Asia to receive the ISO 20121 Event Sustainability Management System certification.
The certification recognizes organizations with policies and procedures in place to ensure sustainability, whether environmental or social, throughout the event cycle. Sands hotels produce a custom sustainability report after each event documenting the event’s footprint and savings achievements. “We hope more and more meeting planners will be encouraged to hold eco-friendly events, and that they will see The Venetian Macao as a ready, willing and competent partner in fulfilling their sustainability goals,” Gunther Hatt, executive vice president of operations for Sands China Ltd. said in a statement. The Venetian Macao features 3,000 suites and 1.2 million sf of meeting space.
Marina Bay Sands also has recently become the only hotel in Singapore to be recognized by Aimia as one of the Passion for Excellence-award winners.
On Marina Bay and adjacent to the resort, The Westin Singapore Marina Bay also opened in 2013, adding 301 guest rooms and suites and three restaurants to the area.
Set to open in late 2016, the new International Convention Centre Sydney at Darling Harbour is fast filling with bookings, including seven major international events. Including the convention center, hotel and adjacent residential neighborhood, which is already open with vibrant cafés and shops available to visitors, the harbor is undergoing a $2.5 billion overall revitalization. The final space will feature 430,000 sf of event space, including a 54,000-sf event deck with views of both the city and harbor.
While the new center is under construction, events are being held at the interim center on Glebe Island. The Dockside Pavilion Darling Harbour, a pontoon floating in the harbor, is currently open and can accommodate 1,440 guests seated or 2,000 standing.
Elsewhere in Australia, two other major event spaces are set to open in 2015: the Sea World Resort conference center on the Gold Coast and the 21,650-sf conference center at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. At the Sea World Resort, the new conference center will add 8,000 sf to the currently available 17,000 sf. Two hours north of Sydney, the new Hunter Valley center offers groups a flexible ballroom space that can accommodate up to 1,000 people in the midst of one of Australia’s oldest wine regions.
In the fall, the Aulani Disney Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Oahu opened Ka Maka Landing, an extension of its Waikolohe Valley water park. While leisure guests may be drawn to the infinity pool, poolside and beachside restaurants and grotto, the lure for planners is the new 16,000-sf Halawai Lawn, an outdoor landscaped meeting space, adding to the resort’s previous 20,000 sf of meeting space, including a 14,000-sf conference center. It’s also become even easier to get to Hawaii, as Hawaiian Airlines launches new service, including daily year-round service between LAX and Maui. C&IT