While Italy remains a popular foreign destination, planners are also interested in alternative destinations a little more off the beaten path.
Proving that overseas meeting and incentive events are no mere exotic sideshow, a new report by Allied Market Research projects that the global Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) industry is growing at a rate of 7.5 percent annually. The group market wing of the tourism industry is rising from $752 billion in 2016 to $1.2 trillion by 2023.
Tried-and-true sites such as Las Vegas and Orlando still tend to dominate lists of top destinations overall, but places such as Cancun, Toronto, London and Singapore are grabbing an ever-growing piece of the pie. With demand for U.S. hotels exceeding supply and costs rising apace, foreign destinations may offer attractive opportunities.
American Express M&E projects a 2.41 percent increase in North American hotel room rates for groups, but just 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.1 percent in the Asia-Pacific region and less than 1 percent in Latin America. Also of note: The CWT Meetings & Events 2019 Trends Report expects that costs per attendee/day will actually decline 4 percent in the Asia-Pacific region in 2019.
But for U.S.-based meeting planners accustomed to the accessibility, logistics and ease of planning a meeting or incentive close to home, an international destination is not for the faint of heart.
“Get with someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Kim Hester, senior account executive for Irvine, CA-based JNR Incorporated. “Make no assumptions that things will run the way they do at home.”
Hester knows from firsthand experience the kinds of unique circumstances a program in a foreign country can spark.
“Get with someone who knows what they’re doing, Make no assumptions that things will run the way they do at home.”
Hester was aboard a Windstar Mediterranean cruise two years ago when a member of her group suffered a massive heart attack just as the ship was sailing out of the harbor at Kotor, Montenegro. The captain dropped a tender boat for a two-minute trip to a nearby hospital, but as it reached shore, the guest died.
“I knew if it was established that he died on land it would take weeks to get him out of Montenegro,” Hester says. “But if he died on the ship, it would be in international waters, and no problem. So I got the ship doctor to document that the guy died on the water, not on land. We had the remains out of Montenegro and on the way back to the family funeral in Texas within 48 hours.”
“If you don’t know how to get a body out of Montenegro, don’t be afraid to ask,” Hester adds. “If you have true expertise on your side, you’ll have the resources to guide you through those kinds of situations.”
Patricia Silvio, global marketing manager for the international DMC Pacific World, says that interest in new destinations and unique experiences has increased significantly during the past few years.
“The appeal for U.S.-based companies to host events overseas is the chance to experience different cultures and unique offerings from around the world,” says Silvio, whose company works with a wide range of industries, such as technology, insurance, healthcare, education and finance. “They continue to value the importance of face-to-face meetings and events (M&E), but every industry sector is looking for out-of-the-box and localized experiences in M&E. For example, meeting attendees are showing a growing desire to connect with the local culture and experience the destination through the stories and experiences of the locals.”
Peter Lombard, CEO and founder of Globe Guides, concurs.
“Getting people outside of their comfort zone changes the way they engage with one another; how they engage with learning,” Lombard says. “And a couple of my clients have said that just having their team in a different time zone allows them to disconnect from home and focus on the content or the experiences at hand. They’re not checking their cell phones. Instead, they’re trying food they’ve never had before.”
Hester says despite bubbling trade wars and diplomatic tussles, the climate is right today for international meetings and incentives. “There’s always going to be a certain number of people who are afraid of travel outside the country. But there’s also intense curiosity; the younger generation is less timid. Most people want to get out there and experience the world, and they’re wanting more and more off-the-beaten-track destinations.”
What makes for a good international meeting or incentive destination? Several factors should play into the final choice, starting with where the attendees are based.
“If it takes two stops to get there, they’re not going,” Hester says. “It’s really important to have good air access.” Having a group fly halfway around the world for an event means people will be exhausted for the first day or two. “I make sure they understand flight distances. People get excited about going to Australia, but if they want to do an incentive for four or five nights I tell them the flight time has to be proportionate to the amount of time for the program.”
For Michael Lambert, travel account manager, operations with Maritz Travel, airlift to Australia was an important consideration for an incentive he plans annually for a financial institution catering to the Latin market in the Americas. Fortunately, air service to Sydney has grown considerably over the last decade.
“We had 350 attendees coming from the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as from the U.S. But I could funnel them through Dallas, L.A. or even Santiago, Chile.”
Australia is still a long flight, and a bucket-list destination for many. In addition to recommending at least four nights, Lambert says planners should expect a lot of requests for extensions. “I think that’s something a lot of us don’t anticipate.”
It’s also important to understand the culture of the company and how it relates to the destination, Lombard says. “It’s not about whether Morocco is better than Italy — one might work for one company, the other works for another. Some groups may want a more remote experience someplace like Cambodia or Myanmar, or I can give you a more polished experience in downtown Singapore or Bangkok.”
Clients need to understand that many destinations do not operate the way they may be used to at home. Cuba is currently trendy, but amenities to which travelers are accustomed, such as air conditioning or cell phone and internet access, are not widely available.
James LaValle, LA-based manager of MICE for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, recommends meeting planners researching their first overseas event should start with a user-friendly destination.
“Hong Kong certainly is,” LaValle says. “They can go into Hong Kong with a little more sense of familiarity. It’s a user-friendly destination but has enough unique cultural appeal to be very exciting for its visitors. And with the increased focus on China lately, Hong Kong provides access to China without being in China, with all of its limitations. Negotiating and contracting in Hong Kong are very easy, there’s no taxes, VAT, GST or otherwise, and there’s no visa required. Those visas can not only take a lot of time, but can also require a lot of funds to secure.”
“In New Zealand, the U.S. dollar is very strong, so it’s a great value for us,” Hester says. “Ireland and Thailand also offer great value. Vietnam and Cambodia are just plain dirt cheap. There are some places that are expensive, such as Scandinavia, but you get a lot for your money.”
Airfare can be a particular concern for planners looking overseas, but with a glut of seats flying over the Pacific today, some far-flung destinations can be cheaper than stateside options. One example: Thailand.
For sheer exoticism on a big-city scale, Bangkok is hungry for business and wants to showcase its meetings options. Software provider SDL weighed several options for a leadership summit held last year. Following events in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and North America-South America (NASA) regions, Jessica Connolly, senior manager, corporate events & marketing with SDL, says cost was “the outstanding factor” in selecting Bangkok as the host for the 150-person meeting.
“Coupled with the quality and cost of the location, Bangkok was a top choice,” Connolly says. The city provides attendees a decidedly foreign place where English is a common second language, there’s a vibrant culture, and five-star hotels offer excellent value for money.”
Sumate Sudasna, president of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA) agrees that Bangkok is a great destination.
“Thai hospitality is second to none,” Sudasna says, adding that Bangkok is known as the city of smiles. “Bangkok is ideal for people who want something different but also desire American-style comfort.”
LaValle acknowledged that Hong Kong is at the upper end of the pricing sphere for the Asia-Pacific region, with Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok at the lower end. “But we are also a Tier 1 global financial center,” LaValle adds. “Compared to similar Tier 1 cities like London or New York, we’re relatively affordable.”
LaValle recommends that planners looking to shave costs work with the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
“We’re here to help planners identify lower cost options, if necessary” says LaValle, who suggests planners look beyond the brand names they know. “National brand hotels in international destinations can be of a higher standard than their domestic counterparts with prices reflecting that. Instead, price-conscious clients can look to the Asian brands for value. Harbour Plaza Hotels & Resorts and Regal Hotels International are two examples of really good solutions in Hong Kong for planners with a tighter budget.”
Another area where planners can find unpleasant budget surprises is currency fluctuation.
“You’ve got to time your currency buys correctly,” Hester suggests. “You can get caught buying [in] the wrong direction.”
But sometimes the best-laid plans can still go awry, and Hester says one country stands out for her as overpriced.
“Without a doubt, Iceland. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place, but their success in tourism has exploded. A decade ago it they received just a few hundred thousand visitors, last year it was 2.3 million. That demand has driven prices up astronomically, and it’s now one of the most expensive places in the world. I took a program to Iceland last summer and everyone had a great time — but it was insanely expensive. We went way over budget.”
Spain, Thailand and China sit atop Pacific World’s 2019 list of the top destinations based on the number of requests received. Silvio says her company finds that the destinations ranking highest all have strong convention bureaus and a clear destination development strategy as well as modern infrastructure and convenient access.
“For example, motivated by the upcoming 2024 Olympic Games, the Paris region committed to enhancing the visitor experience backed by a 23-million euro investment plan which will greatly boost France as both a tourist and MICE destination,” Silvio says. “Nearby Monaco has recently completed a major renovation of the Casino Square area, including a restored 5-star Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo and the addition of the One Monte-Carlo conference center. Monaco also attracts incentive programs due to its location between France and Italy, giving attendees the opportunity to visit three countries in one trip.”
To look ahead for emerging MICE destinations, Silvio says Pacific World follows government investments in infrastructure and development, leisure travel trends, social media and more.
“The goal is to find emerging destinations that satisfy the needs of a new generation of planners as well as re-energize the interest of experienced travelers, all of whom are looking for new, exceptionally curated experiences.”
One country Silvio says has been showing steady growth, particularly from the U.S. market, is Peru, a country that offers three diverse regions: the coast, the highlands and the jungle, creating a range of climates, landscapes, textures and flavors.
“They’ve made important infrastructure changes and investments and have proactively courted MICE planners in the U.S.,” Silvio says. “The opening of a new convention center in Lima in 2015 was a game-changer and the city is now able to host large-scale events.”
Other places Silvio identifies as tomorrow’s emerging MICE targets include Bhutan, Namibia, the Greater Bay of South China, Bordeaux in France and Bodrum, Turkey.
For planners like Hester, up-and-coming options such as these are ripe for discovery.
“When it comes to the classic European cities, more and more people have ‘been-there, done-that,’” Hester says. “Quite a few places in France and Italy are getting loved to death. People are getting away from classical Europe and the traditional capitals. They want to see more of the countryside. Today people want to see Puglia, on the heel of Italy’s boot, which is like Tuscany on the ocean — beautiful, but not as crowded.”
Other European destinations Hester recommends include Northern Ireland and Malta. For meeting and incentive planners with open minds, the world is truly your oyster. C&IT