While the resumption of conferences and events in North America has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, association meeting planners might be surprised to hear how the MICE sector is thriving in many overseas countries, sometimes exceeding 2019 activity.
“We did more business in the last nine months than we did the whole of 2019,” says Catherine Chaulet, president & CEO of Global DMC Partners, a global networks of DMCs. “The business came back beautifully this year, and when we compare what we had in the books at this time last year with what we have now, we’re up. It’s very, very impressive.”
At the same time, Chaulet says the rapid return to business has been challenging. “Everything has been extremely last minute, and there has been a sense of urgency as well as fear. So there have been tons of contract negotiations in case of cancellation, but at the same time, things needed to move very rapidly. It’s been very, very busy, and it’s still very complicated for clients and for vendors, hotels, DMCs and restaurants.”
Chaulet is among the meeting planners who cite both the unusual advantages of holding events outside North America right now, along with noting a few ongoing challenges — some that have always existed along with others that have emerged as the world reopens.
Margaret Stafford, meetings director for a legal association with both U.S.-based and international members, meets in destinations around the world multiple times a year. “A lot of big law firms have a global presence, and they interface with foreign government enforcement agencies on behalf of their clients,” says Stafford. “Antitrust, for instance, is a global practice, so even if a member is residing in the U.S., they tend to have clients overseas.”
Stafford, whose views are not necessarily representative of her association, suggests staffing levels are almost back to normal outside North America. “Coming out of Covid, international hotels seem to be staffing more on par with the pre-Covid days, whereas in the U.S., we have to increase the staff we take because hotels have cut back,” says Stafford. “Plus, in an emergency, such as what we had in 2020, you want a hotel that is equipped to handle it, who’s going to help get you out. The Singapore Tourism Bureau kept us informed at every step of the way, the hotels were spot on and very proactive about providing info. They never said, ‘We’re short staffed.’ Not every CVB is great, but they’ve all reached out and said, ‘How can I help you? What do you need to know?’ So, I’ve found it’s been much easier working internationally.”
Sometimes, Stafford’s association meets in locations where new laws are coming out. Others may be tied to particular industries. “Outside Tel Aviv is the Middle East’s version of Silicon Valley, so we held a tech one in Israel,” explains Stafford. “We have a workshop that draws practitioners specializing in monopolies and international cartels, so we vary the location, to be able to have discussions with the broader audience — Europe, U.S., Asia.” She adds that the one they did in Lisbon last summer had about 350 attorneys registered.
A decade ago, the New York-based International Trademark Association (INTA) decided to schedule some of its annual meetings overseas — in part to raise global awareness around the importance of intellectual property. “We wanted a rotation between Asia and Europe every third year — to reach as many intellectual property (IP) professionals as possible and to spend time with our global membership,” explains CEO Etienne Sanz de Acedo. In 2014, INTA met in Hong Kong; in 2017, Barcelona played host. Singapore was scheduled as the destination for 2020, but the world had other ideas. That event will now take place this year at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre. “We had a great experience in Hong Kong and we are very much looking forward to Singapore. It provides an easy entry and exit point for our international delegates hailing from more than 100 jurisdictions.”
Within Southeast Asia, for INTA, Singapore represents a large and growing block of members. “Also, INTA has many strong local and international partners in Singapore, including the IP Office of Singapore, WIPO, Interpol and more,” says Sanz de Acedo. “We can showcase the IP business opportunities in Southeast Asia to our members, and equally, we can dialogue deeply with the relevant stakeholders on the potential issues that our members may face in the space of intellectual property rights protection.”
In addition to certain attractive incentives Singapore offered, Sanz de Acedo notes that the Sands Expo and Convention Centre has facilities to comfortably handle large-scale meetings. This year, INTA anticipates upwards of 8,000 delegates, and room blocks at more than two dozen hotels were secured. Adjoining the convention center, the 2,561-room Marina Bay Sands is without a doubt Singapore’s most eye-catching hotel, featuring the world’s largest rooftop pool, a 490-foot-long infinity pool cantilevered atop three separate towers, 627 feet above the ground. With 1.3 million sf of meeting space, the largest ballroom in Southeast Asia, and 250 meeting rooms spread across five levels, the facility is a prime target for U.S.-based meeting planners holding large-scale meetings.
“Singapore offers a variety of different hotel properties that cater to our delegates’ needs,” adds Sanz de Acedo. “The city has a travel infrastructure that includes taxis, ride shares and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), all of which helps our attendees travel with ease, it offers a gastronomical adventure, and Singapore is a safe city, which helps us ensure the safety of our delegates.”
Singapore reopened to the MICE sector relatively rapidly, but Chaulet notes, that although she is seeing interest in Asia, some countries are having a hard time. “Japan, in particular,” suggests Chaulet. “They are struggling with what Europeans struggled with last year. They’re opening up and the demand is through the roof but the capacity to manage it is not there. They are overwhelmed. Obviously, there’s no demand for China, and we haven’t seen much for India, which I don’t understand — maybe it’s a perception issue. For the rest of Southeast Asia, there is very high demand — Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia are among the markets where we’ve had interest. ”
Cynthia Cortis, event director at Smithbucklin, oversees an unusual portfolio of events on behalf of their client since 2006, the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT). In addition to educational components and networking events, five regional conferences are held annually around the world. This year’s Asia gathering just took place in Bangkok, Thailand.
“We’re all about growth, so we rotate around the region,” says Cortis. “We like to go where our members are and our members in Asia are predominantly in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, so those are on regular rotation. But then, every couple of years, we like to add a place that’s emerging, like Bangkok. Thailand, and Singapore last year, are very cognizant of how difficult the situation has been, and they have strong government involvement in the tourism industry. They couldn’t be more empathetic.”
The Bangkok conference had to be rebooked twice, due to the pandemic, and Cortis notes how understanding the parties were. “I don’t mean to use a cliché, but they see us as a partner, and I just can’t say enough about how great they have been. All I keep hearing from everybody is, ‘We’re just happy you’re coming. It’s been such a long, long haul for us.’” The Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) provided ISTAT some incentives, and Thai Airways came on board as a partner and host. “They’re going to be very involved. We’ll have cabin crew on site and we’re doing a tour of the Thai Air facilities.”
For accommodations, ISTAT will be based at the 374-room Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok. Centrally located in Sukhumvit, the hotel is next door to a Skytrain station, an important distinction in famously traffic-clogged Bangkok. Athenee features a rooftop swimming oasis, a spa and eight restaurants. The hotel offers over 70,000 sf of conference rooms and event venues, including the more than 11,000 sf Crystal Hall.
“We take up a lot of space, so not every hotel can accommodate us,” notes Cortis. “There are a lot of nice hotels in Bangkok that could work for us, but the Athenee is beautiful and they’ve got giant common areas. One of our challenges when we booked the hotel four years ago is that we’re always growing, but they’ve just been wonderful in letting us do what we want to with these spaces, so that that’s really helped us. Also, it’s a pleasure to do business in Asia. Once you’ve worked there, you understand.”
Stafford found having a meeting in Lisbon, Portugal last summer to be very inexpensive. People, she says are still avoiding coach tours post-Covid, so they seem to prefer walking tours still. She adds, “You don’t need to rent cars because it is very walkable, or you could take a tram. Lisbon is very affordable, and people stayed on for pre and post days, which they don’t normally do.”
Stafford says they stayed at the historic, 282-room Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon, where art-deco nuances are woven into a contemporary Louis XVI aesthetic. The hotel features about 45,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 4,908-sf ballroom; the hotel also has access to unique sites like the 14th-century ruins of the Convento do Carmo, where an elegant and fully-catered al-fresco dinner is possible. Stafford notes that, from a pricing standpoint, hotel chains outside the usual name brand suspects are often yielding better value.
“Antitrust staff is sourcing more independent hotels or European brands like Kempinski than in the past,” Stafford explains. “A lot of contact negotiations seem to be determined by revenue managers to keep costs in line with what the corporation is doing. So, I’m exploring more opportunities with international chains, places that are already vetted and financially sound. For instance, we were at a family-owned hotel in Argentina where special requests could be determined on a case-by-case basis. For smaller meetings of 100 rooms or less, I found Rocco Forte was very flexible; similarly with the Westbury Hotel in Dublin.”
Although Stafford says she’s not seeing much in the way of contract incentives driving destination selection, she is also paying particular attention to offbeat locations where lower occupancies can generate better pricing.
“Because business is down, Eastern Europe is really appreciative of anything you’re doing,” suggests Stafford. “For example, people may have concerns booking Warsaw, Poland, due to its location close to Ukraine. But last October, we used the Hotel Bristol, which is attached to the Presidential Palace, and both the delegates and hospitality industry were so happy that we came there. It was very comfortable to be out walking, and even the government officials from Ukraine that do competition law were able to come to the meeting by train.”
Built in 1901, the Hotel Bristol, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Warsaw is an iconic city landmark, situated on the celebrated Royal Route, just a short walk from Warsaw’s Old Town, Royal Castle, National Theater and Opera House. Blending modernity with the original Art Nouveau design, the 206-room hotel offers a series of unique salons for smaller meetings and breakouts, along with the intimate, 2,885 sf Chopin Ballroom, suitable for banquet seating up to 96 guests.
“People need to look beyond their normal, to places that can use the money, like South America, where rates are more flexible,” adds Stafford. “People worry about crime, but crime is everywhere, including the U.S. People are afraid of Jordan, but it’s clean, it’s safe, they have good hotel options — it’s a nice country. If your interest is someplace in high demand, like Italy, consider off-season. Rates in winter in Italy are very reasonable and there are no waits at restaurants.”
Clear and thorough communications are vital when coordinating with any host destination, but they become even more important when cultural and language differences surface. SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers, holds several meetings a year, both domestic and international, and encounters the gamut of challenges. For its annual meeting last fall, the organization chose Bogotá, Colombia, and Anna McManus, account executive with The Kellen Company, SATW’s management company, says the announcement was greeted with excitement.
“These are people who’ve traveled the world, but many had never been to Colombia,” says McManus, who notes that weekly planning meetings in the months leading up went well, and language issues did not present any challenges when planning out the run of show. “But in Colombia, they take their time doing things. We needed lunch plated on the table at 12 noon for a keynote speaker starting at 12:30, but it didn’t arrive till 12:15. For me, being from New York, everything is laid out to the minute, so it was sometimes frustrating. You need to allow buffer time, because things don’t move as quickly as we’re used to — for dining, for transitions with speakers, for transportation.”
SATW chose the 410-room Hilton Bogotá Corferias for its flexible meeting space and central location. The hotel is located within Corferias, Bogotá’s International Fairgrounds and connected to Agora Convention Center, and features more than 24,000 sf of meeting space, including the 6,018-sf Bosque venue. McManus notes the meeting space exactly fit the needs of SATW’s 300-attendee conference, with evening events scheduled at both the hotel and offsite two evenings, at the outlandish Andres D.C. restaurant and nightclub and at the renowned Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, located 32 miles outside Bogotá.
Another area where cultural differences were encountered were with dietary restrictions. “The food was good — definitely heavy on meat, with a lot of pork. But there are quite a few vegetarian, vegan and halal requirements in our organization,” explains McManus. “When we turned over our list of members with dietary restrictions, they took it as more of a suggestion rather than as something that were requirements our members expected.”
However, showcasing the culture of Colombia is something the host excelled at. “They’re really proud of their culture,” says McManus. “It was something we talked about on every call. The way they presented the people and culture of Colombia and how they put together the pre and post tours to show off the country really gave attendees the full scope of the beauty of Colombia.”
Colombia is among the places Chaulet says fall into the category of hidden gems — destinations that may fly under the radar for many consumers but can yield excellent value. “Malta is another one that has a lot of potential — it’s easier to access than people expect,” suggests Chaulet. “If you have an association that’s very global and you want practicality, Dubai is a great destination. But, the one I really want to mention is South Africa. It’s expensive, but we’re seeing more and more demand, and extraordinary opportunities.”
One important meeting destination that reopened from the pandemic somewhat more quietly — later than Europe and most other foreign countries — is Australia. Since early last year, life down under has returned with a sense of normalcy. Although airfare pricing from North America has been an obstacle for the MICE sector, by the end of this year seat capacity from the U.S. to Australia will be at 88% of the capacity the destination had at the end of 2019. The largest boost will be provided by United Airlines, which announced recently that it will increase the number of seats from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Sydney and Brisbane, through additional flights or larger aircraft. This summer, Qantas will launch JFK to Sydney service, via Auckland — a precursor to the eventual JFK-Sydney nonstop service set to launch in 2025.
What’s more, 200 new hotels have opened across Australia since the beginning of 2020, offering 19,000 beds. That doesn’t even count the eye-catching new 585-room W Sydney, undergoing finishing touches to open its doors this fall. The hotel is located in Darling Harbour, next to the International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC), and will feature 10,957 sf of meeting space, a rooftop pool, and sits within walking distance of dozens of restaurants lining the harbour.
U.S.-based associations are also showing strength in Melbourne, most notably with the Rotary International Convention, which will be held at the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre. The event is expected to attract 14,000 attendees, with many coming from North America. The Rotarians will leave behind a projected $59.8 million economic impact. The Global Entrepreneurship Congress 2023 will also be held in Melbourne, with 2,000 international attendees projected to come in. Situated along the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne’s convention center offers more than 430,000 sf of exhibition space and is positioned within walking distance to several dozen hotels.
Robin Mack, executive general manager of Commercial and Business Events Australia, says the country has a “strong pipeline” of events originating in North America lined up for the coming months and years. “Our research shows that association meeting planners are drawn to Australia by our business events facilities, good infrastructure, appealing climate, safety and security, and the range of quality accommodations. We score highly in each of these areas.”
Mack continues, “But, we feel our people and our welcoming nature are also important. Australia is home to the oldest living culture on earth, and when you come here with an association, you can weave that indigenous thread all the way through your event.” | AC&F |