One of Bangkok’s biggest attractions as a destination is its strong sense of place that instantly makes travellers feel that they have set foot in a foreign land. Immediately, the sense of adventure kicks in and the desire to explore takes the upper hand.
Meeting planners and event organisers may not be able to escape from putting the traditional sights and activities in their itineraries, but there are lots of ways to spice things up even for companies that have done the Bangkok route before.
“If people say that Bangkok is not authentic, they haven’t gone to the right places and they haven’t gone beyond the ‘tourist traps’. The minute you go anywhere outside the normal tourist area, you will see authentic places where you have people who smile at you and talk to you,” says Edwin Briels, general manager of Exotissimo Travel Thailand, which specialises among other things in packaging leisure incentives for corporate groups. “In incentives, that is what we try to do – to go a little bit further to show the real place. And what we try to do is get people to interact with the locals because the best thing in any destination is the people.”
Briels remembers taking a group on a boat ride along the river. Divided into teams of six to seven people, each team was given a notebook containing various tasks to be done during the ride – ie, go to the market and buy three different kinds of flowers.
“Their guide was only there just to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Each group had to talk to the boat driver and to tell him where they needed to go. We wrote down the names in Thai. They needed to talk to the sellers on their own to buy flowers or cups of noodles. It is a fun way to explore the city.”
Exotissimo groups typically come from France. It also handles groups from Spain, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Briels says the whole point of an incentive is to give people an experience that they cannot forget and that they cannot book from a tourist brochure.
Kritsanee Srisatin, deputy general manager of the MICE department, Pacific World Thailand agrees that it is no longer enough to take groups to heritage sites for mere sightseeing.
“When visiting canals, temples, palaces and museums, we add more magical moments into the experience. At the canals, we give guests pieces of bread to feed the fishes. At a temple, we may set up a booth at the corner to do some fortune telling. We just don’t take them and leave them there. When they visit the Grand Palace, there will be an activity for them to do. We add a few activities into a traditional programme to make it into something new.”
Pacific World Thailand gets corporate groups from the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia-Pacific. About 60 percent of its business is pure incentive travel, although this number is changing as most companies today throw in a couple of meetings within their incentive itinerary.
According to Marina Chinanurakchart, director of sales and marketing at Meeting & Convention Planner, a traditional programme will always form part of a Bangkok itinerary as companies from the US and Europe choose the destination precisely for its “exotic” charms.
“It is more than just staging a cultural show during a gala dinner. It is about putting integrating cultural elements into the entire itinerary. We can have a group go to the market to get the ingredients for their Thai cooking class. We include some interactive activities like food carving and flower arranging during dinner. When we visited a temple, we created a temple fair at the site. We had four booths that demonstrate traditional Thai games for guests to participate in.”
Unlike other destinations, it is relatively easy to lease government-owned venues from palaces to museums. But companies looking for more variety and flavour to their Bangkok trip will not be disappointed with the sheer number of contemporary choices for gala events and dinner receptions.
“You can also do a lot of modern things in Bangkok. You can even have traditional and modern themes both in one evening. You can have a pre-dinner cocktail on Manohra Cruises on board a converted rice barge, and then host a dinner at the Bedsupper Club, a very modern nightclub with franchise in London and New York. It is very futuristic. From outside, it looks like a space ship, and inside, everything is white. There are no chairs, only beds – so they basically have dinner in bed,” Briels says. “The club serves very nice western food. It also always has artistic acts – someone is always walking around to do funny things.”
Companies can opt to have “dinner among the creatures of the deep” at the Siam Ocean World. The 10,000sqm world-class aquarium not only is a good venue for some cool daytime activities but also can host an exclusive one-of-kind cocktails or dinner events that are definitely one for the books.
For classy gala receptions, The State Room at the 67th floor of The Dome At State Tower fits the bill for European-type dinners where guests can dress to the nines. The Dome is one of Bangkok’s trendiest nightlife venue. Sirocco, also located at The Dome, redefined Bangkok’s rooftop dining experience when it opened five years ago.
Srisatin notes that many companies today mix the traditional with the modern. She recalls an incentive trip hosted by the British American Tobacco three years ago for 600 people, when there was a different theme and a different venue for dinner every night.
“They put a lot of money for theming and entertainment. The first one was held at the Wat Arun Temple (Temple of Dawn). The next night was at the Riverside Hotel with two boats decorated in white. It was jazz night and there was a live band playing. For the third night, we used the Rose Garden where a Thai cultural show was the evening entertainment.”
In terms of getting around, transportation choices can also swing both ways. For Briels, one of his memorable events was the sight of 200 tuktuks travelling around the city with a police escort. For Srisatin, it was a meet and greet service at the airport for a high-end incentive group that was brought to their hotel by a convoy of expensive vintage cars.
Events professionals in Thailand are very flexible and are always open to new ideas. Even as they take the event brief from the client and build a memorable theme around it, they are very proactive in putting fresh ideas on the table.
“We really needed all the power of persuasion to have a client agree to biking in Chinatown. But at the end of the day, it was something that really engaged the group at an emotional level,” Briels recalls.
Biking in Chinatown was a half-day activity where guests hopped on the bike and rode along the small lanes of Bangkok’s Chinatown. They crossed the markets, visited a temple, and got to peek inside local houses.
“It was something that people did not really expect. The roads are only about two or three metres wide so there was no traffic and they really got to see the real Bangkok. And back at their hotel, they had an hour of foot massage afterwards,” Briels says.
Chinanurakchart always strives to introduce clients to new things. And for clients with time to spare, a half-day or full-day programme outside Bangkok with exciting activities like water rafting is inserted into the itinerary.
“There are many times when some of the items in the programme are totally new to us as well. So months before the group arrives, we do several site inspections and try the facilities ourselves in a dry run to make sure that they will run smoothly,” she says. “When we introduced water rafting in our programme for the first time, everything was working well with the test run until we were told that the water is ‘turned off’ in February, the exact month the group will be visiting. So we had to really find ways to make it happen.”
Eye on costs
To date, companies which have committed to hosting incentives and business events in Thailand for the next year, particularly in the first quarter, are sticking to their plans.
“That is definitely something that we need to keep an eye on. Because if there are companies who need to cut costs, they might cut costs on incentives. On the other hand, some companies would say that we should make more effort on the sales and be more aggressive. And having an incentive programmes is one of the ways to improve sales,” Briels says.
He adds: “There is another trend that we are expecting. Because of the financial crisis, many companies in Asia-Pacific will decide to have less long-haul incentive travels and will stay more in the region. The money they can save on the flights they can spend on a really nice incentive programme in the region. That is definitely a market that we are looking at.”
Pacific World Thailand also sees more Asian companies opting to look for destinations within the region for offsite meetings.
“What is interesting is that these groups from Asia organise their trips and events on such short lead times from a month or even down to two weeks. They come in for a three-day programme which is inclusive maybe of a side trip to Chiangmai,” Srisatin says, adding most of these groups are from Singapore. Among Asian countries, India is an emerging market.
Meeting & Convention Planner expects companies will be more cautious about their budget for the coming year. As they stick to their budget, they will scrutinise every element of the itinerary to make sure the expense is justified and that it is worth the effort.
Chinanurakchart notes: “Bangkok still provides value money-wise. The accommodation rates are quite competitive compared to our neighbours like Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not only the accommodation, it’s the whole package. With the same budget, you can do so much more – you can rent a museum or a palace, you can add more entertainment, you can add so many things. They will not be able to do these things elsewhere with the same budget.”
MEETING & CONVENTION PLANNER
PACIFIC WORLD THAILAND
THAILAND CONVENTIVON & EXHIBITION BUREAU
Something old and something new
David Johnson checks out several of Bangkok’s stand-alone venues.
For a glamorous venue for after-dinner drinks, an intimate meeting or to completely take over for a party of 160 to 200, look no further than Koi Bar and Restaurant. Owned in part by the regional Elite Models agency and it is where their up-and-coming models hang out. Really a place to be, and certainly be seen, Koi thrives on style – with dim lights, minimal furniture, dark wood materials. Triumph, Estée Lauder and Tag Heuer have all recently held events here. A private dining room for 34 delegates also offers an interesting venue for creative planners, used recently by Fashion TV.
One of the most creative uses for property show suites seen in Bangkok, The River Promenade is a massive platform stretching out into the Chao Phraya River in front of the site for The River condominium. This deck and inside and the show suites have been used by a number of high profile organisers of business events to date – some small such as a seminar hosted for Les Altiers and The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, some medium sized such as for the 400 delegates and guests at the recent Navin’s Sala Exhibition and some massive such as using it for 2,000 party-goers at the DJ Tiesto concert. Full-range of light and sound system is available and catering can be organised from The Oriental Hotel across the water. Stylish and versatile venue, with boat transportation provided.
Jim Thompson House. The house and grounds of the world’s most famous silk master – whose work with small weavers in communities in Bangkok spawned a brightly coloured empire of threads highly sought after around the globe – is available for small corporate functions and events. The recently added Thai restaurant handles the catering admirably and for traditional Thai settings, set next to the canal with Jim Thompson’s teak house complex, tropical garden, a library and gallery, it is difficult to find a more original venue in Bangkok. Typically used for Thai product launches, it has a capacity for120 people, cocktail style.
Located a little further away from the action, Face Bar and Restaurant is very much worth the Skytrain ride out to Thonglor BTS station. That is the way to go. You definitely wouldn’t want to risk the traffic at 6pm on any given evening in that part of town. But it affords a walk down the leafy soi and into the most intriguing venue that offers two restaurants – one Thai and one Indian, a teak wood building of undeniable quality and artistic merit, massage rooms, a great little bar and a meeting room space that can comfortably house 40 delegates. Creative planners may even choose to hire the entire venue and have the run of a setting that offers a setting truly memorable occasion.
Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, the latest venue to open in the shopping district of Siam in the centre of Bangkok, is a little different from its neighbours. Ten years in the making and a few demonstrations later, Bangkok’s art and culture lobbyists got their way with the completion of a nine-storey centre for permanent exhibitions and shows of contemporary art. Many of the country’s most famous artists are represented here, but what it does offer for event planners and organisers is a venue for cocktails that is distinct and different. Due to its very recent opening, no formal guidelines have been issued, but it is safe to say that cocktails for a party of 120 delegates would be available if desired.
The Suan Pakkad Palace is the first royal residence converted into a museum. Originally built in 1952, this Thai traditional style palace contains the royal family’s collection of antiques and ancient artefacts. Of interest to the event planners is the Lacquer Pavilion, which can seat up to 200 persons. Made of wood and built in Ayutthaya, the Lacquer Pavilion has wall panels on three sides that are painted in gold on black lacquer. The wooden panels date back to the mid-17th century.
Kamthieng House, 160-year old Northern traditional teakwood house on the grounds of The Siam Society, can host an exclusive sit-down dinner on its lush garden for a party of 50.
Chom Wang Room at the new Royal Naval Institute Building provides a sweeping view of the Chao Phraya River and the iconic landmarks along its banks such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun Temple. Its beautifully styled interior is suitable for business events and dinners of up to 500 people.
Located on the bank of Cha Phraya River, Chakrabongse Villas is a traditional Ayutthaya-styled wooden house set in luxuriant gardens. It was built by Prince Chakrabongse in 1908. The gardens can cater to 100 persons for a sit-down dinner.
Opened only last April, the Museum of Siam is the “New Antique” venue. This former building of the Ministry of Commerce has won an award of art and architecture preservation in 2006. The lovely lawn gardens – one on the façade of the museum and the other at the back – are simply tranquil and perfect for cocktails and dinners.
Bangkok is a hub for many destinations in Southeast Asia and there are a large number direct flights from Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. The city is also well connected with low-cost carriers for those organising events on a budget. Plan well ahead for trips during Christmas and New Year, as this can be a busy time of year. Trains run between Singapore and Bangkok, with stops along the way in Malaysia, before entering Thailand at Padang Besar. You can choose first or second-class sleeper accommodation.
Thailand’s climate is tropical, high both in temperature and humidity, and dominated by monsoons. April and May are the hottest months of the year. June to October typically marks the rainy season. The best time to visit is between November and February when the climate cools with the onset of the northeast breeze.
As a general rule, visitors need a visa to enter the country. Visa on arrival is available for stays of 30 days or less. For more information, contact the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Visas and Travel Documents Division at direct line +66 2 575 10624 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thai is the official language but English is widely spoken in Bangkok and across the country.
TCEB TARGETS ASIA
With the effects of the global financial crunch expected to exact its toll in the first half of 2009, the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) is looking at Asian companies to fill the void in the meetings and incentives markets as the US and European companies cut back in hosting offsite events.
“Looking at the current situation, Asia is our main stake. We have already done a lot of marketing efforts in Asia. But at the same time, we need to look at long-haul markets like Europe and new emerging markets in South America, like Brazil and Argentina,” says Malinee Kitaphanich, TCEB director of meetings and incentives.
She also points out the need to further broaden its portfolio of business events clients beyond the financial industry. Automotive and direct marketing companies are likely targets among others.
TCEB has an optimistic outlook for the business events market. “Companies still need to motivate their salespeople and one way to do that is to host offsite meetings and incentives,” Kitaphanich says.
Meanwhile, Bangkok is being positioned as the “exhibition city of Southeast Asia”.
“Exhibition is our rising star. Quite a number of trade shows and exhibitions have moved to Bangkok. We have the infrastructure to anticipate the needs of the exhibitors and show delegates. We have multipurpose complexes like BITEC, which is specially built for heavy industry exhibitions.”
Kitaphanich says: “The most important thing is that we need to market aggressively regionally and internationally. We have to raise the country rating as well as the country image. Since we have to work to boost the right image of Thailand, on top of what the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) has been doing so well.”
The Peninsula Bangkok
Look no further in Bangkok for a stately, formal venue than the crisp and pressed elegance of The Peninsula, regular host to institutions in the financial and technology sectors. A cool 706sqm of space is available, boasting modern facilities and rich decoration with the standout Sakuntala ballroom and six smaller meeting or breakout rooms available for functions. A full secretarial service is offered as well as computer and mobile phone rental and an outside riverside restaurant capable of handling 400 persons for a gala dinner under the stars.
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
There is no hotel in Asia, or even the world, quite like Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. The seamless service, grace and charm that typifies Thai culture, high-standards of facilities, its spa, the dining options…the list really does go on. But for functions, it comes into its own once again with the 150-year-old historical wing that houses the Authors’ Lounge and Heritage Rooms. Book in advance as this space is in demand. BBC Worldwide’s latest acquisition, Lonely Planet recently held a function there for 80 people, beginning with a presentation by founder Tony Wheeler in the Heritage Rooms before spilling out into the delightfully airy Authors Lounge for cocktails.
The Landmark Bangkok
One of the grand dames of Sukhumvit Road, having played host to numerous conferences, meetings and weddings over the 30-plus years it has been in operation, has undergone a well-earned makeover to present planners with a fresh and stylish choice right in the heart of the city. The considerable collection of function space options is theatre style or 420 in a classroom configuration, and the 236sqm Sukhumvit 1, 2 and 3 divisible spaces that offer convenience and flexibility. The revamped Rib Room restaurant on the top floor of the hotel offers sense of style and sophistication that the old property could not deliver as well as stunning views across the heart of the capital.
As soon as this property was launched in Bangkok eight years ago, it quickly became the place for stylish urban events and the benchmark for other five-star city properties to aspire to. A few years on and little has changed. The 863sqm ballroom remains the choice of many for large functions with a capacity to host 1,200 delegates for cocktails or 60 tables for a traditional Chinese-style banquet. In fact, the total of 28 meeting rooms across four floors enables even the most ambitious of organisers to find a combination of options that are suitable. There are few bars in hotels that continue to attract a loyal following, but the sleek, moody and elegant DiplomatBar continues to be a superb meeting point and a place where small corporate groups can gather either before, after the event or even for the meeting itself.