You know you’re on to something when Indian employees start to choose the pleasures of an Indian incentive trip over a foreign one. Destinations in Southeast Asia and Dubai have traditionally been India’s favourite hotspots for outbound corporate incentive travel, but lately India, repackaged and reinvented, is leading to rediscovery.
While for the most part, travel in India is still dogged by issues of infrastructure, it is also true that destination management companies are getting a lot better at what they do – unrolling their magic carpets to whisk groups from one oasis of luxury to another.
And they go to ingenious lengths to cushion what might otherwise be a bumpy ride – personal butlers to accompany groups on a train journey, fussing over them with personal toilet kits, bed linen and fluffy pillows, or cellphones on arrival with a slew of one-touch numbers for help of any kind. One of the most wonderful, if intangible, aspects of the Indian experience comes from that hard-to-translate Hindi word “jugar”, which broadly refers to an ingenious, outside-the-box solution to every glitch. In India, the product may be world-class, the facilities state-of-the-art, but it is jugar that saves the day.
The past few years have seen a significant increase in inbound tourism for meetings and incentives. This can be attributed largely to the fact that India is “in focus”, due to its economic growth and the presence of the many multinational companies already here, as well as those looking to set up base here. The high-voltage “Incredible India” campaign has gone a long way in pushing visibility and improving perceptions.
Ambika Soni, union minister for tourism and culture, says that Central and West Asian countries will be the next focus for the aggressive promotion of “Brand India”. The India Conventions Promotions Board (ICBP), a non-profit government initiative, is aggressively working at putting India on the global business events market.
Talking about sustaining this push, Arjun Sharma, managing director of Le Passage to India, says: “The main issue I see here is managing expectations raised by our campaign and people. It is high time we deliver what we have promised.” But the Indian product is so large, so diverse and so exciting that while there are wellsprings waiting to be tapped, what has already been harnessed is enough to fascinate clients and hold their gaze over many visits.
Delhi, Jaipur and Agra in the north, Mumbai, Goa and Kochi to the west, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras to the east form the 10 cornerstones of the Indian MICE industry from a conference and meeting view. When it comes to incentive travel, the royal cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur in Rajasthan are added on to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Bombay and Goa.
Earlier incentive travel was often as long as seven to 10 nights, now it’s more likely to be four. Within this time, these key cities pack in everything the client wants – connectivity, infrastructure, nightlife, leisure and learning.
Delhi, Jaipur and Agra have everything and then some – the connectivity, the luxury hotels, venues for events of all sizes, a surfeit of historic and cultural experiences, shopping and nightlife. Groups can dine on a hilltop overlooking the Taj Mahal. Be welcomed with a shower of rose petals, trumpeting elephants and caparisoned camels. They can play elephant polo or ride a thoroughbred horse through a reserve forest and Rajasthani villages. Have a barbecue dinner on the sands while tribal dancers move sensuously in the firelight.
In Rajasthan, the USP is historical heritage, and it is possible to have your groups dine in a medieval palace lounging on silken bolsters while being served by turbaned waiters in traditional costume. Palace staff will talk to them about the wealth and power of princely Rajputana. And if they so desire, why – they can even have a mock marriage, a big fat maharaja wedding at the end of their conference.
DMCs give incentive travellers experiences they would not otherwise have had as ordinary tourists. As for shopping, crafts of ethnic India can be made available at specially set-up private bazaar, or an escort can be arranged to take them around the city’s fascinating markets. And it’s the easiest thing to amuse the group with getting their fortunes told by pundit, or the ladies having their palms hennaed and the men sporting bright turbans.
Udaipur and Jodhpur take the heritage experience to another level. Both cities have luxurious palace hotels ideal for hosting medium to large groups. Interesting venues are medieval gardens and Durbar Halls with a classical regal ambience that is hard to replicate in a modern hotel. Guests can be driven in priceless vintage cars or be carried in palanquins to dine on the ramparts of an ancient fortress under the stars, while fireworks go off in the clear desert night. Camel safaris, breakfast on the dunes, and dinners in a white marble pavilion lit by flaming torches are only some of the extravagant experiences possible.
As for theme parties, imaginative DMCs and event managers can be trusted to outdo themselves each time. Udaipur is the big daddy of the royal India experience – two of the luxury hotels here are restored palaces owned and run by a bonafide blue-blooded maharaja.
Conference seating is in a magnificent Durbar Hall hung with chandeliers and antiquities, while dynasties of princes stare at you from out of large portraits as you thrash out company strategy. Banquets are laid out on a lakeside promenade or at a pleasure pavilion in the middle of the lake. A traditional Scots band kitted out in tartan kilts, a relic of the Raj, will play Highland tunes on their bagpipes. Or a classical Hindustani music performance can be arranged in the palace courtyards. Groups can take a horse safari on thoroughbred Marwari horses bred by the maharaja or take a ride through the city in his magnificent vintage cars.
The country has several super-luxury tourist trains that can be booked for groups of up to 50. Run by the Indian Railways in conjunction with state tourism departments, the products are exotic, luxurious and unique. The Palace on Wheels, Heritage on Wheels and The Fairy Queen run the Rajasthan circuit on tours that vary from two to eight days. The Royal Orient that runs through destinations in Rajasthan and Gujarat is the most luxurious of all the trains; The Deccan Odyssey starts from Mumbai and travels through Maharashtra and Goa, while the Golden Chariot is a new product starting from Bangalore and travelling through Karnataka and Goa. Two of these trains offer conference seating for up to 50 persons.
The trains recreate an era when Indian royalty travelled through their states in their personalised saloons that were decked like palaces on wheels with every conceivable luxury. These carriages though new, faithfully recreate the royal experience. Liveried attendants, personal butlers, on-board spa and sauna, a bar, a library, several lounges, on-board hairdresser and shopping. A fully equipped business centre offers internet facilities and satellite communications. The circuits run through India’s most historical, scenic and culturally vivid regions stopping for easy sight-seeing tours at various sites. Not only are these trains unique as conference venues, they are also perfectly suited for incentive tours, offering a secure, contained and controlled yet exotic experience.
THE WESTERN GATEWAY
Bombay and Goa, one a corporate hub, the other a tourist hotspot, are equally and perfectly suited for any kind of business event and incentive package. Both are well connected by air and have a slew of large, luxurious hotels with conference capacities from small to large. For incentive groups, Mumbai showcases India’s thrilling movie industry – Bollywood with its irresistible rhythms and beautiful people. There are street walks that take in the flavour of history and local food and boat trips to the painted caves of Elephanta. A short ferry-ride from south Mumbai is the once sleepy fishing hamlet of Alibagh, now gaining popularity as a conference destination with the opening of the Radisson Spa and Resort. Goa is about seafood feasts, beaches, water sports, unbeatable nightlife, a floating casino, river cruises and music, all set against Portuguese colonial backdrop.
Kerala is an exciting new venue for events and incentives. Kochi is well connected by air to Hong Kong and together with Kumarakom on the edge of the Vembanad Lake, the two destinations have a number of deluxe hotel chains perfect for hosting groups and events of all sizes.
Culturally, Kerala is rich and unspoilt, the perfect destination for Ayurveda and yoga holidays and slow cruises on the web of inland backwaters. Kochi’s own claim to fame is its historical district of Fort Kochi, with its Chinese fishing nets and famous Jew Town. Luxury yachts offer the option of hosting your conference or party on board up to a capacity of 150 persons. Cruises on traditional rice-boats called ketuvellam drift you into a landscape of paddy fields, toddy tappers, water fowls and fishing villages.
Bangalore and Hyderabad, India’s infotech hubs, are increasingly fashioning their infrastructure to attract incentive groups. Hyderabad is gearing to host the next edition of PATA Travel Mart in October 2008 and the World Military Games in 2014. Hyderabad already houses the largest MICE facility in Asia, the Hyderabad International Convention Centre with a capacity of 6,000 people. Besides, there are the Paryatak Bhavan, Hyderabad International Trade Expositions Ltd (HITEX), Shilpakala Vedika and Taramati Baradari Cultural Complex to cater to the demand for convention space.
“The upcoming airport and increased flight connectivity at Hyderabad are all set to boost business events tourism. At present, there are 71 international flights to Hyderabad,” says Balasubramaniam Reddy, joint director, Department of Tourism, Andhra Pradesh. The Viceroy Hotel and Convention Centre, overlooking the scenic Hussain Sagar Lake, has a dedicated convention centre. And then for serious “fun at work”, there is Ramoji Film City – an amazing destination by itself. What sets Ramoji apart is its fun theme-based conferences and the 12 convention halls that can accommodate from 20 to 5,000 people. In the evenings, one can visit theme park and take a stroll.
Bangalore generally attracts events traffic for the number of international infotech companies based here though it is not particularly desirable for conferences, being a high-priced destination with a shortage of hoel rooms.
A recent leisure element added to Bangalore’s attractions is the Golden Chariot luxury locomotive that runs the Karnataka-Goa circuit. Furthermore, Bangalore’s trendy, international atmosphere, its pubs and nightclubs are the stuff of urban legend.
A hotel for those who believe there’s no such thing as too luxurious. A modern-day palace with all the mood and ambience of period Rajasthan but with unbeatable modern indulgences. Built on the edge of Lake Pichola, its spa experience borders on the surreal. Rated in 2007 as the Best Hotel in Asia, it has seven fully equipped conference and meeting rooms.
Umaid Bhawan, Jodhpur
Built in 1943, Umaid Bhawan is the last of the great palaces of India. The design of the 347-room hotel was influenced by the Italian Renaissance, while the extravagant interiors with gilt furniture are inspired by the Art Deco style, with large, dramatic murals by Polish artist Stefan Norblin.
Four venues are available for business meetings that comfortably accommodate from 40 to 300 persons. There is also a theatre that seats 100, suitable for films screenings and lecture-demonstrations .
Ananda in the Himalayas, Rishikesh
Ananda has been voted the World’s Number 1 Spa in 2005, 2006 & 2007 . A restored palace of the maharaja of Tehri in the hills of eastern Uttaranchal, the rooms offer views of the river Ganga and the town of Rishikesh.
The Viceregal Hall (once the private skating rinkof the Maharaja!) accommodates 140 people for conferences. The Hall also converts itself into the perfect place for an invigorating session of evening yoga, with natural sunlight streaming in through tall windows
The Leela Palace, Bangalore
Bangalore’s most luxurious business hotel, the Leela has the ambience of an exclusive club with a whiff of expensive Havana, fine aged malts and vintage jazz. Architecturally, it is inspired by the Vijaynagar empire with its gold leaf domes, gilded ceilings and grand arches. Its large conference facilities can accommodate groups of up to 600.
Raj Vilas, Jaipur
The Oberoi Vilas hotels are synonymous with luxury that emulates the grandeur of princely India – it is a world of serene pools, hushed privacy and green spaces. Perfect for small exclusive workshops, this hotel provides a level of service and quiet efficiency that’s hard to match.
Amar Vilas, Agra
Here’s a hotel that gives you something no one else can – a view of the Taj Mahal when you wake up in the morning .
The Oberoi Amarvilas is located just 600m from the world’s most beautiful monument to love, and every room, suite, lobby, bar and lounge offers you an aspect of the Taj. Built in a style inspired by Moorish and Mughal architecture, the resort is a world of terraced lawns, fountains, reflection pools and luxurious pavilions. Perfect for small conferences.
Leela Beach, Goa
The Leela Beach is one of Goa’s most stunning luxury resorts but it has an equally amazing alter-ego – that of one of the best business hotels in Goa.
It’s one of the few places where you can retreat to do some serious business. There are several venues that can handle from 16 to 400 guests. Theme nights and dinners can be organised for up to 400 persons, right on the beach front with the Arabian Sea thumping out the background score.
Taj Majhal Palace and Tower, Mumbai
As iconic a hotel as you will find anywhere on earth, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower overlooks the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. Built in 1903 and host to princes and presidents, the hotel is a city landmark. Its rich heritage, impeccable service and unbeatable location and views make it a must-stay.
The Trident, Gurgaon
Despite being a business hotel, The Trident, Gurgaon has a resort-like ambience, refreshing in the frenetic pace of the city. Architecturally, it has a Mediterranean villa-like feel with domes, walkways, courtyards, reflection pools and fountains. Its conference facilities accommodate 12 to 170 people. For recreation, a DLF Golf Course is nearby.
Jaideep Khanna, vice-president, Distant Frontiers,
Kuoni Travel (India)
Prices of hotels are high. Out of every five queries for business events travel, three are lost to Thailand on price alone.
Otherwise, India is perceived positively as an exotic destination on par with Egypt and Turkey.
Perceptions have improved with India being seen as a prosperous and luxurious destination. Credit for this goes to smart marketing campaigns especially for states like Rajasthan and Kerala.
Ironically though, these states do not have conference capacity of much significance, yet they reap the spill-off effects of any major event that happens in India.
Connectivity is less and less of an issue. There are over 50 international airlines flying into the country, more and more domestic carriers and better airports. All this connectivity gives the option of having two-centre incentive programmes.
Moreover, with state departments investing in convention facilities, the Indian meetings and incentive space is poised for acceleration post 2010, by which time things like visa-on-arrival for select countries should also be in place.
Favourite Incentive Tour
Kerala is my favourite destination. Exploring the backwaters on a rice boat, enjoying the pleasures of Ayurvedic massage and yoga, watching Mohiniattam – the sensuous classical Kerala dance form; visiting the tea gardens of Munnar and the spice plantations of Thekkady. And, of course, the special snake boat races we organise for our guests. It’s an unbeatable, unforgettable holiday.
Kuoni Destination Management
Cox and Kings
Abercrombie & Kent
Le Passage to India