Thailand's distinctive culture always makes it rank highly with event organisers looking for an exotic tropical destination for their next programme. In countless cases, what tips the scale in the kingdom's favour is value for money. The ability to stretch an event’s budget without sacrificing the quality of the experience makes it one of the most established business event destinations in Southeast Asia.
However, this value-for-money proposition has proved to be a double-edged sword, because with it has come the perception that Thailand is a budget destination, casting a shadow over its ability to host high-end incentives.
“Service is most important for high-end groups and we can definitely deliver on this front,” says Puripan Bunnag, senior manager of the meetings industry department for the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB).
“We may not be as expensive as other countries, but we offer luxury experiences that are on a par with the rest of the world. Luxury does not have to be expensive but it has to be exclusive," he adds.
A year has passed since TCEB launched its “Luxury MICE” initiative to target this top-earning segment. According to Bunnag, around 15 per cent of incentive groups, who came to Thailand in 2011, fall into this discerning category. “A typical high-end group would spend about THB60,000 (US$1,948) per person for a three-day trip. And keep in mind that some groups will spend up to THB1 million (US$32,460) for a gala dinner,” he says.
TCEB has identified Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Hua Hin as “Luxury MICE” destinations. Mix asks local industry insiders to assess their high-end potential.
City life: Bangkok
The capital city is a lifestyle destination and ideal for groups looking to experience urban chic – Thai style. This is a place for shopping and fine dining. “The challenge with Bangkok is that it is familiar to a lot of people, so it is very hard to customise something that has a wow factor,” says Nicole Chua, marketing director of Asian Detours. “There are no in-betweens when planning a programme for an elite group. You have to go all the way to offer something that will really impress.”
Siwa Sinsap, senior account manager at Pacific World Thailand, says even common itinerary items can be enhanced with little touches. “We put different components into an activity that they could not arrange by themselves if they were travelling on their own. For example, a tuk tuk caravan with police escort and a walking tour of the back alleys of Chinatown.”
Sinsap also recalls a recent activity Pacific World Thailand conducted for a small, tight-knit group: “We took a long-tail boat ride on Bangkok Yai Canal for a half-day session at an antique house called The Artist’s House, where people in the community are preserving the art of Thai puppeteering.”
As well as enjoying a traditional performance, the group was divided into teams of three who were taught how to manoeuvre a puppet to perform dance moves. "Three people were needed to handle a puppet. After the teams learned the basics, they were asked to perform a mini-show together. We shot a video of them doing that. This was very special as these puppets are valuable. We not only provided a very nice cultural touch to the activity, we also incorporated a team exercise. It was a lot of fun and there were huge smiles when the video was shown to the group,” Sinsap says.
Island retreat: Phuket
While some people may frown on this southern island and consider it too commercialised, it remains a go-to beach destination for high-end events, especially for groups of 500 to 600 people.
“Phuket is a versatile destination with a range of luxury accommodation and meeting facilities,” says Phanlop Ritthirong, managing director of Eventage Thailand. “It is known for top-line water sports with its multimillion-dollar marinas, yachts, sailing and diving facilities. In addition, it has everything that corporate buyers are looking for, from fine-dining restaurants to world-class spas and loads of shopping options.”
Sirithorn Jaengjai, director at Asian Corporate Travel (ACT), agrees that Phuket has the infrastructure to handle the capacity that most large companies demand. More importantly, however, is the innate service-oriented culture among the local people that enables organisers to make things happen.
“They understand that high-end incentives are not after something that they can book by themselves through the internet. Venue operators and other suppliers here are very adept at regularly changing their product and service portfolio in order to offer new and unique experiences. Organisers are assured that these people know how to meet expectations and requirements.”
ACT has arranged Thai cooking classes conducted by a chef working in the royal household, and booked an event on a privately owned island through special connections. A platinum event for a 350-person group from BMW Germany saw the total buy-out of JW Marriott for one week, the exclusive five-day hire of the Blue Canyon golf course, and a test-driving session involving 60 BMW Series 7 cars, among other blue-chip add-ons.
Chua of Asian Detours notes: “Products for the high end are still being built. Developers are now starting to move from the west to the east coast, choosing the most remote beaches.” She also points out that for corporate groups who are normally time-challenged, Phuket’s ability to “extract the local experience and bring it directly to the client” only increases its international appeal.
What’s more, the island has a high risk-management quotient. “Be it natural disasters or political upheavals, Phuket has the resources to maintain its stability, and if need be, certain contingency plans can be put in place,” says Chua. “Because of this, we have companies who will have no qualms cancelling programmes that have been planned for Bangkok, but they do not have to do so for Phuket.”
Cultural pursuits: Chiang Mai
The capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, this destination in mountainous northern Thailand has a deep history and rich culture, which provide a treasure trove of inspiration for high-impact incentive programmes.
“Organisers have a choice of excellent venues for onsite and offsite events, including museums and private residences,” says Kritsanee Srisatin, general manager of Destination Asia, adding that properties like the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental
Dhara Dhevi have the expertise and facilities to meet the steep requirements that premium groups demand.
According to Exotissimo Travel Thailand MICE manager Tim Upchurch, Chiang Mai’s unique topography makes it ideal for nature-based programmes. Activities can include taking groups in sturdy 4WD jeeps to the jungle where spectacular waterfalls await, meeting people of the Karen hill tribe and dining in superb natural surroundings with a forest picnic.
Other programme options include exploring the city by bike, enjoying locally grown coffee at the Achara plantation, river rafting and visiting a remote temple for a private sanghatan ceremony.
“Last year, a leading global confectionery manufacturer from Brazil hosted 145 of its top distributors for a high-end incentive,” Upchurch recalls. “Our itinerary included a trishaw ride around Chiang Mai. We went to the Lanna temple where each delegate received an individual blessing before we set off to the famed elephant camp that had been privatised for the day.”
Luxury in the gulf: Koh Samui
This beach destination in the balmy waters of the Gulf of Thailand is enjoying strong word-of-mouth support among business events insiders in the country as the next up-and-coming destination for high-end incentives.
“It is our favourite luxury beach destination,” says Boontawee Jantasuwan, MICE director at Asia World Enterprise. “A lot of five-star properties have sprung up in the area from W Retreat and Four Seasons to Banyan Tree. All of them are up to the task in providing the finest services that can be tailor-made to fit specific MICE requirements.”
For Asia World, a key highlight of Koh Samui is cruising to a nearby island on a private yacht, which comes with its own butlers to serve guests canapés and chilled Champagne. Stopping in the middle of the ocean, guests can take a dip in the clear-blue water as well as sharpening their diving skills.
Koh Samui is a bit thin on local attractions, but the feeling of being in a remote destination has compelling appeal for high-end groups wanting an exclusive corporate retreat. The fact that it offers a counterpoint to Phuket, which some deem to be too commercial now, makes it attractive to many.
“The lack of a low-cost airline service to Koh Samui has restrained local demand,” notes Bill Barnett, managing director at hospitality consulting firm C9 Hotelworks. “This can be seen as a hindrance in terms of volume but in terms of attracting travellers with high disposable income and limiting the impact of the island’s strained infrastructure, it is a positive development.”
Indeed, because of its narrow roads that prevent the use of big vehicles, Koh Samui is being positioned for small but high-end groups. An ideal group size would be between 60 and 100 people.
Royal ties: Hua Hin
Situated 200km south of Bangkok, Hua Hin is renowned for its close ties with the Thai royal family. Once a favourite haunt of the city elite, in recent years Hua Hin’s old-style charm has taken a back seat as younger beach destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui hogged the limelight.
This does not mean that it has no potential for high-end incentives, however. “Hua Hin has a superb range of five-star villas and a long list of high-quality incentive activities, including vineyard tours, tribal village experiences, an exotic natural environment to explore, charming fishing villages and idyllic barbecues on remote beaches. Gala dinner possibilities range from beachside private villas to the grounds of the royal summer palace itself,” says Upchurch of Exotissimo.
One of the most memorable events it has organised was held at the Baan Chao Phraya Rim Racob, the former residence of the summer palace’s chief aide. Built in the same style as the palace, Exotissimo used it as the venue of a “Royal Summer Garden Party” complete with marching bands, elephants at the entrance and a live band.
Meanwhile, a must-have in any high-end incentive trip to the area is a visit to Hua Hin’s beautifully preserved Royal Railway Station. If permission can be secured, groups can enjoy a specially catered lunch on a private chartered train that makes the four-hour trip to Bangkok.
Observed collectively, the range and potential of the country’s destinations shows that Thailand is serious about its luxury MICE aspirations. With good facilities and a pro-active pool of events professionals who are willing to deliver out-of-the-box ideas, it is off to a good start.
Access: Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is the primary gateway into Thailand, but smaller international airports located in Phuket, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai and Koh Samui are increasingly served by direct flights from overseas.
Climate: Northern, northeastern and central Thailand have three seasons: hot (March to May), rainy (June to October) and cool (November to February). The south has two: rainy (April to November) and hot (December to March). The temperature ranges between 19°C and 38°C. However, the mercury drops further in the north and northeast during winter, with temperatures lower than 10°C.
Visa: Citizens of approximately 40 nations enjoy visa-free entry. For details, go to www.mfa.go.th
Language: Thai, but English is widely spoken.
Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau
Tel: +66 2 694 6000
ASIAN CORPORATE TRAVEL
tel: +66 8 9866 8980
ASIA WORLD ENTERPRISE
tel: +66 2 611 1771 ext 535
tel: + 66 2 272 1458
tel: +66 76 378 417
EXOTISSIMO TRAVEL THAILAND
tel: +66 0 2633 9060
PACIFIC WORLD THAILAND
tel: + 66 2 245 5777