Few markets in Asia match the diversity Thailand offers as a combined business events destination. Delegates can fly into Bangkok for a convention or trade show, then head out of town to decompress and engage in team-building activities and incentive programmes incorporating anything from beachside dinners on private islands near Phuket to hair-raising zipline rides through the forest canopy near Chiang Mai.
Official figures published in January reflect Thailand’s continued appeal. Some 895,224 MICE visitors came to the country last year, according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB), exceeding the agency’s annual target by 19.4 per cent. The business events industry accounted for just under one-tenth of all tourist arrivals to the kingdom, with about two-thirds of delegates coming from within Asia and total spending topping US$2.66 billion.
A total of 7,382 MICE events were held in the kingdom in 2012, up 6.84 per cent year-on-year. Conventions accounted for 35 per cent, meetings and incentives contributed 25 and 24 per cent respectively, with exhibitions making up the rest. Last year’s strong performance showed “a clear vote of confidence in Thailand as a cost-effective MICE destination,” says TCEB’s acting president Thongchai Sridama.
After rebranding in February, TCEB’s strategy this year will focus on the high growth potential offered by Asean+6 – the Association for South East Asian Nation’s 10 member states plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and Korea.
BANGKOK – Shining city centrepiece
Bangkok is still the undeniable jewel in Thailand’s business events crown, with industry players concurring that the city itself is the key driver of the destination’s success. “Does it get any better?” asks Andre van der Marck, Thailand general manager for Khiri Travel. “Bangkok is probably the best city in Asia to organise your MICE event. The city has great airport capacity, private as well as public transport with the MRT [metro] and BTS [skytrain] being upgraded over the coming years, new MICE venues such as the Phothalai convention centre, and great food and F&B in the Thonglor area.”
The industry is confident Bangkok will continue to punch above its weight on a regional basis. Infrastructure and facilities are improving. Key product launches last year included the Phothalai Convention & Event Center, a 1,430 sqm meeting facility comprising 10 function rooms and garden settings with space for 2,000 delegates. The centre is part of the 130,000 sqm Phothalai Leisure Park, which also features a spa, six-star golf course and numerous dining and entertainment options.
Nevertheless, the city’s value proposition remains a key draw, especially for return customers. “Many clients will try elsewhere then come back to Bangkok,” says Marina Chinanurakchart, managing director of Meeting & Convention Planner Limited. “Value is the key issue here. Bangkok is not cheap, but it offers great value while service is on a par with Hong Kong and Singapore.”
Such client familiarity with the destination brings its own challenges, however. “We are always being asked to come up with something new, to provide a unique experience or activity for clients,” Chinanurakchart says.
Organising gala dinners in heritage buildings such as Suan Prakard Palace has proven popular. Many clients also want team-building components incorporated into their post-meeting activities in the city. Chinanurakchart cites a recent cooking class she organised for 80 bankers as an example.
Despite Bangkok’s strengths as a destination, the industry cannot afford to become complacent. Chinanurakchart would like to see TCEB be more active, like it was three years ago. “We can’t rest on our laurels,” she says. “There is lots of competition from places like Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
Khiri’s van der Marck would like the local administration to do more to tackle crime in Bangkok and improve the city’s traffic. “The future still looks bright even though other countries in the area are playing catch-up,” he says. “However, with Asean 2016 opening the borders, Thailand needs to be well prepared, especially on the level of English fluency.”
HUA HIN – Cultural pursuits
Hua Hin, which lies 200km – three hours’ drive – south of Bangkok on the gulf coast, enjoys a special place in history as Thailand’s first resort town. Popularised in the 1830s when King Rama III started staying there to escape Bangkok’s sweltering summer, the once sleepy fishing village opened up to the masses when the railway station was built in the 1920s.
Strong royal connections with the town remain to this day and have resulted in stricter building regulations to prevent overdevelopment. A walk around the old sector reveals a number of traditional wooden buildings that hark back to the so-called Oriental Renaissance of the 1920s. The old Railway Hotel, now the Centara Grand Beach Resort, was built in 1923. Maruekatayawan Palace, constructed from golden teak by an Italian architect for King Rama VI the same year, sits on the beachfront near the border with Cha-am. Both offer some of the finest examples of the area’s heritage architecture.
Such cultural elements can be used to create unforgettable incentive activities, says Chinanurakchart. “We organised a really special event for a major IT firm in Hua Hin. We combined elephant polo at the military camp with a vintage car rally where all 200 delegates were dressed in 1920s colonial costumes. The day was rounded off with dinner at Maruekatayawan Palace.”
The town also has a lot more to offer with a range of high-quality hotels, spas and restaurants, plus other products including the floating market and Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, which DMCs are now working into itineraries.
PHUKET – Water sports and beach activities
With three world-class marinas and key regional events such as the annual King’s Cup Regatta, Thailand’s largest island has much to offer incentive groups in search of water sports and beachside activities.
Quest, a company that runs team-building programmes at the Laguna Phuket resort complex which includes Angsana Laguna Phuket, takes groups to nearby islands for a day of corporate bonding featuring a range of activities from snorkelling to kayaking.
Parumat Nopkesorn, MICE account manager for Asia World Destination Management, observers: "Phuket combines the upsides of Pattaya and Hua Hin. You have all of the beach activities, plus a lot of options for entertainment, nightlife and clubbing, as well as more peaceful areas where it’s easy to get away from things.”
Asia World organised an “Olympic beach sports” team-building event for a group of 320 delegates from Astellas, a pharmaceutical firm in Russia. “This incorporated beach sports such as volleyball and beach soccer,” he says.
“For ‘wow factor’ we arrange dinners on private islands,” he continues. “Last year, we held a dining event for 80 people on the private Rong Yai Island. Delegates were brought to the banquet on the beach by speedboat. We had other activities too, including a fire dance .”
There are several daily hour-long flights from Bangkok to Phuket International Airport as well as direct flights from more than 45 international airlines.
PATTAYA – Tee time
It’s easy to see why Pattaya remains an attractive post-event incentives destination, as the Gulf of Thailand resort town is home to some 18 golf courses all located within 60 to 90 minutes’ drive from Bangkok.
Facilities are close enough to the capital to make day trips practical and easy to organise; meanwhile, local infrastructure, meetings and convention centres, as well as the destination’s vibrant nightlife scene, make Pattaya equally suitable for longer-term programmes. The town’s greater number of hotel rooms than Hua Hin, combined with its proximity to Thailand’s major airport, also help to strengthen its competitive edge.
Pascal Orczech, director of business development at Golfasian, says a round at world-class courses such as the Siam Country Club Plantation course and Laem Chabang International Golf & Country Club can be complemented with trips to the local floating market, island hopping and other activities. Groups come from a wide range of international markets, though Pattaya remains particularly popular with Asian clients.
Last year, Golfasian organised an event for a major publisher of golf and travel magazines with 35 participants from the Guangzhou and Shenzhen areas. “The unique elements were golf at the area’s two top golf courses, Laem Chabang International Golf & Country Club and Siam Country Club,” says Orczech. “In addition, participants were able to meet with the golf course owners who welcomed and socialised with the group.
“The client’s requirements were for the entire programme to be conducted in Chinese. This was accomplished by Golfasian through the use of a native Chinese-speaking interpreter, [as well as Chinese-speaking] tour guides, caddies, drivers and service staff.”
CHIANG MAI – Outdoor pursuits
Thailand’s second city offers a host of outdoor pursuits and nature activities for incentive groups wanting something other than tropical beaches and golf. The surrounding area is home to the kingdom’s tallest mountains, some of Asia’s longest caves, hot springs, verdant jungle and surging rivers. Furthermore, the city’s meetings facilities will be strengthened by the May opening of the Chiang Mai International Convention Centre, a 521,600 sqm venue with capacity for 10,000 delegates.
“Chiang Mai is a perfect incentive destination for clients who want something other than the beach,” says Sumlee Anankamanee, MICE manager for Asian Trails. “It offers a lot in terms of culture and nature.”
Activities range from gentle jungle walks to rock climbing, mountain biking and off-road driving. “It [the programme] really depends on the age and attitude of clients,” says Sumlee. “Flight of the Gibbon [a 5km zipline tour through rainforest canopy] is really popular with younger, more active groups, but it’s certainly not for everyone and there’s a maximum capacity of 20 to 25 people.”
Asian Trails created a more relaxed programme for 54 delegates from Spain, incorporating elephant treks, rafting and cultural activities such as offering alms
“Key programme elements included the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre [in Lampang] where the group went on elephant rides and watched the elephants paint, which is one of the unique activities there,” says Sumlee. “Later on, we took them bamboo rafting through the jungle, but we added a luxury element to this. Each raft had a massive parasol for shelter and there was a luxury hamper provided by the hotel. The trip was rounded off with a glass of champagne.”
The 700km flight north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai International Airport, which also has direct flights from Phuket and key regional destinations, takes just an hour.
KOH SAMUI – Idyllic island retreat
It’s hard to beat Koh Samui for high-end incentives targeting executive groups and delegates wanting the classic tropical island experience. For the past seven or eight years, the island, which is only a 45-minute flight from Bangkok, has been trying to shake off its former reputation as a backpacker haven by focusing on the high-end market. The privately owned Samui International Airport – which has direct flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket as well as international destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur – doesn’t accept charter flights, and car ferries from Surat Thani are too small to carry large coaches, which means zero-based tours don’t make it to the island.
“Samui is the quintessential island escape,” says Paul Counihan, director of sales and marketing at AHMS, which operates the AKARYN Samui Resort and Spa, a 52-room property specialising in luxury incentives. “There are no large-size convention centres on the island, the largest property has 220 rooms. For a comparison Phuket has 65,000 rooms while there are 25,000 on Samui, so you don’t get the mass tourism.”
“We recently ran a three-day incentive for 15 top sales executives and their wives from Audi Europe. As an icebreaker we held a blindfolded wine and food tasting on the beach with the group split into teams of eight,” he says.
“For another group of 24 from a major Thai firm, the programme included the women having head and foot massages on the beach, while the husbands had a Thai cooking class behind them. They also chartered two 12-man yachts to the Ao Thong Marine National Park. On one of the other evenings, we arranged a fleet of six longtail boats decked out with cushions to take them 500 metres into the bay to watch the sunset while enjoying cocktails and canapés.”
All encompassing appeal
We can see, then, that the sheer diversity of Thailand’s offerings, from sleek city chic to rugged mountain adventure, from sophisticated coastal locations to a choice of island idylls, ensures perennial interest from event planners and corporations worldwide. The icing on the cake – and intrinsic to the overall attraction – are the world-class service standards and genuine hospitality that come courtesy of the natural Thai mindset. All in all, it makes for a compelling, if not irresistible package.
“Pattaya has a wider selection of golf courses than other regional centres including Hua Hin, Phuket, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai, and is highly price-competitive with these destinations – in fact mostly cheaper than its competitors… If players stick to more highly rated courses, they will not be disappointed."
– Paul Myers – Asian Travel Media
Access: Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is the main hub for international flights to and from Thailand. Most budget carriers now operate non-connecting international flights from the older Don Muang International Airport. Direct overseas flights are also available to Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Hat Yai.
Climate: Most of Thailand has 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). Temperatures range between 19?C and 38?C. The cool season in the north and northeast can see temperatures drop below 10?C.
Visa: Thailand grants 30-day visa-free entry to citizens from some 40 nations. See www.mfa.go.th for details.
Language: Thai, but English is widely spoken.
Contact: Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, www.tceb.or.th
Andre van der Marck, Thailand general manager
Paul Counihan, director of sales and marketing
Meeting & Convention Planner Limited
Marina Chinanurakchart, managing director
Pascal Orczech, director of business development