“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience.”
These words from Alex Garland’s Thailand-based novel, The Beach, could have come from the mouth of any high-end incentive winner rather than the cash-strapped backpacker Richard, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film.
Yet the yearning for the unfamiliar and the desire to stretch the limits of experience is at the heart of what any great incentive programme is about.
It’s also an essential element of pre- and post-conference tours that will keep your delegates energised and enthused when they get back to the office.
While it’s true that Thailand is no longer for some undiscovered territory, the country still has some hidden gems, unspoilt corners and, even in its better known destinations, some genuine surprises in store.
It’s this blend that has made Thailand one of Asia’s most popular choices for event planners and organisers who know they will get value for money, superior levels of service and some stunning backdrops for their meetings and incentives.
Planners of everything from heavyweight conferences to boutique luxury incentives are returning year in year out as they look beyond the boundaries of Bangkok for more adventurous and exciting destinations as Thailand’s islands and seaside towns increasingly take centre stage for business events.
Only 90 minutes from Bangkok, Pattaya hosts the biggest conventions and exhibitions outside of the capital. Its position as a meetings industry destination was strengthened with the 2006 opening of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, making access easier for domestic and international arrivals.
Resorts and hotels provide venues that cater for groups of all sizes. Pattaya Exhibition and Convention Hall (PEACH), at the Royal Cliff Beach Resort, is the largest facility, recently playing host to the 46th ICCA Congress and Exhibition, last October bringing in 700 delegates.
PEACH increased its conference hall capacity from 5,800sqm to 7,600 sqm last December to enable the facility to bid for bigger events and meet expanding demand.
Other properties with large-scale facilities include the Dusit Thani Pattaya, which can cater to a 3,000-delegate convention and the Amari Orchid Resort and Tower, which features an 800=delegate capacity standalone Aranda Ballroom function space.
Further along Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard is the country’s second largest island, Koh Chang, which is located in the middle of the pristine Koh Chang National Marine Park. Destination management companies (DMCs) that use the island focus on incentives twinning adventurous activities with luxury accommodation.
Jungle elephant treks are popular options, with two camps to choose from — Chang Chutiman Tour and the Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp. Treks can be tailored accordingly and can last anything from one hour to a full day.
Alternatively, delegates can go hiking along the island’s stunning mountain range or go bird watching to see some of the island’s 62 tropical species. Late evening kayaking along the Khlong Prao canal affords the opportunity to see the night sky lit up by thousands of fireflies, which is a stunning and memorable sight.
Marine activities include boating, island hopping, and snorkelling around the park’s well-preserved coral reefs.
Soft-survival activities, where delegates are dropped on one of the many uninhabited islands, armed with just tents, fishing rod and water, present good opportunities for constructive problem-solving exercises.
Thailand’s oldest holiday resort town overlooks the Gulf of Thailand and is three hours’ drive from Bangkok. It has maintained a strong royal connection ever since it was popularised by King Rama III in the 1800s, and fast gained popularity with Bangkokians with the building of the train station in the 1920s.
The ruling monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej currently uses the Wang Klai Kang Won palace as his main residence, and this special relationship has brought a halt to the building of high-rise developments. Much of the town’s original 1930s wooden buildings remain intact, adding a distinct historical charm to Hua Hin.
Conference-equipped upscale resorts and spas line the white-sand Hua Hin beach. Golf can be played at any of the seven surrounding courses, including the Royal Hua Hin Golf Club, which first opened in 1924.
Given its history, many of the palaces work as a perfect backdrop for gala dinners, such as the Marukhathaiyawan Palace, an Italian-designed golden teak palace built as King Rama IV’s Summer Palace in 1923.
Exotissimo Travel offers a full-day incentive programme to Sam Roi Yod National Park, Thailand’s first Coastal National Park, famed for having 300 limestone karsts and the Phraya Nakhon Cave, a cave dome with stalagmites surrounding a pavilion built by King Rama V.
Meeting & Convention Planner recently organised a Colonial Theme incentive package for 200 Hewlett Packard delegates in Hua Hin.
The group was flown by charter plane from Bangkok, while a fleet of 32 vintage cars was brought down by road (see box: Expert View for more details).
One hour’s drive north of Phuket, the Khao Lak Lam-Ru National Park’s geography and strict building regulations hav- given birth to a range of exclusive, hideaway resorts.
Single-storey buildings must be built at least 30 metres from the tide line, while commercial buildings are kept behind the 75-metre mark. Consequently, perfect white sand beaches, fringed by palms and mangroves, stretch for as far as the eye can see, backing onto a number of low-rise resorts on secluded plots overlooking the Andaman Sea.
Diverse contemporary Asian design and architecture is often marked with a common feature, impressive lagoon-style swimming pools with direct access from the rooms.
An ideal corporate getaway, organisers have a wide range of choices to customise their event. With award-winning boutique resorts, such as the 56-room The Sarojin, to the larger 138-room La Flora and the 243-room Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach and Spa Resort, groups of all sizes can be supported.
Khao Lak serves as a good location for exploring the region’s surrounding islands like Phang-nga Bay and the Khao Sok National Park.
The island has become a regional epicentre of high-end lifestyle activities with its exclusive resorts, established business and transport infrastructure, and the Phuket International Airport that receives over five million passengers a year.
It currently enjoys the status of Asia’s maritime capital, awarded at the Christofle Asia Boating Awards, 2007, where it also picked up the Yachting Event of the Year for the annual Phuket King’s Cup Regatta. As part of the Omega Asian Yachting Circuit, with six major racing events each year, it is also home to two yacht clubs and three marinas, including the US$150 million Royal Phuket Marina.
Luxury yachts can be chartered and afford excellent team-building opportunities. Destination management company Diethelm Events organises corporate sailing events from the island.
Golf is also big on the Andaman Sea Island, with more than seven clubs, including the Blue Mountain Country Club, which has two 18-hole courses and meeting facilities.
With 11,000 rooms and its own international airport, Krabi increasingly means business for meeting and incentive planners, and its credentials were on full display during the recent 500-delegate World of Halal Science conference at the Krabi Maritime Park and Spa Resort.
Krabi’s meandering coastline is dotted with small capes and coves, mangrove swamps and limestone gorges. Some, such as the famous Railay Beach, can only be reached by boat, adding to its out-of-the-way appeal. These destinations beyond the main Ao Nang and Krabi Town areas are especially suited for intimate incentives.
Many of the nearby islands run boutique hospitality operations well suited for corporate retreats. One of the most suitable is Koh Lanta, a collection of two large islands and a number of small islets off Krabi’s coast, that takes two hours to reach by boat.
Koh Lanta has some of the most amazing beaches in Thailand, with squeaky powder sand, presenting creative planners with an ideal location for Treasure Island and castaway styled events, especially if twinned with nearby islands Koh Bubu and Koh Po.
The Gulf of Thailand Island recently became more accessible with the January opening of six new terminals – four domestic and two international – at Koh Samui International Airport, and the ending of the embargo on Thai Airways flights to the destination.
The 500-million baht (US$16 million) project took four years to complete, and will see the airport’s capacity rise to rival Phuket International Airport with16,000 passengers per day, an increase from 1.3 million to 3 million annually.
With flights from Bangkok only taking 45 minutes and greater capacity offered by airlines, Koh Samui is an increasingly attractive venue for incentive planners seeking a more laid-back but equally luxurious alternative to Phuket.
Its boutique resorts and hotels offer five-star dining and high-end spas and holistic treatments. Delegates can now also tee-off at a superb golf course in Santiburi Samui Country Club, the only one on the island, while some resorts such as Baan Taling Ngam feature their own putting greens and driving ranges.
Boat trips and water sports are another key draw. Incentive experts Pacific World, offer a full-day Wonders of Samui expedition to Ang Thong National Marine Park, 40 islands interspersed with lagoons, coral reefs and unspoiled beaches.
BANGKOK – Frequent daily international and domestic flights.
Phuket (Khao Lak) – Regular daily domestic and international flights.
Krabi – Eight flights from Bangkok per day, plus international flights from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Koh Samui. One hour’s drive from Phuket.
HUA HIN – Chartered flights from Bangkok take 40 minutes. Car journeys form Bangkok take 2.5 hours.
PATTAYA – Two hours by car from Bangkok. 1.5 hours from Suvarnabhumi airport.
KOH SAMUI – Regular daily domestic and international flights.
KOH CHANG – Daily flights from Bangkok take 45 minutes.
Visa-on-arrival is available in Bangkok for passport holders from 20 nations, including China and India. Passports must have a minimum of six-months validity.
Thailand’s tropical climate is hot and humid with temperatures in the 28 °C to 35 °C. The Kingdom has three main seasons: Cool (Nov – Feb), Hot
(Mar – Jun) and Rainy (Jul – Oct).
Marina Chinanurakchart, managing director, Meeting & Convention Planner
It has developed tremendously as a result of the hotels, restaurants, shops and infrastructure that have been introduced over the years. I just hope that with the increased number of events being organised,we will be able to maintain the original beauty of these destinations.
BEACHES Vs MOUNTAINS
Thailand is fortunate in that it is able to offer superb locations for business events in mountainous as well as beachfront locations. We mostly recommend beach destinations for incentive groups, as they have a more fun and relaxing ambiance. Beaches and islands are in more demand than the mountains. Access is much better too, which is a key factor. Phuket has convenient flight access from around the region and numerous international hotel chains to choose from. Koh Samui on the other hand is ideal for smaller incentive groups.
EVENTS BY LOCATION
Thailand is blessed with the unique capacity to deliver so many diverse options.
Pattaya – Ideal for congresses and large conference groups.
• Khao Lak – Better for incentive groups that need a quiet, sanctuary theme.
• Koh Chang – Popular with the local market and some international groups seeking an eco-experience.
• Phuket – An all-time favourite for both meetings and incentive groups.
• Krabi – A new destination for meetings and incentives, although not that popular as Phuket due to its more limited flight access.
• Hua Hin – Ideal for both meetings and incentives if the group is willing to travel 2.5 hours by road, or to charter an airplane for a quick 40-minute ride.
• Samui – Ideal for smaller meetings and incentive groups who are looking for hip hotels.
FAVOURITE BEACH INCENTIVE DESTINATION
Hua Hin is one of my favourite destinations, in terms of it being a beach destination near Bangkok. It also has many hotels to choose from. We create great outdoor activities for incentive groups by making use of its unique offsite venues, such as palaces, museums, beaches and traditional houses.
We recently created a four-day/three-night package for 200 delegates from Hewlett Packard. The concept was a 1920s to 1930s colonial theme as Hua Hin is a historical destination. The highlight activity was Elephant Polo, where delegates arrived at the game in their colonial costumes in 1920s and 1930s vintage cars. We brought down 32 vintage cars from Bangkok for this group.
To reduce travelling time from Bangkok, we chartered three round-trip flights for the group. The awards and gala night was at the lovely Marukhathaiyawan Palace, one of Hua Hin’s most historic landmarks.
tel 66 2 660 7171
tel 662 636 0360
Pacific World (Thailand)
tel 66 2 637 8140
Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau
tel 662 694 6000