It’s unlikely that Ptolemy ever set foot on Phuket, but the second-century Greek sage did know of the island. It shows up in Geographia, his seminal work of geography.
Junk Ceylon, as Ptolemy called it, has never fallen out of favour with foreigners since. From era to era, the lush tropical island on the eastern shore of the Indian Ocean has reinvented itself with mounting ambition.
It has been in turn an important medieval trading port for Indian, Arab and Chinese merchants; a land of fabled riches of pearl and spices for 16th century European seafarers; and, later yet, a prized gem in the Kingdom of Siam’s crown.
In recent years Phuket has reinvented itself once again — as a high-end business event destination.
Thanks to its beautiful setting and superior facilities and services, Thailand’s largest and most prosperous island has long been on the radar of the international business event industry.
“Phuket has easy air access from the region, great IT infrastructure and a huge range of post-meeting activities from extreme sport challenges to beachside dining,” says Darren Shaw, general manager of Outrigger Phuket Laguna Resorts and Villas.
Thailand’s premier seaside travel destination, the island has attractions aplenty, both on and off the beaten track. The highlight of its 56.7ha historical theme park is the popular Phuket FantaSea Show, in which Las Vegas meets The King and I. Every night a grand epic of Thailand’s history unfolds on stage with superior production values that feature live elephants, one lifted up in simulated flight, during a 75-minute pageantry of superb choreography.
Also high on many an incentive group’s must-see itinerary are tours of the Sino-Portuguese landmarks of Phuket City’s Old Town; the flamboyant transvestite show at Simon Cabaret on Patong beach; ringside seats at Saphan Hin Stadium for spirited Thai boxing bouts; and temple fairs at the Wat Chalong Buddhist temple, a focal point of local spirituality.
Companies with a green agenda can make their way to the island’s Gibbon Rehabilitation Project at the scenic Bang Pae Waterfall. The local conservation centre is working to rehabilitate white-handed gibbons, which were nearly poached into extinction. Forest feeding, enclosure enrichment and observation projects can be meaningful additions to any business event.
“Phuket offers all the choices you need, but still maintains the feeling of a refined tropical escape,” Shaw says. “Couple this with a local population that knows how to look after visitors and the island becomes an ideal meeting and incentive destination.”
Phuket’s position as a primary business incentive venue has increased by the roiling political instability in Bangkok. With its own international airport that services 18 airline companies with direct flights from around the region, as well as Australia and Europe, the island gives foreign visitors the option of avoiding the Thai capital altogether and head straight for Phuket and its scenic tropical environs in the country’s south.
Local event organisers offer a host of teambuilding adventures and incentives activities custom-tailored to the needs of corporate groups. Their activity types are designed to be flexible and stimulating and encompass diverse programmes with a range of team initiatives.
“Every successful corporate entity in the world understands the need for their teams to be at their best in today’s tough and competitive business world,” says Barrett Agent, director and programme leader at DreamTeam Adventures, a Phuket-based teambuilding consultancy.
“In the process of striving to nurture high-performing teams, corporate organisers are usually well aware that there are certain skills that individuals and teams need to develop, including mutual support, trust, strategising, creativity, respect, communication, self-confidence and, of course, leadership,” he adds. “With this in mind, even the simplest and most lighthearted of our activities are aimed at reinforcing these skills.”
DreamTeam caters to them all — the fast, the bold, the indulgent and even the beautiful. A corporate group can kick off an event-rich day of collegiality-enhancing activities with Olympic-style competitions, which come with a variable choice of games for participating teams or team members. They then can spend the afternoon at relaxing “health and wellness” sessions.
Optional evening events include quirky and good-natured beauty pageants (in outrageous wigs and garbs), goofy Team Air Guitar Contests, disco dancing competitions à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and a lively Academy-Awards-style gala dinner with short edited videos from footage shot by various teams earlier in the day.
DreamTeam’s four-hour “Castaways” programme involves survivor-type adventures at the nearest beach or jungle. Its Amazing Race-style treasure-hunt programmes combine special contests like elephant safari and explorations around historical temples and markets. Its “corporate creations” workshops allow participants to create their own team concepts involving such Thai cultural trademarks as fruit carving, traditional dancing and batik painting.
“Groups generally appreciate a mixture of lighthearted and crazy games, problem-solving initiatives and action-adventure challenges that foster a can-do attitude,” Agent notes.
Jungle war camaraderie
Your mission is top secret. You’re a member of a crack commando team dispatched to retake Heartbreak Island from 15 insurgents. You and your team must stage a beach landing. In true covert-operation fashion, you will approach the island in the long-tail boats of local Thai fishermen.
You’ll be heavily armed and communicate through short-wave radios. Expect strong resistance. Now, go get ‘em, soldier!
Luckily, it’s all just fun and games. Island Combat is one of several “Licensed to Thrill” teambuilding and leadership programmes by Oriental Events, a Thailand-based destination management company.
During Island Combat, says Alexandr Tszyu, the company’s director of sales and marketing, players engage in real-time combat scenarios in authentic tropical jungle settings to enhance their leadership, strategic planning, communications and teamwork skills.
Rifles “fire” a harmless infrared beam with no risk of injury, as opposed to paintball games. Sensors worn by players dressed in full combat fatigues record accurate shots. An onsite game “marshal” keeps tallies for the various teams.
Besides Island Combat, the only field adventure of its kind in Thailand, Oriental Events lays on such other teambuilding activities in Phuket as muay thai (Thai boxing) training sessions and scenic jungle rides on dune buggies.
“We specialise in unique action-based learning experiences, while customising a client’s specific objectives,” says Tszyu. “From initial planning stages through to completion of the event, we offer a complete in-house event production package.”
Among Oriental Events’ recent clients for teambuilding and incentives activities were Qatar Airways, Nokia, Microsoft, Hitachi and L’Oreal.
A Buyer’s Market
The past couple of years’ economic austerity programmes worldwide have had a considerable effect on many destinations, including Phuket.
Although arrivals are up, according to Pieter van der Hoeven, Outrigger’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Asia. The rates are still comparatively low. “Buyers did take advantage of the situation to drive the prices down. The numbers are back, except from the UK, but the rates are not there,” van der Hoeven says. “It’s the economy; it’s not a safety issue for Phuket.”
Although he forecasts good growth for 2011, he says, “it will be a very value-driven proposition, the revenues won’t be there.” This may be a good time to seriously consider the destination and pamper deserving staff members or clients at the variety of up-scale properties there.
Most high-end resorts in Phuket specialise in catering to business groups. One outstanding example is the well-known Laguna Phuket, a sprawling five-star development with its own shopping centre and championship-quality golf course. It can accommodate large groups offering different rates across its member properties – The Banyan Tree, Sheraton Grande, Dusit, Outrigger, Laguna Beach Resort, Best Western and Laguna Holiday Club.
Laguna Phuket’s pride and joy is the purpose-built 1,500sqm Latitude, a sparkling waterfront function venue which opened in August. Just one month later, it had already successfully hosted about 1,000 members of the Travel Agents Association of India for a two-day convention, staging diverse activities under one roof, including the convention, exhibition, a cocktail and gala dinner.
The first resort to open in years in Phuket, The Westin Siray Bay Resort and Spa threw open its doors in the middle of 2010. Just eight minutes from Phuket town and about one hour from the airport, depending on traffic, the sprawling property boasts three golf courses in a 20-minute radius and has 261 rooms, all with open sea views. Four F&B outlets, a 338sqm ballroom and a 128sqm meeting room cater for small- to medium-size business events, with wifi available in the rooms as well as public areas. Outdoor receptions can enjoy the view of three swimming pools and the sea.
At the island’s southeastern tip, another high-end resort is set in the lush tropical surroundings of a 13ha family-owned estate, Sri panwa has its own private beach and year-round yacht harbour.
“We’re as attentive to our guests’ need for peace and relaxation as to their need for fun and excitement,” says Clare Bromilow, the resort’s manager for business development.
The resort’s Baba Poolclub is a 5,000sqm concept restaurant and lounge with a 25-metre infinity-edge pool.
Also on hand are banqueting facilities with cluster seating; an in-house cooking school with signature recipes of Thai, Asian and western cuisines; and rentable boardrooms and conference theatres.
For an evening programme, delegates will appreciate a truly local entertainment in Phuket city’s beautifully restored Sino-Portugese mansion that was once the governor’s residence. The Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School serves a delectable Thai dinner and local music and traditional dance entertainment can also be arranged. For a really local experience, the Thai Hua Museum can serve as a background for cocktails. The museum is just a short walk away from the restaurant and is surrounded by Sino-Portuguese shop houses restored
If it is a quiet ambience and closeness to nature your group is aspiring for, Khao Lak, just over an hour ride from Phuket International Airport, reveals one of Thailand’s most untouched and prolific areas, with pristine beaches, emerald rainforests and cascading waterfalls.
“There is a lot of potential here for MICE groups, as the unspoiled nature and the national park offer exciting opportunities for group outdoor activities,” says Le Méridien Khao Lak Beach & Spa Resort director of marketing communications Linawaty Ko.
Teambuilding programmes can be tailored to the participants’ objectives and a whole range of interesting activities are at arm’s reach, such as elephant trekking, whitewater rafting and canoeing in the rainforest, cruising, snorkeling, island hopping and a visit to a temple spread across five caves, one of which houses a 15m long reclining Buddha.
With 260 rooms and 39 suites, JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort and Spa there focuses on high-end, tailor-made events for groups between 210 and 150 people. “Several international companies have held their events here, including Philips (HK), Intel from Kuala Lumpur, Kuehne and Nagel from Singapore and Wipro Technologies from India. We focus on delivering events, which are out of the ordinary and create lasting impression. We have the longest swimming pool in Southeast Asia which gives us endless opportunities,” Roger Parnow, JW Marriott’s director of sales and marketing, says.
Nearby, Le Méridien has housed a workshop and product lunch for Ecco India, an incentive group of HSBC India, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, among others. Its 522sqm ballroom can accommodate 720 people in theatre set-up, and has three 78sqm meeting rooms. Delegates can enjoy the sea breeze during their gala dinner or themed event held in The Royal Sala, an open-air, roofed venue set on the beachfront of the hotel. The stage, dance floor and built-in bar make the venue perfect for any kind of event.
With 243 guestrooms and villas and six restaurants, event organisers will find it easy to satisfy the demand for variety and quality.
Parnow says, “I think, with all the growing interest of clients to host events in ‘new’ destinations, [Khao Lak’s] popularity will grow rapidly, especially because there is such a strong demand for teambuilding for which Khao Lak is unmatched, due to it’s unique location, facilities and setting.” n
The island has a great variety of natural beauty and cultural entertainment to keep groups engaged for a whole week.
Arrival and check in
Lunch at the hotel and enjoy a two-hour Thai massage. Evening champagne cocktails and private dinner party under the stars with traditional Thai music.
After early breakfast the group departs for Phang Nga province, crossing over the rainforest-covered mountains then continuing in canoes along the Khao Sok River.
After a picnic lunch, visit an elephant camp and try elephant riding.
Cocktails at Joe’s Downstairs in Phuket, and dinner at Baan Rim Pa.
Visit Patong Night Market.
Visit the oldest Chinese shrine on the island and the unique historical Sino-Portuguese architecture in the old town; pop into antique shops and art galleries.
Visit a local dim sum restaurant and get an insight into the deeper meaning of Buddhism at Wat Prathong temple.
Transfer to the Six Senses Resort, and from there to Bon Island, for a themed evening of dinner and performances.
Choose from massage, golfing, cave canoeing, muay thai boxing lessons or a Thai cooking class.
Dinner at Mai Khao beach, at the acclaimed Black Ginger restaurant.
Breakfast, leisure time until check out and transfer to the airport.
The itinerary is an excerpt from a seven-day programme by Exotissimo Travel Group.
Phuket airport services 18 airline companies, providing the island with direct connections to several regional and some long-haul destinations. Domestic flights from Bangkok take one hour and 20 minutes.
The climate is tropical, with high temperatures and humidity. The dry season is from November to February, but this is also the high season in the travel business.
Visitors from 41 countries plus Hong Kong do not need a visa to enter the country. For more information, contact local Thai embassies or check http://www.mfa.go.th/web/12.php.
Thai is the official language, but English is widely used in tourist areas.
Millenium Resort Patong, Phuket
Incorporated in Patong Beach’s 200,000sqm Jungceylon shopping centre sits the 418-room hotel. A mere five-minute walk from the sea, the hotel offers access to Patong’s colourful nightlife and an extensive choice of meeting facilities. The 300sqm ballroom seats 180 people in banquet style. In the Lakeside wing, the 110sqm Patong, 62sqm Kata and 64sqm Karon meeting rooms can be divided into two, while there are the Chalong meeting rooms in the Beachside wing.
JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa
At remote Mai Khao beach with its pristine white sand and shady pine groves, the resort provides the chain’s trademark five-star services in a sumptuous setting. The hotel has 252 extensively refurbished rooms and opened the new Kabuki Japanese Cuisine Theatre offering a memorable dining and entertainment experience. “The new ‘social hub’ lobby lounge is the perfect setting for group gatherings to conduct business, network or just utilise our convenient wireless access,” says general manager Robert Lohrmann. “In 2011 our conference facility will undergo a complete soft goods redo as well as new AV, lighting and internet infrastructure.”
Outrigger Phuket Laguna Resorts and Villas
The resort, set in 26ha of landscaped gardens with artificial lakes, reflecting pools and a manicured lawn, has recently come up with a boutique meeting environment by transforming a four-bedroom villa into a meeting unit, surrounded by a garden and bathed in natural light. The resort’s general manager Darren Shaw says, “Why stay in a 35sqm hotel room, when you can stay in a 229sqm villa?”
Movenpick Resort and Spa Karon Beach Phuket
South of Patong beach in Karon Bay, the secluded luxury resort with 175 renovated rooms and 159 suites and villas offers spectacular sea views, a wide range of culinary delights in five restaurants and three bars with indoor and outdoor dining options, and live entertainment. The large ballroom and breakout rooms are ideal for meetings and incentives for up to 1,340 people. Truly refreshing coffee breaks can be organised in a pre-function area, which is built around a garden with a waterfall and reflecting pool.