Alicia Yao: the China connection

The boss of IME Consulting tells Martin Donovan how she went from tour guide to international MICE industry powerbroker

Most people in the conference and incentive world view you as one of China’s most important and well-connected leaders in the industry. But how did it begin?
I started as a guide on March 1, 1983 and, after a while, I was recognised in awards for being a “best guide”. After getting a special award in 1994 I was chosen to work with company incentive groups. I had to organise tours for them and put together programmes. This led to me becoming a “guide master” for incentives and I became more and more interested in putting plans together.

In 1995, CITS said, “You must take over the sales and marketing and start this for the incentives.” At the beginning it was just for inbound incentives, but when I was promoted to deputy general manager of CITS MICE, my focus was on outbound Chinese incentives.

How did your international experience and profile emerge?
As I became more proficient with guiding, sales, marketing and luxury incentive products, my knowledge of destinations improved. When I was managing Chinese incentives there were more and more enquiries from convention bureaus in other countries interested in Chinese incentive [groups] visiting their destinations. “But we do not know how to handle them,” they told me.

I advised them how to meet the needs of the Chinese; telling them that replies needed to be within 24 hours, that there would always be last-minute changes and that there were many things to learn to avoid in order to reduce the risk of confusion.

You are now a consultant and also sit on the boards of major associations for incentive travel (SITE) and conferences (ICCA). That’s quite a leap from tour guiding. How did that come about?
Something inside me pushed me into consulting. Before I started my own company I was already kind of playing consultancy roles, then I felt the push. In 2013 I formed a company focused on destination promotion, sales, marketing, and training. I’m a firm believer in training for the ‘I’ in MICE – incentives – training sales and marketing people to cope with industry changes so that hotels and convention bureaus know about the Chinese market. I was already a SITE member before I left CITS in 2004 and after I started my own company I was the only ICCA member in China for a while doing consulting work for marketing and destination promotion. I was made a board director for SITE Global for 2015-17.

How about your role with industry organisations in China?
When I set up my own company there was a MICE committee with a national association of travel services under the management of the China National Tourism Administration. Finally, they said, “We really want you to be the deputy general secretary and bring your training to our members. You can also help our members do destination research, help them find good destinations to introduce to their clients.”

It didn’t take me long to say: “Oh yes!”

Now industry training is continuing with our event in Suzhou in co-operation with the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers. Most incentive managers in China originally worked with travel agencies so they need a lot of training to know how to design special events in detail.


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