Ask the experts to help plan your event
Booking flights and hotel rooms for between 10 and 900 people, organising a treasure hunt or survival event in a location you have never visited, finding the perfect conference venue, catering for vegetarians and gluten-intolerants ... organising a MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) trip is not for the faint-hearted.
So, where do you start? According to Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents chairwoman Lily Agonoy, first establish a budget (this will decide how elaborate your events can be) and make sure that staff are available. Then ask a MICE travel expert for two or three proposals.
Ms Agonoy, also deputy general manager of Farrington American Express Travel Services, said that although some multinational companies claimed they could organise MICE trips at a lower cost than specialised travel agents, this was not usually possible.
'Agents have the market intelligence,' she said. 'They know how much a market is worth at a particular time of the year. When multinationals think they have got a good deal, agents will negotiate an even better rate.' Agents also had vast databases of information and networks of suppliers.
Plan for a budget of HK$3,000 to HK$5,000 per person for a MICE trip to China and HK$8,000 for a trip to Southeast Asia. If you plan to go long haul, be prepared to shell out US$2,000 to US$3,000 for every delegate. Consider the infrastructure at your destination. If it only offers small hotels, your staff could end up scattered over 10 or more hotels. Are there venues that are big enough for your meetings and events?
Once you have employed agents, leave the logistics to them. 'The organiser has to take care of flight and hotel bookings, registration, meet-and-assist, visas, transport at the destination, programmes and tours at the destination and incentives events,' Ms Agonoy said.
A MICE trip is all about investment in human resources, but how much does a company have to pay?
'You can organise a very grand event or you can do it on a small scale,' she said. 'You can do a very effective incentive trip in Hong Kong, at Hong Kong Disneyland, on the Gold Coast or at the Fanling Jockey Club. If you choose to do it near Hong Kong, say in Shenzhen, it can be very inexpensive too.'
The budget also depends on the level of luxury, the extent of the activities and the trip's duration. The average MICE trip to a short-haul destination is three days and two nights, while long-haul excursions are usually no longer than one week. Budget for a minimum of HK$2,500 per person for a simple trip (two days and one night).
'We have handled groups of a minimum of 10 members, while the biggest was a group of 900 for a company based in Hong Kong but with delegates from 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region,' Ms Agonoy said.
Richard Willis, general manager of Sky Travel China, which specialises in handling incentive programmes to Hong Kong, the mainland and Macau, said it was crucial that MICE activities were meticulously customised and designed.
'Plan, plan, plan! Never stop planning with attention to detail until the event is over.'
Organisers should avoid suggesting standard activities that anyone could arrange - but 'never underestimate the resources and manpower required to handle the event effectively'.
Conference planners should avoid newly opened venues and staging events in extreme weather conditions.
Mr Willis warned that organisers should expect the unexpected and have contingency and crisis-management plans. Effective communication between the client and MICE provider was important, too. And organisers should not lose control of the budget.
Ms Agonoy said there were 1,400 travel agents in Hong Kong but not all were experienced in meetings and incentives travel.
'Track record is important. The more MICE trips the company has organised, the better,' she said.
MICE organisers often have to pay suppliers upfront before collecting from their customers. 'If they are not financially strong it can be risky,' Ms Agonoy said.
Make sure the organiser has the staff to handle your event. For a group of 900 people, a working crew of about 70, excluding tour guides, is needed. 'The organiser has to have a good contractor pool and enough business to sustain freelancers.'
Consider the security at your destination and choose an accessible location so that you won't waste participants' time with long periods of travel. Think about components other than the meetings you plan to have.
A question to ask, Ms Agonoy said, was: What makes the destination you have chosen attractive?
Mr Willis said that while China, still an 'affordable' MICE destination, accounted for only 1 per cent of the international MICE business it had the potential to increase its market share to 2.5 to 3 per cent over the next five years.
The country's infrastructure for MICE is being improved by the building of hotels, airports and conference facilities. China's major challenge, he said, was the expertise required to handle MICE events. This should be gained in three to four years.
Hong Kong-based travel specialists that deal with MICE markets on the mainland and elsewhere
Farrington American Express