Mainland cities are top Mice destinations
With its robust growth of luxury five-star hotels, world-class exhibition centres and expansion of airports, topped off by last year's Beijing Olympics, China has established itself as a prime destination for international Mice tourism. According to the International Congress & Convention Association, with Shanghai hosting next year's World Expo, the lure of China will grow stronger.
Harald Weber-Liel, general manager of Hogg Robinson Group (HRG), a global corporate travel management company, said: 'The surge in new infrastructure in China is already under way. With new mega-hotel and infrastructural launches, Mice [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions] organisers are spoilt for choice when operating here. China continues to be a growth market for HRG, and last year we enjoyed an increase of 40 per cent in Mice business. We were initially projecting bigger increases, but due to the world financial crisis we have since reduced our projections. We aim to maintain an increase of 40 per cent in Mice this year. In times like these, corporate companies tend to view Mice as the 'quick win' areas for reducing costs.'
Mr Weber-Liel said HRG's Mice bookings came mainly from meetings and conventions. The domestic incentive segment is still growing, but not quite at the same level as foreign markets.
Mice performed well in the first half of last year, but did not boom as expected in the second half due to the Olympic Games and visa issues. The most popular Mice destinations are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hainan and Shenzhen. All have good track records in hosting international conferences or exhibitions.
Beijing is easily the first-choice Mice destination for international and domestic event organisers, especially with its many infrastructural improvements for the Olympics such as the airport's new Terminal3, and much improved public transport system.
Meanwhile, hotels are vying for business using different strategies and initiatives. For the China World Hotel (managed by Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts), Mice represents 20 per cent of overall revenue. The group's vice-president of sales and marketing Charlene Cheng said: 'Even before the Olympics, Beijing was starting to reap the benefits of a well-orchestrated national tourism campaign launched overseas. After the games we still had large conventions and meetings until the global credit crunch hit.
'The traditional Mice bread and butter market, coming from the United States, has softened. Meetings, conventions and exhibitions are still happening, but it now takes longer to close deals, prices are facing downward pressure, with clients demanding more value-added benefits.'
Last June, Hilton Beijing opened its new 126-room Executive Tower, comprising all executive rooms, an executive lounge and meeting space, and a 360-degree 'Infinity' ballroom. The 507-room property now features a total of 2,027 square metres.
Hilton Beijing general manager Michael Nagel said: 'Mice business generated more than 15 per cent of our room revenue in 2008. We have a strong focus on hosting meetings and conferences. However, many international, regional meetings and incentive groups have decided to postpone or cancel meetings due to cost saving measures. We continue to source business from the domestic market.'
Besides its existing 2,648 square metres of meeting space on Level3 (a ballroom) and Levels 61/62, the Park Hyatt Beijing has launched a 750 square metre residential-style event facility with an interactive show kitchen on Level 3, suitable for cocktails, meetings and weddings.
Global real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle reported that five-star hotel room rates in Beijing for 2008 stood at 1,592 yuan (HK$1,810) (up 24.4 per cent) and average occupancy at 60.7 per cent (down by 7.2 per cent).
Branded as the Hawaii of China, Hainan Island is leveraging on government support to become an international Mice destination. Many international and domestic luxury resorts have opened on Hainan in the past few years and a new airport is set to open soon at Boao, on the east coast.
Le M?ridien Shimei Bay Beach Resort in Wanning City is one of the newcomers. There has not been much Mice business since it opened last November. General manager, Terry Ko said: 'Half of our business is generated by Mice. However, Wanning City is not so popular with the clients right now, we still need to do a lot of promotional work for the destination and the resort to get more Mice business.
'We've had cancellation as well because of the financial crisis. Hopefully it will rebound a little bit from September, now that we rely on the domestic market more than the overseas market.
Mr Ko added that the resort had good beaches, fresh air and a tranquil environment. 'We want to promote Shimei Bay as another choice for the Mice group. There is no new infrastructure or events to help boost [us internationally], but we will keep on seeking the opportunity.'
Guangzhou is sprucing itself up for the 2010 Asian Games by upgrading its roads, railway, airport, stadiums and sports venues.
As host of the Canton Trade Fair and home to the region's largest Pazhou Complex (Guangzhou International Convention and Exhibition Centre), Guangzhou's Mice capacity has room to grow. However, Grand Hyatt Guangzhou director of marketing Elyse Kerr said: 'The incentive market is still small due to lack of leisure resources in Guangzhou. Guangzhou's meeting, exhibition and convention markets are much more developed, especially for exhibitions.
'The upside is that the Canton fair has extended to three periods from last autumn's fair, attracting still more exhibition groups. Guangzhou also hosts other important annual trade fairs such as the Auto Fair, the Lighting Fair and the Furniture Fair.'
Shangri-La Hotel Guangzhou, next to the Pazhou Complex, enjoyed an increase of more than 5per cent from the Mice segment last year. Director of marketing Supriya Ghosh cited meetings as the largest segment.
'With the financial meltdown, I think everyone is affected - more so businesses in Guangdong province as it is a manufacturing hub that is heavily dependent on exports.
'Companies in Britain and the United States are cutting back on imports, and travel has also been affected. These days, guests are staying for shorter periods.
'In the current economic situation it's important that we understand our clients' needs and are flexible in what we can offer. For example, we are the first group worldwide to offer free internet access to all guests, whether staying in [the hotel] or using our meeting and banquet spaces.'
At China Hotel, a Marriott Hotel, Guangzhou, Mice business encompasses about a quarter of its entire operation, mainly influenced by the Canton fair. This is because the seasonal fair takes up a huge proportion of the Mice activity in the city. China Hotel director of marketing Helen Leung said: 'As trade fair attendance has been decreasing, Mice development has been slowing down in the Guangzhou as well. We have shifted from mainly traditional exhibitions to [being] meeting oriented.'
The reasoning behind this transition is to diversify the market source. She explained: 'We don't want to become too reliant on trade fair production alone. We would rather direct more attention towards corporate meetings in the domestic and government sectors to hedge against the impact of the poor economic climate.'
As a result, the hotel has rolled out attractive meeting packages, including themed tea breaks, fully customised catering and flexibility in function space.
Many new international hotels are in the pipeline for the next three years, including Four Points by Sheraton, Sheraton Guangzhou, W Hotel Guangzhou, Four Seasons, Hotel Nikko, Sofitel, Mandarin Oriental, InterContinental and Langham, but some projects will almost certainly face delays.
Shenzhen is rated China's No4 convention and exhibition centre. The local government has pumped money into developing it as an integrated metropolitan city, constructing the Futian railway hub and upgrading Shenzhen Baoan International Airport in preparation for the Universiade Games in 2011.
Opened last October, Futian Shangri-La, Shenzhen is close to the Shenzhen Exhibition & Convention Centre. Its 4,800 square metres of conference and banqueting space offers a choice of venues for large or small events.
Futian Shangri-La, Shenzhen director of sales and marketing Helene Fong, said: 'Meetings, conventions and exhibitions are our key focus. Some companies are still organising meetings but may have to scale down the size of their events because of the economy. On the other hand, some Hong Kong companies are considering staging their meetings here as a cheaper alternative to a venue in Hong Kong.'
Shenzhen will also see more new hotels sprouting up over the next few years, including the Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton.
Kempinski Hotel Shenzhen general manager Eggert Muus said Mice events in Shenzhen had started to grow over the past two years. With more players in the market and new destination management companies starting to operate, more international and domestic organisers would gradually focus on this new destination for future events.