Dubbed the 'Hawaii of China', Hainan Island's unbeatable natural beach, tropical weather and convenient location ranks the island as a top destination for MICE groups. Haikou, the capital and gateway city of the island, is a relatively new MICE destination. There have been immediate benefits from the opening of non-stop direct flights from South Korea and Singapore. Haikou will host China's first Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament and is awaiting the opening of Le Meridien Shimei Bay, which is scheduled for October 18. Sanya, known as 'Forever Tropical Paradise', offers a safe environment, crystal blue waters and lush jungle. MICE interest has kicked into high speed with the opening of world-class resort hotels. Finding MICE statistics for such a young market as Sanya is difficult. But a source said the city welcomed more than 6,000 local and overseas groups for meetings and incentives, a growth of more than 20 per cent over last year. The peak season is from October to March when the climate is cool and visitors are mainly mainlanders, Russian, South Korean, Japanese and Hongkongers. For the first seven months of this year, star-graded hotels in Sanya accommodated 3.49 million overnight visitors, down 11.5 per cent compared with the same period last year. There were 3.2 million domestic travellers, down 7.5 per cent and 284,000 foreign visitors, down 58 per cent. In recent years, international hotel chains eyeing Sanya's MICE opportunities have lifted the industry's overall standard by setting up operations. The 456-room Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa is hoping to expand market share in this growing segment. General manager Karl Hudson said 30 per cent of total business came from meetings and incentives with an average stay of four days. 'The booking pattern is six weeks in advance. The first two quarters recorded a slight drop in MICE business, but an increase in the transient domestic market has compensated for this,' Mr Hudson said. He attributed the dip to visa restrictions placed on foreign guests and the Sichuan earthquake. 'Government travel has been restricted and because many companies made large donations to the earthquake relief fund, they decided to postpone company trips until the end of the year. However, we expect this to rebound during the fourth quarter.' Benefiting from the Boao Forum for Asia - a premier forum for leaders in government, business and academia in the region - the 437-room Sofitel Boao has been the official conference venue in recent years and the hotel has built its reputation on its extensive meeting facilities such as the 2,000-seat Main Hall, the 1,200-seat Dongyu Grand Ballroom and the 560-seat Oriental Theatre, in addition to 16 meeting rooms of varying sizes. 'Because we set up several sales and marketing branches in major source markets in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and concentrated on sales promotion of MICE, our business was satisfactory in the first six months of this year,' said Mark Ma Dong, a marketing director with Cosco Boao, said. 'To improve hotel standards and enrich MICE-guest leisure activities in the hotel, we plan to add more entertainment facilities such as Boao Water World and a new golf course project,' he said. Cosco handles sales and marketing for Sofitel Boao. The 511-room Sheraton Sanya Resort had only a handful of inquiries for MICE from June to August which had affected the business in September. General manager Claudio Nardini said the city received more bookings for meetings and incentives than for exhibitions and conventions, which require well-equipped city infrastructure, easy accessibility and convenience. 'Sanya is still under development compared with other well-developed and established metropolises,' Mr Nardini said. 'It also lacks domestic and international flights. What's more, there is a shortage of skilled labour due to competition with other international hotel chains.' The Pullman Sanya Yalong Bay Resort & Spa, which opened last April, aimed to tap the mid-size, high-end MICE market. The luxury hotel has 115 villas and 78 rooms in the main building. General manager Urs Wuthrich hopes to accommodate meeting and incentive groups of less than 130 people. 'To satisfy these niche markets, we have hi-tech equipment and a spacious chill-out area where guests can enjoy watching TV programmes,' he said. 'Our MICE business is not performing very well due to the hotel opening in low season, price wars and insufficient rooms for large group inquiries. 'The biggest challenge we face in Sanya is a shortage of experienced and skilled staff. Sanya, to most of the young generation is a transient place for fun, after two to three years of working they will quit and the hotels need to find and train new staff.' A quarter of Hilton Sanya Resort & Spa business comes from MICE. Director of business development, Jesper Bach Larsen, said: 'We see a lot of business coming from Russia as an emerging source market. Rates are always a challenge as new MICE destinations emerge and compete for the same business. Additionally, more properties are opening in Hainan so there is continued fragmentation here.' The luxury Banyan Tree Sanya, China's first resort where all villas have pools, has 61 villas and targets wedding parties and medium-sized MICE and corporate groups. Each Presidential Villa Complex can cater for 50 people. There are 1,613 square metres of conference facilities, which include meeting rooms and a Grand Ballroom that can accommodate up to 800 people. The luxury is space and privacy combined with tailored and individualised personal service. The next new property is the 297-room Mandarin Oriental Sanya slated to open before the end of this year. It will have 900 square metres of meeting space, dominated by the 525 square metre Coral Bay Ballroom, which will host up to 450 guests for cocktail receptions. Smaller meetings will take place in any of five meeting rooms. The 'Meetings by Mandarin Oriental' programme will feature a dedicated events manager to tailor meetings to clients' specific requirements such as outdoor activities or themed dinners and receptions. The property is on a 12 hectare beachfront site, five minutes drive from Sanya's entertainment and dining area, 10 minutes from the city centre and 20 minutes from the city's international airport. Sanya is a cradle for integrated resorts and it is difficult to find a location with similar character. Industry players say that competition from neighbouring countries is not a threat, including Macau's renowned casino and colourful night life.