The sun is rising on Japan’s unrealised potential as a unique, affordable destination for the Australian MICE market.

BY MICHAEL MONTAGUE 

Ask 10 colleagues what Japan means to them, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Its castles, shrines, temples and mountains have an ethereal beauty which has been immortalised in countless novels and films, while its futuristic cities are admired as symbols of the strength of the world’s third largest economy.
According to Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), overseas tourist numbers to the country exceeded eight million in 2012, and more than half had already visited at least twice. What keeps them coming back is not just Japan’s bewitching blend of tradition and modernity; it’s also the warmth and hospitality of the Japanese people, and the astonishing level of natural and cultural diversity to be discovered across the archipelago’s 6582 islands.

It’s no secret that the charms of Japan make it one of the world’s favourite places to meet. Just last year, a 10,000-strong delegation of government ministers and officials convened with their private sector counterparts in Tokyo for the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, and two years before that, in 2010, a similarly large contingent visited the adjacent port of Yokohama for the 18th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting.
As well as Tokyo and Yokohama, international conference and convention centres are scattered throughout many of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and are complemented perfectly by unique local attractions.
“Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido Prefecture in the north, has venues with a capacity of more than 50,000, and an accommodation capacity of just below that provided by western-style hotels and traditional Japanese inns,” explains the executive director of JNTO’s office in Sydney, Hiroshi Kuwamoto.
“These facilities played a key role in the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit in 2008.”
One of Sapporo’s biggest drawcards is its Snow Festival, which attracts about two million visitors every year in February. Hundreds of finely detailed, life-sized ice sculptures of international monuments line the city’s streets, and are brought to life by beautiful night-time illuminations. Sapporo is also just two-and-a-half hours from Niseko, which has become one of the most popular snow holiday destinations in the world for its plentiful quantities of fine, dry powder, and well-equipped resort facilities.

“Kobe, the capital of Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan, is renowned for its Kobe Biomedical Innovation Cluster, a hub of cutting-edge medical research and development served by international conference and exhibition centres,” Mr Kuwamoto continues.
“Rather fittingly, the healing gold and red waters of Arima Onsen, one of Japan’s most ancient natural hot spring villages, are only a short distance away.
“Visit Okinawa Prefecture in Japan’s subtropics, some 1600km to the south of Tokyo, and you’ll discover a mystical, unique culture entirely different from the mainland – as well as some gorgeous seaside convention facilities that received the honour of hosting the G8 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit in 2000,” he adds.
Part of Okinawa’s cultural tradition includes dragon boat racing, which has become a popular team-building activity for visiting MICE groups. It provides an exciting challenge in a beautiful, exotic environment that helps teams.
Linking the northern and southern extremes of Japan is one of the most modern, efficient transport systems in the world, and the jewel in its crown is the bullet train – or ‘Shinkansen’, which travels at speeds of up to 320km/hr across a 2000km network. The inaugural bullet train line was the Tokaido, spanning an ancient trade route between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, and 2014 will mark 50 years since its construction for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Remarkably, Japan’s bullet train network has never recorded a single fatality, and with unlimited travel available exclusively for overseas visitors on a Japan Rail (JR) Pass, it is one of the most convenient, comfortable ways to experience a variety of the country’s regional flavours on a tight schedule.
Despite Japan’s established track record as a MICE destination, it’s still not uncommon in Australia to hear the blithe “But isn’t Japan one of the most expensive countries in the world?” Granted, where there’s smoke there’s fire; Japan’s asset price bubble during the 1980s saw real estate prices climb to dizzying heights along with the cost of living.

Conversely, the Australian dollar has also plumbed some severe lows against the yen over the past decade, exemplified by the nadir of ¥55.52 in 2000 – a figure that for most Australian companies, made a meeting or incentive trip to Japan about as financially sensible as trying to acquire shares in Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, with the budget of your average corner store.
While the smoke generated by these events may still cloud the minds of some, the fire has long been extinguished. Japan’s bubble burst in 1991, causing its consumer price index (CPI) to fall dramatically into the doldrums of chronic deflation – bringing the cost of living down with it. Meanwhile, Australia’s CPI has risen steadily over the decades since, and its economy celebrated 22 consecutive years of growth on July 1, 2013. The months leading up to this milestone have also seen the Australian dollar recording numerous highs against the yen, and it has remained consistently close to the ¥95 mark.

As Mr Kuwamoto asserts, ample assistance for international MICE events is also available through JNTO, which supports a network of regional convention bureaux in direct contact with Japan’s MICE industry.
“The JNTO has been actively engaging with the Australian MICE market through events such as the Asia Pacific Incentives and Meeting Expo (AIME). We will also be holding Meet Japan again in 2014, a successful, hands-on familiarisation program specifically tailored towards association executives and international meeting planners,” he told micenet AUSTRALIA.

With such favourable economic conditions and strong support to be taken advantage of, the time is ripe for Australian companies to enjoy all that Japan’s MICE industry has to offer. In upcoming issues, micenet AUSTRALIA will be introducing a series of Japan’s premier meeting and incentive destinations along with their unique charms, which will have any serious event planner casting their gaze towards the Land of the Rising Sun.

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