While its fabled sunset has inspired countless portraits, poems and paeans for many generations, few people realise that the coastline of Manila Bay is also the cradle of Asia’s now vibrant and bustling MICE industry.

Story by ANGELA BLARDONY URETA

As early as 1976, the Philippine government had committed to the development of the convention industry by unveiling the region’s first full-fledged meeting venue, the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), which hosted the International Monetary Fund – World Bank Joint Conference that year as its opening event. Designed by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin, the structure is one of the iconic buildings that comprise the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) — a 62-hectare project built on reclaimed land covering the cities of Manila and Pasay. This entire area rose – quite literally – over the waters of Manila Bay and is now home to the country’s major performance, exhibition, entertainment and recreation venues.
Aside from the eponymous CCP, other landmarks in the area include: Folk Arts Theater (built for the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant), Coconut Palace, Star City, Aliw Theatre and Sofitel Philippine Plaza. Further south, we find the World Trade Center Metro Manila, the Philippine Trade Training Center and the Philippine Senate building.
Back in the day, the biggest and most important international and regional gatherings in Asia invariably took place in these venues. However, with the emergence of newer, sleeker and more widely-promoted destinations among its neighbours, the Philippines now finds itself engaged in an uphill battle to recover respectable grounds in what has evolved into an incredibly competitive industry.

Staging a comeback

In recent years, tourism officials have embarked on an ambitious campaign to entice the world to take a second look at the Pearl of the Orient Seas. Brandishing the catchy slogan “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, the vibrant images of breath-taking destinations and exciting island adventures drew in a record arrival of over four million tourists last year. Not quite the double digits enjoyed by Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand, but enough to be named “the most improved country in Asia” by the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel and Competitiveness Report.
For business tourism, however, it’s not exactly the promise of fun that has been drawing attention, but the remarkable speed with which the Philippine economy has been on the rise. Last March, for the very first time, New York-based Fitch Ratings raised the country’s credit rating to investment grade — making it not only an exciting tourist destination but also a viable investment destination.
Will the growth momentum spark renewed interest in the Philippines amongst global players in the MICE industry? A quick look at what’s been happening over at Manila Bay’s pioneering venues reveals a promise of brighter days ahead.

Host to world leaders

Last May, the PICC hosted the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) 45th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors. The event brought together over 4000 delegates comprising ministers of finance and development, central bankers, as well as representatives from the private sector, civil society and media from 67 member countries. Reports said it was the highest attendance recorded in the history of ADB conventions.
Being Asia’s first international convention centre, managing high-level events is part of the PICC’s legacy. In the last 37 years, it has hosted important diplomatic, political and economic forums in the Asia-Pacific region such as the IMF-World Bank Annual Meeting, the World Tourism Organization Congress, the ASEAN Heads of Government Meeting and the APEC Ministerial Meetings, to name a few.
“Our advantage is in the availability of numerous event spaces under one roof,” PICC deputy general manager Roberto Garcia says. “We have the most number of meeting and event facilities in the country, with versatile spaces that can be easily divided and transformed.”
Most power summits are held at the Plenary Hall, which sits 4000 delegates theatre-style and is equipped with a wireless infrared Simultaneous Interpretation System (SIS) that accommodates seven languages and one floor language at any given time.
For social events, the Reception Hall — illuminated by 6000 magnificent crystal chandeliers — provides a luxurious setting for, say, a Luciano Pavarotti dinner concert or a Miss Universe coronation night, in a style befitting of the PICC’s eminence as the “grand dame” of Asian venues.

Bigger spaces, closer ties

A licensed franchise of the World Trade Center in New York, the World Trade Center Metro Manila (WTCMM) began operations in 1996 as the first world-class exhibition venue in the Philippines and, to date, the only one listed by the Union des Foires Internationales (UFI), the global association of the exhibition industry.
Its exhibition hall has a total floor area of 11,300 square metres and a floor-to-ceiling height of 10 metres. This allows for flexibility and freedom in even the most complex event layouts, such as two-storey exhibition booth set-ups and sprawling designs. The hangar-like structure has been a regular venue for big events such as Manila FAME (the country’s largest furniture and accessories show), Worldbex, Manila International Auto Show, the Asia Food Expo and the World Food Expo, as well as a number of annual bazaars and trade shows that have called the WTCMM home over the last 17 years.
“We can definitely feel the upturn in the economy and we want to align ourselves to it,” WTCMM vice president Pamela Pascual says.
One of its priorities is to push forward with the centre’s master plan, which includes the construction of a hotel and an office building on the five-hectare property.
Describing WTCMM as a “one-stop shop” that provides a full menu of services to its clients, Ms Pascual adds that the intended physical expansion runs parallel to their on-going efforts in forging new business relationships and rekindling old ties.
“It’s a good time to come back to the Philippines,” she says. “Managing events and exhibitions is not just about renting out space — it’s about connecting with people. And if there’s anything we Filipinos are good at, it’s building relationships.”

Eat, play, work

Sofitel Philippine Plaza is a five-star luxury hotel, with an idyllic seaside resort setting touted as its most valuable feature. The property is conveniently located close to all the major convention centres, exhibition halls, theatres, museums, offices, malls and theme parks. With the InspiredMeetings™ programme, organisers leveraging the Sofitel property will also be treated to a dedicated in-house team of experts ready to deliver even the most unconventional requests – from planning and coordination to execution and post-event activities. What makes the Sofitel experience more unique, says director of sales and marketing Chanelle Garvey, is that clients have an option to dine at the hotel’s celebrated flagship restaurant, Spiral — a US$11 million culinary marvel that boasts 21 dining ateliers spread with a magnificent array of Eastern, Western and Filipino gourmet cuisine, as well as a world-class wine cellar, a French boulangerie and a Chocolate Room. It’s a dining innovation in Asia that has become Manila’s favourite feast for the senses.

“While there are still a lot of challenges to the industry, we are very happy that the government has doubled its efforts to boost tourism,” says Ms Garvey.
“There’s a lot of optimism in the Philippines becoming more competitive as a MICE destination. Now it’s up to us to come up with products and services that will meet the demands of the market and make sure our clients are not disappointed.”

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