A micenet ASIA editorial visit to Bangkok highlights how the Thai business events community uses positive thought process and communication strategies to combat MICE cancellations/postponement, caused by sensational international reporting of the local political situation. By El Kwang
Despite much reporting on Thailand’s volatile political situation since late November 2013, the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) reported welcoming 186,864 MICE visitors to Thailand from October-December 2013 during a press conference at the Asia-Pacific Incentives and Meetings Expo (AIME) 2014. This was a 5.16 percent growth compared to the same period in 2012. MICE groups were still going to Thailand within the December 2013/January 2014 period, according to Sumate Sudasna, president of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA). They included an Israeli corporate group that proceeded with their event booked with a hotel on the Chao Phraya River, after ensuring their meetings and activities were located away from demonstration sites. Some groups continued with their meetings and incentive programmes in Bangkok, while others moved events to other MICE cities within Thailand, such as Phuket.
Sudasna emphasised that some reports were one-sided, if not erroneous. Supawan Teerarat, TCEB’s VP of strategic and business development, agreed and added that some reports were misleading and overlooked the fact that the demonstration was about a group of people who wanted reforms for the country. In a Bangkok Post article published in February, William E Heinecke, chairman and CEO of Minor International expressed concern that “dramatising and focusing on sensationalist headlines and scenes is not a balanced view of the protests” faced in Bangkok, and the “unnecessarily severe travel advisories” had a major impact “on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country”.
The Bangkok story
micenet ASIA wanted to gauge the impact that the political situation had on MICE businesses, embarking on an editorial visit from February 25-March 2, 2014. A bomb explosion one week prior had claimed two lives on the streets of Rachatprasong shopping precinct, instilling fear in MICE and leisure travellers alike.
Our Thai Airways flight from Singapore to Thailand was full. Suvarnabhumi Airport was buzzing with travellers who arrived on flights around the same time in the morning. At Pullman Bangkok King Power hotel, we noticed that the restaurant was packed with lunch guests from the conference rooms, its demographic a mix of local diners and foreigners. We ventured out in the evening, travelling on the BTS (Bangkok’s Skytrain) from Victory Monument station where the hotel is located along the Sukhumvit line to Siam station. We took our time walking across the sky bridge that connects the Siam and Chit Lom stations, where we observed one of the four demonstration sites. The protest was peaceful, as described by those we interviewed over the next few days.
Cancellations were a major challenge for businesses in Thailand; obtaining travel insurance coverage was also one of the main concerns of international MICE organisers since the Thai government invoked the 60-day emergency decree from January 22, 2014. Some insurers such as Singapore-based NTUC Income had also stated on their websites that claims arising from events such as riots, strikes or civil commotion, health threatening situations, or natural disasters publicised by mass media or through travel advisories would not be covered unless the insurance applied for was prior to the date of publication or issue.
The Thai business events industry, including TCEB and TICA along with hotels, venues, event and destination management companies, has been making efforts to provide assistance and incentives to welcome international meeting and incentive travel opportunities during this period.
According to Bangkok-based Gerd Kotlorz, area director of sales and marketing for Southeast Asia of Marriott International, they continued to focus on maintaining relationships with business partners through frequent and honest situation updates. Kotlorz injected that the hotel group did not reduce staffing levels during the period, but focused instead on training and getting teams ready for when business returned to normal. Using Marriott’s global network, his team assisted in moving group businesses to other parts of Thailand and some to Marriott properties in China as requested. Managing costs based on its mature mechanism, guest experiences remained unaffected, while Marriott and its hotel owners sustained businesses financially.
It was apparent that the local business events industry is fiercely protective of its reputation of service excellence and hospitality with a heart. Despite the stressful period, we experienced sincere gratitude and increased service levels across the city, from the hotels we visited to street stalls and shopping malls in the affected demonstration areas. In true Thai graciousness, the locals showed gratitude for our visit and patronage at a time when public scrutiny of the country’s safety measures was most unforgiving by some press.
TCEB also went ahead participating in tradeshows such as the Asia-Pacific Incentives and Meetings Expo in Melbourne, maintaining its stance that Thailand remains open for business. They were however transparent about the financial support ready to be extended for groups requesting to relocate events to other MICE cities such as Pattaya and Khon Kaen.
Sudasna of TICA explained that his members understood the need for diversification during this period to minimise business risks; some started managing outbound businesses, while some diversified into meetings management. Max Jantasuwan, managing director of Events Travel Asia (ETA), lost businesses to the tune of THB 25 million (US$775,675) during the period. Explaining that positivity was key, he gathered his team to brainstorm on creating solutions, and diversified his business based on their skill sets. As a result, ETA secured the management of a sizable incentive event for Macau.
Everyone we had the chance to interview in Bangkok had no doubt Thailand would recover from the situation, because of the resilience of its people. Having been through some crises over the past few years, they were also confident that Thailand remains an attractive business events destination because of its location, well-respected culture, and value-for-money and service excellence proposition.
We spent the weekend walking leisurely across the same Siam-Chit Lom BTS sky bridge, where we witnessed the peaceful packing down of sites as protestors chose to gather at Lumpini Park. What came out of the trip was seeing the true unity, strength and passion of the Thai business events industry: the bureau and the players it represents never giving up in the face of adversity, while hopeful that international MICE organisers have not, with the decree lifted as of March 19, 2014. m