Vietnam’s MICE industry has come a long way, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.

by SAMANTHA COOMBER

Long earmarked as Asia’s hot new MICE destination, despite recent economic hurdles both domestically and globally, Vietnam has increased in popularity as an attractive Asian destination with significant development in its MICE business.
A 2012 Vietnam Economic News report confirmed Vietnam’s strong MICE position within the region alongside Malaysia, Laos and Singapore, with an increase in MICE visitors reaching double digits compared to 2010 and 2011.

Contributing factors include improved tourism infrastructure, stable politics and economy, stunning landscapes and cultural sites, and more upscale hotel brands catering for room availability and ever-sophisticated MICE facilities – especially regionally, where second-tier MICE destinations are stand-alone successes. Vietnam also reinforced its global MICE player status by successfully hosting key events such as 2010 World Economic Forum and APEC and ASEAN Summits, at a time when some perceive Southeast Asia’s MICE tigers Singapore and Malaysia have “maxed-out” their venue capacities.

“Although Vietnam experiences its own challenges these past three years, ACCOR considers it one of the region’s most strategic markets, sustaining long-term economic growth,” affirms ACCOR Southeast Asia senior vice-president, Patrick Basset.
“With business travellers increasing annually, Vietnam shows great MICE potential growth, hence ACCOR’s recent MICE-related openings in key cities: Pullman Hanoi, Pullman Danang and ibis Saigon South, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).” Additionally, Pullman Saigon Centre opens in Q4 2013.

Could do better

Although making huge progress in promoting the country as a MICE destination, MICE-related tourists to Vietnam remain modest, failing to correspond to Vietnam’s potential. Many blame lack of funds and national marketing promotions and especially, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), for underachieving results. Even VNAT’s general director blamed its limited tourism promotion campaign efforts and low budgets, while a top-tier of the Vietnam Society of Travel Agents, was quoted stating: “Vietnam’s governmental budget for advertising and promotion is [meagre] and MICE tourism needs a boost.” With only 1.5-2 million dollars allocated for campaign budgets, Vietnam lags far behind other regional countries.
Sufficient central government support is needed to further develop the MICE Industry, with allocation of funds for destination promotions at key MICE exhibitions. Quality venues exist but there are limited international-standard facilities, and more space is needed as the market grows. Infrastructure requires major upgrades and more international flight routes, besides improvement in service professionalism – in the context of fierce regional competition.

“Vietnam’s MICE visitors are decreasing,” confirms InterContinental Asiana Saigon director of sales and marketing (DoSM), Michaela Smith.
“Reasons include lack of hotels with sufficient MICE facilities and catering for large groups requiring 200 rooms-plus per night, plus the current global austerity situation.”
“ACCOR’s hotels have seen a healthy growth in corporate numbers. However, those solely attending conventions or exhibitions remain relatively minimal, especially beyond Hanoi and HCMC,” affirms ACCOR’s Basset. “Remaining challenges include lack of accessibility to second-tier cities and high costs compared to neighbouring destinations.”

Vietnam’s restrictive and overpriced visa policies are also universally unpopular.
“There’s too much centralisation on just one agency, instead of dividing the workload amongst others,” says Vietnam-based T&H Consulting managing director, Tuan Minh Nguyen. “Public and private sectors need better cooperation in promoting the destination, having their own convention and visitors bureau to maximise market potential.”

Go it alone?

The road forward for MICE development appears to lie in regional centres and individual efforts.

Central Coast of Vietnam (CCV) have experienced an unprecedented MICE boom and increased competitive edge, thanks to an invasion of MICE-savvy, value-for-money global brand hotels, a new international airport and increased direct flights, such as Hong Kong routes.
“As ACCOR anticipates a strong flow of more business travellers to Danang, the last two years we’ve opened Pullman Danang Beach Resort, Grand Mercure Danang and Novotel Danang Premier Han River, each offering superb MICE facilities,” confirms ACCOR’s Basset.
“Danang’s MICE market is definitely getting stronger; Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort has hosted many high-profile groups,” confirms Hoàng Thùy Trang, public relations.

Danang authorities have confirmed MICE as one of their three key tourism sectors for 2011-2015, but CCV’s collective top hoteliers believe this region still “punches well below its weight”. Hence, this group established the Central Coast Vietnam Destination Marketing Organization (CCVDMO) to “captain” destination marketing, redefine the central coast product, and boost direct international flight connections – including Bangkok and Australia. North of Danang, Vietnam’s first integrated resort, Laguna Lang Co, opened recently with extensive MICE facilities; their in-house marketing campaigns include aggressively tapping business partners in key regional markets.
“HCMC and Hanoi are generally first-choice MICE considerations, however both Danang and Nha Trang increase in popularity as an add-on to city events or stand-alone primary incentive location,” states Sheraton Nha Trang DoSM, Mandy Trang. “Nha Trang has benefitted from direct or charter flights from Russia and South Korea.”

InterContinental Nha Trang will further contribute to its allure, launching by Q1 2014 with sophisticated events facilities including Nha Trang’s largest pillar-less ballroom (756 sqm).
General manager Colin McCandless says: “NhaTrang’s MICE market isn’t as robust as leisure, but the local government aims to develop the city’s tremendous MICE potential. With local, private and government efforts, Nha Trang should emerge as a prominent Vietnam MICE destination.”

Hanoi and HCMC still remain Vietnam’s MICE heavyweights. Again, HCMC’s local authorities have worked hard to keep the momentum going, building efficient infrastructures and offering attractive investor benefits.
“Regionally, Danang has done well attracting MICE business, particularly incentive, and commercial hub HCMC attracts T & T, Exhibitions and Corporate training. However, Hanoi also thrives and with JW Marriott Hanoi just launched, we hope to strongly contribute to Hanoi’s overall MICE improvement,” states JW Marriott Hanoi general manager, Bob Fabiano.

Located in Hanoi’s new Central Business District, uniquely opposite the National Convention Centre, JW Marriott Hanoi boasts over 2400 sqm of meetings and exhibiting space on one floor – previously unseen in Hanoi. “Hanoi can now mutually compliment HCMC, as there’s added incentive to conduct city-to-city meetings and bi-yearly conferences,” concludes Mr Fabiano.
Most, like InterContinental Asiana Saigon’s DoSM Ms Smith remain optimistic, believing “Vietnam is still ‘the destination’ for international visitors including MICE delegations – once the global economic downturn starts recovering”.