Pacific Rim Seeing Upsurge

Published: April 24, 2006 - Meeting News:

Surviving blows dealt by 9/11, economic troubles and the SARS epidemic, major destinations in Asia now are enjoying a resurgence in group business from both North America and within the region. In fact, popular locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore can pose challenges for those trying to find space on short notice.

Such was the case for Nola Conway, president of LMS Meetings & Incentives in Los Angeles, who recently searched in vain for hotel rooms and meeting space for a large technology meeting. "We tried booking a year out and could not find the space we needed in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore," she said. "You need to book further ahead than you think."

In Singapore, hotel occupancies are at 84 percent, nearly a 25 percent jump from a year ago, according to Kershing Goh, vice president of the Singapore Tourism Board in New York. "There's a lot of travel coming in from elsewhere in Asia, especially India and China," she said. "Indian companies in particular are picking up on the value of incentive travel."

Goh also noted an increase in international meetings involving North American companies with their business partners in China and India. "Singapore is perceived as a good international meeting ground in these cases," she said.

Similarly, Hong Kong is enjoying full occupancies, despite a building boom that is increasing the number of rooms from 39,000 in 2003 to 53,000 at year-end. "Despite a 30 percent increase in hotel inventory, we're looking at record occupancies and no soft spots in the calendar," said James LaValle, conventions, exhibitions and corporate events manager for the Hong Kong Tourism Board in Los Angeles.

Eldridge Mayor-Perry, director of western and central U.S. sales for Shangri-La Hotels, which manages luxury properties throughout Asia, said demand for Asia has been strong enough to enable the hotelier to raise its room rates to pre-9/11 levels in some locations, including Hong Kong. "Demand is high, and 2006 looks like a seller's market, particularly for Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore," she said, adding that Shangri-La anticipates a 10 to 15 percent increase in meetings business from North America this year over 2005.

Despite rising demand, some planners said Asia remains a good value compared to other destinations like Europe. "I recently priced a five-night program in Singapore and found that the cost was virtually the same as it was six years ago," said Alison McNiece, president of Genesis Incentives, Meetings & Events in Tustin, Calif.

Planners also have high praise for service levels and hotel quality in Asia. "The hotels tend to be newer and more to the standards that North Americans want," said Conway. "Hotels in Europe tend to be more historic and have smaller rooms."

When it comes to emerging incentive destinations in Asia, China promises to lead the pack, partly because of an influx of luxury hotel development that includes six new Ritz-Carlton properties in the next three years. "The infrastructure in China is getting where it needs to be for the incentive market," said Susan Alpert, president of International Travel Incentives in Santa Ana, Calif.

Further fueling interest in China is the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. "This is a huge factor, as a lot of people want to visit a future Olympic site," said Conway. "We saw this happen with Sydney prior to the games in 2000."

On the down side, planners cite distance as the number-one obstacle that Asia continues to face when courting the North American incentive market, with many programs limited to four or five nights.