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Thu 7 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Islands in the stream

Packing your team off to an idyllic island for an exclusive meeting or incentive is a great motivational tool, reports Dominic Ellis.

Packing your team off to an idyllic island for an exclusive meeting or incentive is a great motivational tool, reports Dominic Ellis.

It is only in the last five years that many of the world's island retreats, for years the sole domain of wealthy leisure breakers, have started to realise their potential as meetings and events destinations.

The ‘3Ms' - Mauritius, Maldives and Madagascar - have been particularly active on this front, establishing more facilities that appeal as much to the corporate looking to work and unwind, as the holidaying guest.

The buzz words have to be environment and adventure; the desert island has both.

Given geographical constraints, the focus for upmarket islands tends to be on small events and top-end incentives.

Take the Maldives; Akino Nagamine, sales & marketing manager for One&Only Kanuhura says the resort does not have the space or equipment to host groups exceeding 40 people, but that doesn't stop it reaching out to incentive buyers, attracting around five groups a year on average.

"All the groups we've hosted in previous years were extremely successful and clients seemed to be blown away by the uniqueness of the destination and the resort itself," she explains.

"We're very flexible in terms of offering a different range of activities and functions and are probably the most experienced five-star luxury resort for groups.

Brian Davidson, group sales and marketing director, Legacy Hotels & Resorts, which represents Nosy Iranja island resort in Madagascar, finds that, as with other sectors of the leisure market, companies are looking for new experiences to achieve the objectives of teamwork and productive discussion in a relaxed environment.

"The buzz words have to be environment and adventure; the desert island experience has both of these in abundance," he says.

"You still require up-to-date technology - you can never lapse on communications - but a great deal more can be achieved in a geographically remote location."

The feel-good factor of taking colleagues to somewhere culturally unique and memorable is one clear strength of overseas incentives and the only downsides can be travel time, depending on the location, visa costs and airline dependability if transfers are involved, adds Davidson. He recommends keeping some flexibility in the itinerary.

"I'd rate island resorts as superb value for money," he says.

"If you travel to a casino resort, for instance, there's a wealth of distractions. In an island environment you can accurately plan time for focused work and leisure activities. As far as budgeting is concerned, island resorts tend to package everything in, sometimes beverages too, so you have complete control of your expenditure.

Meeting planners are increasingly spoilt for choice in Mauritius, where every business hotel doubles up as a luxury property.

Many of Mauritius' large hotels are equipped to host conferences, ranging from 30 people to 500. The International Conference Centre in Grand Bay and the Freeport Exhibition Centre in Mer Rouge can accommodate 600 and 1000 people respectively.

All nine Beachcomber Hotels feature their own conference rooms which cater for professional or casual meetings - with the exception of Dinarobin Hotel Golf & Spa, which doubles up with the Paradis' conference room - and are kitted out for groups or incentives, "from the luxury of Royal Palm to the liveliness of Le Mauricia".

Approximately 12% of Hilton Mauritius Resort & Spa's business is meetings, incentives, conferences and events oriented; the hotel, which won the World Travel Awards 2007 Leading Conference Hotel Award (Indian Ocean), tends to focus on top level accounts.

The Belle Mare Plage Resort is another business-meet-leisure option, containing a 120-person meeting room.

The Starwood Group's island portfolio is as broad as it is long, and expanding, with two new properties in Mauritius this year - the Four Points by Sheraton Cyber City and The Grand Mauritian Resort & Spa (Luxury Collection) - and other new hotels coming up in Hawaii (April), Dominican Republic (September) and Shimei/Haninan (September 2009).

The Cyprus Tourist Organisation (CTO) has revitalised its activities in the Middle East and looking more to conferences, incentives, golfers and other sports tourists that can fill beds outside the peak summer months.
We can offer a well priced destination, particularly compared to European cities, and one that is competitive without being cheap," says Vassilis Theocharides, CTO director for the Middle East and Arabian Gulf.

"Many businesses are now pan-Arab in their reach and we offer a convenient meeting place that is close-by with easy access, but is still an ‘overseas' option.

You still require up-to-date technology — you can never lapse on comns — but a great deal more can be achieved in a geographically remote location.

Closer to home, Bahrain is raising its meetings profile, hosting events such as BITE - a leisure and meetings industry event that united buyers from Europe, South Africa and India - and is planning to open a new exhibition and conference centre in the near future. The strategy is to offer planners with a boutique environment, exemplified by the first Banyan Tree resort in the Al Areen development.

"We wanted to make a big splash in a smaller pool and chose Bahrain as a debut for our first hotel outside of Asia," says general manager, Arno Nicolussi Moretto.

"For any event held on the island, we would expect the top executives to stay with us, but we can host meetings for up to 200-plus or small boardroom conferences.

The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain leverages a software programme, MeetingMatrix, which provides diagrams for all the ballrooms, meeting rooms and outdoor locations, such as the resort's private island.

The technology enables clients to create, view and modify meeting set-ups via computer-drawn diagrams, improving accuracy and efficiency at the planning stage of an event.

The technology is designed to help eliminate miscommunication between the meeting planner and the conference manager, reduce time previously required to manually draw the floor plans and allow for speedier communication flow between all parties as the diagrams may be e-mailed to the clients' head offices for immediate feedback.

The Ritz-Carlton is believed to be close to sealing a deal to operate a hotel on Coconut Island behind Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The city will also witness a 165-suite Staybridge Suites Hotel on Yas Island in two years' time, following the recent agreement between InterContinental Hotels Group and Aldar Properties.

Luxury hotels are also earmarked on some of Nakheel's The World Islands in Dubai; some 50 have now been sold and the project is now 100% reclaimed from the sea, including the breakwater that rings the development.

Hidden gems

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is somewhat off the beaten path in Florida - it is not that well known outside the US - but as well as having a beach, golf course and top-class dining facilities, it features a US $17 million spa covering a whopping 27,500 square feet, with 26 treatment rooms.

The resort has proven popular with meetings and incentive groups and the island's salt marshes and maritime forest are perfect playgrounds for kayaking, cycling, bird watching and hiking.

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman was purpose-built for incentive groups, and boasts creative dining and event options: "We're seeing a growing amount of group business from the Middle East as many of the corporations have financial interests here," said spokeswoman Melissa Ladley.

The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua in Hawaii, covering 54 acres of Maui's northwest shore, has just completed a $160 million transformation - the largest renovation in the company's history - and has approximately 150,000sq ft of outdoor meeting space. A 17,500sq ft spa opens in May.

Ritz-Carlton's four Caribbean properties also do well on meetings and the Ritz-Carlton St Thomas (US Virgin Islands) recently underwent a $40million renovation.

In Europe, the Ritz-Carlton assumed management of the Abama Resort in Tenerife last year, which has 16,200 sq ft of indoor and outdoor space, and 10 meeting rooms equipped with all the latest technological gadgetry.

In Asia Pacific, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has published a Best Paradises in Thailand book, listing the top 70 resorts in the country, which will be available at this year's Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. The Evason Hideaway at Yao Noi, which fully opened last October, features 56 pool villas.

New Zealand's Wellington Convention Bureau has released its new Meetings and Incentive Planner for 2008/09, in a bid to bolster its $120 million-a-year conference industry, while new luxury resorts in neighbouring Australia include Qualia on Hamilton Island and Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island.

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