By Kathi Everden
The market for high-end incentive travel itineraries is relatively small, but the business is well worth the wait.
An early incentive brought in to the Gulf featured perhaps one of the most appropriately extravagant agendas possible, with a dinner hosted on an oilrig in the sea.
It’s that type of imaginative thinking that meets the aspirations of incentive planners who are always seeking some additional element of surprise to top off an away break to reward star performers in a company or dealership network.
While exclusive hotels and gala dinners can be one element of the high-end incentive, what is more important is the level of planning and execution of an itinerary that goes beyond the average.
And, for the burgeoning outbound incentive business, it provides a valid lesson in how to grow this sector – by using the services of on-location professionals to build in an appropriate programme that enhances the destination experience.
According to incentive manager for Gulf Ventures, Richard Hawkins, “premium incentives are not determined by the quality of venue, but by the programme”.
The company, now operating under the Dnata umbrella, was one of the pioneers for inbound incentives to Dubai – organising an incentive for Total back in 1989 – and introducing the surprise factor in to desert trips, where groups could come across a Bedu tribesman using one of their photocopier products, perched on a crate of chilled bubbly, for instance.
These days, the facilities on offer in Dubai might be more extensive, but with hotel rates soaring into the stratosphere, even the most liberal budget is largely eaten away by the hotel component and it is up to the DMCs to become more creative in how they fills in the rest of the programme.
“Demand is still there and we are sending out the same amount of bids, but the conversion rate is down – the twin problems are that either the hotels are too expensive or that rooms are not available,” says Hawkins.
MVM Events’ Kate Bowery has experienced similar problems with hotel availability and costs, while noting that top end incentives are ‘thin on the ground’.
“We do have smaller incentive groups, but the trend is towards a conference-led event as companies can no longer justify ‘pure incentive’ trips,” she explains.
For those with aspirations, Burj Al Arab is the only venue in town, but the majority of prospective clients have Madinat in mind as the perfect location for an Arabian fantasy – although often without the budget to book in.
“We can look at packages with other hotels, but with an added programme where there is a taste of the Burj or Madinat,” says Hawkins.
“One option is a tea or breakfast in the Burj, or perhaps a cocktail party followed by a mini dine around across the causeway at Jumeirah Beach Hotel or Madinat.”
For the best of the best, one recent incentive organised by Gulf Ventures took 30 bank board directors from Burj to the dunes, helicopter transfers all the way.
“At this level, people are used to fine dining and the best wines, and what we had to do was present a package that was simple but seamless, with a quality service all the way,” Hawkins explains.
“We let the chefs devise their own menu at Pier Chic without a limit on budget – the result was out of this world – while at Al Maha, as a contrast, the group cooked their own dinner in the desert, after some tuition from the guides.”
Convinced that high end business is dependent on flawless service combined with an appropriately suitable programme, Dubai remains the number one choice in the region for Hawkins, although other regional destinations are on the up.
“There is potential to move incentives over to Oman, but the room situation there is tight with the closure of the Al Bustan and the Sheraton, and it is not ideal for the typical three- to four-night programme as travel times are quite long to off-site events.
“We are getting enquiries for Abu Dhabi too, and while I am happy to put people in to Emirates Palace, the scope of offsite venues is limited just now,” he says.
It’s a view shared by Alpha Tours’ Bency Alex who says the majority view is still that Dubai is a draw card.
“However, in future, the wow factor of Emirates Palace will be a big pull and I predict clients that go there may not bother to look at the Burj – but in the meantime, it does still offer the best, “ he says.
An example, he notes, was a small six-room group that wanted the best, including accommodation at the Burj, helicopter transfers, a speedboat to Abu Dhabi to play golf, plus a ‘gala’ dinner for the group in the middle of the Jumeirah Beach banquet hall.
Whatever the problems for international incentive planners, Dubai is the number one destination in the region, a view typified by Maritz Europe’s deputy chairman, Graham Frazer, who has witnessed his clients become “overwhelmed” on arrival at Madinat.
“It is almost like a film set that one that fulfils every wish and preconception,” he says. “Likewise, I took a Ford group to the Burj Al Arab last year and it was a total ‘wow’, while the Park Hyatt is an exceptional city resort and Jumeirah Emirates Towers works well too.”
Elsewhere in the region, he says Jordan and Lebanon suffer from the perception that they are unsafe, while Egypt (as a destination) does not have “much cachet”. Oman, he adds, is “interesting” with the Chedi and Shangri-La offering standards matching those in Dubai.
The pyramid scheme
Interestingly, for incentive business out of the Gulf, Egypt is among the top destinations, and authorities there are seeking to wrap the MICE product in more attractive packaging to widen its appeal.
President of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, Ahmed Al Khadeen, says security is always the main concern for the MICE market, with event companies loathed to recommend a destination that might make the headlines for the wrong reason.
“[But] now, they want to know what we have to offer particularly as costs become an important factor, while the relatively short flying time from source markets is another key issue,” he explains.
“We have new products such as Alexandria, where there has never been a security issue and where we have new hotels coming up such as the Four Seasons, while Soma Bay on the Red Sea is launching a marketing strategy this year that will promote it as a premium golf and spa destination that offers MICE opportunities.”
Taba Heights is another self-contained destination, with deluxe resorts now including big names including InterContinental, Hyatt Regency, Marriott and Sofitel, as well as a new championship golf course.
A further option, according to Al Khadeen, is the four-day Nile cruise.
“Catering for up to 120 people, this is a unique meeting and incentive venue where companies can accommodate all their delegates in one location,” he says.
A slightly tawdry reputation in the past is being overcome with the launch of upmarket vessels operated by the known hotel brands, with Movenpick adding a second ship after winning ‘The Best Nile Cruise Ship’ award for its m/s Royal Lotus last year, while Oberoi has moved the bar up with its new offering.
According to the company’s regional sales and marketing director, Atef Goubran, the emphasis will be exclusive luxury, with just 25 cabins and two grand suites, as well as a Banyan Tree spa.
“The Oberoi Zahra will fingerprint a new concept of hospitality aboard Nile cruisers, and we can target niche incentives such as board of directors’ meetings, etc,” he says.
Oberoi, with the Mena House opposite the Pyramids, as well as a Red Sea resort at Sahl Hasheesh, has a product range that is ideally suited to the premium MICE sector, and Goubran says the group had hosted prestigious companies for incentives groups, including Pepsi, BMW, Pirelli and 3M.
“Cairo is the preferred venue, with pre- and post-stays offered on the Red Sea or the Nile, and we can offer exceptional itineraries that include theme nights at the Pyramids, or dinner at palaces or museums in Old Cairo.”
The scope of venues in the country is underlined by Maheen Mohamed, tour sales manager for groups, incentives and promotions at Emirates Holidays, who has used the Nile as a platform for a variety of events.
“We sent one top management group out on the Nile in groups of three, armed with fishing rods to catch their own dinner,” she says.
“They loved it and had to be persuaded to come ashore, even though there was actually a magnificent barbecue set up on an island just for them.”
Another wow was provided by a flotilla of feluccas, whose sails were adorned with the client company logo: “The delegates were sipping their welcome drink on the hotel terrace when the feluccas sailed along the Nile – the general manager’s jaw dropped he was so overcome,” explains Mohamed.
Mix and match
With more focus on incentives and groups, Emirates Holidays can draw on its relationships with hotels and, of course, an airline, to offer exemplary travel itineraries, but Mohamed reiterates that it’s the fine details that made any incentive.
“As more corporates move in the region, there is a greater realisation of the worth of incentive trips in terms of motivation, reward and team bonding,” she says.
“Most companies do include a conference element but we are seeing a trend to invite spouses and even children at times.”
As these group movements tend to be short in duration – four days being the average – Mohamed says that direct flights are a priority and gateway cities are the most popular destinations since they avoid the need for time-consuming transfers.
“While Cairo is current favourite, Nairobi is coming up – perhaps with a balloon safari – and anything new is always popular,” she explains.
“Oman is on the up, with the Chedi and Shangri-La spurring business, while South Africa and safari is a big draw.”
Many companies like to include a relevant work element such as a factory tour in countries like China or Thailand, while conference cities such as Vienna are becoming a draw, she adds.
Mohamed rates around 30% of these overseas trips as ‘high end’, and points out that those destinations or hotels with representation in the region were often the most successful in winning this business.
The result is that a group of beauticians attending a medical conference in Vienna were accommodated at the Hotel Sacher; a feet-in-the-sand board meeting took place at Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives; and a cosmetics company opted for Chiva Som in Thailand as its preferred getaway.
“Unless a group is stuck on a particular brand, we can offer a choice of hotels through Emirates Holidays, although we will often suggest a new property as they are more flexible on rates – it’s also a selling point that no-one has been there before,” says Mohamed.
Around the region, new luxury properties are hoping to take this route, with board meetings and small incentives as one target for the new Banyan Tree Desert Resort & Spa in Bahrain, while the Ritz-Carlton operated Sharq Village & Spa is expected to provide Qatar with an iconic draw card.
According to the resort’s director of sales and marketing, Stephen Banks, the property is the first real leisure hotel in Qatar.
“This is our entry in to the incentive market, and the hotel design that has rooms in villa clusters means we can cater to different size groups – as well as offering small meeting facilities,” he explains.
Shangri-La’s Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dhabi is another destination resort with MICE capabilities, while in Jordan, it’s Kempinski’s Ishtar Dead Sea resort that is making the uber cool lists with attendant ‘wow’ factor.
A boutique hotel, 10,000m² spa, board rooms and ballroom and auditorium in the second phase opening this summer means Kempinski ticks all the boxes, while joint marketing campaigns with its neighbours, Marriott, Movenpick and the King Hussein Convention Centre, aim to propel the Dead Sea up the ranks of desirability in the meetings and incentives sector.
Already Jordan is a popular choice for regional trips, but managing director of specialist DMC Abercrombie & Kent, Mohanad Malhas, sounds a word of advice for agents aiming to secure this type of business.
“There are many regional head offices in the Gulf and Jordan is a good option for MICE itineraries since it is relatively cheap,” he says. “However, agents or staff within the company often go direct to the hotels without using a DMC, thinking they can get a better price – but you do need someone to put the whole package together. Companies will often pay a premium for an exclusive experience, and this is what we can offer.”
Ask the group of hoteliers who walked with the tigers at the Ranthampore reserve, courtesy of Emirates Holidays…