The short straw at the Hotel Management Thailand Summit last week was drawn by Sarah Randall, the Head of MICE Services at Centara Hotels and Resorts, and David Barrett, the Executive Director of the Amari Watergate in Bangkok and Amari in Pattaya. Their challenge was to explain how to attract premium MICE to Thailand – and this proved difficult. That’s not to say they didn’t try. In fact, they provided all manner of helpful insights related to MICE and Thailand, and their expertise shone throughout the debate – but attracting genuine premium MICE to visit Thailand? A bit of a tall order at the moment.

The elephant in the room was the fact that the foreign organizations from western nations most likely to spend large sums on events aren’t keen on political instability or military dictatorships. The elephant was then ordered to go wait outside by a moderator who felt obliged to preface certain questions with the words, “*off the record. *” The panel did seem to be in agreement, however, that functioning democracies are better for business.

David still managed to take an optimistic approach to the subject, starting by redefining ‘premium MICE’ to encompass the people who are actually visiting at the moment. “Premium is defined by event spend, not geography,” he argued, adding that he’d recently entertained a Malaysian group who’d spent heavily and could therefore be considered premium even though they weren’t from Europe. The logic was solid enough – local MICE spend less on flights and can afford to splash out more in the venue. Conversely however, long haul MICE tend to stay longer, thus driving up the total spend. Either way, it all comes back to spending, and in any case only 17% of Thailand’s MICE are long haul, partly thanks to that elephant.

David decided to confront Thailand’s shortcomings head-on. He explained that Thailand is a very resilient market. In recent years it has faced two military coups, street protests, flooding, SARS, a financial crisis and a tsunami and “business always rebounds quickly.” In fact, “the media is more damaging than the reality,” he claimed. “We need to manage the destination’s reputation, because you can be sure that CNN and the BBC will let people know about the negatives.” He then praised the elephant, stating that “we need to keep politics off the street – we needed to have the streets cleared.”

Just as David was getting into his stride, however, Sarah – a former event planner – intervened. She explained that while tourists have short memories as far as negative perceptions are concerned, event planners are different. Just a few years ago she’d planned a large event which had to be cancelled at short notice when the volcano Ejyafjallajökull erupted, paralyzing European air travel. The client lost 1.5 million dollars. With Thailand facing so much political uncertainty in the coming year, “why take the risk? ” Furthermore, as major conferences are often planned with a five year horizon, outlook may remain bleak for quite some time.

There are some things that can be done, though. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has made inroads with promotions attracting the Indian market, while Thai aircraft previously serving Johannesburg have been redeployed to Indian routes. Improvements in facilities and transportation would also help Thailand to compete with rival destinations like Hong Kong and Singapore, while hoteliers should look at ways to add value to their offerings to make them more attractive.

The next question was that of whether Thailand was better suited to meetings or incentives. Sarah pointed out that meetings were often held in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai because so many leading companies were based there and available for networking. For this reason Thailand should therefore focus on the incentive market. David promptly skewered this idea by revealing that incentive travel was often taxed heavily in the source countries and thus had to involve meetings to avoid that expense. Meetings were also better for hoteliers because of the increased spend within the venue.

As for the future of premium MICE in Thailand – India and China. Short haul travel is highly resilient and makes up 80% of MICE travel in general. These two developing economies are beginning to show signs of spending in the style of Europe or America thirty years ago, so even if they don’t fit your definition of premium right now, they will soon.