Developing Sri Lanka as a MICE tourism hub | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Developing Sri Lanka as a MICE tourism hub

Inoshini Perera  Picture by Shan Rupassara
Inoshini Perera Picture by Shan Rupassara

Sri Lanka’s singular greatest strength is its location. It is at the epi centre of South Asia and at the central point between Asia’s economic powerhouses. In order to really achieve Sri Lanka’s MICE potential it is imperative that we strategically capitalise on its location, General Manager Sri Lanka Convention Bureau (SLCB) Inoshini Perera said.

Sri Lanka has already begun its journey towards being a hub for MICE tourism with many new infrastructural developments taking place that will bolster the industry. However, it is also imperative that consistent and strategic promotions are carried out to attract target markets, she said.

“We are making great progress in infrastructure expansion and it is necessary to expand our product and services offering to maximise the potential of this sector. We will be able to firmly position Sri Lanka as a cost efficient and attractive destination for global conferences, corporate events and incentive travel,” she said in an interview with Sunday Observer Business.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. What is your perception about the incentive travel and event industry in Sri Lanka?

A. MICE (Meetings, Incentive,Conference,Exhibition) tourism in Sri Lanka for a very long time was centred on incentive travel and events although it encompasses many more aspects. Incentive travel in Sri Lanka has always had immense scope as Sri Lanka has been an optimum destination in terms of offering a great variety of attractions catering to every interest, neatly condensed into a small logistically viable space. There is continuous scope for the expansion of this area and I feel that we are making good progress towards showcasing our travel offering by highlighting the many unique and ‘off the beaten track’ attractions that Sri Lanka has to offer.

In terms of events, there is increased investment being made, from skills development to infrastructure, to develop this field and it is encouraging to see that we are increasingly hosting large scale events of international standard that will help develop the industry. We are making great progress in infrastructure expansion and it is necessary to expand our product and services offering to maximise the potential of this sector.

Sri Lanka’s singular greatest strength is its location. It is at the epicentre of South Asia and at the central point between Asia’s economic powerhouses. In order to really achieve Sri Lanka’s MICE potential it is imperative that we strategically capitalise on its location.

Q. How will it change over the next 5 years? What plans do you have for increasing MICE market share during the same period?

A. MICE is an acronym for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions/Events and includes business tourism, tourism for meetings, congresses and exhibitions. The MICE segment is one of the fastest growing components of the tourism industry and the total international market share of MICE is in excess of USD 270 billion and its output accounts for about 1% of global GDP. Developing the MICE sector in Sri Lanka is necessary both as a means of contributing to the development of the economy and to reduce seasonal limitations. MICE tourism helps mitigate the seasonal nature of a destination as most congresses, meetings and events are usually held during the months when there are no holidays, and many congresses and fairs are programed midweek depending on the audience and field they are aimed at. This means that the events segment can perfectly complement the leisure segment and help to provide a more constant flow of activity and visitors, thus allowing the creation of more jobs and more stable work contracts.

Sri Lanka has already begun its journey towards being a hub for MICE tourism with many new infrastructural developments taking place that will bolster the industry. However, it is also imperative that consistent and strategic promotions are carried out to attract target markets. The SLCB has begun implementing several key initiatives to increase MICE market share and develop the industry. This includes the identification of key market segments and targeted promotions that engage the MICE stakeholders. The SLCB encourages the associations and events industry to anchor and grow quality events as well as catalyse the innovation of new content. By engaging all stakeholders in the industry, we are able to analyse the needs of the industry and address these needs in order to cater to global requirements. Through these endeavours, we expect that over the next 5 years, we will be able to compliment the growing infrastructure in Sri Lanka with increased tourism spending in the MICE sector and that we will be able to firmly position Sri Lanka as a cost efficient and attractive destination for global conferences, corporate events and incentive travel.

Among the many initiatives that the SLCB conducts every year are MICE promotions where local industry participants are taken to targeted countries for B2B (Business to Business) meetings with stakeholders such as event organisers, MICE specialised DMC’s, PCO’s and other associations in these countries that have the capacity to send MICE traffic to Sri Lanka. The SLCB also facilitates industry participation in specialised MICE events such as IBM, BLTM and IMEX.

Q. Do you believe that technology will substitute meetings and conferences, in future, so that business travellers to destinations will decrease?

A. I don’t think that travel will decrease as a result of technological advancement. I believe that this virtual connectivity and seamless integration will actually result in the development of the industry. MICE providers need to be able to cater to the requirements of high speed connectivity, tech savvy personnel and high end equipment to enable bigger and better events, conferences and meetings that connect the world. But in order to be able to keep up with the demands that technology places on MICE destinations, we must focus our efforts on developing our technological infrastructure.

Q. As we know that MICE tourism market is quite competitive, what can Sri Lanka offer differently to gain more business from the industry? Who are the main competitors of Sri Lanka and what are their capabilities?

A. The MICE space is indeed very competitive but it is also a segment that constantly offers opportunity for development and expansion. Some of the challenges we face are the lack of infrastructure and price point competitiveness of regional players. In comparison with our regional competitors Singapore, Thailand, Bali (Indonesia)and Malaysia who have spent years focusing on MICE expansion, Sri Lanka has much to do in terms of promoting MICE tourism. There are more and more international names coming to Sri Lanka, which will have a tremendous impact in bridging this gap. Additionally, we see more focus put on promoting our heritage hotels as well that have a story or historical significance.

This is one of the reasons an institution like SLCB is so important. Having an entity that focuses primarily on promoting and facilitating Sri Lanka as a destination for MICE tourism allows us to identify the key factors for development and increase cooperation between different players as well as provide a central hub for these stakeholders to liaise with international markets.

One of Sri Lanka’s biggest strengths is its location. Being centrally located between Asia’s power centres makes it an ideal destination for the region. With so many diverse attractions in the country all within hours of each other, Sri Lanka has an inbuilt unique selling proposition. What we need to do is to identify and develop MICE capabilities in each region and promote these offerings effectively.

Q. Sri Lanka’s tourism market is expanding by way of tourist arrivals. How is this positive trend impacting the MICE industry?

A. While Sri Lanka’s tourism numbers are on the rise, one of the biggest challenges that the MICE tourism segment faces is that there is a lack of information relating to MICE tourism arrivals. Although, MICE tourism has expanded significantly over the past few years and there has been a significant increase in MICE tourist arrivals, there is very little information or statistical tracking in the regard. It is necessary to implement a reliable way of documenting MICE tourist arrivals as, currently even tourists that arrive for MICE purposes rarely disclose this at immigration for fear of complicating their visa processes. Many tourists travelling for business purposes will often extend their stay to spend some days exploring or relaxing and a recent study by the IE Foundation shows that 67% of business travellers say they take time off to relax during business travel, 58% said they often stay a day or two more to get to know the city while others usually intend to return with friends or family for vacations. So it is clear that business and leisure travel are often intertwined and very often complement each other.

Q. In your opinion, what facilities should we improve or develop to support the MICE tourism market with the technological changes, to facilitate more advanced events?

A. One aspect we need to focus on is adapting to technological advancements and global trends such as sustainable tourism and environmentally friendly practices. These advancements will assist greatly when bidding for MICE events. Usually, there is considerable time between bidding and event materialisation as it is general practice to bid for large scale events in the preceding years so, it is important that we have a cohesive future plan and develop our capacities in line with these plans. We must also focus on developing our cultural attractions, leisure attractions and also cultivate and develop our gastronomical and culinary spheres, fashion and eco-tourism to provide new avenues for tourism.

It will be a good thing if the other destinations besides Colombo City Centre adopt MICE as a pillar of tourism so that these destinations too could reap the benefits of developing MICE tourism. On an average, MICE tourists spend double of what a traditional tourist would as they require specific services and products and with the advancement of the MICE sector there is inherent economic development as the many ancillary and related sectors also develop and expand. It is imperative that we identify the growing demands of the industry and cater to these specific requirements. One of the most effective ways of doing that is to train and educate regional stakeholders. SLCB conducts regular regional training programs (Negombo, Kandy, and Galle in 2018) to engage industry professionals from the hotel and hospitality sector, event organisers, service providers and more to create sustainable development from within each region. I think the continued involvement and direction of the SLCB in these regions has contributed to building a strong pipeline of events in Sri Lanka and over the next few years we will be able to see these regions evolving to facilitate larger and more advanced events and gain high margin MICE events with a sweet spot of 60-400 pax on a recurring basis.

Sri Lanka has already made large strides in technological advancements catering to MICE and this is prevalent in both infrastructure and service provision There are now various options in terms of connectivity and technology for travellers across the country and we have seen an increase in information sharing with advanced sites, bloggers, apps and social media portals.

Q. How do you advice MICE tourism stakeholders to add value to their packages?

A. I think one of the best ways to drive demand for various services is by ensuring that we are able to cater to our target segments by understanding their specific requirements. Customisation for the various geographies is an important factor. At the SLCB we are constantly engaging in dialogue with and facilitating dialogue between different players in the industry. What this does is that we are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each sector in the industry and help the evolution of these sectors to specifically cater to industry requirements. In order to be relevant to the industry and with the motivation of becoming the centralised body that facilitates MICE events across the Board, we are in the process of rolling out a ‘Proportional Assistance Program.

SLCB’s main mandate is to facilitate MICE promotions and incentivise the local industry participants to competitively bid for more MICE events and thereby drive growth in the industry.

This scheme will be available for MICE stakeholders that will include and not be limited to Associational members such as SLAPCEO, ASMET, SLITO, THASL, OPA and Other Associations. Under this scheme, stakeholders which show proof of payment of NBT and TDL will be provided with monetary reimbursements for applicable line items as per the approved criteria; proportional to the number of foreign tourists / participants brought in for the MICE event. More information will be provided to the relevant stakeholders once the scheme is ready to be rolled out.

Additionally, we are bringing down trainers from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) to conduct a one day training program to the industry stakeholders on Oct 9 2018. They will provide invaluable training in areas such as how to structure winning bids, crisis management, trends used by other competing destinations, how to win association meetings and how to garner association meetings expertise.

Q. Do you have any plans to develop any MICE tourism destinations in the country? (Dambulla, Hambantota?)

A. Yes, I do believe in order to really promote Sri Lanka as an attractive MICE destination we must develop and promote the many attractions and destinations that Sri Lanka has to offer. We must expand MICE tourism capabilities out of Colombo or encourage and entice the MICE tourist who comes to Colombo to venture out and explore what the rest of the country has to offer pre-or post the MICE event. It is good to offer a wide variety of destinations and differing experiences and options for tourists. The SLCB and the Sri Lanka tourism authorities have conducted focused initiatives and continue to conduct regional training programs in the cultural triangle and cities such as Kandy, Galle, Jaffna and Negombo where there is a great deal of potential for increased MICE tourism and to engage industry professionals from the hotel and hospitality sector, event organisers, service providers and more to create sustainable development from within each region.

It is important to drive home the distinction between a MICE tourist and leisure tourist to service providers in these regions and stress the importance of bidding for MICE whether it be smaller scale MICE events with a sweet spot of 60 – 400 range or larger events.

Q. What are the MICE tourism growth projections over the next five years?

A. Sri Lanka Tourism has come out with a 3-year strategic plan (2017-2020) addressing the main challenges faced by the industry at present and future expectations of the country. The main aim of the plan is to double the country’s tourism sector earnings from the present US$3.5 billion in 2016 to $7 billion by 2020. Our vision is to attract 3.5 million tourists to Sri Lanka and we hope that MICE tourism will contribute to 10% of that figure. It is important to attract better quality tourism, and MICE tourism enables that.

The MICE tourist spends on average double the amount that a traditional tourist spends, even up to six times more depending on the destination. Their tourist profile is one that expects to receive more premium services and tends to use more additional services. This is due to various factors, the first being that the spending power of this type of guest tends to be medium-high and so they will usually spend more than a conventional tourist. Also to be taken into account is that the greater part of the expenses including food will be covered by their company and this allows the tourist to spend more of their own budget on extra services, shopping or other additional activities.

Q. What is MICE tourism market plan and what countries are you concentrating on?

A. The SLCB has formulated intensive strategies to promote Sri Lanka and effectively market Sri Lanka’s product and services offering taking into account, connectivity and our promotional strategy for Sri Lanka as a destination. We aim to do this by specifically addressing the requirements of each target market segment. We have identified target markets such as India, China, SAARC Countries that include Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, Japan and European countries such as U.K. Germany, France, Spain and Australia and we have already begun focused promotions to market the Sri Lanka MICE offering.

Q. What kind of investment do you suggest in this market?

A. The key to effectively driving demand and interest is to ensure that all promotions are consistent. This means that from the information we are putting out to the accuracy of this information, the value propositions and marketing strategies and even the frequency of promotions must be done in a strategic and consistent manner. Not only must be promote Sri Lanka but we must ensure that the target market that we hope to attract receives this message clearly and consistently so as to generate long term brand value for the Sri Lankan MICE brand.

We have a lot of experiences that would interest an experiential traveller, from our culinary experiences to mask making to gem and beeralu handicrafts made by our local artisans.

The SLCB organises MICE promotions in countries such as Singapore, Bangladesh and India where we carry out promotional activities of Sri Lanka promoting its MICE capabilities as well as providing a vital platform to facilitate business to business meetings and engagement of industry stakeholders with key stakeholders of target markets.

Q. What is Sri Lanka’s position compared to global industry? What is the way forward for the MICE tourism?

A. The disadvantage that Sri Lanka has is that its MICE industry is just beginning to take flight in comparison with regional competitors who have already established infrastructure for MICE expansion and have promoted the MICE tourism sector for a longer period. However, I believe that at present Sri Lanka has come a long way as a viable and attractive MICE destination and with the addition of better infrastructure and MICE facilities it is expected that the MICE tourism industry will grow exponentially.

Our sweet spot in MICE tourism has always been to attract numbers of 300-600 pax per event and we have established ourselves as a very attractive destination for this range. We must focus on increasing the volume and frequency of these events by marketing Sri Lanka across a wider range of industry segments.

That being said, we should capture large scale International MICE congresses, meetings and conferences that are attended by thousands of delegates from all over the world to put Sri Lanka as a destination on the map; not only because of the number of travellers that visit the city, but also for the positive promotional benefits of such events.

Hosting congresses attracts more congresses, especially those that have the same organisational characteristics. Once a city has proved it has the ability to host certain types of congresses, fairs and events it is much easier to sell the destination and ensure that the organisers choose it.

SLCB shares with SLAPCEO members any potential leads generated via the ICCA membership it holds, in order for the industry to bid for these large scale MICE events.

The term ‘MICE’ tourism originated from Thomas Cook in 1841 when he organised the transportation of a group of 540 people travelling to the annual congress of the Anti Alcohol Association. 

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