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Industry Pros Weigh in on 2018's Hottest International Meetings Destinations

Transportation improvements have put the entire globe on offer for meetings and events.

And even with the world to choose from, planners are choosing some very familiar destinations in 2018.

BCD Meetings & Events named Ireland, Italy and South Africa as top incentive destinations year after year, with Argentina, India and Singapore pushing hard to break in.

“Destination favorites don’t change much from year to year,” said Patricia Silvio, global marketing manager for Pacific World destination and event management company.

“Our top three European destinations last year were France, Spain and Monaco/South of France," she added. “The top three this year are Spain, the U.K. and France."

Pacific World’s top Asian destinations sound familiar, too: China, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

It’s no surprise that Europe reigns as the top international choice for U.S.-based groups.

Familiarity breeds comfort.

“Most planners are risk-averse,” said Chip Smith, vice president of global solutions for Experient. “They need to feel comfortable with the destination, confident in the delivery of services and most especially confident in the security of their attendees and how the destination will respond to the unexpected health or safety issue or natural disaster. That’s a big reason planners keep going back to proven cities.

“You know you are going to get that support in London, Paris, Madrid, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong,” he added. “How confident are you about the response somewhere else?”

Growing numbers of global destinations are developing the infrastructure and the experience to provide that degree of confidence. Long-time lifestyle destinations like Ibiza, Spain, are retooling for what most of the world calls MICE, meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions. Familiar leisure destinations such as Lombok and Yogyakarta in Indonesia are expanding into meetings and events.

In China, the key is rapid development to meet surging demand for four- and five-star meeting facilities. For cities as diverse as Kigali, Rwanda; Cartagena, Columbia; and Lima, Peru, adding convention and event facilities geared for the international market is the natural next step as their leisure product matures.

First Time Versus Next Time

When proposing destinations, Smith considers two types of attendees, first-timers and next-timers. First timers need a little more hand holding, a little more familiarity, a little less challenge.

“It’s always safe to go with a London or a Paris, cities with instant name recognition,” said Ashleigh Lane, senior program manager with Bishop-McCann. “That’s one reason the trend favors Europe.

“And there’s convenience,” she added. “So much of Europe is a quick flight away, especially from the East Coast and Midwest, where so many attendees are coming from.

“Hong Kong and Singapore have the facilities, the lift, the recognition, but those flights take longer.”

Longer-haul flights are less of a consideration for next-timers. And they are more likely to embrace events in less familiar destinations.

That opens the door to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna, Lisbon and similar cities.

“Copenhagen and Vienna are wonderful event destinations,” said Sherry Parks, CEO of Corporate Planners Unlimited. “They are building already-strong convention services, and air lift is very good from the U.S. Both have compact city centers that are made for walking, which eases ground transportation issues.

"Services are utterly dependable, and they are some of the safest big cities anywhere," she added.

Europe Hot Spots

Spain tops most lists of favorite event destinations this year. The only real argument is where in Spain.

Silvio said Barcelona has edged out Madrid for the top spot, with planners showing increased interest in secondary destinations including Marbella, Malaga, Bilbao, Seville and Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Hotel availability can make a difference. Lane noted that attendees rave about Barcelona for its restaurants and cultural offerings. She likes the city because hotels are flexible in dealing with spending limits imposed by pharmaceutical industry guidelines.

At the same time, Barcelona is one of Europe’s top leisure destinations, which squeezes availability.

London is an easy choice for planners and attendees.

Good lift, great hotel supply, top-notch facilities and, for now, a favorable exchange rate. The royal wedding in May 2018 is fueling interest in London worldwide.

London can also be expensive. Parks works around the cost issue by putting events in Dublin, a similarly historic and group-focused city that attendees rate highly time and time again. London is a $100 plane flight away, which makes for easy excursions at lower cost than overnighting in the British capital.

Scotland is also gaining popularity for its distinctive cultural offerings and reliable services.

Attendees can’t seem to get enough of Paris. But so many have already been to Paris that they are eager to see other destinations. Bordeaux is rising rapidly in popularity, both for its famed wine and a new rail link that puts the city just two hours from Paris.

Asia Hot Spots

China tops most lists of favorite event destinations in Asia.

Like Spain, the only argument is where to meet.

As one of the largest countries geographically as well as the most populous, China brims with choices. Not so long ago, the only serious options for U.S. groups were Shanghai or Beijing.

Rising demand from China’s booming domestic meetings and events industry is opening a growing swatch of second- and third-tier cities to the international market. More than 60 top-end luxury hotels are opening in 2017 and 2018 alone, all with ample event and meeting space.

Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong remain the primary international gateways, with rapidly expanding air links opening dozens of interior destinations for direct access.

Groups with a reputation for leading the way should be looking at Chengdu, Yunnan, Wuhan and Xian.

Groups that prefer the more familiar Beijing or Shanghai might consider incorporating some of the dozens of World Heritage sites within driving distance of the two cities.

Indonesia has long been a prime leisure destination and is making a similar mark in the MICE world. Bali remains the most familiar and most requested destination. Expanded airport facilities are improving access while increased hotel construction is improving rate and service competition.

Younger groups and return incentives are moving toward Uluwatu, Canggu and similarly dynamic locations.

Lombok is Indonesia’s hottest new incentive destination, spurred by improved air links with Bali and new hotel construction. Planners are seeing regular requests for split programs that include Bali and Lombok.

Requests for more remote islands such as Komodo and Flores are likely to pick up as hotels now under construction begin to open later in 2018.

Hong Kong is still high on the list of hot destinations. It’s not just the city’s proclivity for reinventing itself on a regular basis or easy nonstop access from the U.S. Hong Kong is also the lynchpin in the Pearl River Delta Region (PRD), an agglomeration of nine cities that include Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Macau.

The World Bank calls the PRD the world’s largest megacity.

A growing network of high-speed transportation links is creating a new ecosystem that encourages multisession meetings in different locales and cities.

Top Picks Elsewhere

Australia remains a bucket list meetings and incentive destination. The country’s three largest cities, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, get the bulk of corporate and large association events.

But when it comes to sales meetings, incentives and other events that focus on fun and hands-on involvement, the entire country is one big venue.

Uluru/Ayers Rock, in the Red Centre of Australia, is the focal point for outdoor activities, from riding camels through the rust red desert to visiting wineries and golfing.

The Gold Coast, south of Brisbane, offers a resort ambience that will remind attendees of a cross between Florida and Southern California, plus casinos. North of Brisbane lies Cairns, with tropical rain forest escapes to the west and Great Barrier Reef adventures and island resorts to the east.

In Latin America, Peru and Cartagena have remained high on U.S. planners’ lists. Costa Rica is likewise a standout in Central America. Meanwhile, Dubai and Abu Dhabi both offer premier experiences in the Middle East with some of the best airlift on Earth.

The allure of an international destination also carries the specter of long-haul agony. As event duration shrinks, so do acceptable travel times.

“We are seeing events that are three to five days, not one to two weeks,” said Kendra Murray, an independent planner based in Kansas City, Mo. “That makes a real difference in the time attendees are willing to invest in travel. I might suggest Thailand, Vietnam, Greece, even London, but groups don’t have unlimited time or budgets. Proximity gives Canada and Mexico a real advantage.”

Both countries offer a variety of other selling points for groups, including reasonable pricing, a solid selection of venues and activities and rich cultural offerings.

And it helps that both are foreign, but not so foreign as to be intimidating for first-time attendees.

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About the author
Fred Gebhart