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MICE: Opportunities, challenges and way forward

Las Vegas welcomed 42.2 million visitors in 2017, 19 per cent of which were international visitors that accounted for 31 per cent of direct visitors spending. Today, the city lays claim as the number one trade show destination in North America for the last 23 years. It registered record convention attendance in 2017 as it hosted more than 6.6 million convention attendees. The city is home to some of the largest Convention Centres in the United States. In terms of economic impact, the convention and exhibition segment has become one of the vital segments of Las Vegas’ economy.

Closer home, Singapore, a city-state, is one of the top destinations, both in terms of leisure as well as MICE tourism. This Asian Tiger has often been considered as the financial capital of the South-East Asia. Despite the absence of key tourism attractiveness like great natural beauty, heritage and monuments, Singapore is one of the top tourism destinations in the region, thanks to a very proactive tourism board that undertakes all round promotion of Singapore, as well as a Convention Bureau that promotes Singapore as a MICE destination in particular.

 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for India that has lagged on both fronts, leisure as well as MICE, despite being so richly endowed with natural beauty, history and heritage, amongst others, and a fair bit of existing MICE related infrastructure that may not be as world class as those in Las Vegas and Singapore but are quite capable of handling a much larger share than it presently does.

 

The role of tourism to jumpstart fledgling economies worldwide has not only been well explored, but well proven. MICE (Meetings Incentives Conventions and Exhibitions) has emerged as the most important sub-sectors of tourism for its greater per capita expenditures compared to leisure tourism, and furthermore its role in growing a destination’s profile as well as incremental traffic through repeat travel for leisure activities in coming years. So much so that it is in fact often considered as a precursor to establishing a destination’s leisure profile. And if that is the case then destinations like Singapore and Dubai do come to mind which have first emerged as the financial capital in the region and have benefitted as a leisure destination soon after.

 

According to Rajeev Kohli, Jt. Managing Director, Creative Travel, who has also led reputed international bodies like Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and India Convention Promotion Bureau (ICPB), “It is a fact that no destination in the world really has succeeded effectively in leisure tourism until the business tourism came about. The reason for this is when business tourists come and they also take a day trip to say Agra or some other destinations then they come back to the destination with family for long trips and tell friends about it.”  The research conducted by National Convention Bureau of South Africa states that 40 per cent of all convention delegates attending meetings in South Africa return in the next five years as tourists, further boosting tourism growth and job creation years into the future.

 

India’s standing as a MICE destination:

Around 10 years ago, Indian Institute Management, Bangalore conducted a research on “India as a Global Conventions Destination: Prospects and Strategies” on behalf of ICPB and Ministry of Tourism. The project was taken by the Government of India, quoted in the national budget to sanction two mega convention centres in India that never happened. Of course that is beginning to change, albeit slowly, amidst increasing cry from the industry as well as growing recognition from the government on the merits of developing large MICE infrastructure to cement India’s appeal as a world-class international destination for large scale events like conventions and exhibitions.

 

Following the opening of South Asia’s first world class offering and India’s largest, Hyderabad International Convention Centre, in 2006, few more such infrastructures have come up in places like Greater Noida, Lavasa, Kochi and Ahmadabad among others. Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, host of some of the biggest event is the country is undergoing major redevelopment today. A world class integrated convention infrastructure, and probably one of India’s most ambitious infrastructure projects today, is coming up close to Delhi’s international airport.

 

Besides, with the existing MICE infrastructure and new hotels with large meeting places, the industry today largely believes that India is good to host over 90 per cent of the events taking place today and it is only a matter of time before it catches up on the remaining as well in the coming years.

 

Challenges

“I don’t think we have major challenges in selling India as a MICE destination. We have major challenges in the mindset of us who are promoting and selling the destination and not in terms of infrastructure the way we have been crying about for generations. Meetings will go where business needs takes them. I don’t think meetings are as destination dependent as conferences and conventions,” points Kohli, indicating the problem is more of the perception both, in the government and private sector as well as how the business is approached.

 

According to Madhu Dubey, Executive Director, ICPB : “The nomenclature of MICE tourism that still persists in the government is perhaps misunderstood. The Ministry of Tourism had been looking at tourism as multi-product with MICE as a niche tourism activity. Now, time has come as the Ministry has acknowledged the importance of MICE. There is considerable place for MICE and its growth in the new draft policy of the government. It’s not that we are not promoting ourselves enough, but the fact is that our competitors are doing a far more aggressive job and we can’t afford to be left behind.”

 

There is also a problem of popular perception as well that India as a MICE destination grapples with problems related to logistics. Highlighting the same, Saurabh Bhargava, Associate Vice President – Sales, North India, Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris, said : “India is perceived as a very complex destination to do an event or a congress. From licenses to a music event to a sporting event, it’s just complicated. And then there are last minute surprises too. So people are not ready to bet on India in the long term where they are supposed to put in money. We saw the World Cup Soccer happening which was a great success. But there were lot of hiccups like logistics. The first 4-5 metros are very well connected but how do we open new destinations? How do you go to Coorg or Corbett? When you tell your international delegates that you are flying to Delhi, the next morning we will take you by bus and it takes seven hours to reach a certain destination, it doesn’t work.”

 

“The other thing is most of the people that we speak to say that India is not a fashionable destination for MICE. It’s a fashionable destination for a leisure visit or a holiday. Incredible India took ten years to reach where it is to get that leisure traveller into India. We need a sustained campaign, a sustained effort by the government and all of us to change that perception about India. And to tell everybody that a MICE delegate spends 1.4 times of what a leisure traveller will spend in the country so there is more money to be made in the MICE,” Bhargava further added.

 

Touching upon both exhibitions and conferences, Sudeep Sarcar, Vice President, India Expo Mart & Centre, said that the exhibition industry has today understood the revenue model and how to earn money out of an exhibition. He pointed out that the same cannot be said for the conferences and it is one of the sector’s bigger challenges. “There are a lot of conferences happening, but it seems that the revenue model is not very clear to most of us in the conferences industry. Unless and until we do not makes conferences a viable and sustainable revenue model and can feel that we can make money out of this table or this event, the main (other) challenges cannot be overcome.”

 

Furthermore, he said that there are venues of various sizes that can accommodate 1000 pax or 5000 pax in various cities but the challenge is for the association or PCO to understand the viable and sustainable revenue model for all associated stakeholders.  “If that happens, I am sure everybody is going to jump on the train to bring in more and more conferences,” he stressed.

 

Drawing a cinematic analogy, Amit Saroj, Director, Attitude Events, a PCO, said, “India needs a MICE story which needs to be built in a big way. For that, we need a producer and the director which has to be the Government of India. We also need a lead character for that story as well which I think has to be CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) or ICPB, in its current form or maybe the new constitution that is being formed, which has to play the lead role in the story. The other change that is necessary is to bring the industry in the supporting role and let the Convention Bureau take the lead role. That’s the change that is required that according to me is the biggest challenge in the industry right now.

 

Furthermore, sharing his learning from an unsuccessful bid for a World Congress that he attempted with ICPB in the lead last year, he pointed that despite some hard-selling for venue and with the government here and pitching India as a culture and knowledge destination in the bid, there were some practical challenges that came out of the interaction with the event organisers, like tax issues, getting the tax credit for their spend in India, hotels proximity to the venue, as well as grants that the eventual winner Abu Dhabi offered to the event.

 

Sarcar also drew attention to big domestic industry with large national conferences that is not being showcased to global event organisers. “The gap here is that the organisers of these domestic events are not coming together in their own sphere and bringing in the related stakeholders and joining hands with the international events in order to throw out a large platform for the international conferences or events to come in and witness what we already have. We have to augment our own associations and all stakeholders together, come with a revenue model, and then pitch to the international organisers to show them what is already on the platter, come and join us. We are already 5000, if you join we will like 10,000. This needs to happen, maybe by Government of India, by ICPB or by all the stakeholders,” he said.

 

Way Forward

Dubey points that since the ‘Incredible India’ campaign launched in 2002, government’s thrust has been to promote India as a multi-product round-the-year leisure destination and now the need of the hour is also to create focussed and aggressive MICE marketing and promotion plans for the country.

 

“MICE by itself was a small component of that promotions, which today in ICPB I realise requires focussed marketing with a creative tagline along with ‘Incredible India’ campaign to bring out our strength as a MICE destination. We cannot get lost as a leisure destination, hoping that people will perceive us as a MICE destination too. Thankfully the ‘Incredible India’ campaign which is one of the most recognised Indian brands now will be our strength in promoting India as a MICE destination.”

 

Not that large events are not taking place in India. India Expo Centre in Greater Noida today plays host to over fifteen events that is spread over more than 100,000 square metres. Out of these, there are at least four events that are the largest in the world. So there are large events taking place, at least in the exhibition space, while at the same time there are challenges to be addressed in moving forward, especially in bringing the industry under some rules and guidelines in order to avoid unhealthy competition.

 

However, Sarcar lamented that on the contrary what also frequently happens is that whenever there is a large event that comes up there are some other parallel events that comes along and brings down the 5000 pax conference to 2000 pax. “The moment there is a success story, there is a parallel event that has stood. If you look at events in Germany or the UK or US, the events that have become large have not become large in a day’s time or in a year’s time. They have kept that event married to that particular venue or the region for years. At IMTEX (Indian Metal Forming Exhibition) in Bengaluru, it took us 17 years to make it one of the world’s largest Machine Tools show. If this event is happening here today, there has to be some regulation that this does not get repeated very soon in other part of the country. There need to be some regulation by ICPB, by Indian Exhibition Industry Association in force.”

 

Concurring with Sarcar, Bhargava also opined, “There is business for all of us. We don’t need to fight. We don’t need to compete with each other. There is enough to keep all of us happy. So the joint pitch is going as a nodal body with a little blessing from the government saying that yes this is legitimate bid, these are legitimate people, who can deliver what they are promising.”

 

Bhargava also pointed that there are also challenges that come unannounced like demonetisation and liquor ban. “All these things impact tourism, impact MICE. You may not see the impact in the next 45 days but you will see the impact over the next 12 or 15 months. And this year we are seeing the pipeline which is not as strong as the last year.”

 

Highlighting the high taxes in the sector, he also pointed out that when you compete you are not only competing with various other hotels or cities, but you are also competing with various other destinations. So you look at a Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, or in the region at  Singapore. We are one of the highest tax paying nations and that also deters the potential MICE organisers to come to the country.  

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