Urs Eberhard

The South-east Asian MICE market is making Urs Eberhard smile. The executive vice president-markets & meetings of Switzerland Tourism tells Raini Hamdi why

How strong is Switzerland as a MICE destination overall?
Nineteen per cent of our business is pure MICE, 30 per cent is business travel and 50 per cent is leisure.

Are you seeing as much growth in Asian MICE business as you are with Asian leisure business?
We are seeing a surge of more than 50 per cent in incentive enquiries from South-east Asia, particularly from Thailand and Indonesia, so far this year.
MICE already constitutes around 10 to 15 per cent of the business from South-east Asia. Companies, national or international, in markets such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, are looking for skilled employees and want to incentivise these employees. These are life insurance, pharmaceutical, IT companies, etc, that have highly-skilled employees; they see Switzerland as a premium and desirable destination that they can use as a reward for employees.

I thought they saw Switzerland as expensive. Has that perception changed, or is there simply a bigger budget?
I think, as with everything, it’s a progression. In the first year, you reward with a DVD player perhaps, second year a watch, third year a trip to a neighbouring destination, then farther afield,  especially if your competitors are doing it.
I was in Indonesia in May, talking to some of the biggest MICE organisers there, like Panorama, and it was so encouraging – for me, the South-east Asian market is like a dry sponge waiting to be soaked with incentive ideas and suggestions by us. I was the happiest guy in the room because people were really interested about what they could do or what was available for them in Switzerland and we have a good product for MICE.

How is it good for Asian MICE groups?
Well, English is spoken widely and the infrastructure works. Asians seem to like to do a lot in a short time and in our country, you can enjoy vineyards and glaciers on the same day – taste the wine and enjoy lunch in the vineyard and ski in the late afternoon in the mountain. It is compact and this is appealing for Asian MICE groups. I get requests from corporates which want to visit two mountains in a day. That kind of diversity and possibility translates to giving something to the employee that has real value.
We are investing a lot more than before on the MICE segment in South-east Asia because we do believe in its potential. As it is, Ivan Breiter (Switzerland Tourism’s director, South-east Asia based in Singapore; the regional office was established in June 2012 due to increased prospects from the region) is getting so many requests for big incentive groups, incentive training seminars and media fam trips.

What’s a typical incentive from South-east Asia to Switzerland like today?
The group size is normally 80 to 120 pax, but we also get larger ones of around 400 pax and sometimes, even up to 3,000 pax coming in phases over several weeks.
Usually, they stay four nights in good hotels and do a lot of excursions. Their preference is the Lake Geneva area and Lucerne, as they want to go up to the Titlis. Many of them are first-timers to Switzerland so, even though we would like to bring new ideas and new areas, we must be mindful not to take away the icons. If you go for the first time to Paris, and the company says you’re not going to see the Eiffel Tower, that would not work.

What sort of investment are you putting into South-East Asian MICE business?
We shifted the focus of the central team in Europe to support enquiries from the South-east Asian incentive market. In the past, we had a person in Zurich supporting MICE enquiries from the traditional markets (eg, Germany, Italy, France, the US, etc), but with the traditional markets (lagging) due to  the economy, it made sense to shift resources to support Asia, which is booming.
We’ve also increased by about 30 per cent the spending to tap MICE and leisure business in South-east Asia. We’re doing more MICE fam trips for buyers and media. We never really had a dedicated, organised MICE fam trip for Asian buyers before, but we did one with six outbound agencies last May, where they had a special programme and workshop with Swiss suppliers. We’re doing another MICE fam for around 10 agencies in September.
We are considering now to include a South-east Asia team in our Meeting Trophy event or to have a dedicated Asian Meeting Trophy. Meeting Trophy is when we invite incentive buyers from various markets in Europe and the US to discover the product in a fun way. Buyers from Germany compete with those from France, the UK, and so on, solving puzzles and challenges along the way – it is really like a teambuilding incentive. The programme is 2.5 days and they travel in trains, boats, buses, convertibles…it’s really a memorable experience for them. This year’s event (this month, July), is the ninth Meeting Trophy. We’re thinking, next year, we could have an Asian team join the event, or have an Asian Meeting Trophy where buyers from Singapore ‘compete’ with buyers from China, India, etc.

Did the keen interest from Asian MICE groups for Switzerland surprise you?
When I think back, no, as every growing economy that has a need for skilled labour will have that effect on incentive travel. What surprised me was the speed – how fast and strong the demand has grown. It’s the same as in the early days in Europe when Thomas Cook started taking leisure groups on touring holidays and decades later we saw the rise of FITs from Europe. In Asia, this is happening but everything is at a much faster pace!

Are Swiss suppliers ready for Asian incentives?
With incentives, it’s not a problem, as the group stays four nights, have a nice programme, gala dinner, etc. The problem is with the Asian leisure group series, which we understand is price-orientated. Also, they arrive at 9pm and leave at 7am the next day, so it’s a customer that does not sit at the bar, enjoy dinner – the lifestyle aspects – which comes as a kind of cultural difference for a lot of the traditional Swiss hotels.
This is mostly the China market, however. Our studies show that the average spending by visitors from, say, Thailand, is 30 to 50 per cent more than the spending of Chinese visitors. In the meantime, China has overtaken Belgium as a source market for Switzerland, and will overtake Holland this year, probably Italy too, so there is quite a volume in it. So our strategy in China is also to try and find the second or third-time traveller to Switzerland who appreciates the nature, fresh air, quality of food and accommodation. By appreciating all this, they will spend more time exploring Switzerland and also start to appreciate the nice things in life – perhaps order a bottle of wine to enjoy in the country, instead of rushing to sleep as they have to catch the 8am to Paris.

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