Key cities Tokyo and Kyoto are scoring well on the MICE front, while Sendai has risen from the shadows of the 2011 disaster as a hotspot for medical, geology and nuclear science conventions, writes Hannah Koh
Japan’s cities both big and small have forged ahead into 2014, having secured a roll call of events across the country including the crown jewel of international sporting events, the Olympic Games. At the same time, the once-devastated region of Tohoku is gradually finding its feet again.
Said James Widgren, international marketing coordinator of Kyoto Convention Bureau (KCB): “We won’t know the precise figures (of the number of MICE events in Kyoto in 2013), but the feeling here is that continuing from 2012, MICE in Kyoto has been good in 2013.”
He explained: “Most of the negativity that came from the 2011 tsunami has cleared and organisers seem to be regarding Kyoto as an excellent MICE destination.”
Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau (TCVB) business events team director, Kazuko Toda, was also similarly upbeat about the situation: “We realised that there is growing demand for Tokyo as an ideal business events destination…Tokyo has been accustomed to hosting dignitaries and business leaders from around the world on a daily basis during the year of 2013, participating in major international conferences such as the 20th ITS World Congress Tokyo 2013, the IROS 2013 (IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems), IFEA 9th Endodontic World Congress and The Consumer Goods Forum – The Global Summit.”
ICCA’s survey from last year ranked Japan eighth in the world for its number of association meetings and first in the Asia-Pacific region.
Tokyo remains the hot spot for convention and conferences in Japan. Congresses scheduled in the Japanese capital include the World Ophthalmology Congress 2014 (12,000 pax) in April, the 26th International Ornithological Congress (1,300 pax) in August, International Bar Association General Meeting (5,000 pax) in October, and the 2014 General Meeting of the International Electrotechnical Commission (1,500 pax) in November.
Meanwhile, Kyoto was confirmed last September as host city for the World Congress of Neurology 2018.
In anticipation of more business events in the near future, both cities will soon roll out new programmes or facilities.
Said TCVB’s Toda: “To enhance the support given to organisers and meeting planners, our subvention programmes of FY2014 are to be renewed, and they will be available at the end of March 2014.”
Looking further into the future, a new facility called ROHM Theatre Kyoto is scheduled to open adjacent to the Miyako Messe convention centre in January 2016. It will include a main hall that can take up to 2,000 people, a sub-hall that can accommodate 700 and a 200-pax multi-purpose hall.
In the north of Japan’s Honshu island, MICE is trickling back into an unlikely destination. Ground zero for the March 11 earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster, Tohoku is seeing a slow but steady stream of large-scale events.
Sendai, capital of Miyagi prefecture and the largest city in Tohoku region, saw 91 international meetings in 2012 or double 2011’s 45. According to statistics from the Sendai Tourism & Convention Bureau, the number of overseas MICE delegates almost tripled between 2011 and 2012 to hit 3,455.
Kurato Hasegawa, assistant manager of international promotion section, international economy and tourism department, Economic Affairs Bureau, City of Sendai, noted: “In 2012, the number of international meetings, delegates and overseas arrivals finally topped the figures in 2010; however, some of the meetings in 2011 must have been postponed to 2012.”
He explained that Sendai’s international MICE market is made up largely of conventions, especially science meetings.
“Most of which are held by the professors/researchers belonging to Tohoku University,” he said.
This in part was catalysed by the establishment of the Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research by Tohoku University in April 2011 that gave Tohoku a foothold in this niche. Delegates attending conferences related to these fields have the unique opportunity to visit areas near Sendai’s coast that were affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Atsuhiko Takahashi, executive director, head of Tohoku office for Congress Corporation, a PCO, shared: “Since the earthquake, there has been increasing interest in holding international conferences in the region. Medical conferences in particular account for the largest share of our MICE business. Tohoku University, which is one of the leading universities in Japan, being a national university, is one of Congress Corporation’s principal clients.”
Since 2011, the region has hosted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture (December 2012); the 6th International Symposium on In Situ Rock Stress (August 2013); and 13th World Conference on Seismic Isolation, Energy Dissipation and Active Vibration Control of Structures (September 2013).
Coming up in 2015 are the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March in Sendai and the Pacific Islands Forum in May in Iwaki City, Fukushima prefecture.
When asked what impact the 2020 Olympic Games is expected to have on Sendai’s MICE business, Hasegawa said: “Sendai is known as one of the closest major cities to Tokyo. We now plan to approach MICE organisers who plan events in Tokyo to promote Sendai as an alternative venue for subsidiary events such as sub-working meetings or excursion tours, which will allow participants to enjoy both Japan’s central city and local attractions at once.”
He also commented that the bureau would be introducing a new grant in April 2014 to lure large-scale conventions to the city, on top of the two existing subsidies targeted at international and domestic conferences.
Furthermore, Sendai city is constructing an exhibition facility to be located next to Sendai International Center. With a hall as large as 3,000m², the building is scheduled to debut in April 2015.
According to Takahashi, South Koreans account for the majority of organisers and participants at Sendai’s medical conferences but pointed out that participant numbers were falling, possibly due to “concern about the nuclear power issue in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster”.
Significantly, statistics also indicate that Sendai city is the region’s only bright spot, hosting 45 of the 54 meetings held in Tohoku.
Takanori Ogasawara, director at the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization, said: “We haven’t worked on MICE much, but we’re starting…Actually, even before the earthquake we hadn’t succeeded in getting many leisure tourists to come to Tohoku and only had about one to two per cent of total visitors to Japan. Now, the number is under one per cent.”
He said the promotion entity was now sharpening its marketing focus to promote a select number of attractions and thus introduce the charms of Tohoku more effectively.
The emphasis on general tourism is understandable given the dire state of the sector, with arrivals from South Korea and Hong Kong a mere 25 per cent of pre-earthquake numbers, largely due to radiation concerns.
The urgent need to bring tourists back into the prefecture has spawned a grass-roots movement in Fukushima called the Fuku-no-Shima Project, which facilitates tourism projects with MICE potential (see Need to Know).
But beyond concerns of radiation, Tohoku must address more basic needs. Congress Corporation’s Takahashi cited hotel supply and international air access as two pressing needs. “If there were more hotel rooms and large-scale banquet facilities, it would be easier to invite conferences to the area,” he explained. “(Before the earthquake), there were daily non-stop flights between Sendai and Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, but now there’s only one every two days.”
A twice-weekly flight from Shanghai was also suspended after the earthquake, but the deterioration of diplomatic relations between China and Japan was the final nail in the coffin.
On a positive note, the 223-key Sendai Washington Hotel, part of the well-known Washington Hotels chain, opened in December while a new hotel by the same company behind the Hotel Metropolitan chain will open close to Sendai station in 2015. Thai Airways International also kickstarted a thrice-weekly service between Sendai and Bangkok on December 3.
Said Hasegawa: “We have to admit that Tohoku, in regard to MICE business, has some weak points like name value and infrastructure, compared to Japan’s major MICE cities such as Yokohama, Kyoto and Okinawa.
“However, we are rolling out our new grant in 2014 and exhibition facility in 2015, which is expected to bring Sendai up to the same level of competitiveness as those rival cities. MICE planners always seek new destinations. We believe that Sendai will become more attractive (for) MICE in the near future.”
How I did 11th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society of Medical Oncology
Congress Corporation was appointed official organiser of the 11th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society of Medical Oncology which took place from August 29 to 31 last year at two venues, Sendai International Center and Tohoku University Centennial Hall (Kawauchi Hagi Hall), attracting some 5,000 participants and over 30 international experts from the US, China, and other countries.
Atsuhiko Takahashi, executive director, head of Tohoku Office, Congress Corporation, told TTGmice that the biggest challenge his team faced in planning and executing the event was “finding a space for the accompanying exhibition”.
“The two venues did not have spaces appropriate for this scale of an exhibition, so Congress Corporation proposed setting up tents in the open space next to Sendai International Center. At first the organisers were very concerned about the effects of the hot summer weather that Japan is famous for, but we worked together with the tent company and came up with an air conditioning plan to which the organisers agreed,” he said, adding that various requisite permits were obtained and construction of the tents started just a week prior to the conference.
“The temporary venue turned out to be quite professional,” he said. “LED lights and 27 air conditioning units were installed in the ceiling.”
Connected by a corridor, the two huge tents were set up – one spanning 1,000m2 for 300 poster presentations and the other a 1,250m2 space for six large-scale corporate installations and 20 booths.
A casual wine and cheese tasting was held under the tents too.
“Another interesting aspect of the meeting was the Storytelling Taxi Driver Tours to areas in Sendai that were hit hardest by the March 11 disaster, including Arahama Beach, once popular with swimmers, and Yuriage fishing port. The taxi drivers, (were trained by) a local non-profit organisation, gave explanations about the incident as they guides people around various sites. These tours were very well received by the meeting participants.”
Need to know
Edo era opulence
A former restaurant dating back 200 years and once the haunt of artists and writers, Somaro in Sakata city, Yamaga Prefecture has now been gazetted a tangible cultural asset. The storied building was renovated in 1999 and boasts luxurious red lacquered banisters, gilded corridors, traditional Japanese rooms laid out with tatami and mini exhibitions of works done by artists that used to patronise Somaro.
The highlight at Somaro is a performance by locally-trained maiko, or apprentice geisha. For 3,500 yen (US$34), Somaro will arrange for a lunch-time maiko performance and boxed lunches in a banquet hall for a taste of old Sakata. Reservations are required for groups of two or more. Alternatively, daily maiko performances begin at 14.00 for 1,000 yen, includes admission.
The Fuku-no-Shima project is an organisation comprising Fukushima-based agricultural producers, hotels, travel agencies and others who want to bring tourists back to the prefecture by tackling the stigma of radiation head on. Unveiled last month, the Fuku-no-Shima group has rolled out a series of tourism products and possible itineraries to show what the prefecture can offer. This includes industry inspection tours to Fukushima’s state-of-the-art medical facilities, showcases of Fukushima’s Aizu culture and tradition, and visits to 3/11 affected zones as well as tours led by survivors of the disaster.
A feast for the senses
Kamezaki is a quaint eating establishment that opened 150 years ago in Sakata and is still run by the same family. On offer are a range of banqueting rooms for large parties, with the biggest room accommodating up to 100 pax, and exquisite cuisine that includes home made plum wine made with the fruit of the tree in Kamezaki’s very own gardens. Tastefully designed, the building offers picturesque views from every window and is often booked out in October when autumn foliage comes to town. Making one-month advance bookings for groups is recommended.
Call (81-234) 23-3366 or visit www6.ocn.ne.jp/~kamezaki
Hooking up in Japan
Corporate road warriors no longer have to fear the dearth of free Wi-Fi spots in Japan, with more companies offering services that will have the traveller connected right at the airport. One such company is b-Mobile that sells Visitor SIM cards allowing the traveller to connect to the Internet without activation. Cards can be delivered to major airport postal offices, hotels or any other specified address in Japan. Meanwhile, Global Advanced Communications rents smartphones, SIM cards and pocket Wi-Fi devices and can have them delivered ahead of the traveller’s arrival.
Visit www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/index.html or www.globaladvancedcomm.com for more information.
Game for a battle?
Delegates from a wide range of companies will gird their loins and charge into battle on the sandy beaches of Okinawa, when the prefecture hosts the first-ever Okinawa Corporate Games from March 5 to 8, 2015.
Tony Sakuda, general manager of Naha-based Okinawa Tourist Service, the travel agency that brought in the concept, explained that participating teams could comprise of people from each branch of a company and team size would differ from game to game.
“This promotes teambuilding, strengthens (work) performance and gives (participants) something to look forward to next year. It also builds loyalty to their own company.”
The event will feature 15 sporting categories, including dragon boating, beach soccer and open water swimming, all facilitated by Okinawa Tourist Service.
Corporate Games will also include in its programme a Grand Parade, Great Games Party and Closing Awards Celebration to enhance the overall experience.
Visit www.corporate-games.com for details on registration.
Bottoms up in the north
Known among Japanese people for pristine waters and the best rice, it only follows that the prefectures of Fukushima and Akita should be famous for the quality of their sake. Planners can treat their winners to some of the smoothest sake in the country and give them a chance to learn more about the sake-making process at a number of breweries that are open for inspection.
Amanoto in Yokote city, Akita welcomes groups to inspect its premises and rounds up the tour with a tasting session of its premium sakes; while Aizu Wakamatsu city in Fukushima has at least seven breweries keen to host visitors.
Interested parties may visit Amanoto’s website (www.amanoto.co.jp), or call the Aizu Wakamatsu brewery cooperative at (81-242) 26-1515.