Suzhou has climbed up the meeting ranks with new exhibition centres and hotels. But an airport and CVB are needed.
Suzhouâ€™s standing as an international association meetings destination is rising, evident from the number increasing by 50 per cent in 2016 compared to the previous year, and for hosting the third highest number of delegates in China, according to ICCA.
For Suzhou to grow, Noor Ahmad Hamid, regional director, Asia-Pacific, ICCA, said the destination must position itself as a business city and knowledge hub, and authorities must understand the importance of attracting investments.
At the same time, he added that Suzhou must â€śtalk about how to be different from other Chinese cities, and start working with doctors, professors and universities as medical meetings still make up a chunk of all Suzhouâ€™s meetingsâ€ť.
While Suzhou does not have its own airport, the city has easy access from Shanghaiâ€™s Hongqiao and Pudong International Airports â€“ 88km and 133km away respectively â€“ as well as Sunan Shuofang International Airport, 22km away in north-west Suzhou.
Infrastructure-wise, Suzhou is well equipped for meetings. The addition of the 50,000m2 Jinji Lake International Convention Centre (JLICC), housing Asiaâ€™s largest pillarless banqueting hall, complements the 152,000m2 Suzhou International Expo Centre (SIEC).
Numerous international five-star hotel brands such as Elements, Kempinski, Renaissance and W have opened, or are opening this year in Suzhou. The destination also has historic and cultural offerings â€“ including nine UNESCO-designated classical gardens â€“ while being up to 40 per cent cheaper compared to Shanghai depending on the season, making it attractive.
Kanbur Lee, general manager of W Suzhou, opening on August 1, 2017, wishes for Suzhou to have its own international airport.
â€śEighty-five per cent of Suzhou MICE is mainly domestic business from Shanghai and Beijing in the corporate meetings sector â€“ manufacturing, IT, automotive, pharmaceuticals and construction. This number grew in 2016 and 1Q2017, boosting demand for corporate conferences, products launches and training events. Incentive travel also saw a resurgence in 2016 and 1Q2017, with rising budgets and the use of a greater variety of destinations for the hosting of such events,â€ť said Lee.
Sam Lay, senior director of Shanghai-based BCD Meetings and Events, sends many domestic groups to Suzhou to attend trainings.
He commented that Suzhou was â€śa good alternative to Shanghaiâ€ť, and this demand was driven by his clients.
Although it is not yet a top international business events destination for Pacific Worldâ€™s main markets US and Europe, its Shanghai-based MICE manager, Violet Wang, agreed it works well for domestic groups.
Wang said: â€śSuzhouâ€™s government is investing a lot in promoting the destination as a World Heritage site, and putting measures in place to provide a sustainable, clean environment. The choice of international five-star hotels is better than before,â€ť she commented.
Meanwhile, the Suzhou MICE & Travel Promotion Centre is targeting more international manufacturing and medical events, and hopes to serve Fortune 500 companies in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), according to Jerry Yuan, its deputy director.
Yuan noted: â€śWe have the hardware, history, culture, beautiful lakes and gardens, and we are taking steps to professionalise the meetings industry by forming the Suzhou MICE Association.â€ť
In Suzhouâ€™s favour, Kris Van Goethem, director, inbound and MICE, Thomas Cook China, said the old city has been cleaned up, the water in the canals has been â€śpurifiedâ€ť and there are more pedestrian areas.
Van Goethem added: â€śThe new high-speed rail station in north Suzhou helps to relieve the congestion at the Suzhou Railway Station, there are more tunnels to divert traffic, and SIP offers a green zone.â€ť
Julien Delerue, general manager and founder of bidding platform 1000meetings, said the number of hotels in Jinji Lake has increased compared to seven years ago.
â€śCorporate meetings and incentive groups will pick Suzhou because of the expanding hotel supply, and for the seasonal cost savings. As a city, it is also well balanced with outdoor spaces. Delegates can rent bicycles or go sailing in the lake,â€ť Delerue added.
Erren Zhang, vice general manager, SIEC and JLICC, said there were about 50 exhibitions and 125 conventions in 2016 compared to 40 exhibitions and 35 conventions in 2015. For 2017, there are about 50 exhibitions and 90 conventions booked so far. Exhibitions account for 60 per cent of business, and conventions the remainder.
â€śThe biggest exhibition in 2016 was the 5th Chinashop 2016 at 80,000m2 and 100,000 visitors. The biggest convention in September 2016 was the Herbalife (China) Anniversary Event taking up 34,000m2 with around 15,000 delegates,â€ť Zhang noted.
Romain Chan, Pan Pacific area general manager â€“ China and general manager â€“ Suzhou, said: â€śIn 2016, MICE was 18.6 per cent of total hotel revenue. However, 1Q2017 saw a decline to 16.3 per cent as many MICE planners chose Shanghai after the Hongqiao Convention & Exhibition Center opened.
â€śWhile MICE enjoys a healthy growth, most activities take place in SIP where there is demand for large ballrooms that can accommodate 1,000 guests or more. Moreover, competition is fierce with new hotels offering state-of-the-art MICE facilities.â€ť
To remain competitive, the 481-room Pan Pacific underwent a refurbishment of its rooms, the ballroom, meeting rooms and Chinese restaurant in May 2016. The hotel has 1,900m2 of event space with a 500m2 grand ballroom and 17 function rooms.
Chan added: â€śSuzhou needs an airport. Not having one is a draw back for some event organisers.â€ť
ICCAâ€™s Noor further advised: â€śService standards in second- and third-tier Chinese cities lag behind primary destinations like Beijing and Shanghai where staff speak better English and services like translation are easily available. Perhaps Suzhou needs to look at the Japan Smart City concept where there is free Wi-Fi for delegates to access translation and other services. It will help delegates get around with ease.
â€śI also hope to see a strong convention bureau set up. With the right people and the full support of the government, this can make a lot of difference when it comes to positioning Suzhou as a top-of-mind meeting place regionally and internationally,â€ť he concluded.