Improving travel freedom in popular tourist destinations, as well as relaxed restrictions for returning fully vaccinated Singapore residents, have nurtured green shoots in outbound incentive travel business.
Kuoni Tumlare saw an “immediate response” from major incentive organisers based in Singapore as soon as the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) with Germany was announced in mid-August.
Reto Kaufmann, the company’s vice president – sales & operations South East & South Asia, told TTGmice: “Three out of 10 largest insurance companies in Singapore have also immediately started to look at projects into Germany, scheduled for travel around 4Q2021 or 1Q2022.”
“In short, there is a pent up demand for incentive travel,” Kaufmann remarked.
Also sharing optimistic news is Melvyn Nonis, director of Singapore-based incentive specialist M.I.C.E Matters. He told TTGmice that “some light at the end of the tunnel” was finally coming through, with corporate clients starting now to plan for incentive programmes happening as early as April 2022.
He revealed that Singapore-based corporates are keen on a variety of destinations, from Russia to Iceland on the other side of the globe, New Zealand and Australia, as well as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan which are closer to home.
Kaufmann noted that while Germany was seldom regarded as a premium incentive destination among Singapore companies pre-pandemic, the VTL has encouraged clients to take the option seriously now. “That is good because Germany has many nice incentive regions, such as Bavaria and The Black Forest,” he said.
New enquiries for Switzerland have emerged too, although most are for travel around 2023, shared Dominique Oi, MICE manager Southeast Asia with the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau.
“At the moment, most Singapore companies are holding back and waiting for quarantine requirements to be lifted,” Oi explained.
While Switzerland offers a quarantine-free welcome to fully vaccinated Singapore travellers who test negative for Covid-19, a compulsory 14-day isolation awaits upon their return home. This regulation, however, was relaxed in August to allow travellers from certain countries, including Switzerland, to serve their quarantine at home, instead of a government facility.
Against a Covid-19 backdrop, post-lockdown incentive programmes are expected to look different.
Groups will have to travel in small batches and with staggered departures for better health and safety control. As a result, gala and farewell dinners will be “more intimate and lavish”, opined Nonis.
“Itinerary will be more organised, with fewer free days. Experiential programmes, including team bonding, (will be featured more prominently),” he said, adding that trips would likely be extended by a day to satiate pent-up travel desires and clients would consider booking out an entire hotel for private use.
Oi expects post-lockdown incentive trips to be packed out with more programmes – a mix of incentive and teambuilding elements – to maximise travellers’ time in the destination.
On the other hand, Kaufmann disagrees that programmes would be more packed out post-lockdown – only because Asian groups are already masters of time and are used to “being out from eight in the morning to 10 in the evening”.
In fact, Kaufmann encourages organisers to have fewer inclusions due to logistical situations and expected delays, and to provide more time buffers in between activities.
Meanwhile, the need for reduced trip disruptions due to sudden border closures will make mono destination programmes more popular than the traditional multi-country itineraries.
“Irrespective of the VTL, mono destinations will be the norm. I don’t see incentive groups moving cross-country until we have clear control over Covid-19,” Kaufmann explained, adding that this will benefit both the traveller and the destination, as programmes can now “deep dive into the beauty of the particular country” and showcase experiences in second- and third-tier cities.
Another travel preference identified by both Nonis and Kaufmann is the stronger desire for non-stop, direct flights. Nonis noted that the availability of such flights could elevate client’s travel confidence. However, his clients would stop short of chartering private jets due to cost concerns.
With safety concerns still top of mind and evolving border restrictions a reality, reliance on professional travel planners is ever stronger. To strengthen communications with incentive travel participants and sharpen group management, M.I.C.E Matters will be implementing digital solutions.
A costlier undertaking
Incentive programmes post-lockdown will require a bigger budget to cover Covid-19 tests for travellers, more manpower to manage multiple batches of incentive qualifiers, higher ground expenses as well as increased management fees.
Nonis said clients should be prepared to pay 20 to 30 per cent more compared to pre-pandemic days. He intends to raise management fees to reflect additional work and preparations that come with overseas trips now. Although gaining clients’ acceptance would be “tricky”, Nonis said the fee increase was necessary.
Kaufmann agrees that pricier travel is the new reality. “Unfortunately, people have not really gotten a picture of the new travel cost structure, which is why many are having this wait-and-see attitude. They need time to rebuild their travel confidence,” he said.
However, companies looking to resume their incentive programmes on limited budget could benefit from an oversupply in tourism products, suggested Kaufmann.
“If you buy into hotel inventories at the right time, for instance, you could possibly make enough savings to mitigate the additional cost of travel. Kuoni Tumlare has the buying power to minimise the cost impact on clients. We understand that a lot of budget has already been set for incentive programmes, so we work with our teams and partners to bring down the cost as much as possible,” he added.
Green shoots in other Asian markets too
Demand for longhaul incentive trips is also resurfacing elsewhere in South-east Asia, encouraged by the reopening of international travel borders in aspirational destinations.
The Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau is taking fresh enquiries from a number of markets here, such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, with most intending to travel after 2Q2022 or in 2023.
“I must say the appetite for incentive trips among South-east Asian corporates is still relatively good,” Oi remarked, adding that a 237-pax incentive group from Indonesia has just sent in their application for the Schengen visa to travel this December.
Revealing more details on this incentive group, Oi said the itinerary would span five nights and feature mountainous resorts and excursions around regions such as Valais, Lake Lucerne, Bernese Alps Oberland and Lake Geneva.
Departures will be staggered across three-day intervals, with 50 to 75 participants per batch.
To rebuild interest in Switzerland for corporate incentives, the bureau is kicking off early September its second virtual/hybrid networking event, Switzerland Travel Experience. This will bring more than 30 Swiss partners together with Asian buyers through face-to-face meetings.
Kuoni Tumlare is also witnessing good progress, particularly in Indonesia and Thailand, where requests for proposal are returning. Kaufmann revealed that his company is fielding “several nice requests” out of Indonesia for travel in the later part of this year, while interesting incentive concepts are emerging among his Thai clients.
“For example, we have a request to the US where the Thai organiser wants to get his staff vaccinated there. So, the programme combines an incentive award and a vaccination exercise,” he said.
Barring “any shocking developments”, Kaufmann expects incentive demand to continue to rise in South-east Asia, leading possibly to a “decent recovery in the fourth quarter”.