Taipei has its attractions as a site for international events, but it needs a fresh mindset to win business in the ultra-competitive Asia market.
Arriving at Taoyuan Airport, travelers normally pass through immigration, customs, and the baggage claim smoothly. But upon entering the arrivals area of Taipei’s primary international airport, the experience gets bumpier for non-Chinese speakers. Without Chinese-language skills, it can be tricky taking a taxi or bus into Taipei. Many of the buses are old and have moldy interiors, and they rarely take passengers directly to their hotels.
In contrast, at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (the smaller of the city’s two international airports), smiling multilingual staff are out on the floor of the arrivals area, directing people to shuttle buses, the subway, or taxis. The buses are in immaculate shape and most go directly to major Tokyo hotels. To be sure, Tokyo overall has a serious language barrier – probably more so than Taipei – but the journey from the airport to the city has been designed to be seamless.
For business travelers, who often are on tight schedules, that makes all the difference. “The first thing people see and experience when they arrive in a country is the airport,” says Achim von Hake, general manager of the Sherwood Taipei. “They’re going to base their first impressions of the country at least in part on that.”
Van Hake and other veterans of the hospitality industry interviewed by Taiwan Business TOPICS urge the Taiwanese government to work more closely with international hospitality experts to develop Taiwan’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) business. While giving Taipei high marks for its exhibition facilities, accommodations, and general visitor-friendly attitude, they say that a more international perspective is needed to win business in the highly competitive Asia MICE market.
MICE business is important because it boosts the overall tourism sector, not just meeting venues. MICE travelers spend money in restaurants, on transportation, and in retail stores. When events involve cultural attractions such as museums, the theater, or live music, that segment of the economy benefits too.
Benjamin Liao, chairman of the Forte Hotel Group which includes the flagship Howard Plaza, notes that Taipei has been particularly successful in holding world-class exhibitions, such as the long-running Computex trade show held every June for the tech sector, as well as Taipei Cycle, one of the world’s largest bicycle trade fairs. The city also showed it can handle large-scale sporting events when it hosted the Taipei Universiade in August 2017. With 10,000 participants, the Universiade was the largest event the Taiwanese capital has held to date.
Biotech is another promising area. In July, Taipei hosted BioTaiwan – Asia’s largest biotech exhibition – at the Nangang Exhibition Hall, attracting a record 600 exhibitors and 1400 booths.
In October, the Taipei International Food Exhibition (hosted by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council) won the Outstanding Trade Exhibition Award from the Asian Federation of Exhibition and Convention Associations (AFECA). According to the government’s Meet Taiwan website, the exhibition won the award because it provided ‘a complete industrial supply chain, marketing model, and internationalization.”
However, Taipei still trails many of its neighbors as a MICE destination. Research published in August by Singapore-based Pacific World, a leading destination management company for events, found that Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam hosted the most events in Asia in the first half of the year. Singapore hosted the largest events in Asia during that period.
Taipei did not even make the top 10 MICE destinations in the Asia-Pacific based on bookings in Cvent, a cloud-based enterprise event management company. In 2017, the company booked US$14.7 billion in business through its supplier network, supporting about 715,000 events globally. Cvent ranks Singapore – whose Changi Airport is consistently lauded as one of the world’s best – as Asia’s top MICE destination followed by Sydney, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Rounding out the top 10 are Hong Kong, Shanghai, Melbourne, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Mumbai.
“How do we get people to come here?” asks Harvey Thompson, general manager of the W Taipei. “We can’t just say we’re cost competitive because Thailand and Malaysia are much cheaper.”
Thompson suggests that Taipei benchmark itself against other Asian cities who excel at MICE to figure out how it can improve. He believes that international hospitality consultants could also be helpful in boosting Taipei’s competitiveness as a MICE destination.
In an interview with Taiwan Business TOPICS, Tourism Bureau Director-General Joe Y. Chou said that the government is working to attract MICE business, move upscale to larger events, and persuade MICE travelers to stay for longer. By 2020, Taiwan aims to grow its MICE business by 10%, he said, adding that in 2017 the market grew 3-5% year-on-year.
Need for coordination
The Sherwood’s von Hake says that one of the challenges Taipei faces is that different government bureaus and offices don’t typically coordinate their MICE promotion efforts. “There’s not a centralized MICE program, so there’s not a clear message about the strengths of Taipei as a MICE destination,” he says.
A centralized MICE program would hopefully be able to improve the quality and accuracy of English-language promotional materials. A June press release by the Taipei City government about a campaign to attract business from Southeast Asia describes the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia as “three Southeast Asia lands being visited on this excursion” – the trip Taipei City officials took to those countries.
The website publishing the press release, globalnewswire.com, lists Taipei’s location as “Taipei, Taiwan, Province of China.” That might confuse meeting planners (besides failing to reflect national policy).
Randy Zupanski, general manager of Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Taipei, says that visa issues for Chinese businesspeople are a key factor affecting Taipei’s MICE business. “When you’re having a big MICE event in Asia, China is often involved,” he says. “When groups are also looking at Bangkok, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, they’re going to consider if the visa process will be problematic for the Chinese participants.”
Zupanksi suggests that Taipei City work together with hotels to promote MICE. “We need to bring the stakeholders together,” he says. He notes that in San Francisco, where he previously worked, the city government and hospitality industry have successfully cooperated to promote the city as a MICE destination.
Taiwan’s forte in the MICE sector has been the exhibitions side. Specialists in the market say it is far from reaching its potential in the other three components: meetings (for corporate training, product launches, and other purposes), incentive travel to reward high-performing employees, and conventions. They stress that wooing those types of events requires a much more intensive and targeted sales and marketing effort than Taipei has so far managed.
More active promotion by the city government – cooperating closely with Taiwan’s Professional Conference Organizers (PCOs) – would also help a lot, says Jason Yeh, founder and CEO of the GIS Group, a leading meeting solution provider. Working with a two- or three-year lead time, PCO firms research which international associations will be holding international conventions, prepare a bid, and lobby to gain support for their proposed venue.
While Taipei has abundant exhibition space, Yeh urges the government to invest in building new and larger facilities dedicated to conferences. He says that Taiwan was considered “a pioneer in the Asia market several decades ago” when the Taipei International Convention Center was opened in 1989 as part of the Taipei World Trade Center. But compared to what other cities in the region can now offer, the Taipei facilities are regarded as too old and too small, he says.
Kitty Wong, president of destination management company K&A International, urges Taiwan to do more to attract the many smaller conventions and conferences, not just to concentrate on very large events which may pose challenges for the existing infrastructure.
While many event organizers abroad are not familiar with the Taiwan market, the island has some significant advantages if marketed properly, she says. “It’s a new destination” at a time when many conference-goers may be tired of the usual locations. “And it’s a safe destination” at a time when security is a growing consideration.
Wong, a past president of the World PCO Alliance, says the key to MICE marketing is having interesting stories to tell, hoping that the event attendees will spread the word by relating those stories after returning home. “You want them to talk about how neat it was to have Peking duck while enjoying the view from the top of Taipei 101, or to discover how delicious a bowl of Taiwanese beef noodles can be,” she says.
— With additional reporting by Benjamin Parker