. Is the Phuket Model the way forward? | Meetings & Conventions Asia

Is the Phuket Model the way forward?

Hotels and venues hold out hope for MICE as a Special Tourist Visa plan is rolled out around the country.

Phuket was previously singled out as a testing ground for international travel, but a 'Special Tourist Visa' will now be rolled out across the country.
Phuket was previously singled out as a testing ground for international travel, but a 'Special Tourist Visa' will now be rolled out across the country. Photo Credit:Getty Images

In response to the hit taken by the tourism industry, the Thai government is examining a number of proposals aimed at reopening both the leisure and business markets — including meetings and events.

Initially, Phuket had been singled out as a possible testing ground for these programmes for several reasons: long-haul flights can land at its international airport; it is easier to monitor the movement of travellers on an island; and the island's economy has been badly hit by the lack of tourism revenue. 

But the stigma of the so-called Phuket Model was met with opposition from islanders. The plan, renamed 'Special Tourist Visa', will be rolled out around the country.

The hope is to bring in limited numbers of foreign visitors who will be required to respect some form of quarantine in a restricted area before being allowed to travel to other areas in the Kingdom. The specifics of the plans are still subject to debate, but the destination-first approach is food for thought for neighbouring countries looking to revive regional travel. 

The hope is that the proposals are not too little, too late. Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotel Association, sees the peril for the tourism and MICE industry that the local market alone cannot save. “We strongly advocate a safe, pragmatic and strategic reopening for foreign visitors,” he stated. 

Four Points by Sheraton Patong Beach Resort is set to open on 1 October, 2020.
Four Points by Sheraton Patong Beach Resort is set to open on 1 October, 2020.

Like many of his colleagues, Ranjeet Viswanathan, commercial director of Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort and Spa, a sprawling MICE venue, said there were no plans to reopen the hotel until there is some indication about the return of international travellers. 

While he also pointed to the property's readiness, especially in terms of health and safety standards, he foresees a rough year ahead. “We anticipate that it will take another 12 to 18 months for MICE business to recover,” he said, and held out the hope of travel bubbles with other safe countries to bring visitors back to Phuket. “The silver lining is that MICE planners have not given up. We still do see requests coming from international operators for second half of 2021.”

Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, owner of the luxury boutique hotel The Slate, sees their small size as their best selling point right now. 

“Personalisation and authentic experiences were the buzzwords within the business events industry pre-Covid-19 and will become a greater driver of MICE business as we emerge from the global lockdown,” she said. 

With a 25-acre property and facilities that include a 180-person ballroom and 48-guest pavilion, the spaces are suited to the scale of today's meetings. She also sees customers keen to apply TCEB subsidies that can make a difference to the bottom line of a smaller-scale event. 

If small is beautiful for The Slate, bigger is better at Angsana. Michal Zitek is the area general manager, Angsana Laguna Phuket, which includes the Angsana Convention and Exhibition Space (ACES), a 1,500-sqm venue that some said was too big for Phuket. 

“Right now it's the right size,” Zitek noted. Social distancing isn't an issue: the venue can accommodate current bookings that don't top a few hundred participants.

Angsana Convention and Exhibition Space can accommodate 1,500 guests but is currently only accepting bookings for a few hundred participants.
Angsana Convention and Exhibition Space can accommodate 1,500 guests but is currently only accepting bookings for a few hundred participants.

Year-on-year, September 2020 looks better than 2019. Of course Angsana has had to adapt prices for the local market, and Zitek admits that there won't be a high season surge in rates at the end of the year. “It was looking like a quite a positive year in terms of the business we had on the books,” he said. Ultimately 40 per cent of those early bookings were lost, but the other 60 per cent still hope to reschedule in 2021. 

“A lot more of the companies are much more vigilant on the force majeure clause,” he said. They need the flexibility of cancellation or deferment, which he is happy to discuss. Being hard-nosed about refunds or cancellations when the whole world is suffering is short-sighted, he argues.

Daryn Hudson is general manager of the Four Points by Sheraton Patong Beach Resort, the newest hotel in Patong Beach and the island's newest MICE venue. Opening on 1 October 2020, the hotel is selling its responsiveness to customers' requests. From Logitech cameras that make hybrid events more interactive to flexible space design and mobile catering, Four Points sees itself as full-service at accessible four-star prices. 

Unlike other venues, requests are still coming in from overseas. “Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Australia: They're interested in the product, whether it's for next year or later,” said Hudson. "As for domestic business, we're hoping that the government will show faith in the market.”