How would you describe conference and exhibition growth in South East Asia?

RINGLING: Conference and exhibition growth has been quite tremendous over the last couple of years. There were some dormant years after the 1997 crisis here in South East Asia and then again in the early 2000s when we were hit by SARS. However, over the last 3 years we have seen the industry grow by about 10-15% per year. Exhibition and conference shows have been happening every 2 years, where there is a 10-20% growth each time. That is a very promising number.

Which cities do you think are making the most progress in the industry?

RINGLING: Locally, Bangkok has been successful in attracting regional shows for several reasons. Other countries are strictly more local in terms of their visitor profile. Bangkok attracts travelers from the region which leads to  potential buyers participating in the exhibition. There is large value in Bangkok, from the price you pay for a hotel room to the hospitality of the Thai people. People like to come here. If you give someone the choice to travel to Jakarta or to Bangkok, their choice will be Bangkok. Also, the infrastructure is in place and we have nice venues. Now, the traffic problem is in much better shape because of the BTS and subway systems. Bangkok is making progress and doing well. Singapore used to have the role of the regional hub and it still is for certain industries. However, manufacturing has moved out of Singapore and the local markets for many sectors have moved. In Thailand, you have a strong manufacturing base where the potential for visitors is very large.

Having a domestic base for the industry, how do you see the prospects for places like Vietnam and Indonesia?

RINGLING: Vietnam will come up and Indonesia is coming up strongly. But this is only on a domestic market base. Infrastructure is still a hot topic, even though they are building a new center in Jakarta, they currently have some centers already there. Exhibitions are actually never venue based or dependent on venues. You can build the nicest venue possible but if there is no market, the exhibition won’t go there. The market is what always drives the show. If the market is there the exhibitors will come.

Where does Bangkok stand competitively?

RINGLING: Competitively, Bangkok is very, very strong relative to other countries here in the region. Also, in terms of infrastructure, we have BITEC (Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre) as a really good venue for industry related shows. This is a huge impact venue, almost second to none in Asia. Then there are also older venues like Queen Sirikit and City Center. There are others coming up in hotels and shopping centers where they build conference exhibition floors. So really, there are a lot of venues here and they are developing well. I don’t know any other country besides Singapore that has as many venues as Bangkok. Singapore is very well equipped with venues, and also near many cities. They mostly serve shows that are more service related rather than those related to manufacturing.

How committed is the Thai government to expanding the MICE industry?

RINGLING: Very early on, about 10-12 years ago, Thailand saw the importance of the MICE industry for their touristic market, and travel market. They established TCEB (Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau). TCEB has been extremely successful and active. Anywhere in our industry, where global meetings are related to the exhibition conference industry, TCEB will be there. They will promote the industry, venues, and Thailand as a destination for MICE. Their visibility has increased and they are now in people’s minds. Thailand is a country of interest for many. If I talk to my colleagues worldwide, Thailand is always on their mind. With a lot of goodies they give away, Thailand makes it worthwhile for an organizer to place their exhibition or conference here, which makes it easier to decide whether that’s a destination of choice.

How can a country increase value from a business traveler?

RINGLING: That’s simple; just make them stay a little longer. Obviously a business traveler spends more money in a country on average compared to a backpack tourist. The business travelers generally stay in the best hotels and eats at the best restaurants. That is what the government is after; to give people as many opportunities and reasons to stay as long as possible. These reasons to stay longer can include shows with added value propositions followed by a conference or knowledge transfer or something like an orientation tour of the industry. That would be my idea to make a business traveler stay longer. Maybe adding a game of golf would help as well. I know some exhibitions do that, they add a day of golf on a wonderful Thailand golf course, which makes the traveler stay longer.

Once the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is in place, how will it impact MICE in the region?

RINGLING: MICE will positively affect the region. It will be another reason for the industry to grow because we are becoming a single market of over 500m people and the middle class is growing stronger. There will be a lot of demand in the near future. I think we will have a very positive impact. I don’t think that it will be a situation where from one day the AEC has a cut off date and the next day we see a 25-30% increase; it will gradually grow. If you look globally, and take a closer look at Asia, in the last 15 years only China and India were growing and South East Asia was somewhere left in the middle. This is changing now. It will give another boost to South East Asia to continue to grow.