Tourism has flourished since Thailand fully reopened in the second half of last year.
For business travel, the sector known as Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) saw a big leap after Thailand hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bangkok, with many hotels getting a boost from this segment.
The Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) and Phuket have been running the bidding process for Specialised Expo 2028, with the aim of driving the economy of the island tourist site through collaboration between the private and public sectors.
Mice has been a major contributor to the hospitality sector in Thailand for years, with spending per trip almost double that of leisure tourists, according to TCEB.
In 2019, the international Mice market generated 93.9 billion baht for Thailand, while domestic Mice earned 107 billion baht.
Total Mice revenue accounted for 3.27% of the country's GDP.
With tourism returning as a major driver of the Thai economy amid expectations of more than 25 million arrivals this year, operators are keen on post-pandemic opportunities in the Mice segment.
ONE MEGA EVENT
Sumate Sudasna, president of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association, said the Mice segment has returned quickly as corporations that suspended trips during the pandemic and are now returning with budgets saved up over three years.
Last year the segment was mostly concentrated in the fourth quarter, partly thanks to the Apec summit in November, which led to many affiliated events alongside it.
Mr Sumate estimates the segment recovered to only 40% of the 2019 level last year.
While many destination management companies are still struggling with manpower shortages, he believes they are capable of coping with the growing pace this year and will be able to urgently hire more casual staff.
Mr Sumate said the main customer for Thailand in the short-haul market is Singapore, where there are a lot of multinational head offices and big corporations.
Meanwhile, long-haul markets include the UK, Australia, the US and Europe, particularly Belgium, where a lot of multinational companies are based.
"Thailand is also attractive for elements not related to meetings, such as food, culture and shopping," he said.
To boost the Mice segment in the long term, Mr Sumate is proposing "One Ministry One Mega Event", where each ministry hosts a national event related to their missions.
For instance, the finance minister could bid for a World Bank conference.
In order to attract expos or mega events, the authorities must be more proactive and provide major organisers with government subsidies, he said.
Mr Sumate also urged the industry to maintain the health and safety standard -- SHA Plus certification -- as well as encourage staff to wear masks in order to increase visitor confidence.
Boonrapee: China more active in Q2
China's reopening this year has changed the trajectory of the global economic recovery, especially the Thai tourism industry, where Chinese tourists accounted for more than 25% of visitors in 2019.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) forecasts at least 5 million Chinese visitors this year, part of a total tally of 25 million foreign tourists.
According to TCEB, China ranked No.1 in the international Mice segment in 2019, comprising 247,660 travellers out of a total of 11 million.
Southern China was one of the regions with the strongest corporate Mice demand, said Boonrapee Damrongrat, director of the TAT Guangzhou office.
Mr Boonrapee said Mice travellers came from various businesses in the Greater Bay Area, such as healthcare, beauty products, direct sales, real estate, and technology.
Restricted by the zero-Covid policy, the number of Chinese Mice visitors arriving in Thailand was not significant last year.
However, some groups arrived from southern China last year, including around 200 employees of Intel Corporation and roughly 400 Huawei staff.
"Incentive groups from Chinese companies preferred large cities -- Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai -- that have flight capacity, convenient catering, good facilities and large venue areas," he said.
Since Covid-19 was downgraded from a pandemic, the greatest demand for incentive trips has come from corporations involved in finance, medicine, education, technology and games, said Mr Boonrapee.
However, there is still demand from old standbys such as direct sales, insurance and beauty, he said.
This year the total number of Mice visitors from China is expected to tally 250,000 people, according to a survey of travel agents, said Mr Boonrapee.
He said many companies are still in a "cautious mode" in the first quarter.
China is allowing tour groups to resume travel to Thailand from Feb 6 and Mr Boonrapee said a small number of Mice visitors could comprise the first arrivals. Larger numbers from big groups are expected from the second quarter.
"Without Covid curbs in China, the outbound Mice segment in that country will usher in a new blowout after a long stagnation," he said.
Tourists lounge on Patong beach in Phuket in a file photo. The TAT forecasts at least 5 million Chinese visitors this year, part of a total estimate of 25 million foreign arrivals.
"Thailand will become the main destination for China's Mice customers because of the short distance, affordable cost of living, and friendly policy towards its citizens."
As Thailand was among the top 10 most popular countries for independent exhibitions outside China over the past decade, Mr Boonrapee said the country should continue to actively participate in international tourism conferences in China, as well as promote Thai cultural content on Chinese social media such as Weibo or TikTok.
TAT said it will continue to innovate by integrating various Thai elements from food, film, and wellness into exhibitions and business conferences, as current trends suggest travellers want more high-quality, unique and personalised tourism.
VENUES AND HOTELS
With the capability to host large-scale exhibitions and conferences, the Impact Exhibition and Convention Center is looking forward to the positive Mice growth.
"We are optimistic overall event and meeting spending will continue to increase in 2023, driven by demand for onsite events," said Loy Joon How, general manager of Impact Exhibition Management.
Impact's marketing and sales strategy this year will focus on both domestic and international events because both are equally important, said Mr Loy.
Impact expects its revenue to recover to two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels this year, he said.
Global surveys show most Mice players expect their revenue to return to pre-pandemic levels in 1-2 years, and Impact is seeing similar trends, said Mr Loy. The company hosted more than 800 in-person events per year before the pandemic.
He said China's reopening should accelerate the business recovery, as Impact was a preferred venue for large Chinese Mice groups in the past.
In addition to high airfares and rising energy costs, a key challenge for the Mice sector is a labour shortage.
"Many Mice companies cannot find qualified workers now that our market is picking up," said Mr Loy, suggesting urgent government initiatives might help.
"The growth of our Mice industry depends on the availability and quality of our manpower."
Along with digital disruptions, the industry needs to adapt, upskill and reskill to keep pace with digital transformations, although he thinks it is unlikely online meetings will replace face-to-face encounters.
Mr Loy suggested the government remove bureaucratic obstacles related to immigration and customs, as well as tackle pollution and traffic problems.
Large hotels are among the key Mice players, as they provide both accommodation and convention halls.
Mice meetings have been gradually picking up for Centara Hotels and Resorts since the third quarter of 2022 for both domestic and international groups, but still remain below pre-pandemic levels, said Centara chief executive Thirayuth Chirathivat.
Mr Thirayuth said the segment contributed roughly 30% of customers for Centara's hotels in 2022.