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27 Aug, 2001

Shinawatra Group Shows Thai MICE Sector How Mobile Phones Can Help

Looking to squeeze some added business out of two once high-flying global industries, travel and telecoms, the Shinawatra group of companies last week moved to boost its profile amongst a key target market: Members of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA).

Group officials who made what several TICA members thought was an unabashed sales pitch at a lunch function denied any link between it and the extensive support that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is lending to the travel industry. However, Mr Allen Lew, COO of Advanced Info Services (AIS) PLC., admitted it was the first time that such a pitch had been made to a broad travel industry audience.

Inbound travel for business, conventions and exhibitions, the promotion of which is TICA’s job, is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Thai travel industry, and certainly the most lucrative.

In 2000, the number visitors who described themselves as coming purely for business totalled 860,786, a nearly 16% rise over 1999. Convention delegates totalled 83,513, up just under 11% over 1999. Among the top-ten sources of both categories of travellers are techno-savvy countries like Singapore, Japan, the US, Malaysia and Australia.

The arrivals growth rate for both those categories of travellers has slowed considerably in the first half of 2001.

Business travellers and meeting/convention delegates need mobile phones and computers for a number of purposes: read email, conduct video conferences, be kept informed of flight delays or changes, etc., Other uses are generic to both leisure travellers and business travellers, such as finding the nearest good Italian restaurant, or getting a taxi, or being told of good deals among shopping centres in the neighbourhood.

In all these areas, the Shinawatra group pitched a product, especially as Mr Lew said, market trends indicate that people are turning to use their mobile phones as a much broader tool for receiving and sending information.

The cost of these services was not immediately disclosed but most of it will be borne not so much by the phone-users but hotels, convention centres and suppliers of other products and services. A lollipop incentive is being offered. For example, one service which will allow visitors to be communicated the precise location of say, a restaurant offering a special lunch menu, will be offered to the restaurant free for six months, after which there will be a charge, yet undisclosed.

There was also a catch. Some of these new bells-and-whistles will not work on the present generation of GSM phones but require an upgrade.

A survey form was handed out listing the services of the Shinawatra companies. This allowed some instant dipstick research about the needs of the convention/exhibition industry and was accompanied by a very obvious sales plug for TICA members to contact the group for further detals.

Many of these techno-services are already in use in countries with more advanced telecommunication systems. Delegates attending conferences abroad can, if they give organisers their mobile phone numbers, be informed of changes in conference schedules or other such last-minute programme adjustments via SMS text messages.

Mrs Joan Sarasin, Managing Director of Professional Convention Organisers, said high-quality technology and telecom systems were indeed becoming critical to win major conventions for Thailand. She cited the big-ticket medical conventions for which live broadcasts of surgery being conducted at a hospital somewhere is becoming standard fare as part of the conference agenda.

However, she said at least three such conventions had been turned down for Thailand because organisers found the costs of conducting such live broadcasts “horrendous” with no guarantee that the telecommunication lines would be able to deliver a high-quality image.

Mr Pipat Patthananusorn, general manager of destination management company Holiday World, said while some of these services would be “nice to have”, the jury was still out on whether they were “need to have.” Nevertheless, he said, it would help broaden the package of services that ground handling companies can offer when pitching for business.

The Shinawatra group got a foot in the TICA door by publishing 100,000 copies of a map of Thailand listing all the major conventions to be held here over the next few years. The glossy, laminated map cost the group two million baht but was given free to TICA which will be distributing 50,000 copies to the TAT and keeping the rest to distribute at international trade shows.

The AIS logo is prominently featured in the map, identifying all the locations where the AIS GSM signal can be picked up nation-wide. AIS is a full member of TICA, has a representative on the membership committee, and earlier contributed one million baht to TICA’s convention promotion fund.

Mr Anuchart Channarong, the TICA executive director, said he understood the feelings of some TICA members that it was too heavy a sales pitch in favour of AIS. However, he said TICA members are keen to learn more about new technologies and if other companies want equal opportunity, something could be lined up for them, even if they are not TICA members.

The government is promoting tourism big-time and has also recently forged a link between Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Department of Export Promotion to push shopping and trade. The government is also moving to set up a dedicated convention promotion bureau to help fill up the huge volumes of exhibition space both currently available and coming up in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and other upcountry provinces.

There is also a market among outbound travellers from Thailand. Mr Lew said there are 3.3 million users of GSM phones in Thailand who could avail of these services both for domestic and foreign travel.

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