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15 Sep, 2003

France Resumes Post-SARS Marketing Campaigns in Asia

Tourism executives of the world’s top visitor-receiving country last week made a promotional comeback in Asia after a three-year break, indicating renewed interest in attracting the regional outbound market after the SARS-related slump.

With 76 million arrivals a year, a mere 500,000 from all of Southeast Asia is probably nothing for France. But contemporary geopolitical realities have seen the French take a hit in arrivals from North America and the Middle East, and make them look again at Asia to get the numbers up.

In fact, Ms Catherine Oden, the Singapore-based regional director of the French tourist office Maison de la France, says the promotional trip was nearly called off when the SARS scare cut the number of companies which had signed up for the roadshow from 22 to one.

“I had a very difficult time getting it upto 10,” she said.

Between Sept 7-11, this hardy group of 10 hoteliers, ski resorts, regional tourist offices and other products swung through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to raise awareness and talk to travel agents.

Backing them was the French national airline Air France which is gradually rebuilding seat capacity to pre-SARS levels. The airline had cut its daily Paris-Bangkok flights from a 324-seat Boeing 747-400 to a 204-seat Airbus 340, but is now going back to the Boeing as of this month.

It has also put in a promotional business-class fare of 85,000 baht + taxes to any point in Europe until the end of October and another promotion featuring an upgrade to first-class for one sector at a slightly higher fare available until early December.

Ms Oden says that unlike most Asian national tourism organisations, which unilaterally dispense marketing funds, Maison de la France is a joint public-private sector organisation and does not fund any marketing effort unless it receives equivalent funding from an external partner.

This policy, she said, is intended show commitment to the project by all the partners and make them more accountable and efficient in dispensing the funds. A group of Singaporean travel agents have done just that in the form of an Internet promotion, and Ms Oden said Thai travel agents are welcome to do the same.

Ms Oden declined to say how much money is being spent in Southeast Asia, saying it was “too insignificant to warrant a mention.” However, she said money availability would depend on the quality of marketing proposals and ideas received from prospective partners.

About 100,000 Thais visit France a year, with an average length of stay of about three bednights as part of a swing through Europe.

Presentations made by the French roadshow participants showed they had done their homework and were keen to adapt the product to the Asian market. The French are seeking to position the country as a stand-alone destination, using imagery of fine wine, gastronomy, culture and scenery.

Ms Oden said a robust Thai economy is yielding strong growth in incentive travel, especially among pharmaceutical, insurance and automobile companies. The MDLF will be exhibiting at a major regional incentive travel show to be held in Bangkok in November.

One popular notion everyone was keen to dispel was about language problems; nearly all the presenters stressed the presence of English-speaking rank-and-file staff in their establishments, including waiters and ski instructors.

They are also keen to target low-season business. Mr Rene Montgrandi, director of Tourisme Courchevel, an upmarket ski resort, said April was the best time for beginners because it coincided with the Thai school holidays, it was less crowded on the slopes, there was still plenty of snow and the days were longer.

He said agents were being offered 30 % commission to sell ski holidays in April as against the regular commission of 10-15 %.

Ms Clarisse Thiry of Le Meridien Paris hotels said July and August are the best months for Asians to be in the French capital because low levels of business travel during those months mean good room availability and plenty of deals.

The French roadshow closely follows that by the Switzerland Tourist Office and Swiss which held a similar promotion in Bangkok a fortnight ago. The end of the SARS scare and the relative stability of the baht against the Euro are among the factors encouraging outbound travel.

Airline capacity from Europe is also being reinstated, along with an upgraded product. As of October, Swiss is to upgrade its aircraft type to the new 228-seat A340-300 Airbus, with a reconfigured business and first class.

European airlines are hoping that if they can get yields up from the Thai market, they will be able to build a case with their head offices to put more capacity into Bangkok, which will also help inbound tourism.

In view of security concerns, visas are now the only hitch. Travel agents say it is taking longer than usual to get the Schengen visa.

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