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24 Nov, 2023

Make “behavioural change”, former Thai Tourism Minister tells business leaders

Bangkok — Former Thai Minister of Tourism & Sports, Senator Weerasak Kowsurat, one of the country’s most respected industry personalities, says global business leaders will need to make a “behavioural change” if they wish to deal with the twin challenges facing both the natural environment as well as their own business operating environment.

Citing the example of the famous 2018 cave rescue of the Wild Boars team, he said just as that operation was a “race against time,” so, too, is the current situation. “The world is in need of a similar rescue operation today,” he says.

Here is the full text of his speech, well worth reading, and heeding….

Business Events and the New World Order

Keynote address by Senator Weerasak Kowsurat, former Minister of Tourism & Sports, Thailand.

Asian Federation of Exhibition & Convention Associations (AFECA) Asia 20 Business Events Forum

Bangkok, 21 November 2023

สวัสดีครับ and Good afternoon distinguished delegates.

Firstly, allow me to wish you a warm welcome to Bangkok. It is always good to see such a full house especially during these days of uncertainty and volatility. Clearly, our presence here today is a very strong vote of confidence in our country as a destination, and I thank you for that. It is also a strong indicator of the fact that no matter what happens around the world, life has to go on, and business has to continue. And for that, it is absolutely critical for business events, conferences and exhibitions to proceed as normal.

I would also like to thank for inviting me to deliver the Keynote address. You have presented me with quite a challenge. I must confess that I have been away from the MICE sector for several years. I was former Minister of Tourism in 2008 until the change in government caused by the political demonstrations and airport closure. In 2009, the new government asked me to be Chairman of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. In 2018, I was asked to return again as Minister of Tourism. Then there was another change, and 4 years ago I became Senator and Vice Chair of the Senate Standing Committees on Environment, a position I continue to hold until today.

Specifically in the MICE sector, I was appointed chairman of the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau in 2016. Since then, a lot of changes have taken place, especially in the way people operate and do business. I cannot claim any expertise in that area any longer, but I do believe I can draw on my extensive experience in public service to raise a few questions and offer some ideas on how to forge an effective private public partnership in these very demanding and uncertain times.

Distinguished delegates,

Allow me to begin with some historical context.

In 2024 we will mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association and the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau.

Thanks to the efforts of these two organizations, Thailand’s Business Events sector is on a roll. Thailand is very well equipped in terms of both hardware and software. There is an abundance of floor space available right across the entire country to hold all kinds of Business Events. The Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, which originally opened in 1991 for the IMF World Bank meetings, has now been fully renovated and reopened as a world class, state of the art facility.

Our transportation networks provide unimpeded accessibility both to and within the country. New convention centers are opening up nationwide, which not only help distribute income and economic benefits of business events but also allow delegates to take pre- and post-conference tours to neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia easily . Our balanced foreign policy means that people of all nationalities can convene without any sanctions or limitations.

So you have made a good choice in coming to Thailand, and I hope you will also be able to use this for the benefit of your associations and individual clients.

Distinguished delegates,

As we look to the future, and attempt to navigate through the stormy waters, it is important to point out that we are facing two kinds of environmental challenges.

The first is the natural environment, otherwise known as Global Boiling or Climate Change.

The second is the operating environment in which we do business.

Both are interrelated.

For sure, business leaders have to keep up with all the changes in technology, finance, administration and other areas in order to maintain competitive advantage and achieve profitability. However, we can only do business if the natural environment is intact. If our neighbourhood is burning down, so will our business go down too. We saw this in the case of Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, a health pandemic is no different from an economic crisis or a geopolitical disaster. So it is in our interests to maintain the safety and security of both environments. And the core messages I would like to share today is the need to rectify the imbalance in our long-standing approach to these two environments.

We need to shift our focus from being a “business community” to “business for humanity”.

We need to work the 5Ps of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion, and People) with the 5Ps of human survival (People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership.)

Let me elaborate on that.

Perhaps the best example of teamwork and partnership that I have seen in my years of public service was in 2018 in the monumental rescue operation to save the 13 young members of the Wild Boars football team trapped in the Tham Luang cave. This brought together people from all walks of life — foreigners and locals, rich and poor, villagers and technocrats, military personnel and civilians, and many more.

I was the Minister of Tourism and Sports at the time. It was just fascinating to see the collective spirit, the goodwill, the outpouring of prayers and most of all the cheers all over the world when the entire team was rescued safely.

Some very sensitive decisions had to be made. All of them involved high elements of risk. And they had to be converted into action, because every minute was important.

The rescue operation took about three weeks, and held the entire world in nail-biting suspense. Thanks to the combined power of technical expertise, plus the blessings and prayers of people across faiths and beliefs, we pulled it off. It was very gratifying to see the goodwill generated for humanity .

In many ways, the world is in need of a similar rescue operation today.

Firstly, it is important to remember that everyone can contribute in some way or another.

AFECA is a collection of individual businesses which have gotten together to form an association

to defend your interests, provide networking opportunities, do research, etc. Unity in numbers gives the strength to harness the collective power of the individual members to say and do things which individual members perhaps cannot. But if associations fail to do so, they lose their value and start losing members.

When that happens, individual businesses get affected too.

The same applies to both the business environment and the natural environment. Extreme weather is on the rise.

Individually we can only do so much, but collectively we can do a lot.

Which brings me to the second part.

In the last few years, I have become closely involved closely with understanding ecological systems.

Every day, we all wake up to witnessing more and more reports and scientific studies with dire warnings about rising ocean levels, melting of the polar ice-caps, changing of ocean deep overturning currents, bigger forest fires in every continent, oceanic acidification, reduction of bees species from used of pesticides and much more.

Here in Asia , over the past few years, we have been experiencing severe air quality damage and heat index that is climbing nonstop, threatening all life that depends on it .

All this will definitely impact our health and ways of life.

Which means that we have to get involved in doing something, no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem.

I am aware a lot is already being done. But at the same time, it is very important to also challenge conventional wisdoms by raising a few inconvenient questions, for example:

1) Are we sure that the technological solutions we are being sold to are cost-effective and appropriate?

2) Should we look more carefully at who is actually responsible for global warming, air quality and whether those who caused the problem are doing enough to rectify it?

3) Many climate change conferences are held in exotic locations all over the world. What have they achieved? Are we aware of what is being negotiated? Are we aware of the term “shared but differentiated responsibilities?”

4) Rectifying the environmental damage is going to be a hugely expensive affair. Where will the funding come from?

5) How many have heard of a scheme called the “Extended Producer Responsibility”? How can it be adopted in time?

6) Are we doing enough to help local communities reinvent themselves? I have visited many communities in Thailand which are doing so. One community in South Thailand was cutting down coastal mangroves. Now they take people on tours through the mangroves. Same with local communities that once indulged in deforestation for charcoal trading.

7) How many are members of the UN Global Compact. How many leaders even know what that is?

8) Some of you may still recall the 1980s and 1990s when we were supposed to on the threshold of an Asian Century, led by the so-called Asian Tigers. What went right? What went wrong? Did we recognise any mistakes?

Distinguished delegates,

In addition to these inconvenient questions, one of the most important factors in bringing the Covid 19 pandemic under control was the need to make a massive and unprecedented behavioural change, such as getting vaccinated, wearing masks, social distancing, living under curfews and lockdowns.

Addressing the ecological crisis, and many other economic, social and geopolitical problems of this era, will also require “behavioral change”.

Remember those pre-Covid buzzwords, such as “Converting a Crisis into an Opportunity”? Creating a “New Normal”? “Building Back Better?” Well, none of that will happen without behavioural change.

So what better group to make such a behavioural change than business leaders at least through business events, such as this.

Let’s not wait for the complexities of time-wasting legislation about ecological crisis that any lawmaker may finally get it right. Let’s take the initiative ourselves.

One solution could be to conduct a detailed audit of all Business Events. Delegates can be encouraged to use even more public transport, car-sharing schemes.

Food waste can usually be significantly reduced, especially at the cocktail parties and dinners. The thermostats can also be automatically adjusted to optimum temperatures.

I would also like to support Business Events to encourage debate and discussion, especially with our supply chains to adapt and adopt greener practices

Let’s recheck if we have a good list of eco friendly venue selection?

Do we have plan to recycle or reuse all decoration and photo backdrops?

Can we prepare sustainable water stations to replace plastic bottled water?

What about sustainable food & beverages? Locally sourced catering? Can we look into any better compost stations on premises?

Can we ensure Carbon offsetting comes from meaningful sources, such as carbon credits from small and poorer trees growers?

Can we set even tougher waste reduction goals?

Ladies and gentlemen

I would strongly urge us all to start looking into our own rich heritage and indigenous cultures for solutions. Humanity survived and thrived long before industrialisation came along. In fact many of our ways of life, culture and homes were all built around respect for the natural environment.

For sure, going Back to the Future is not going to be easy. Here in Thailand, we are struggling to mainstream the great Sufficiency Economy Philosophy conceptualised by His Majesty the late King Rama 9 the Great. It’s slow, but it’s getting there.

Finally, on a personal note concerning another societal challenge I am passionate about, I would like to appeal to all to promote the welfare of physically challenged people, also known as People With Disabilities. Many of them are in perfect mental state, and very qualified. In this era of working from home, many PWDs are perfectly placed to provide great skills by planting more trees from around their community. Business Events may consider ways to support them to do this.

These images show what happened before and after 5 years of teamwork by this group of 25 PWD in Tak province. (See link below to download accompanying slides).

Isn’t that wonderful?

Reforestation by people who have lost the use of one leg or arm or, in some cases, both legs.

Distinguished delegates,

Let me conclude with another reminder about the Tham Luang cave rescue.

Just like the rescue was a race against time, so too are we racing against time in addressing the environmental crisis. This year already marks the half way point of the current 15-year phase of the SDGs in reaching the goals by 2030. This last September, many conferences were held alongside the UN General Assembly session in New York about the need to accelerate efforts to reach the goals. Sadly, the effort has been complicated by renewed conflict in the Middle East. There is no doubt that will affect the global ability to meet the SDGs. The overall global governance system now appears to be in severe trouble.

The road to extinction tipping points is rapidly coming to an end.

So far, here in Asia, we have been spared. But that could change any time. We have to stay the course. The Business Community has to adopt a new outlook called “Business for Humanity”. If that campaign and project can be started today at the AFECA conference in Bangkok, with a shift in emphasis towards the 5Ps of Human Survival, we will have made a small but very significant step forward.

Once more, I thank the organisers for honouring me with the invitation to speak to you today. I wish you all a fruitful and productive conference.

Thank you and สวัสดีครับ

Click here to download the accompanying slides.