More than 1.5 million people are reported to have visited Qatar to watch the matches in the recently-concluded FIFA Football World Cup 2022 in Doha. Surprisingly, or may be not so surprisingly, the second largest share of the visitors hailed from India, that counted for over 56,000 visitors at the end of the group fixtures, almost half way through the tournament.
While quite a few hardcore football fans from various parts of India, notably West Bengal, Kerala and Goa made it to witness the World Cup, a good chunk also came thanks to the booming MICE travel industry in India, as a number of companies sent in their best performing dealers and personnel on an all-paid junket to enjoy the world’s most popular tournament.
And they did not cut any corners and provided lavish facilities to their MICE groups, starting from Business Class tickets to top-notch five star hotels and of course the best seats in the house to watch the matches.
‘‘It was a memorable experience. Watching the Football World Cup match, sitting in a fully-loaded VIP Box, with the best view of the field and with servers catering to all your desires, be it the best wines or whiskies in the world or something to munch on or even a five-course meal !’’ recalls Manjeet Singh of his visit to Doha to watch the FIFA Football World Cup 2022.
Singh, who is an important distributor of spare parts for one of the largest automobile companies in India, travelled to Qatar with a group of about 15 others. And it was not the only group sent in by the company for FIFA World Cup. In all, it sent over 250 persons during the course of four weeks of the tournament.
And sure enough, the auto giant was definitely not the only company rewarding its dealers, distributors or personnel. Dozens of other companies followed suit, indicating the extent of revival of Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism.
And the World Cup host Qatar is not complaining and says that MICE has been a priority area for the destination in order to grow its tourism. ‘‘MICE is a major focus segment for Qatar Tourism, and we are working with corporate clients from all over India, including Delhi NCR, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, among others. Qatar Tourism provides assistance beginning with the recce stage and has a very appealing subvention programme in place for all corporate clients visiting Qatar, which is the most competitive in the market. In addition, we are educating MICE operators across India about the destination through Qatar Specialist Program, MICE and Corporate fam trips. This enables them to comprehend the possibility of using Qatar as a potential destination for upcoming corporate events. While the Indian market is dynamic and ever-changing, our current focus is on market recovery and readiness. The market is already seeing a quick turnaround, and with strategic trade partnerships, incentive programmes, targetted campaigns, and strong on the-ground outreach, we are well positioned to capitalise on the demand,’’ Philip Dickinson, Head of International Markets at Qatar Tourism, tells India Outbound.
MICE has been one of the fastest segments of outbound travel from India to pick up and the revival began almost as soon as the travel restrictions were eased and regular international flights were allowed into India from March 27, 2022. Though no reliable data is available, some travel industry experts say that MICE could account for well over a third of the total outbound travel from India and its share may have been even higher in the year gone by as group travel, another big segment, has not yet kicked off.
“MICE has recovered in a big way, though unequally across its segments. Meetings yes, incentives not so many, conferencing in a big way and exhibitions are already on. So, if you look at MICE as a whole, the business has become big here. Though the air fares are high, you get better hotels and better experiences, so MICE is booming. All destinations are looking at India because it is the most productive market and everyone is coming to India to explore opportunities,’’ Jyoti Mayal, President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), the largest and oldest travel industry body in India, tells India Outbound.
Many companies that send their people or dealers and distributors on MICE have reported a total recovery in their travel. ‘‘We have seen a 100 pc recovery in our MICE travels in 2022. We have already organised several groups in the year and began very early as our first group, of over 350 persons went to Pattaya in Thailand in the month of June, literally days after Thailand eased the entry norms,’’ recounts an official of a large manufacturing firm that sends over 1,500 persons on MICE travels around the world each year.
He says that though Pattaya was still opening up, with only a few shopping malls reopened, the group enjoyed itself due to the relative ease of getting there as well as the facilities and activities for the group to experience.
While shortlisting destinations for MICE travel, the companies or their travel partners look at some key criteria. These range from basic requirements like availability of adequate infrastructure for MICE activities like suitable event space and corresponding high class hotels in the area to the range of activities that can be undertaken by the group after the business meetings. The other parameters, which are also equally determinant, include budgets, the flight connectivity and the travel time as well as ease of accessibility in terms of visa.
Established players build on strengths
A few destinations stand out for their offer and their popularity in the Indian market. And they mainly lie in Asia, with Singapore, Thailand, and Dubai, having been long-time favourites of Indian MICE travel organisers as they tick most of the boxes in terms of what the Indian corporates look for. No wonder then that MICE travel to these destinations has picked up robustly in 2022.
“Right now, South East Asia and the Middle East are prominent and so is Turkiye. Vietnam is also doing well with MICE and on the long haul Australia has also seen good numbers. So basically, all the countries where visas are not a challenge are booming, but traffic to Europe and North America has been hit big time,’’ Riaz Munshi, President, Outbound Tour Operators Association of India (OTOAI) tells India Outbound.
Singapore has been one of the earliest beneficiaries of the revival of outbound travel. ‘‘India has been a very important MICE source market for Singapore, especially in the Meetings & Incentives (M&I) space. We are happy to welcome a strong rebound of M&I travel in 2022 from India to Singapore with M&I groups ranging from small to very large size and from across various industries like pharmaceuticals and finance. Most notably, we welcomed two of the largest M&I groups post Covid-19 in September 2022, from India’s finance and multilevel marketing sectors with a group size of more than 2,400 passengers and 3,000 passengers respectively,’’ G B Srithar, Regional Director of Singapore Tourism Board, tells India Outbound.
Another destination that has emerged very strongly on the radar of Indian MICE travel is Turkiye. The country reported very large MICE groups from India, numbering over 1,000 passengers, in 2021 and again in November 2022. According to a press statement, Thomas Cook (India) was the official travel partner for the MICE group whose 6-day trip covered Turkiye’s two most popular cities, Istanbul and Antalya, where the guests were hosted for three days each. Thomas Cook, which is India’s largest tour operator, says that Turkiye is one of the most popular choices for Indian MICE groups.
“Post reopening of borders and easing of protocols, Turkiye is reemerging strongly as a top MICE destination for our corporates in India. I am delighted that we were quick to deliver with a mega group of almost 1,000 delegates for a 6-day programme across Istanbul and Antalya. Our MICE Products Team handpicked vibrant experiences for their team bonding activities, including the high adrenalin rush of canyoning, rafting and ziplining across Europe’s longest (1960 metres) and world’s highest (410 metres),’’ says Meera Charnalia, Senior Vice President and Head, MICE, Thomas Cook (India).
“Singapore continues to be one of the top-of-mind destinations for M&I travel among Indian corporates, post-Covid-19. Flight connectivity is fully restored to pre-Covid-19 level, with Singapore now connected to 16 cities across India through direct flight connections and the latest being Pune-Singapore connection. Cruising out of Singapore with port-of call itinerary has also seen a good uptake by Indian corporates with a combination of land programme and gala event in Singapore. The Meetings & Incentives groups seek variety of experiences, convenience of movement and quality customer service. The city’s ability to offer varied accommodation options, unique venues for gala, awards and celebration events, a hassle-free environment and a concentration of exciting leisure experiences makes it a popular destination with Indian M&I groups,’’ adds Srithar.
Another country that has been a strong MICE player in India is Germany, thanks to its extensive list of world’s largest trade fairs for a wide variety of business sectors, which makes the country one of the top destinations for business travel from India and that demand is now picking up robustly again.
According to Romit Theophilus, Director, German National Tourism Organisation, India, Germany has a longstanding tradition of being one of the most popular MICE destinations. ‘‘But what makes Germany a unique destination is its world famous “Gemütlichkeit”, great connectivity, proximity to nature, cosmopolitan outlook and traditions for hospitality and foremost the country’s excellent MICE infrastructure. Many of our cities in Germany has recently shared exciting news about new hotels, venue openings as well as great events awaiting visitors in 2023 and beyond,’’ Theophilus tells India Outbound.
“We are seeing a very positive trend in the first quarter of 2023 in terms of MICE movement, which is a very positive indication that the situation is turning to normal. During the past two years of the pandemic, we have worked tirelessly with our partners in Germany and the Indian travel trade to prepare for a successful restart. The current strength for us still remain trade fairs and multi-country group travel comprising 8-10 countries in 12-15 days. In Europe, Germany is the most preferred destination for incentives, amongst the cities, Munich and Berlin continue to be amongst the top favourites, with these cities becoming very popular for MICE visits,’’ he says.
Though their numbers may not be as large as Thailand, Dubai or Singapore, two more countries are among the old hands at targetting MICE tourism in India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka plays on its proximity as well as diversity of natural settings, South Africa has many cities, fully equipped not just to host very large MICE groups, but also offer some of the most unique experiences that attract corporate clients by dozens.
For South African Tourism, MICE travel from India is one of the most critical segments as almost 1 in 5 visitors from India to South Africa is a MICE traveller. Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head – MEISEA, South African Tourism says that South Africa is the ultimate MICE travel destination.
‘‘South Africa is where many worlds collide, where business meets leisure, where travellers can look at hosting unique events in the midst of the South African bush or embark on a thrilling luxury Big 5 safari with your team or hold meetings overlooking spectacular vineyards. The opportunities are endless! In fact, 41 pc of Indian visitors to SA are motivated by MICE and business travel, out of which MICE alone attracts 18 pc of Indian travellers! We are optimistic that this number will only increase in 2023!’’ Nkani tells India Outbound.
Nkani lists the key USPs of South Africa as a preferred MICE destination, despite the absence of a direct flight from India and emphasises that with convenient connections from the Gulf, it is already receiving a good flow of tourists, including MICE from India since the market reopened in late March 2022. ‘‘We believe that we a have a winning combination that will continue to propel our growth in this segment, a favourable currency exchange, diverse cuisine including numerous vegetarian and Indian options, hi-tech and large venues and inventory. Additionally, various experiences across wildlife, adventure and breathtaking views as well as attractions for shopping and night life along with a wide variety of graded accommodation makes South Africa a preferred MICE destination for Indian organisations,’’ she says.
South Africa has already seen a revival of MICE travel, Nkani says, adding that the destination saw high interest as well as a huge demand for visas in 2022 and enquiries for 2023. ‘‘We had multiple groups who travelled to South Africa. We also received long lead enquiries from group sizes varying from 2,000 to 4,000 especially from the financial, information technology, beauty, insurance, coal and mining, pharmaceutical, entertainment and sporting sectors in India,’’ she says.
The MICE market has expanded beyond conferences and trade shows, she says. ‘‘We witnessed amped up interest from Indian corporates for meetings and conferences. In the first quarter of 2022, we hosted over 220 corporates in Mumbai and Delhi to experiential dinners and brought the destination alive by introducing the sights, sounds and tastes of South Africa to Indian business and entertainment houses. With performances by South African dance troupes, indigenous music, delectable food cooked by South African chefs and various culturally immersive activities, we were successfully able to engage with corporates keen on hosting events in South Africa,’’ she says.
In addition, as part of its outreach in India, South African Tourism also hosted Indian buyers at the 2022 edition Meetings Africa, the biggest trade show for the business events industry in Africa, in Johannesburg. Additionally, the tourism bureau also hosted travel trade and media for INDABA in May 2022.
The Emerald Island, Sri Lanka, has also been one of the more established players in India, banking on its proximity lying as it does barely a couple of hours away, its diverse but compact offering in terms of landscapes and of course its affordability, overall. Sri Lankan government set up Sri Lanka Convention Bureau in 2005, to position Sri Lanka as Asia’s most sought after venue for MICE tourism. And India, which has for long been its most significant market, has been generating traffic for the country ever since it reopened, says SLCB Chairman Thisum Jayasuriya. ‘‘We had a number of Indian corporates as well as associations inquiring and materialising over the 2022. The year 2023 is even more promising with a number of inquiries coming through daily,’’ he says.
Jayasuriya says that Sri Lanka has a variety of activities that interest the Indian visitors. These include golfing, nightlife, entertainment, shopping, wildlife safaris, whale watching and casinos. ‘‘Team building activities are also key, especially for incentive groups. Sri Lanka as a destination is ready to cater for all the requirements of the Indian MICE market. A majority of South Indians are interested in cooler climate of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya with lush tea gardens or sun and sea within a few hours of travel,’’ he adds.
‘‘In comparison to other places such as Dubai and Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka has something unique to offer. Sri Lanka can provide a holistic MICE and leisure experience,’’ he says.
New players eye opportunities
It is not just the established players that have gotten into the act, the segment is attracting many others. Well before the pandemic had struck the world of travel, the significance of MICE travel in India had become evident to a large number of destinations around the world and which were all pitching in to get a slice of this lucrative market. Now, as the markets reopen, the newcomers have doubled down on their efforts to attract Indian MICE groups.
“There are many countries that are wooing us constantly. I was in Kazakhstan recently and Almaty is doing a lot of conferences and weddings and in some ways. Maldives and Dubai have always been looking at India, now Saudi Arabia is also interested and so is Qatar as they have a lot of new infrastructure in place. Countries in close proximity are doing well, but not many are going to Europe due to the visa problems over there. So the countries that are not flexible on visas will suffer, but all other countries are going for the Indian market. Look at Sri Lanka, despite their economic situation they are proactively wooing India, and so is Nepal, which has set up new facilities exclusively for conferences,’’ says Mayal of TAAI.
From Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in Eurasian region to Bahrain and Qatar in the Gulf, the list of the countries is immense. Most of the new players are pitching their novelty, ease of travel as well as cost competitivity as their USPs to attract the Indian travellers.
Several destinations also flaunt their experience in handling large-scale events and their modern event spaces as well as large, luxurious hotels able to handle any kind of demand volume and cater to a global audience.
Azerbaijan has been focused on India for the past few years, even during the height of Covid-19 pandemic, when it kept up its engagement with the Indian market through various activities, most of them in the virtual world. And as a result, as soon as the market reopened last year, Azerbaijan hit the ground running.
Azerbaijan attracts Indian MICE groups with high-end hotels, well equipped venues, direct flights easy visa process, safe environment, fine dining of delicious local and Indian cuisine. Such combination of all the essentials needed for MICE events requires can be all found in the capital Baku. Azerbaijan Tourism says that a good infrastructure, touristic attraction, unique architecture and dynamic energy of the city makes it even more attractive and suitable for MICE events which usually aim to combine business and leisure.
Bahruz Asgarov, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Azerbaijan Tourism Board is a frequent visitor to India for his mission of promoting the destination in India. He says he has been paying special attention to MICE and destination weddings as part of his mission and taken several steps to achieve the objectives.
‘‘One of the biggest steps on our way to success in hosting large-scale events was the establishment of the Business Events Industry Alliance that ensures stronger collaborations with local stakeholders who support us in organisation of business events. This alliance is created to bring together partners from all across the industry, including events venues, hotels, special venues for the gatherings, Professional Congress Organisers and Destination Management Companies. Within the alliance, all the industry stakeholders can come together to share and exchange their experiences. We believe that such a format of constant learning and communication among local partners can enhance the quality of the events planning and organisation,’’ Asgarov tells India Outbound.
Asgarov says with direct flights from two key metros, Mumbai and Delhi, getting to Azerbaijan has become easier as has getting a visa, for which Indian citizens need to apply for an e-VISA through evisa.gov.az at least three days before their planned arrival date to Azerbaijan. ‘‘Such effortless and quick e-visa procedure makes Azerbaijan closer than ever,’’ Asgarov emphasises.
Across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan lies Kazakhstan, which is also trying to position itself as a tourism destination for Indian market and is mainly eyeing the MICE and destination weddings market, just like Azerbaijan.
According to Talgat Amanbayev, Chairman of Kazakh Tourism National Company, India is already the sixth largest market for Kazakhstan after the United States in terms of arrivals. According to official data, about 32,500 Indian tourists visited Kazakhstan in 2019 and the average number of overnight stays was 2.4 days. Amanbayev says that tourism is recovering after Covid-19 and in the first nine months of 2022, 16,314 Indians visited Kazakhstan, 52 pc more than the total arrivals in 2021.
Kazakhstan’s claims as a MICE destination also received a significant boost when two important organisations, Travel Agents Association of India, the country’s oldest and largest group of tour operators, as well as YPO India, a grouping of young entrepreneurs, chose it as the venue for holding their meetings. ‘‘In addition, we are also seeing great growth in such segments as corporate events and incentives from India,’’ Amanbayev tells India Outbound.
He is quick to reel off reasons as to why Indian MICE visitors should look at his country. These include direct flights to Delhi and visa-free entry for Indian visitors, along with a wide geographic and climatic variety and abundant choice of Indian food.
Though it is relatively new on the market, Bahrain has big plans to tap the Indian MICE market. It is now armed with the most modern and well-equipped Exhibition World Bahrain (EWB) which was inaugurated in November 2022. According to Maryam Toorani, Director of Marketing and Promotion, Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA), it is a stunning piece of architecture that embraces the rich Arabic art and culture within its design.
Toorani says that the EWB comes with exceptional versatility in design with a variety of space configurations that are perfect for special events, gala events, banquets, corporate launches, concerts, and exhibitions. It has 95,000 sqm of exhibition space spread across 10 halls. It also has a grand hall with a capacity ranging from 400 to 4,000 people, 95 meeting rooms, 20 translation booths, 14 organisers’ offices and 25 dining, drinking, and shopping options. It also other facilities like chorus and dressing rooms and bridal suites.
‘‘Bahrain is the ideal choice for Indians searching for a global MICE location, particularly one in the Middle East, owing to its tranquil atmosphere, hospitable locals, and world-class opulent properties. It is a melting pot of cultures, and it is brimming with attractions and experiences for MICE travellers to explore. There is a plethora of accommodation options available in Bahrain ranging from budget friendly to high end villas. Apart from indoor banquets there are multiple standalone venues in Bahrain which cater to MICE movements. One such popular venue is the Bahrain International Circuit and go karting as a team building activity,’’ Toorani tells India Outbound.
Preparing for 2023
Optimism about a stronger than ever performance in the year 2023 is shared by practically all the destinations and each has lined up its own series of intensive and extensive activity in India, reaching out to the trade through various interactions and across the breadth of the country. Most destinations are not content to rest in the key metro cities and are already implanted in the Tier II cities or planning to go there in the year ahead.
“There is a huge potential of outbound MICE from all over India as all companies would like to take their stakeholders to different parts of the world as travel is the best way to motivate and incentivise their staff. Going forward, I see a good growth for the sector,’’ OTOAI’s Munshi says.
Srithar says that far from resting on its laurels, Singapore Tourism is constantly working to stay ahead of the field, by introducing innovations and also being engaged with the source markets to stay abreast of the changing preferences and demands.
‘‘Singapore’s MICE industry is forward-thinking and will continue to strengthen its position as the Global-Asia node for high quality business events and a thought-leader for MICE innovation. With the post-pandemic resumption of international travel, the India outbound MICE movement is seeing a strong resurgence in demand. The STB is proactively seeking out and pitching Singapore to Indian corporates and MICE planners for their next MICE movement in 2023 and 2024. Our consistent corporate cultivation and MICE planner engagement efforts are paying off. We have built a good pipeline of corporate group movements from India for 2023. While most groups are from the key metro cities, we are also seeing good demand from corporates that are based in other cities pan-India. We look forward to entrenching India as one of the top source markets for MICE travel to Singapore in 2023 and beyond,’’ says Srithar.
Germany, too, has a calendar-full of activities and is trying to tap new source cities as well. ‘‘Based on our regular interactions with the agents through virtual meetings and events we participated last year, we will list out Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Tier 3 cities as major drivers for MICE into Europe,’’ says Theophilus.
Azerbaijan, on its part says all of its activities are directed to increase sales and awareness about Azerbaijan. These include organising media fam trips, roadshows, seminars, exhibitions and presentations. The board will also attend the two major shows in India, SATTE in New Delhi and OTM in Mumbai in February. ‘‘We also aim to continue our collaborations with different media platforms and magazines in India exchanging news and experiences. Such constant collaborations allow us to keep the dynamics and inform our Indian audience regarding the latest news and useful travel information,’’ says Asgarov.
Sri Lanka has identified New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Pune, and Kolkata as the main cities focused for MICE tourism for 2023. Sri Lanka Convention Bureau is also organising its own dedicated Sri Lanka MICE Expo in Colombo in March where Indian travel trade and corporates would be the key focus.
‘‘The enhanced air connectivity between the two counties also will shape the contribution to increase the MICE traffic in 2023. Currently, SriLankan Airlines, Air India and IndiGo are operating flights to Colombo. Since. December 2022, Alliance Air has started operations from Chennai to Jaffna flights, and we expect that would provide an immense opportunity to develop the Jaffna region for MICE tourism,’’ says Jayasuriya of SLCB.
Besides participating in key travel shows in India, South African Tourism is also holding its annual Roadshow across several Indian cities and the second edition of its experiential consumer activation in New Delhi. ‘‘These trade, corporate and consumer activations will showcase the destination’s new and diverse offerings in the run up to the 30-year anniversary of SA-India bilateral ties. Travelling to the Indian cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai, the tourism board will showcase its products and services while actively engaging and networking with the Indian travel and trade associates. The tourism board will also engage with corporate and business groups for meetings and conferences in South Africa,’’ says Nkani.
Amanbayev of Kazakh National Tourism Company has set ambitious targets for his country in the year ahead. ‘‘We expect the MICE segment from India to double in size. This is evidenced by our observations and the work done on the market through participation in exhibitions and other types of promotion. Due to the fact that direct flights between our countries were carried out between Delhi and Almaty, the main segment of the events, of course, was Delhi. But recently, the national company Air Astana and Vistara have entered into an alliance through which we can already attract events from other cities in India. This year we also aim to attract a new segment like weddings. Kazakhstan, as a more developed country in the region, can offer this segment new and unique offers,’’ Amanbayev explains.
Bahrain too is putting special emphasis on expanding its share of MICE slice in India, partly due to its year-round nature. ‘‘MICE groups are significant to us since they produce revenue all year round. MICE groups bring in a good amount of revenue into the country and this also supports the local business in the country The India market has enormous potential for outbound MICE tourism to Bahrain, thus in the upcoming months, our focus will be on leveraging this lucrative travel segment,’’ says BTEA’s Toorani.
‘‘While the other travel segments are of key importance to the destination, our focus in the next year will be to promote Bahrain in a way to attract the MICE segment. India is a key source market for Bahrain for outbound MICE groups. The main source cities for us would be the Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities along with the key metro cities,’’ she adds.
“Outbound MICE has been the fastest growing segment within the outbound travel market in India. Incentive travel contributes to 70 pc of that growth. It is interesting to know that surveys predict that the outbound MICE tourism sector in India would reach USD 9 billion by 2025, this makes the Indian market one of the most important MICE markets for Bahrain,” says Toorani.
With the FIFA World Cup behind it and as it looks towards reaching its target of 6 million tourists by 2030, Qatar is also proactively courting the MICE travel segment in India. Dickinson says that his team is working with corporate clients from all over India, including Delhi NCR, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, among others.
‘‘Qatar Tourism provides assistance beginning with the recce stage and has a very appealing subvention programme in place for all corporate clients visiting Qatar, which is the most competitive in the market. While the Indian market is dynamic and ever-changing, our current focus is on market recovery and readiness. The market is already seeing a quick turnaround, and with strategic trade partnerships, incentive programmes, targetted campaigns, and strong on-the-ground outreach, we are well positioned to capitalise on the demand,’’ he says.
For the automobile giant that sent numerous groups for FIFA, the experience turned out to be above par and the company says it may add Qatar to its regular MICE destinations. That’s a trophy that Qatar would definitely want to retain for many years to come.