This summer, Prevue joined 130 buyers and suppliers in the Riviera Maya for Torchbearers 2013. Next year’s event will be in Bermuda, and then everyone heads back to one of the European destinations in 2015, expected to be confirmed this fall. In one form or another, the event has taken place for 20 years in either North America or Europe. This year, European suppliers included representatives from the UK, Monaco, Ireland and Switzerland.
“This is an important and somewhat unique event within the high-level meetings and incentive industry,” says Charles Massey, CMP, organizer of Torchbearers. “It’s a business-to-business marketplace where actual business is written.”
The event is unique because buyers have so much time to build relationships with the DMOs, DMCs and hotels.
Equally instrumental in Torchbearer’s success, Michael Zaretsky is program manager. He says, “I’ve been involved in this business for going on 30 years, and the core of the high-end meeting and incentive business is always, and has always, been based on relationships.”
Speaking with many suppliers, I was overwhelmed by how effusive everyone was in their assessment of group bookings heading into 2014/15. Last year I noticed a definite upswing, but this year seemed like the cap on the comeback.
“There is definitely a return to Europe as consumer confidence and budgets increase,” says Massey.
LONDON & PARTNERS
“It’s even more optimistic than that, it’s almost like America is running back to Europe,” says Chris Lynn, vp sales/marketing for North America at London & Partners. “And it’s not a case of cabin fever, it’s about getting back to business.”
Spurring demand, exchange rates have shifted and the pound is now closer to the euro. Lynn cites the London Olympics as another major catalyst, complemented with a stellar array of new hotels and facilities built for the Games.
The Shard is Europe’s newest iconic building, housing the Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard on its upper floors. The new ME London is the city’s hippest hotel, conceived by Foster + Partners, who were also commissioned to design the interior space. According to Lynn, the Shangri-La is the final piece of the puzzle for the 20,000 rooms planned previous to the Games.
“And we’ve just announced another 20,000 rooms,” he says. “What’s different is that ‘affordable luxury,’ if you will, is no longer the stalwart term for 3- and 4-star hotels. Now you can actually talk about the value proposition in the luxury sector because companies are demanding it.”
Next up, Nobu and Armani hotels are presently under development. Starwood Hotels is building a 500-room collection of hotels at Olympic Park. And, Lynn says, “Our hotel restaurants have almost as many Michelin stars as Paris.”
I bring up the fact that there’s been a lot of work also on existing buildings, including some signature London landmarks like St. Ermin’s Hotel, which just joined the Autograph Collection.
“We certainly shouldn’t forget what we already have, it’s not just about what’s new,” says Lynn. There’s been a lot of restoration—not renovation—keeping up with the competition. Like The Mayfair for example, which has been home to London Fashion Week for multiple years.”
During Torchbearers, there was a great cooperation between all of the destinations and suppliers represented in the UK, and discussion about how planners can create split programs easily to add a lot of ROI to any event.
“It really shows the teamwork that exists within our destination, with England, Scotland and London working together,” sums up Lynn. “There are many solutions in there where you can stay within the United Kingdom to create a London/England split or London/Scotland split.”
Two blockbuster movies last year provided serious marketing firepower for Scotland. The last half of the Bond film “Skyfall” showed a dreamy vision of the Scottish Highlands, while Pixar’s “Brave” instilled Scottish lore in the hearts of both youngsters and their parents.
“Mr. Disney spent $350 million promoting my country, thank you very much, a great job all around,” says Richard Knight, marketing manager North America for Visit Scotland Business Tourism.
Knight also pointed out that CNN anointed Scotland the world’s #1 desired travel location in 2013, based on its value and bucket list credentials. That, he explains, is something that provides a lot of traction for U.S. planners.
“In 2009, the incentive market dropped off the planet, it wasn’t a good time,” says Knight. But due to Scotland’s inherent high value, he says association business has remained strong. Corporate clients are coming back also, but everyone still has a sharp eye on their budget.
“When we’re talking with our corporate clients, they’re saying, you know what, we’ve had a tough time and we’ve laid a lot of people off,” explains Knight. “But the people we’ve kept on have had to work doubly hard. It is now okay to reward them for that work. We can look at going on international programs again, but we remain a little bit cautious and you better believe we want value for money.”
Some of the most popular group events Knight recommends as high-impact, high-ROI programs in Edinburgh include cocktails and dining inside rarefied settings like the Queen’s decommissioned Britannia yacht, a 400-year-old castle, and the historic law library near Parliament in the old city. With kilts, preferably.
While Edinburgh remains most popular for high-end incentives, planners are visiting Aberdeen and Inverness in the northern Highlands, home to the highest number of scotch distilleries.
Adding to the draw, Donald Trump and local pro golfer Paul Lawrie are turning the area into Europe’s next serious golf destination, not too far from the world’s oldest golf destination in St. Andrews.
“There are 13 championship golf courses in St. Andrews, a beautiful town where royal couple William and Kate met, and the 5th oldest English speaking university in the world,” says Knight. “And with the pound moving from $2.1 in 2009 now to $1.5 to the pound, it’s almost like the activities portion is free of charge compared to four years ago.”