Laidback Laos Looks to Actively Attract MICE

This former French protectorate is utilising its colonial heritage, stunning scenery and increasingly sophisticated facilities in a bid to capture greater corporate attention.

Compared to neighbouring heavyweights Thailand and China, the Laotion People’s Democratic Republic is a true tourism newcomer. The landlocked and predominantly mountainous South East Asian country constructed its first purpose-built convention centre in 2003, hosted its first major international conference in 2004 and topped the million tourist arrival mark for the first time in 2005.

Even though Laos doesn’t have a lengthy track record organising major MICE events in modern venues, there’s nothing second rate about the first-class facilities accessible in Vientiane, the 195,000 -strong capital of the Laotion People’s Democratic Republic. Constructed at a cost of US$7.5 million by Thai businessman Peter Chan, the Lao International Trade Exhibition and Convention Centre (Lao-ITECC) was blueprinted with flexibility in mind with seven seminar rooms suitable catering for 30 to 100 delegates and the main convention hall seating up to 2,000 participants.

These features used by delegates attending the 24th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Travel Forum and 10th ASEAN Summit in 2004 are complimented by a 30,000 sq. m indoor exhibition hall. An additional 20,000 sq. m is available for outdoor exhibitions and events.

Integrated into the multi-use complex that includes a food court, bowling centre and supermarket, the Lao – ITECC also has two theatres with 6 m by 10 m screens. Suited for groups up to 300 members these amenities can be booked for customised corporate presentations.

Before or after proceedings organise corporate city tours to include places of architectural excellence like the Ho Pra Keo Museum which contains priceless Buddhist sculpture and artefacts. The museum looks like a temple because it was built in 1565 by King Sayasetthathathirath as his personal place of worship. Directly opposite is Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest remaining temple. Make sure your clients have time for bargaining in the cavernous Morning Market before they head back to the Lao – ITECC.

MALAYSIAN EXPERTISE

The only dedicated convention centre in Vientiane, indeed all of Laos, is low rise and so is the skyline of the low-key capital. I discovered that the sole exception is the 14-storey Malaysian built Don Chan Palace, the city’s first international standard 5-star hotel. The 240 room property which has commanding views of the Mekong River – a bonus as spectacular sunset banquets can be staged on the terrace – hosted more than 50 MICE events last year, Ben Cheok, Director, Don Chan Palace, told Mice in Asia.

This year has also been busy in the hotel’s 16 meeting and conference rooms. The largest of these, the Grand Convention Hall, seats 1,000 delegates for meetings and 1,200 for theatre-style banquets. “In July we had a major event in our hotel celebrating the 30th year relationship between Laos and Vietnam,” said Mr Cheok. “Before the end of the year, the Don Chan Palace will have welcomed delegates to many MICE functions including the Lao National Tourism Administration-sanctioned Ecotourism Laos Fair and the Franco Phonnie Summit. Representatives from 68 French speaking countries are registered to attend this conference scheduled for November”.

After formal sessions have concluded delegates can continue to make the ‘big decisions’ while relaxing on the capital’s two 18 hole golf courses. The Lao Youth Garden Golf course is a 15 minute drive from the Don Chan Palace. Most players agree that the greatest test on the first international standard course in the country is the 4th hole. This challenge is long at 533 yards and has trees in the fairway that swallows up balls but never spits them out!

TEE OFF WITH A ‘BUFFALO’

There is another place to chase little white balls. The only disadvantage of considering the Dansavanh Golf & Country Club is that it’s a 50 km, one hour drive beyond the golden temple spires of Vientiane. Such a handicap recedes into insignificance, however, when your golf group arrives at a resort course with
a palpable ‘wow’ factor.

Back dropped by the thickly forested Phou Kao Kwai (Buffalo) Mountains, the four year old golf course is an integral component of the Dansavanh Nam Ngum Resort. This Malaysian owned holiday complex features a 200 room hillside hugging hotel, the country’s only 24 hour casino and boat excursions on Nam Ngum Lake, the ‘Lake Geneva of Asia’.

This large body of water is not visible from the course though there are many spots where golf balls can go for a swim as water comes into play on 13 of the 18 holes. My favourites are the 414 yard water influenced uphill romp at the 6th and the deceptively attractive 17th. The stream in front of the final resting place for this 480 yard hole creates the illusion of playing to an island green.

Your clients will still be talking about a great game in a picture perfect setting as they are driven back to Vientiane in time for the next meeting. The Lao Plaza Hotel is another venue of choice for planning conferences, banquets and meetings with this centrally located property able to accommodate 500 guests in its Vientiane Grand Ballroom. Smaller rooms that support groups from 25 to 80 also offer the latest equipment from LCD projectors and wireless microphones to a multi channel infrared language distribution system.

A spokesman for the Lao Plaza said that the hotel’s high-tech equipment and banqueting expertise assisted in securing conferences and meetings. Last year the hotel hosted three international conferences which attracted 50 to 100 delegates each and 10 regional ASEAN meetings that drew 30 to 50 delegates.

With a population base nearing the 600 million mark the vast ASEAN arena is a region to be reckoned with though there is a varying level of development between member nations. Laos is a case in point when it comes to air access. Thai Airways International has a morning jet flight linking Bangkok and Vientiane while the boutique carrier Bangkok Airways connects Bangkok with Luang Prabang and the emerging southern Laos eco tourism and cultural destination of Pakse. Lao Airlines does not have air links beyond a handful of ASEAN neighbours including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam plus Kunming, China

WORLD HERITAGE LISTED LUANG PRABANG

In addition to its international network Lao Airlines has a domestic service that shuttles visitors to selected places around the country. The most popular tourist destination and a must inclusion on any post conference tour is Luang Prabang. Cradled by forested mountains and straddling an idyllic isthmus washed by two rivers, Luang Prabang, has been called the “Shangri-la of Laos.” The charm goes well beyond a scenic setting because this World Heritage listed town, a 35 minute flight from Vientiane, is studded with centuries-old architectural and cultural treasures.

There are more than 30 wats, or temples, to be found in the easy-to-navigate town including one on top of Mount Phousi, a 150 metre high rocky outcrop dotted with sacred shrines. Phousi’s summit provides a sweeping panorama over a traditional town often rated as the prime destination in the Lao PDR.

Though the French left the landlocked land of Laos after granting independence in 1954 their legacy is still seen. For instance, mansions and villas that once belonged to the French have been restored and now serve as gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels. These are exceptionally busy during the high season which extends from October 1 to April 30. It’s particularly important to ensure that accommodation for convention delegates and incentive groups is confirmed well in advance.

One corporate retreat and incentive destination in demand throughout the year is La Résidence Phou Vao. Set over three frangipani-flocked hectares, the intimate 34 room hotel incorporates the first luxury spa in Luang Prabang. After a relaxing session based on traditional Lao herbal treatments organise for your premium clients to be treated to a one-off candlelit dinner with mountain views and traditional Lao music. And then prepare to receive endless compliments!