Cookin MICE!

Flanked by the Kingdom of Tonga and the Samoas to the west, Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia to the east and about four hours northeast of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, the idyllic Cook Islands are not yet on the ‘radar’ of MICE planners in Asia. This is bound to change, however, as an increasing number of business event organisers look east for new and different yet safe and secure destinations. In addition to being safe and sound, the Cook Islands have three important elements in place that are vital in organising a successful business event: outstanding facilities, professional assistance and air access.

While Air New Zealand doesn’t currently operate its own flights to Southeast Asia there are wide body services offered by key codeshare partners that connect the region with Auckland. Air New Zealand schedules at least one daily onward flight to Rarotonga, the main island which is about a quarter the size of Penang. Air New Zealand which has been flying the ‘Coral Route’ linking New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Tahiti since 1951 has a substantial network between Australia and New Zealand.

This is worth noting if you are planning to organise a large-scale function in the South Pacific. Australia and New Zealand have suitable facilities and carrying capacities for major events that could be twinned with post tours in the islands. The Cook Islands are far more suitable as a comfortable venue for boutique business events like small to medium sized corporate meetings and innovative incentives. As well, there are numerous team building options on the main island of Rarotonga and neighbouring Aitutaki. Both islands also contain upmarket retreats for exemplary executives.

“Flexibility and the ability to work together are two strong plus points in favour of the Cook Islands. Everybody is prepared to go that extra mile to make it work,” said Karla Eggelton, Managing Director, Destination Cook Islands, one of a handful of professional MICE organisers in the country. Last year Ms Eggelton’s Rarotonga-based company handled all arrangements from arrival to departure for a group of 65 psychologists from around the world who held a conference/ incentive and then undertook post event touring in the islands.

“We create a variety of events from island nights filled with song, dance and food to a progressive dinner where delegates were able to interact with local people. Delegates had exclusive use of their own boutique villas while we even used a mountain top for deliberations. The idea was to ‘take the sterility out of conferencing’ and present heavy subject matter in a casual environment,” said Ms Eggelton.

While 2006 was the first year we consciously looked at the MICE market we have subsequently directed substantial efforts to developing this lucrative side of the travel market, said Kelly Hansen, Marketing Officer – NZ & Australia, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation (CITC). The active tourism organisation is in the process of producing a dedicated MICE section in its existing destination brochure, said Kura Metuariki, Marketing Officer – UK, Europe and Canada and MICE Representative. The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation is instigating an online training program through its revamped website. During their progression to becoming a certified ‘Cook Islands Specialist’, travel industry personnel including business event organisers will be eligible for incentives such as black pearls and familiarisation trips. The CITC is currently planning “Te Vaka Moe Moea” or Voyages of Dreams, a mega familiarisation set for May 2008 which will introduce travel trade guests to this island nation.
Cook Islands Primer

Named for Captain Cook – though the intrepid explorer never stepped ashore – the Cook Islands have been a self governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand since 1965 when a 65 year long territorial relationship ended. (New Zealand continues to look after matters pertaining to foreign affairs and defence, however.) The New Zealand ‘connection’ gives the islands many sophisticated ‘creature comforts’ that today’s business travellers appreciate and the cordial relationship that remains is reflected in many ways. For instance, over half of the 100,000 tourist arrivals expected by the end of last year will have come from New Zealand. (Australia, on the other hand, will account for just a tenth of the total although this figure will still be the best on record.) Visitors do not require a visa if staying for less than 31 days and holding a valid passport and a return ticket.

English is widely spoken throughout the 15 Polynesian islands that are scattered over two million sq. km of blue Pacific some 3100 km northeast of New Zealand. The land area is a mere 241 sq. km so there’s a lot of water between islands. Health standards are high with no tropical diseases and no worries about food preparation. The New Zealand Dollar is used for transactions. There are also broadband Internet service, satellite TV service and ATMs. Credit cards are also widely used throughout the islands. The latter is a necessity when making ‘impulse’ purchases of wall sized wood carvings or strings of unique black pearls (great incentive gifts) or paying for a gourmet meal in a classy restaurant.

Over 14,000 of the country’s 19,000 people live on Rarotonga with a 32 km hard surfaced ring road encircling the largest island in the group. Views of a stunning blue lagoon, the more distant fringing reef and the endless waves of the Pacific crashing upon it on one side and forest topped volcanic peaks, tiny villages and whitewashed churches on the other side make the hour long journey one to remember.
Newest Convention Facilities

The Crown Beach Convention Centre is the newest MICE facility in Rarotonga having opened in late 2007. Combining a business centre with Avarua is the administrative centre of Cook Island. a kitchen, boardroom and gym, the 60 seat conference venue is certain to boost interest in island meetings, said Rondo Perkins, Managing Director. A sauna is planned for the complex which is a part of the Crown Beach Resort, a select 36 room property set over 4.5 acres of tropical gardens. Fourteen courtyard suites – each with designer Balinese sinks and private plunge pools – that have recently opened will appeal to MICE planners for incentives as well as to corporates looking for intimate retreats, he said.

“There are five boutique properties on Rarotonga in the Kia Orana Hotel Group and each has its own character,” said Louis Enoka, Resorts & Operations Manager. The flagship property for the company which uses the slogan “Experience the Cook Islands with Cook Islanders” is the Manuia Beach which was totally refurbished late last year. With its beachside setting the property is well located for small group incentives and theme parties. The company is also planning to commission its own high speed ferry before mid year. The 130 passenger craft will operate services connecting Rarotonga with outer islands like Aitutaki.

“The Tamanu Beach was one of three prime properties used last year when Karla Eggelton organised the psychologist’s meetings and incentive on Aitutaki, the second island that has been developed for tourism. Offering 12 studio rooms and 10 one bedroom units, this personalised property is more often used for international weddings than MICE functions though we do have business meetings from New Karla Eggelton of Destination Cook Islands provides a hands-on service to clients. Zealand,” said Stuart Henry, Managing Director.

As CEO and Group General Manager, Pacific Resort Hotels, Greg Stanaway is responsible for the profitable operations of upmarket hotels on both islands. Set in 7 acres of gardens, the Pacific Resort Rarotonga has 64 rooms, all of which are being transformed into luxurious suites and villas by the end of next year. This foliagesecluded property gets the bulk of small group conferences. “We’ve had several rather high-end meetings and incentives, however, at the even more intimate Pacific Resort Aitutaki which is the only member in the Cook Islands of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Collection,” he said. The Pacific Resort Aitutaki won the prestigious award as ‘Australasia’s Leading Boutique Hotel’ at the 2007 World Travel Awards held in Bangalore, India at the Leela Palace Kempinski.