Associations considering meetings and conventions in Asia will find good value-- and excellent venues.

A single word describes what associations considering Asia will find: deals. "Currency devaluation, a cause of economic hardship for much of the region, has turned Asia into a bargain for long-haul visitors," says Rosvi Gaetos, secretary general of the Asian Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.

Hotel chains are offering meeting groups substantial discounts into 2000 and beyond. "Everyone has become much more flexible, and prices have come down further than they were a year ago," states Richard White, director of sales, North America, Hyatt International.

On the other hand, conference centers specializing in meetings of fewer than 75 attendees have seen steady occupancies, says Tom Cole, vice president, Southeast Asia Division, for Benchmark Hospitality International. "People tend to conference more in times of trouble than when times are good," he says. As a result, Benchmark has reduced prices 10 to 18 percent at its Singapore center.

As 2000 dawns, here is an overview of some of Asia's most popular meeting destinations.

China Between Beijing's historical importance and Shanghai's emergence as the financial capital of the East, China is achieving significant meeting and incentive status. "Shanghai . . . is fast becoming recognized as one of the most dynamic new destinations," says Brendan Inns, director of marketing, Grand Hyatt, Shanghai. The city's new, world-class convention center hosted the prestigious Fortune 500 Global Forum in September.

Another reason for China's emerging importance is its "can-do" mentality, according to Marko Podkubovsek, president of Networld Inc., a destination management company based in Parsippany, N.J.

As a key participant in the Destination China luxury consortium, Networld is North American sales agent for Air China, the airline of the People's Republic of China. It is also the North American sales agent for Kingsway Incentives, the first privately owned DMC in China.

Hong Kong Midnight July 1, 1997, marked the beginning of Hong Kong's new status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. This "one country, two systems" arrangement means that Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy while maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit that has made it Asia's most popular single travel destination, with nearly 10 million visitors in 1998.

Still, though its currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar, it has not escaped Asia's financial woes. "Hong Kong is still very much a bargain, and given the current economic situation, everybody is very much in a negotiating mood," says Mark Barrett, until recently the Chicago-based director, U.S.A and Canada, for the Hong Kong Incentive and Convention Travel Bureau.

Shaken by a 27 percent drop in conference and exhibition business and a 35 percent drop in per capita spending in the first half of 1998, Hong Kong has launched a meeting marketing incentive called Hong Kong Value Plus, with up to 50 percent off accommodations through 2001 at 40 major hotels, and 30 percent off during the high season months of May, September, October, and November.

Other features include 30 percent to 40 percent savings at Hong Kong's two major exhibition venues, specially designed souvenirs for overseas participants, airport signage, and cultural performances.

Optimism is returning to Hong Kong's convention and incentive industry, due in part to industry conventions booked through the year 2000. Groups looking to meet there in the near future include the International Congress and Convention Association, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, and the Society of Incentive Travel Executives.

Japan "In many cases, we are told that hotel rooms are less expensive than in New York," said Bruce Kanfer, director of marketing and sales for the Japan Convention Bureau. He attributes this to a more favorable exchange rate. Kanfer also links Japan's lower hotel costs with increased competition among air carriers to create a "new affordability." Mentioning JAL, ANA, American, United, Continental, and Delta, he says, "The skies are quite crowded and that has brought down airfares, making it a much healthier marketplace. As the crossroads for Asia for technical and scientific studies, Japan attracts more conventions than any other country in Asia."

Though hard hit by its own economic trauma, including an estimated 30 percent drop in 1998 corporate functions, Japan continues to promote its 45 major International Convention Cities. For the third straight year, Japan National Tourist Organization will host the International Meetings Exhibition. Set for November 8 to 15, IME '99 includes three nights accommodation at a first-class hotel in Tokyo, meals, post-exhibition tour for four days to three convention cities, and complimentary airfare for those applicants representing organizations with clear potential for a meeting in Japan.

Macau Settled by the Portuguese in the 1550s, Macau became Europe's first outpost in China. On December 20, Macau becomes a Special Administrative Region of China, similar to Hong Kong. Few changes are expected, says Peggy Petarka, marketing manager, North America for the Macau Government Tourist Office.

Long a popular day-trip for visitors from Hong Kong who flock to its gambling casinos, eight-square-mile Macau on China's southeastern coast has three first-class hotels: Hyatt Regency, Westin Resort, and Mandarin Oriental. Other conference facilities of note include those found at the multipurpose Macau Forum (with its new Tourist Activities Center), the new Cultural Center, and the University of Macau.

Since 1996, the Macau International Trade and Investment Fair has been an annual event. In April 1998, the event attracted 88,000 visitors, including first-time U.S. representatives.

Malaysia In 1997, Malaysia was doing great. According to the Asian Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, convention bookings increased 13.3 percent. Since then, regional currency depreciation has made Malaysia a "value for money" destination, as Malaysia reported an 8 percent overall downturn in convention bookings in 1998.

However, by 2000, Zainal Kasim, commissioner for the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) in Los Angeles, projects a 7 percent to 8 percent rebound in the overall economy. But at least through 2000, Kasim characterizes meeting prices as "very competitive."

To coordinate conventions and exhibitions nationwide, MATRADE is developing a one-stop conference reservations office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. Called the Malaysia Convention and Exhibitions Booking Center, its Web site is under development.

By hosting high visibility events like the Commonwealth Games and APEC in 1998 (the latter attended by heads of government, including U.S. Vice President Al Gore), and 1999's World Cup of Golf, Malaysia is making its presence felt throughout Asia and beyond.

Singapore Buoyed by the Asian currency devaluation, U.S. and European meeting groups are making up for the shortfall in Singapore's total visitor arrivals. In 1998, as overall visitor arrivals declined by 14.4 percent, convention delegate attendance rose by 14.6 percent, and incentive arrivals increased by 25.4 percent.

About that time, Singapore announced its three-year program called GlobalMeet 2000. For the years 1998 through 2000, organizers who book an event in Singapore are entitled to incentives, regardless of when the event is held. These include discounts and other promotional offers from hotels, airlines, travel agencies, meeting venues, cruise operators, and restaurants.

In June, Rotary International hosted 22,000 delegates from around the world in Singapore. Patricia Davis, director of marketing at the Grand Hyatt Singapore, which booked 250 rooms for the convention, says, "The current economic situation here makes the business more competitive and rates are a very good value."

Singapore also continues to attract smaller groups who see it both as a gateway to the East and a safe, clean destination.

In 1999, Haggai Institute from Atlanta, Ga., a leadership training program for Christian Evangelism, brought in 200 participants.

Though the institute has had its own training facility in Singapore since 1970, this special event marked its 30th anniversary. Bill Fisher, director of development and meeting management, said he negotiated "very good rates" at the Shangri-La, at $150 per night with upgrades.

Because of Singapore's cross-cultural nature, Fisher could provide tours geared to differing tastes--a "Tea Appreciation" night in China Town and a dinner with highly spicy foods in the Little India section.

"For a Westerner, [Singapore] is very comfortable," Fisher says. " You don't feel out of place, but at the same time, you can search out unusual cultural experiences."

Thailand In July 1997, Thailand's currency decline began Asia's downward spiral. Since then, Thailand has been buffeted by severe cutbacks in budgets, with two overseas government tourism offices closed, and others downsized.

Nevertheless, Thailand's economic situation is improving, as international visitor arrivals rose by just over 6 percent in the first half of 1998, and the country is perceived as a value destination.

One indicator of Thailand's improving economy is its recent designation of a U.S.-based representative to the meeting industry.

Longtime Asia specialist Boyd Christenson, based in St. Paul, Minn., is the new meetings, incentive, convention, and exhibitions manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Christenson says the stabilization of the baht and the improvement to Bangkok's infrastructure (including a light-rail system, the beginning of the new airport, and its 40,000-plus hotel rooms), signals that Thailand is serious about attracting new business.