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

Richard White, director of sales, North America, Hyatt International, expects this trend to continue into the year 2000--and beyond. "Everyone has become much more flexible, and prices have come down farther than they were a year ago," he says.

Here's what's new in Asia, by country:

China Between Beijing's historical importance and Shanghai's emergence as the financial capital of the East, China is achieving significant status as a meeting and incentive destination. Putting Shanghai in the international spotlight is the Fortune 500 Global Forum, which will come to the city's new world-class convention center this month.

Another reason for China's emerging importance is its "can do" mentality, according to Marko Podkubovsek, president, Networld, Inc., Parsippany, N.J. As a key participant in the Destination China luxury consortium, Networld is the North American sales agent for Air China, the airline of the People's Republic of China, and for Kingsway Incentives, the first privately owned DMC in China.

For incentive groups, Networld offers eight-night programs in Beijing and Shanghai including air, five-star luxury hotels, and all attractions for $1,769, with upgraded programs at the Shangri-La or Palace (Peninsula Group) in Beijing and the Shangri-La and/or Hilton Shanghai for $2,227.

Hong Kong Though Hong Kong's 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 in a negotiating mood," reports Mark Barrett, until recently the Chicagobased director, U.S. 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 program for meeting organizers called "Hong Kong Value Plus," offering up to 50 percent off accommodations through 2001 at 40 major hotels (30 percent during high season in May, September, October, and November). Other features include 30 to 40 percent savings at the two major exhibition venues, specially designed souvenirs for overseas participants, airport signage, and even cultural performances.

Indonesia Indonesia's tourist arrivals dropped by nearly 30 percent in the first half of 1998 because of the rioting in Jakarta last May and November. Since then, reports Noel McMahon, executive assistant manager, Bali Inter-Continental Resort, "There has been a lot of quoting, mainly for the year 2000, but little has been confirmed."

With 17,508 islands, 352 languages, and 210 million people (the fourth-largest population in the world), Indonesia is just 53 years old. Greg Johnson, a New Yorkbased travel consultant who's familiar with the region, says the American press is "quite negative because they don't understand [the country.] It was suddenly thrust into globalization and all of the problems of the financial community of Southeast Asia.

"Right now you can't stretch a dollar farther than in Indonesia," he adds. "As far as hotel rates are concerned, everything has been negotiable and will be forever, because it's a country of bargaining."

Japan "In many cases, we are told that hotel rooms here are less expensive than in New York," reports Bruce Kanfer, director of marketing and sales for the Japan Convention Bureau. He attributes this to a more favorable exchange rate, as well as the increased competition among air carriers--JAL, ANA, American, United, Continental, and Delta. The result, he says, is a "new affordability," with companies viewing Japan as a new option with lower prices.

Though hard hit by its own economic downturn that included an estimated 30 percent drop in corporate functions in 1998, Japan continues to promote its 45 major "International Convention Cities." And for the third straight year, the Japan National Tourist Organization will host the International Meetings exhibition November 8 to 15.

Korea Like the rest of Asia, Korea is beginning to emerge from the recent economic crisis. Yet, with prices averaging less than before 1997, Korea continues to be a value-for-money destination. Corporations with ongoing economic ties to the Far East are starting to visit Korea. One example is Strong Capital Management, Menomonee Falls, Wis. A couple of years ago, company President Richard Strong issued a challenge to his employees: When the firm reached a goal of $23 billion in managed assets, he personally agreed to take every employee on an inspection tour throughout Asia. Though the Asian economic landscape had declined by 1998 when that goal was reached, Strong kept his word and did two back-to-back eight-day charters to Korea, Malaysia, China, and Thailand, for 225 and 175 employees respectively.

Top government officials, including Chang-Yol Lim, governor of one of the county's largest provinces, welcomed them to Korea. Because economic development was high on their list of priorities, the company representatives visited the financial district that houses Samsung, Daewoo, and Hyundai. Other popular attractions included the Kyong Pok Palace, home of President Kim Dae-jung, and the Museum of the Korean War.

In January, the Chicago branch of the Korea National Tourist Organization, led by David Parker, marketing manager, became the official U.S. promotions office for meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions. To promote its expanding venues (such as COEX Seoul Convention and Exhibition Center, opening in June, 2000, with over 400,000 square feet of exhibition space and two Inter-Continental hotels, including one opening in October), Korea has initiated "Convene in Korea in the New Millennium." The program lasts through 2000, although events already confirmed receive benefits regardless of when they occur. Incentives are available to international organizations attracting more than 300 attendees with at least 100 overseas participants for a minimum three-day event; and to events with 150 overseas attendees for a minimum of two days. The package includes site inspection tours, discounts of up to 40 percent on sleeping rooms, discounts on meeting facilities, and more.

Macau Though Macau becomes a Special Administrative Region of China on December 20, 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, Macau has three first-class hotels: the Hyatt Regency, Westin Resort, and Mandarin Oriental. Other conference facilities include the multipurpose Macau Forum, with its new Tourist Activities Center; the new Cultural Center; and the University of Macau.

Prices in Macau are "reasonable," according to Art Swygard, manager, Asia Pacific, for Coherent, Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., laser manufacturer. Swygard recently brought 30 of the company's Asiabased representatives to Macau because he wanted something "less frantic" than Hong Kong. The group stayed at the Hyatt Regency Macau because it was located away from the area's casinos.

Malaysia Though Malaysia reported an 8 percent overall downturn in 1998, Zainal Kasim, commissioner for the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) in Los Angeles, projects a 7 to 8 percent rebound in the overall economy by 2000. For the near future, however, Kasim characterizes meeting prices as "very competitive." To coordinate conventions and exhibitions nationwide, MATRADE has developed a one-stop conference reservations office in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia Convention and Exhibitions Booking Center.

Singapore Buoyed by the Asian currency devaluation, U.S. and European meeting and incentive 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.

"The current economic situation here makes the business more competitive, and rates are a very good value," reports Patricia Davis, director of marketing at the Grand Hyatt Singapore.

With the GlobalMeet 2000 program, organizers who book an event in Singapore during 1999 and 2000 (the three-year programactually began in 1998) are entitled to incentives including discounts from hotels, airlines, travel agencies, meeting venues, cruise operators, and restaurants.

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 slowly improving. International visitor arrivals rose by just over 6 percent in the first half of 1998.

One indication of the upturn is the country's recent designation of a U.S.based meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Boyd Christenson, based in St. Paul, Minn. 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.

This attitude appealed to Alan Fogel, director of administration and finance for INCLEN, Inc., Philadelphia. At the Shangri-La Bangkok, Fogel was able to negotiate an all-inclusive rate of $150 per night for 450 participants, including three meals a day, two coffee breaks, use of the main ballroom for plenary sessions, and seven additional meeting rooms with audiovisual equipment.