Last year it was the handover (from British rule to Chinese); this year it's the Asian economic crisis. Hong Kong, facing challenges of late, needs to assure travelers that things are stable. "Last year we had 10.4 million visitors, this year it's about 10 million," says Douglas Gautier, deputy executive director, Hong Kong Tourist Association. "That still puts us as the number-one destination in Asia by a country mile."

Investment in infrastructure, like the new airport that opened in July, is critical to maintaining that position, Gautier says. Other investment has created a cruise center, theme parks, performance centers, and expanded access to the harborfront.

The Asian economic crisis and the slowdown in Asian travel has triggered some serious price-chopping in Hong Kong. "Pricing needed to be reevaluated," Gautier says. "That's been a healthy development. Hoteliers and airlines are really sharpening their pencils.

"The incentive market is a good market for us," he adds. "In the past 12 months there's been disenchantment with Asia. But things have settled down. We're open for business and the price is right."

Message from the Caribbean: Recovery from Georges is Quick Suppliers from the Caribbean have been spreading the word that while September's Hurricane Georges did some damage, things are back to normal.

In Puerto Rico, for example, most hotels suffered only cosmetic damage, says Rick Newman, president, Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association. "Some of the hotels are using the downtime to do renovations. So we'll bounce back with a more modern product," he adds.

Travel expert Arthur Frommer went to Puerto Rico and saw for himself that there were no visible signs of hurricane damage. He subsequently offered to become a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. Tourism officials took him up on the offer, and television spots began airing in mid-October.

A rundown on other destinations:

* Antigua and Barbuda--most hotels have reopened; all expect to be open by December.

* U.S. Virgin Islands--hotels on St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix reported little or no damage. All hotels are open as of November 15.

* Nevis--the Four Seasons Nevis will reopen December 15.

* Turks and Caicos Islands--completely unaffected by Georges

* Dominican Republic--About 13 hotels were damaged by the hurricane, but all will reopen by December 20.

* St. Maarten--the Millennium Beach Resort will reopen January 15, 1999.

* Puerto Rico--many hotels have already reopened; the Radisson Normandie will reopen in January 1999; the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino will reopen December 15. Visit www.puertoricoweather.com for updated information.

Scotland: Alive With History For U.S. groups, international incentives offer glimpses of other cultures and a look at a history vastly older than their own. In Scotland, that history is not behind glass cases in museums, it's all over the countryside, where a hilltop castle is as likely as not to have someone living in it.

The Scottish Tourist Board, through its convention bureau division, wants to get that message out to incentive planners--along with a promise that Scottish service is top-notch. "People in Scotland understand the U.S. incentive market, and we speak the same language," says Carolyn Dow, head of sales and marketing at the bureau. "It's a destination that has the history and the heritage along with contemporary service."

Dow and Tom Buncle, chief executive of the tourist board, also are pushing Scotland's shoulder seasons--October and March through May. Groups will find great bargains--and great weather, too.

Wyndham: A New Name in Luxury? Wyndham has expanded its resort portfolio with the former Williams Hospitality properties in Puerto Rico (Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club and Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino) and the Wyndham Palace Resort & Spa in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., among others. And Wyndham's new luxury brand, Grand Bay, is expanding as well, including the former Carefree Resorts.

What that means for planners of incentive trips is more choices. "We now have the product to take to the market on many levels," says Mike O'Connor, national director of sales. Mack Koonce, Wyndham International's executive vice president, marketing and strategic planning, says Grand Bay will compete for "the true luxury customer" while the urban Wyndham hotels will be "closer to the Marriott model."

A Paris Airport Hotel with Style With its rooms renovated and its disco turned into a meeting room, the Hyatt Regency Paris Charles de Gaulle at Charles de Gaulle International Airport is doing a brisk business in quick meetings. Especially for companies going global, this property provides convenience, gourmet food, and an elegant atmosphere--not your typical airport hotel.

"If you're going to Europe, it's a great stopover," says Richard White, director of sales, North America, Hyatt International. "Now is a good time to be going overseas. There's more value for your meeting dollar there than in some major U.S. cities."

The 388-room hotel is 20 minutes from the city center and five minutes from the Paris-nord Villepinte Exhibition Centre. Its ballroom seats 420 for a banquet, and there is a full-service business center plus a Regency Club floor.

Orient-Express in Africa The Mount Nelson Hotel, the grande dame of Cape Town, South Africa, celebrates its 100th birthday in 1999. In an effort to increase its group business, the 226-room hotel recently redid all function rooms. "Cape Town stands alone as an incentive or combines well with game lodges," says Brenda James, director of sales, Orient-Express Hotels African Collection.

The newest Orient-Express property in Africa, The Westcliff, is a resort in the Johannesburg suburbs. Orient-Express renovated The Westcliff, formerly a collection of residential villas, into 120 rooms in four buildings. James says South Africa is optimistic about its election next year, when Nelson Mandela steps down. "Three thousand hotel rooms opened in Cape Town in the past year, which indicates a certain level of confidence."

In the Bahamas: Upgrades and New Resorts The 700-room Radisson Cable Beach Casino & Golf Resort has poured more than $15 million into upgrades, completed in 1997, says Leslie C. Bethel, director of group sales. Those entailed improvements to all guest rooms, public space, 25,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 18-hole championship golf course. Several years ago, the property embarked on a service improvement program. Part of it is complying with Radisson's Certified Meeting Solution program, which puts all sales and convention services personnel through training and establishes a minimum operating procedure, including improvements to service, catering, and billing operations.

"We want to grow our group and meetings business from 20 percent to 30 percent," Bethel says. The hotel has a flexible group pricing philosophy, in which groups can opt for room only, EP, or all-inclusive packages. The all-inclusive includes meals, taxes, gratuities, and beverages; and at no extra cost groups can build in coffee breaks, beach olympics, and unlimited greens fees.

Hong Kongbased Harbour Plaza Hotels & Resorts has taken over three hotel properties on Grand Bahama Island, imploding one of them to make way for the The Lucayan, a 1,600-room, $250 million resort to include 7.5 acres of beach, two 18-hole championship golf courses, and a 50,000-square foot convention center. In February, phase one will open with 550 guest rooms. By fall of 1999 phase two will open with another 250 guest rooms, villas, and cottages; the Manor House registration area; the convention center; a spa; and The Reef Course. The remaining 800 rooms, a casino, and other facilities will be complete by December 1999.

Monaco's Forum Grimaldi: Rising from the Mediterranean When the Principality of Monaco does anything, it does it with a certain flair. Take the Forum Grimaldi, a state-of-the-art convention center being built in part beneath the sea. That's right--1,900 seats under the Mediterranean.

Says Bruno Lavagna, director of marketing, "Our objective is to step forward into the next millennium to prove Monaco is at the forefront."

By that he also means that Monaco has devoted a plot of land that's two percent of its entire territory and half of the state's budget to build this state-of-the-art facility, with 375,000 square feet of multi-purpose space (including a 1,900-seat auditorium, two smaller auditoriums, a 400-seat meeting room, 23 breakout rooms, and two exhibit halls). The Principality intends to use it for meetings and exhibitions from January to June and September to December, and during the summer to host art exhibits and concert performances. The restaurant will be open to the public year-round. Lavagna envisions the center, due to open in the year 2000, as an important "gathering place" for residents.

Australia: A Bargain? Now It Is Room rates around $135 (including breakfast), a round of golf for $45, a full dinner buffet at $35 per person, a massage for $40. And a current airfare from the U.S. that's around the same price as air to Hawaii. Sound too good to be true? Those are the going rates at the Hyatt Regency Coolum, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Says Director of Marketing Craig Walter: "We're no longer a destination where expense is an issue."

Another surprise at the 324-room property is the technology infrastructure, which includes fiber-optic capabilities in every conference room. This continues to draw some of the top tech companies to the resort, among them Microsoft and Digital Equipment Corp.

Wisconsin's Diversity Showcased Dan Hoppe, director of sales for the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, Wis., says the 355-room luxury resort has added another 6,000 square feet of meeting space and converted its old cabaret into a theater. With 22 meeting rooms and two championship golf courses, the resort is much sought-after for incentives and meetings, especially in the Midwest region, Hoppe adds. Hoppe also sits on the newly formed meetings and conventions committee of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. In addition to creating a Web site, the committee will market Wisconsin's diverse conference and meetings offerings, from small conference centers to adventure travel spots to its state-of-the-art convention centers and rejuvenated cities, like Milwaukee, which will soon open an indoor water park.

For more information, call the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, (414) 249-4704.

Melia Opens Luxury Hotel in Caracas Sol Melia opened its newest luxury hotel, the Gran Melia Caracas, a few months ago. Emanual Schreibmaier, vice president of sales and marketing, The Americas, for Sol Melia, calls it "the top hotel in Latin America today."

Schreibmaier says business from U.S. corporations is strong, and that elections in December will solidify Caracas' position as the central meetings city in Latin America. "Air access is terrific. There are several U.S. chain hotels there, and labor costs are not as high as in Brazil, for instance, so rates are reasonable."

Among the 432 guest rooms at the Gran Melia are three floors of executive rooms, providing Sol Melia Royal Service, which includes personalized attention upon check-in/check-out, daily buffet breakfast, and concierge services. The hotel's conference center offers interpreters, secretaries, and Internet connections. "It has everything," says Schreibmaier.

Melia is happy with the success of its Costa Rica properties, particularly the Melia Playa Conchal Beach and Golf Resort, in the resort area of Guanacaste. Schreibmaier has set up a new group meetings sales desk in the Miami office to offer one-stop-shopping to executives. "In one five-minute phone call, we can handle your guest rooms, meeting rooms, banquet and audiovisual needs, find you local tour operators, and print hotel brochures."

For more information, call (800) 33-MELIA.

Unbelievable Values at Shangri-La Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts has used the current economic situation in Asia to its advantage by courting the U.S. incentive and business traveler with value, offering as much as 40 percent off 1997 rates. Promoting the fact that groups to the Kowloon Shangri-La in Hong Kong, and other Shangri-La hotels throughout the region, pay less per room than they would pay in Chicago in October, Shangri-La has created momentum among U.S. incentive planners. The U.S. meetings portion of its business has actually grown in the past year, says Michael Cottan, general manager of the Shangri-La Kowloon.

Shangri-La has come up with some unbelievable packages for incentives in 1999:

* Hong Kong, the Ultimate Experience. At the Kowloon Shangri-La, a six-day/five-night incentive package with some meals starts at $655 per person from March through December.

* The Best of Beijing. At the Shangri-La Hotel Beijing, this four-day/three-night incentive package, including accommodations, land transfers, and organized tours and meals, starts at $564 per person.

* The Best of Kuala Lumpur at Great Value. At the Kuala Lumpur Shangri-La Hotel, a four-day/three-night incentive package starts at $769 per person.

* Splendor on the River of Kings. At the Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok, a four-day/three-night break package starts at $665 per person.

In other news, the Shangri-La Singapore has spent more than $35 million to upgrade its Tower Wing in 1998, including enlargement of guest rooms and renovation of its 40,000 square feet of meeting space; in August the new 612-room Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai, China, opened; and Shangri-La's Mactan Island Resort, the Philippines, opened a new 188-room wing, bringing the total number of guest rooms to 547.

For more information, call (805) 274-7610.

Two Experts Build a New Network "Informally, people call us all the time for contacts," says Carol Krugman, CMP, of herself and Jim Skiba, CMP, her partner in a new venture known as World Incentive Nexus (WIN). "So we decided to formalize what started out as an informal network."

Their goal is to help meeting executives connect with the right destinations, incentive experts, and DMCs. Skiba, who is also the president of San Franciscobased Incentives to Intrigue (Krugman is an independent meeting planner and popular speaker on international meetings), is in the process of building two databases, one of 4,000 colleagues who plan international meetings and incentives and one of qualified suppliers worldwide. (WIN neither charges supplier, nor accepts commissions.) Both sides are being carefully screened by the duo, who have a combined 32 years of experience in the industry. "We're taking lead qualification up another quantum level," says Krugman. Visit www.worldincentivenexus.com for more information.

Mexico Keen on Incentives In 1998, for the first time in its history, Mexico's income from tourism surpassed income from oil. Courting the U.S. incentive traveler makes perfect sense, says Oscar Espinosa Villareal, Mexico secretary of tourism, since incentives tend to go deeper into Mexico's resort areas, and spend 11 times more than the typical tourist who stays close to the U.S. border. Mexican tourism officials are pushing such traditional resorts as Cancun, Acapulco, Matzalan, and Puerto Vallarta, while Los Cabos has seen a recent boon in tourism, and Merida, Oaxaca, and Puebla are the newest hot spots. Villareal emphasized Mexico's diversity, showcased in its new slogan: "For every reason there is a season."

In addition to a favorable exchange rate, Villareal says airports have recently been privatized, and railroads and ports will soon be as well, making the country's transportation infrastructure more reliable than ever for U.S. incentive programs.

For further information, call the Mexico Ministry of Tourism's Conventions, Meetings, and Incentives Unit at (312) 606-0327.

Istanbul: New CVB, New Focus on Groups The Istanbul Convention & Visitors Bureau was formed just a year ago. Istanbul's top benefit for groups? A sophisticated convention and exhibition center surrounded by 8,000 five-star hotel rooms (including Kempinski, Swissotel, Four Seasons, and Hyatt).

According to Eyup Babur, general manager of the CVB, Istanbul has four characteristics that make it an ideal choice for incentives: 1) a strong, contemporary infrastructure; 2) a unique location, with part of the city in Europe and another part in Asia; 3) a rich, extraordinary history from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires; and 4) endless activities for qualifiers, from shopping in the Grand Bazaar to cruising the Bosphorus.

The Florence Experts A group of seven hospitality experts, including hotels, special event venues, and a DMC in Florence, Italy, started an informal relationship several years back to serve the needs of meeting and incentive groups coming to Florence. What began as friendship recently became a formal business relationship, says Giuseppe Lepri, president and CEO of destination management company Newtours-CMO. Lepri heads up the consortium called the Florence Experts.

The idea is quite simple, says Lepri. "We take the main ingredients that any successful incentive group or meeting would need, like capacity, professionalism, and creativity, and tailor it to each client." The partnership consists of the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, Grand Hotel Baglioni, and Grand Hotel Minerva; two catering companies; La Limonaia Di Piazza Del Carmine, a meeting and special events venue; and Newtours, the DMC.

For further information, call Mondotels Inc., the U.S. representative, at (212) 575-2262.