REPRESENTATIVES FROM meeting and incentive destinations were full of news at the Motivation Show at Chicago's McCormick Place in September. International reps wanted to emphasize the value they offer American groups. Domestic reps said their meeting business was looking up — and that some planners were booking further out into 2004 and 2005 to lock in today's low rates. Some of the highlights:

Australia Tops the List

In late August, for the seventh year in a row, Americans voted Australia their No. 1 dream vacation destination in the latest Harris Interactive survey. “This is fantastic,” says Australian Tourist Commission vice president for the Americas, Michael Londregan, Los Angeles. “But we know we have some challenges to convert the dream into actual visits.”

A new ad campaign will focus on seasoned travelers' “bragging rights,” or travel resumés. “It's all about awareness,” adds Michelle Gysberts, the ATC's partnership development director. “The campaign's message cuts across beautifully for business tourism, since motivating people is all about giving them a unique experience, all about delivering the ‘wow’ factor.”

Disney Diversifies

Business is on the upswing at Disney, says George Aguel, senior vice president for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “The leisure side was robust this summer and fall, which is a good indicator of people wanting to get out and travel.” Aguel points to financial services and health care as particularly strong group markets, and notes that tech companies are starting to come back.

Anne Hamilton Chehab, vice president, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, says that she is seeing smaller incentive programs of 150 to 200 attendees who aren't necessarily the top-tier producers, and that many attendees are adding pre- and-post-trips for family vacations. Cruises and land-sea packages are also popular incentive options.

Disney continues to diversify for the meetings market with an expansion of its largest convention resort, the 1,921-room Coronado Springs, that will double the amount of function space to more than 220,000 square feet. The new 86,000-square-foot exhibit hall, due to open in 2005, will be integrated into the resort's one-level convention center.

London: Ever-Changing

“Visit London” is the new name of The London Tourist Board, and the London Convention Bureau is now known as “Visit London Business and Conventions.” There's also a new presence for Visit London in the form of Chris Lynn, who has been named North American sales and marketing director, based in New York City.

“I'm here to help planners see how London can be different again, even if they've been there before,” says Lynn. Because business has been off, rates are down, he adds, “which makes us more affordable — '04 is looking up, '05 looking even better.”

Monaco Makeover

Cindy Hoddeson, director, convention and incentives sales, Monaco Government Tourist Office, New York, sees glimmers of hope in American incentive and meeting business, with pharmaceutical and insurance companies taking the lead.

“We're seeing a strong comeback for the end of '04. Even if qualification periods are being shortened — and they are — most companies still need a year for the program.”

She also notes that the Euro exchange rate has become more favorable to the U.S. dollar. “We had asked all of our hotels to come with a U.S. guarantee through '05,” she says. Anyone who is uncomfortable with currency exchange now has a comfort level.”

In hotel news, Le Metropole Palace Hotel closed in September for six months for a complete redo, and will re-open just before Grand Prix in May. Upon completion, the hotel will have a “private palazzo” ambience and a new spa. The Hotel Hermitage is also undergoing a renovation and expansion program, adding 63 rooms and suites to the current 229. It will be complete in April 2004. And Le Meridien Beach Plaza Hotel is reopening its 10th floor as exclusive executive suite accommodations.

Puerto Rico Repositions

With a new 580,000-square-foot convention center opening in 2005, Puerto Rico is undergoing a major change. “Huge initiatives are underway to take the Puerto Rico hospitality community through the necessary educational steps in preparation for a shift from the traditional business into the citywide convention arena,” says Jorge Pesquera, executive director, Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. “There are strong ongoing urban renewal projects to elevate infrastructure to meet the needs of growing tourism visitor arrivals.”

There are plenty of hotel rooms (approximately 16,000) to support the new center, but two new hotels are scheduled to be built as headquarters hotels within 24 months of the convention center's opening. Until then, two existing hotels will serve as headquarters for the new center, the Condado Plaza and the Caribe Hilton, which have 1,300 rooms between them.

Another plus: The airport is undergoing major expansion and renovation with the addition of 14 new gates and increased international service from South America, the United States, and Europe.

In the incentive market, Puerto Rico is promoting its up-and-coming eastern islands of Vieques and Culebra. The upscale Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa, a 156-room boutique property, opened on Vieques in March.

Shangri-La Optimistic

Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts weathered the SARS crisis without laying off a single employee, even when occupancy was down to a single digit. Now, individual corporate travelers have come back, but not the big offshore incentives or meetings from the United States, reports Carmen Lam, group director of sales and marketing.

However, “what's made us cautiously optimistic is that groups who had canceled are looking at Asia again for late 2004 and 2005.” Insurance and pharmaceutical groups are showing the most interest, she says, and China, Thailand, and Singapore are the most popular destinations.

During the past few years, Shangri-La has invested heavily in external security audits and internal security training, and has put nearly $200 million into renovations, including $30 million at the Kowloon Shangri-La in Hong Kong; $20.5 million at Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok; and $30 million at China World Hotel, Beijing.

Starwood: Looking Up

Bob Moore, senior vice president, global sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., reports an uptick in the individual corporate travel market in many of the cities where Starwood has a high concentration of hotels, including New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Miami. He believes there is a pent-up demand for face-to-face meetings, although he observes that short lead times for corporate events have become the norm, and “there continues to be hesitancy about signing contracts.” He also sees meetings and travel “staying inside continents” but believes that international travel will eventually come back to the U.S. incentive market.

During a client luncheon at the Motivation Show, Starwood CEO Bob Cotter cited it as “the best booking show since 9/11.” He also talked about a major effort to elevate and standardize Starwood's group business procedures over the next 18 months, with such services as standardized banquet event orders that can be e-mailed to planners. Perhaps the most significant part of the program, according to Cotter, is a commitment to on-site involvement by the general manager. “For every group in every Starwood property, the GM will be at the pre-planning meeting,” he said. “On request, the GM will meet and greet VIPs. We're dead serious about it.”

Toronto Recovers

Toronto hotels have been gradually winning back meeting and incentive business since SARS disappeared from the city's hospitals, says Susan Nolan, senior sales manager with the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. While a number of properties are pushing heavy discounts to get business on the books, Nolan says her hotel is holding the line. The Four Seasons staff is accentuating the positive, such as Toronto's value compared to other large North American cities, and its convenient location. “[SARS is] over and done with, and we would like to assure people that we're moving past it.”

PGI Morphs

Darryl Hartley-Leonard, the inimitable chairman and CEO of PGI Inc., announced at the Motivation Show that Washington, D.C.-based PGI has split into two distinct brands. PGI — The Strategic Events Agency will provide creative, production, exhibition, meeting management, and online services. Destinator by PGI will represent “the logistical side of the business,” the destination management services. Destinator by PGI DMCs are located in 24 cities in North America and Europe; the newest office opened in October on Maui. The Strategic Events Agency headquarters will remain in D.C.