Panama now a global player in MICE segment

Panama has climbed to 6th place in the Ranking of the Americas by the International Congress and Convention Association, an entity that highlighted the 60 congresses and conventions held in Panama City that boosted the country ten places higher than in 2012, when it was ranked 36th. This was the topic Caribbean News Digital (CND) Panama discussed with the Panama Tourism Authority's Deputy Minister, Ernesto Orillac.

The authority explained that Panama has a comprehensive strategy to develop the Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) segment, not only from within the Tourism Authority but also out of an initiative that encompasses the entire sector that collaborates with the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO). "For the first time we managed to make information flow in both directions, from the private sector to the public sector and from the public to the private," Orillac emphasized.

This, according to the authority, has been an influence in bringing about what we have today, one achievement being Panama's access to the North American and European markets for the first time. Panama had been working the market and attending meetings at the Latin American level, practically just regional, but it had not really entered the more competitive market of Canada, the United States, and even Mexico. That pushed us to work very hard on fulfilling a number of requirements, and that is why we must talk about the reengineering, certification, training, and degree of professionalism that were necessary to take us from being a local or regional player up to a global player.

It says a lot when, for the first time in history, Panama has been chosen as the venue when competing with countries or cities that are superbly positioned in this market. To host the pediatrics congress that will take place in 2019, for example, Panama had to compete with Milan and Morocco, and we won. Today we can compete with any city in the world. Panama arrived on the scene with a very professional team composed entirely of Panamanians, in order to be on the same level as any DMO worldwide, whether Las Vegas, Sydney, or Milan.

Now we have to keep working on that platform and structure that were created. It is an industry that requires constant training. If we don't keep up to speed, we could risk losing our spot to any of the other DMOs that are also trying to reach this level, since this is the segment of tourism that all countries want to develop because it brings in the highest revenue and can most speedily revive the tourism economy. I would almost say that the MICE segment is a separate industry within the tourism sector.

CND: How long has the DMO Bureau of Panama existed?

ERNESTO ORILLAC: When we began this work in 2011, we set about determining how it would be structured and established. In 2012 we began to form the plan and made the decision to eliminate the Convention Bureau, which was not working well at the private level, and in its place create the office of the DMO, which at present functions as part of the Tourism Authority.

Now we need to separate the DMO from the Tourism Authority and from the government and make it a completely private entity, putting public funds to use the way the Bureau should have utilized them. This does NOT mean that the Bureau was not successful in the work it performed; it fell apart partially due to a lack of funds and reengineering. Neither the necessities it should have nor the priorities had really been established.

Moreover, the public-private training was fundamental in building confidence in the entire private sector. All the information was flowing in a way it hadn't before due to a certain degree of suspicion. People believed so much in the project that they stopped fearing the transmission of information, and this is supremely important and the key to success. If suppliers are too distrustful to exchange information, the system does not work.

We had very specific goals for that time. We never really thought that we would grow so rapidly. I can tell you, with great humility and with much pride, that today Panama and its conventions segment has become a contender at the regional and global level.

To continue that growth, it is important that in the short term the DMO abandon the public arena and become an independent entity. The private sector is very clear on this and I think that is where we want to go.

CND: Could the fact that the DMO is part of the ATP have been one of the factors that influenced suppliers to be confident in transmitting the necessary information? What might be the danger if it becomes an independent entity?

EO: Definitely that the way the ATP has been run in recent years, even talking about previous administrations, obviously gives you certain confidence, seeing that it's a public agency operating completely independently, with no preference for one over the other. But beyond that, including removing it from the vagaries of politics, I think that when it becomes independent, and seeing how it is currently structured, there will be much more confidence. It will receive public support, from the funds and probably the support of a directive of players that are in the public sector, and from the ATP of course, and it will also have the flexibility to not become politicized, and I don't mean now but over the next five, ten, or twenty years. In the end management of an entity like this, which is very professional and innovative, can sometimes become very difficult when faced with certain requirements and more bureaucratic public structures, because public administration lacks the flexibility that private entities have, even though the funds are audited by the comptroller.

Union and industry leaders will become an integral part of the project, along with directors of the public sector, but the idea is for the private sector to make up the majority and spearhead the project.

Before we weren't all that confident. Now the previous structure has changed. We must maintain a strong, representative board of directors that keeps the country's interests above those of any private company.

CND: Besides operating the DMO with professionalism, what other factors have been a strong influence in Panama's rapid growth in the MICE sector?

EO: It is a task of complete reengineering. There are external factors that are obviously part of the destination. One is connectivity, which is essential in developing this kind of sector and identified as one of our main goals. The other is infrastructure. From 2006 to 2008, Panama did not have the capacity to carry out as large of events as it can today. The hotel industry has grown from 7,000 rooms to 16,000, with a total of 30,000 nationwide.

This growth in hotel capacity brought with it new infrastructure related to the services that have been generated and which have also been growing, such as services in transportation, catering, audiovisual equipment, and event venues.

Another determining factor is the convention centers. Panama currently has several convention centers inside very good-sized hotels, not counting ATLAPA of course, which is still in operation as a convention center and has much potential. To these we can add the new Amador convention center, with events already scheduled. Having this structure planned and already under construction was what allowed us to move forward and get this work done in a quick, very focused, responsible, and organized fashion.

That's how it all got started, and today it is a tremendous boon to the city's hotel occupancy. This segment keeps the rooms full in those big hotels in the city. These events end up benefitting not only the hotels, but the entire city, with commerce, dining, handicrafts, shopping, everything.

CND: How far along is construction of the new convention center?

EO: It's 27-28% finished. They expect it to be completed by mid to late 2015. I estimate that there's a year or year and a half of construction left.

Local connectivity will also be very important.

The arrival of the Metro, the Coastal Strip and its newest addition, the connectivity from the airport to the new Convention Center directly along Coastal Strip 3 and merging with Paseo Amador to make it a four-laner are all fundamental for people to be able to move about the city. Some 5,000 or 6,000 people will be able to be in transit without having to have highway traffic.

It is a complete master plan that was defined, evaluated, and in the future will have to be maintained and continue to grow. That reengineering is not just part of the structuring of what the DMO is today, but a fundamental part of the structures that were being built in Panama and analyzed from all angles. We always had an institution that passed on information to those in charge of carrying out these projects, which were of a magnitude that always benefited the tourism segment, particularly the MICE segment.

CND: How is the DMO working for the country's interior provinces?

EO: There's a series of very important things missing in the connectivity and structure to be able to develop the countryside like the city is developed, but that does not mean it does not exist. It will be a different type of market.

I have great faith that it can be carried out. The airports will provide a platform to hold meetings and conferences in the MICE segment. Take the Pacific beachside for example, where between the arrival of RIU, the Decameron, Playa Blanca, the Sheraton and all the other hotels, there are enough rooms—close to 3,000—to support such events. The same goes for Chiriquí and other places.

Everything you bring into the city also brings wealth into the country's interior. People can go on pre and post tours, they want to explore the sites, and so you are promoting the country's provinces and its economy.

CND: Are there any projects for local air connectivity? Air Panama is the airline now and tickets can get very expensive considering the distance they cover.

EO: I wish another airline would enter, because competition is always good. There is an interesting project that the next administration should be handling, and I think it could greatly benefit the country and its interior provinces. I am quite positive that in the coming years this market will open more and more.

Panama is a relatively small market and is therefore not as appealing as other markets, in terms of population. We're talking about a population of 3 and a half million people, compared to neighboring countries with populations of 42 and 30 million habitants. So if there are companies that have already set their eyes here, with what has been growing and will continue to grow in tourism, there will be an increase in businesses of all types. Some of them will be taking domestic flights because the infrastructure is already in place that allows for larger aircraft to reach these airports, such as at David, Río Hato, Howard, Colón, bringing with it the construction of roads and development of the Atlantic coast.

Three hotels are coming to the Caribbean area: the Decameron, the Kempinski, a German hotel chain looking at the Guaira area in front of Isla Grande, and another that will be situated in the Santa Isabel area where the Decameron is being built. I see everything going well, as long as they follow a plan that is very focused on what they want to accomplish and how to go about doing so.

Source: Caribbean News