The exotic allure of emerging markets such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos continue to woo event planners, but often the question remains: Can these destinations, especially small towns that have never hosted big events, rise to the challenge? Luang Prabang in Laos not only rose to the occasion this June, but also provided a new model for future events.

Hosting the Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF) 2017 from June 6 to 9 was a great win for the UNESCO World Heritage town, but without convention centre and only a handful of small hotel ballrooms (with capacity for only 300 pax), event planners had to think outside the box.

Luang Prabang is home to a sizeable Buddhist community and many temples
 

So the organisers—Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), Luang Prabang provincial government and Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism—decided to make the entire destination the venue.

Creativity

MTCO executive director, Jens Thraenhart, says they took a risk experimenting with a new MICE model for smaller towns without big hotels or dedicated conference facilities.

“MTF 2017 in Luang Prabang demonstrated that by making the destination the venue, and having delegates spread out to experience various tourism products, matched with topical sessions, true engagement can be achieved. This event was truly an event by the industry for the industry.”

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The large hall in the Central Bank Building served as the venue for morning plenary sessions and the welcome gala dinner. Hotels, attractions and Mekong cruise companies hosted three preliminary events on day one and 16 breakout sessions the next two days, followed by nine post-tours.

Main conference in Central Bank building


Themed ‘Prosper with Purpose’, MTF 2017 focused on sustainability and engagement. Beyond keynote speeches and panel discussions, tourism professionals from Mekong member countries made both passionate and entertaining pitches on the threats and opportunities to drive responsible tourism development in the region.

To further engage delegates with the sustainability message, all attendees received specially produced aluminium water bottles, with venues serving as refill stations. As a result, an estimated 5,000 single-use plastic bottles were saved.

Food festival gala at Grand Hotel, Luang Prabang


Challenges

Planning was more focused and intense than with most regional meetings because the concept was new to the Luang Prabang travel industry.

Thraenhart explains: “We started planning the forum in September 2016 with a ‎concept paper and met with officials from the ministries. We also engaged with industry professionals in the Greater Mekong sub-region to get feedback and initial reactions. Everybody seemed very excited while recognising the complexities.”

Breakout sessions aboard Luang Say Cruises' Pak Ou boat


Bangkok-based MTCO staff made multiple trips to Luang Prabang. First, they visited potential session venues and met travel operators, then later conducted detailed planning with selected venues on how to stage their sessions. They also held planning meetings with government departments. The goal was to enable a maximum number of smaller operators to participate, get value and be part of the hosting community.

Vongdavone Vongxayanath, head of tourism promotion and marketing, Department of Information, Culture and Tourism of Luang Prabang province, says: "MTF 2017 was designed to be an inclusive conference and showcase small and medium enterprises. We had 24 staff working with the private sector and stakeholders to host the 16 tracks. Almost 400 participants registered - more than expected. So we had to adjust the programme, venues and hotels."

Hawker stalls dished out typical Lao cuisine at closing gala


A fleet of minivans ferried delegates and speakers to lunch in local restaurants and then to breakout sessions held across town—in hotels, restaurants, craft centres, botanic garden, farm and even on boats that cruised along the Mekong River during sessions. Participants were then transferred to dinner venues and later, back to 15 official hotels.

The Central Bank hall was miraculously transformed from classroom and theatre-style seating by day to a banquet hall with long tables by night. In the carpark and verandah, catering teams worked swiftly in pop-up kitchens to prepare the six-course Laotian-inspired Western dinner.

Pop-up kitchens were used to prepare a six-course menu


For variety and to solve the catering challenge, the closing dinner was held in the garden of Grand Hotel Luang Prabang, where several hotels and restaurants manned hawker stalls dishing out typical Lao cuisine, washed down by free-flowing Beer Lao, wine and local concoctions.

Peter Richards, International Trade Centre responsible tourism specialist, sums up the challenges and results: “While complex from a logistics standpoint, the organisers’ efforts paid off to create one of the most inclusive and experiential tourism conferences yet by making the destination the venue. This is a new benchmark for inclusive conferences.”