Lean back and relax, yells a wiry climbing instructor securing the rope as a first-time climber finds his way up a sandstone cliff in Krabi, Thailand.
Adventure sports and team building on the beach add authentic Thai flavor to corporate events and meetings in Bangkok, which continues to emerge as a strong meeting and convention destination in Asia.
The Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) is investing more than 90 million baht ($30 million) into attracting and supporting mega-events, offering promotions to event organizers from key international markets and reinforcing its position as an incentive destination. The program is expected to generate 180-plus billion baht ($6 billion) in revenue during 2013-15.
"Development of the business events infrastructure and facilities continues to intensify across Thailand,” said Nopparat Maythaveekulchai, recently appointed president of TCEB. "Modern and world-class facilities are sprouting, starting from the transportation system, the cutting-edge telecommunications infrastructure, a variety of business event venues and a choice of hotel accommodations that are able to meet the requirements of business events of various sizes."
Currently, Bangkok alone offers more than 2.5 million total square feet of convention and meeting space, including IMPACT and Bangkok International Trade Exhibition Centre.
Several venues are part of large shopping and entertainment centers, such as Bangkok Convention Centre at CentralWorld, Royal Paragon Hall at Siam Paragon and a new venue scheduled to break ground in 2014 across the street from the new Asiatique entertainment district.
Complementing historic treasures of the Royal Palace and futuristic architecture of the Sathorn business district, Bangkok flaunts a variety of new luxury hotels that blend western amenities with a Zen touch.
One such hotel is So Sofitel, a 30-story contemporary gem overlooking the Lumphini Park. Its 238 rooms are decked out by Thai designers and fashion icon Christian Lacroix inspired by water, earth, wood and metal elements.
Hip and vibrant, the hotel features loft-style meeting rooms, a social club with live cooking, a glass-encompassed Box for small events and a Parisian Opera ballroom, for a total of about 7,000 sq. ft.
Guests enjoy lounging by the outdoor infinity pool above the city and cooling off with a glass of iced chocolate at the Chocolab, before digging into their Thai favorites at the onsite restaurants.
For U.S. corporate and association meeting planners, Thailand is the kind of place where their groups can have an authentic and comfortable Asia experience, according to TCEB.
"We are very interested in the U.S. market," said Vichaya Soonthornsaratoon, TCEB director of meetings industry development.
TCEB targets American corporate and association planners through a variety of activities, including hosted buyer trips and road shows, as well as AIBTM in Chicago and IMEX in Las Vegas.
"U.S. planners appreciate our level of service, our luxury destinations and the value. In terms of accommodations and facilities, Thailand is ready,” Soonthornsaratoon said.
For pre- and post-convention activities, U.S. planners already are familiar with the entertainment and outdoor offerings in Phuket, an island south of Bangkok. During the past few years, the nearby province of Krabi is also gaining popularity for groups interested in adventure activities and eco events.
Overlooking the Andaman Sea, Krabi is the laid-back antidote to the vibrancy of Bangkok. It's the place to reconnect with nature on a canoe ride through the mangrove forest, to get to new heights at cliffhanging and to taste salt on a speedboat ride to the nearby Phi Phi Island, made famous by "The Beach" movie.
"Krabi offers a great combination of adventure and nature," said Claude Baltes, general manager of Beyond Resort Krabi. "There's a ban on banana boats, jet skis and beach umbrellas, so it's not nearly as commercial as other destinations in the area. If you want a real taste of Thailand, you have to come here."
This sense of a hidden retreat is the driving force behind several global hotel brands opening properties here in the past several years and offering tailor-made programs and themed dining for groups up to 500.
Sofitel Krabi Phokeethara Golf and spa features a French colonial vibe with a modern twist in its 276 rooms. The property offers about 7,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a beautiful outdoor area by the infinity pool.
The Phulay Bay, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, is a collection of 54 villas, some with private pools, overlooking the sea. It features several restaurants, meeting space for up to 80, and private dining on the beach.
Beyond Krabi is a contemporary Thai resort with 170 rooms and a private beach. It offers about 4,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space and several dining options, including a restaurant feet from the surf.
On the Phranang Peninsular, Rayavadee Resort Krabi offers 98 two-story pavilions and four private villas on some 26 acres of coconut groves and gardens. Its two function rooms can accommodate up to 50, but the real jewel here is a natural limestone grotto on the cream-colored beach, perfect for an intimate dinner.
Other luxury hotel brands in the area include the Sheraton, the Amarai and the Centara, with properties within about a half hour from Krabi International Airport with daily flights to Bangkok.
If hanging from a cliff James-Bond style seems a little too adventurous, groups can learn underwater photography at the nearby coral reefs and pitch into conservation efforts by releasing juvenile clown fish, think "Finding Nemo", back into their natural habitat.