Life of the party

Who does not love a good theme party? But throwing one is not a piece of cake anymore for hotels. Raini Hamdi plays party pooper and asks, is the life of the ballroom theme party over?

may17-patry

An explosion of F&B concepts in Asian cities from Singapore to Shanghai and resorts from Bali to Penang is giving planners more choices on where to take groups for a theme dinner.

The life of the ballroom theme party may be dimming – for who wants to be cooped up within four walls and a fake setting, when there are so many venues and leisure attractions outside hotels that are natural themes in themselves and bring guests closer to the destination?

A check with hotels however shows the party is not over yet for them, for there are good reasons still why the hotel venue is a practical choice for groups (see page 12, Hotels vs offsite venues). But it is not exactly rock-and-roll for hotels to secure and pull together memorable theme parties.

Old formulas do not work anymore when clients are changing faster than hotels can change props, so hotels have to think up new theme party ideas or rewire tried-and-tested ones. Hotels also have had to literally rewire ceilings for fibre-optic lighting which can create moods that impress today’s younger, IT-savvy clients; tear down four walls to make way for concept meeting spaces (such as Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok’s The Campus), or build new spaces (such as Ayana Resort & Spa, Bali, already with seven restaurants and a multitude of outdoor venues, yet, to cater for bigger productions and numbers of participant, opened a 20,000m2 designer frangipani garden which has its own entrance).

If they do not have the grounds to build new spaces, hotels find themselves scouring for unique venues outside their property to secure a booking. Resorts World Genting, for example, uses the nearby Chin Swee Caves Temple and the Awana Longhouse, situated amid a million-year-old rainforest.

As well, the rise of third-party event organisers reduces the scope of and, consequently, revenue from theme parties for hotels. Clients increasingly prefer to use a third-party event organiser to handle the theme, decor, entertainment, light-and-sound, etc, according to Christine Divinagracia, assistant director of events, Dusit Thani Manila.

“Sometimes, we get leads from local and overseas organisers to bring events to the hotel. Some organisers come up with their own packages to sell to their clients,” she said. “We work well with them in ensuring the event is successful.”

Pullman Kuching’s general manager, Eric Tan, said most companies holding theme parties at the hotel engage their own event organiser but this makes it easier for the hotel, as it deals only with the organiser.

Who buys theme parties?
Overall, the theme parties market, far from tapering off, is becoming more alive than ever. Corporates may have smaller budgets, or even lesser time for them in an effort to show some restraint post-GFC, but “social” theme parties are on the rise.

It seems everybody wants to theme everything. Whereas the traditional theme party as the industry knows it originates from the Western incentive, now even the birthday party for the husband or wife, weddings, prom balls, corporate Christmas parties and small meetings want to be themed, several hoteliers interviewed said.

Also contributing to the good health of the market is a blurring of theme parties and teambuilding.

Janine Watton, director of sales and marketing for Four Points Sukhumvit 15, Bangkok, said TV reality shows contribute to the popularity of “interactive” theme parties.

“Most parties now have games and interactive elements such as live cooking stations, so guests can see chefs in action,” Watton said. In response, one of the hotel’s first two theme party ideas, launched recently, is an ExecutiveChef dinner, inspired by the reality show MasterChef. Guests compete in a cooking challenge, creating their own dish to impress judges, before sitting back to relax and enjoy the rest of the evening with free-flow of beer, wine and soft drinks.

Jenifer Dwyer-Slee, director of sales-business events, Accor, also noted that “clients today like to simulate TV (reality shows), so we are getting plenty of requests to do theme parties and team activities themed around My Kitchen Rules and MasterChef.

A rise in new Asian MICE markets such as China and India produces yet another stream of parties, with hotels tweaking the F&B selection and themes to cater to their needs.

Said Philippe Le Bourhis, general manager of Pullman Jakarta: “The growth of Indian and Chinese groups is impressive, even though the budgets can vary significantly based on the type of clients.

“New paradigms in food requirements are explored as some groups have their own cooks or need separate kitchens and culturally, Indian weddings require many specific details that surprise hotel teams. New language skills are also needed (when dealing with markets such as China), although most (of its) upscale clients would speak English.”

Andre A Gomez, general manager, Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa, agrees. “Chinese and Indian incentive groups have different budgets, depending on the group. We need to be aware of their cultural requirements and our culinary teams must develop greater skills in catering to their cuisines.

“With emerging markets such as India, where most of the disposable income is with the younger age group, events require style but also need to be relaxed and innovative in food, theming and service.”

Paul Yiu, director of sales & marketing of The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, Fiji, said theme parties that are “old news” to the more mature markets are new to these customers.

“Because of the evolving customer base, we are not putting to bed any of our events/themes at this time. Clients from further abroad will find the Fijian Culture dinner as entertaining as our (more mature) Australian clients did the first time they experienced it. The change is in how we present the ideas to the markets based on our understanding of what works for their needs. We just need to keep the older ideas refreshed, not axed.”

Popular venues
But the advent of the smart and sophisticated traveller is reshaping how theme parties are booked, where they are held and how they are organised.

And yes, the ballroom theme party has seen a drop due to more experienced travellers, with offsite venues or more unique spaces on property grounds being preferred today, hoteliers admitted.

Rex Loh, director of sales & marketing, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Millenia Singapore, said: “We are seeing an increase in requests for offsite catering. This can be attributed to (the emergence of) more event venues such as Gardens by the Bay.

“But theme parties still tend to be popular with the society set for gala dinners, charities and even weddings, or for luxury product launches. Although the number of theme parties (in hotels) have decreased, offsite catering has grown even more and this trend looks set to continue.”

Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok said its clients prefer to have parties at historical venues such as the 400-year-old Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya, or in Suan Pakkad Palace, Phya Thai Palace and the National Museum. The hotel provides offsite services to these events. Its own event venues such as The Residence and The Campus are also preferred as they are unique themes in themselves.

DMCs such as Dave Chang, managing director of Asia MICE Planner in Phuket, said: “We have definitely seen more demand for offsite theme parties too. For corporate groups staying at a resort for meetings that last several days, an offsite party is a good way to break the monotony.”

Four Points’ Watton observed: “People definitely know what they want more now than ever. In the past, people would look to hotels and venues for ideas, now they come with examples of what they would like to do and a budget. Unique venues which offer flexibility are the most popular – people are moving away from ballrooms and traditional spaces as they want something different, something to wow their guests.”

One reason why MICE organisers and delegates have become more sophisticated is because many of them have travelled extensively; thus, their expectations are higher, noted Andrew Leong, Resorts World Genting sales & marketing manager.

“Theme parties, as a result, have evolved to become more in-depth. The changes started taking place three to four years ago. It is no longer just about the décor or entertainment, but the total experience. Participants want to be more involved with activities, rather than just watch a show, then say goodbye. Off-the-rack theme parties don’t sell anymore,” said Leong.

Added Wendy Teo, director of sales-MICE, Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford: “Participants are definitely more well-travelled and IT-savvy these days. By being well-travelled and IT-savvy, they get inspiration or ideas from places they have travelled to. They also have easy access to web tools for research and comparison. Their levels of expectations are naturally higher as a result.”

Teo said the accessibility and availability of different types of venues – i.e., beachside resorts, luxury hotels, etc – pose increased competition to city hotels which have limited land space.

“Hence, we need to be creative and multi-faceted in space utilisation to maximise the area we have. We also try to offer new and interesting packages to our guests who are also attending trainings/seminars at Raffles City Convention Centre. An example would be including Singapore Grand Prix race tickets as part of the stay/meeting package during the race period.”

“Although the number of theme parties (in hotels) have decreased, offsite catering has grown even more and this trend is sent to continue.”
Rex Loh, Director of sales & marketing, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Millenia Singapore

Bigger needs, not budget
The dilemma however is, while clients want more sophisticated theme parties, budgets are not growing in tandem with higher expectations. Moving a theme party outdoors to a unique venue means higher costs as it involves moving furniture, IT equipment, props and settings, Resorts World’s Leong pointed out.

Organisers may want more than a single singer performance, but that well-choreographed entertainment for the whole evening, again, costs more.

Yet, post-GFC, the “no-expense spared” phrase is now “rarely heard”, said Amanda Thompson, executive assistant manager-sales & marketing, The Langham Melbourne.

“Event organisers are more careful with company funds and are no longer the final decision-makers when securing a venue. They often need to seek approval from senior management and provide a strong case why a five-star hotel is the right fit for their event. They want value for money, good service and for the event to reflect the quality of their own business, but at the same time they do not want to be seen as spending unnecessarily.

“Clients are looking for more value when booking a gala dinner/themed event. Some of the value adds might include alternate serve menus, upgrade in beverage package or additional complimentary half-an-hour of beverage service, table centrepieces, gift vouchers for a door prize and partnering with suppliers to cost effectively provide elements of their event,” said Thompson.

Westin Denarau’s Yui too saw “a huge focus from certain corporate markets to avoid conspicuous spending in case of public backlash”.

Yui said: “Budgets may be tighter, but clients still expect a wow factor. This means hotels have to get creative with offerings that keep costs down but give more perceived value to the customer. Partnerships with our external suppliers are a good way to assist the customer with this. Selling the package rather than just the hotel and banquet is more the strategy now since the overall budget is the main concern for the client; the costs for the programme are not in a silo and therefore hotel sales needs to work harder to win the business.”

Farizal Jaafar, group director of marketing, Sunway Hotels & Resorts, Kuala Lumpur, said she noticed group sizes have become smaller over the last two to three years. “A typical size now is 100 to 300 people whereas the average theme party size was between 500 and 700 delegates before.

“It could be that companies have increased their qualifying criteria, thus fewer delegates qualify, or costs have escalated so companies reduce their numbers, or willing to spend more but with fewer people,” Farizal said.

But Ayana Bali’s general manager, Edward Linsley, said the hotel’s guests are not “so cost-conscious as they are value-conscious”.

“We don’t find that our clients have lower budgets or are trying to cut costs, in fact the opposite. Our group budgets rise every year as a result of bigger groups in terms of both production and number of participants. They do not want to cut costs so much as they want to get more value for their money, in terms of a memorable, world-class experience that will leave a lasting impression on participants. They want unique experiences and activities, such as a group spa session for 40-50 people in the Aquatonic Seawater Therapy Pool or a perfume-making class where everyone creates their own signature fragrance to take home,” said Linsley.

Agreeing, Sunway’s Farizal said: “Companies look for quality in terms of flawless execution and they do not mind paying for it.”

Popular themes
As to what themes are selling well, Linsley said anything that is “different” sells. The hotel has even hosted a theme based on the Survivor TV reality show and dared participants to eat cockroaches and wash them down with Bintang beer.

“Pop culture inspires many events, with people wanting to remake a Hollywood movie or reality show into their own unique event. In the past, we have hosted themed events based on the movies The Avengers and Pirates of the Caribbean. Due to elaborate productions, a lot of the budget goes into decoration. Pirates, for example, involves creating a life-sized pirate ship as the backdrop for the gala dinner, and this requires close management to ensure such events do not exceed the budget. We work closely with event organisers to ensure this.

“Theme party ideas that always work for incentive groups in general are Balinese cultural nights, such as our Langit Theater experience which consists of a Balinese buffet dinner and Kecak dance performance.”

Resorts World’s Leong agreed with views that local themes, far from being outdated, still sell to foreign visitors. “Certain theme party ideas, like the kampung (village) night or the rainforest theme party, may be old ideas for locals, but they still appeal to foreign markets. Local groups usually choose movie themes such as Men in Black and colour themes, like all black or all white.

“However, a trend we are seeing is organisers wanting to custom-make their theme parties. Most of the time the organiser will sit down with us and tell us the delegates’ likes and dislikes, the objectives they wish to achieve, and we will tailor-make a theme party to their liking.”

Westin Denarau’s Yui also observed that guests want an experience and not just a pretty venue. So concepts that incorporate the local culture with a level of participation by the customers have become increasingly popular.

“As budgets decrease, we have to find other innovative ways to sell to the customer, such as leveraging on the stunning sunsets that can be seen from our property as well as our lush garden settings that can be used to create an ‘otherworld’ ambience for their events,” he said.

“Fiji is fortunate enough to have beautiful landscapes that can be monopolised for events if the client has little in the way of budget to spend on lighting and décor.”

Said Hilton Phuket’s Gomez: “The common requests previously were all about table centrepieces. We have now added equipment in our newly-refurbished ballroom such as state-of-the-art audio-visual system and a ceiling fully-fitted with fibre-optic lighting to provide a venue that can create moods and feeling to suit any occasion and to better theme our events instead of the standard enhancements.

“Easy travel today sees people across all cultures and different time zones attend any given event. As a result, any single event needs to be tailored to suit as many people as possible with considerations of food, culture and religion.”

Behind the scenes, the effort to put up a great theme party has become greater than ever.

But, as they say: the show must go on.

 

Hot and not
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Left, local themes still in fashion. Above, group spa party at Ayana Resort and Spa, Bali

HOT: Interactive theme parties tailored after reality TV shows
The Westin Denarau Island Resort and Spa, Fiji, for example, tailors a theme after the Iron Chef series, where competitors pitch their cooking skills against each other. The competition portion of the event does not take too much time and is a way to get the group interacting. Once completed, the group enjoys a gourmet lunch or dinner together.

“This event addresses clients’ requirements in terms of tighter budgets, food focus and interaction. It is executed solely by the hotel associates and our resources on property. This keeps costs low,” said general manager Paul Yui.

Edward Linsley, general manager of Ayana Resort & Spa, Bali, said to find out what’s a hot theme party, just ask, what’s on at the movies? “Perhaps we (the hotel) will see something along the lines of Star Wars, or maybe even Ted,” he said.

HOT: Traditional themes, with a surprising or new twist
Said Mark Shrives, director of sales and marketing, Hansar Bangkok: “We organised a nostalgic Thai style party for a local publishing house, where guests come dressed up in bright, colourful costumes to enjoy a street-like atmosphere with carts offering somtum and accompanied by Isan singing. It was tacky but fun.”

Christine Divinagracia, assistant director events of Dusit Thani Manila, also noted that Filipiniana is still in demand, including the Barrio Fiesta theme, “but clients appreciate a modern twist, stylish details and personal touch”.

She said: “Last year, we hired style consultant Henry Pascual to help us conceptualise a Filipiniana theme but with modern elements; so not just using native baskets and local cloths for decoration, but combining them with other elements like glass, metal and candelabra.

“It also addresses the challenge of really transforming a function room or the ballroom into a glamourous venue to bring out that wow factor that everybody is looking for.”

Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort & Spa, Cebu, Philippines is revamping its local theme party and coffee breaks to make them more contemporary and experiential, said Agnes Pacis, director of sales & marketing. “We plan to make the decorations more colourful and source more options for entertainment, not just do the regular cultural show. Local souvenirs are also to be sourced out.”

HOT: Nostalgia theme parties
A theme that is no longer in trend today may become popular a couple of years from now. Wendy Teo, director of sales-MICE of Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford, gave the example of Shanghai Tang, which she noted is becoming popular again.

“This theme has timeless appeal and unique quality, where classy old world charm of the East is perfectly intertwined with Western influence. Guests of such parties, local or international, can easily relate to the theme and have convenient access to the era’s fashion and hairstyles, enabling them to soak in the essence of the event easily.

“The venue as well may be transformed completely with exotic backdrops of grand old Shanghai complemented with cheongsam-clad service staff, antique furnishings and enhanced by classical music of an era gone by,” she said.

Agreeing, The Langham Melbourne’s executive assistant manager-sales & marketing, Amanda Thompson, said: “With nostalgia parties you will always see a revival of the good ones, perhaps presented in a different way.”

NOT HOT: Wine and celebrity chef parties, described as “so over and boring” by Hansar’s Shrives. “Such events only repeat what has been done. Hence, we are looking at collaboration and partnerships with external suppliers to bring interesting concepts to Hansar Bangkok. For example, a focus on more international cuisine by importing beers from the US and barbeque parties on the Rooftop Sky Terrace.

NOT HOT: Pirates and Hawaiian. Not popular anymore and have been done a lot of times in different locations, said a few sources.

NOT HOT: Black & white and formal bow tie theme parties. “Organisers want parties to be filled with fun, not the traditional dinner and dance where guests of multinational companies put on their formal suit like they do every day. With the current theme parties, all attendees have the opportunity to create their own costumes, thereby creating more excitement,” said Eric Tan, general manager, Pullman Kuching.

The days of gaming tables are a thing of the past, believes The Langham Melbourne’s executive assistant manager-sales & marketing, Amanda Thompson.

Additional reporting from Karen Yue, Xinyi Liang-Pholsena, S Puvaneswary and Rosa Ocampo

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