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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Meetings in the East
Buoyed by initiatives of the central government to promote the north eastern corridor, many hospitality and tourism players are now looking eastwards. And with national and international hotel chains entering the eastern and north-eastern markets, the MICE sector in these markets holds immense potential. By Kahini Chakraborty

Mini auditorium Science City, Kolkata
The trend while hosting annual business meetings, international conferences and conventions, exhibitions has been the selection of places with exotic locations and tourists spot. This criteria has become of prime importance to ensure 100 per cent participation aiding in mixing business with a little bit of pleasure. With north eastern India being the abode of natural resources and scenic tourist offerings, the region has been showing tremendous potential which has caught the attention of many hospitality and tourism players. Buoyed by initiatives of the central government to promote eastern corridor comprising the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and eight north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim it gives another reason to look towards the 'East'. Despite its strengths, the region has not flourished in comparison to other parts of the country and the region's potential has not been tapped effectively. Hence, in order to make up for the disparity, the Government of India through its Department of North-East Region (DONER) as well as the respective state governments and government agencies like the North East Development Council, North-East Development Finance Corporation and others have taken up several significant initiatives to promote economic growth, tourism and development in the north east region.
Analysts feel that issues like shortage of power, over-dependence on hydro-electricity, absence of proper road, rail and air connectivity, shortage of skilled workforce for the tourism and hospitality industry, people's perception about militancy in some pockets of the north east are some of the issues, which need to be addressed in order to help the region achieve the desired growth rate.
Tapping MICE
Having the required resources to cater to the burgeoning MICE sector, the north eastern region has vast scope. Though Kolkata has few luxury hotels to host conventions, there is an urgent need on the part of the state government to speed up the initiative to set up a dedicated convention centre. Presently, the convention centre of Science City, Kolkata, is one of the most sought after destinations for MICE in the city. Promoted by the National Council of Science Museums (the apex body of science museums and centres in India) in 1996, Science City, Kolkata, is host to several important medical conferences, scientific workshops, cultural programmes and workshops and corporate AGMs in the eastern region of the country. It consists of two facilities, the Science Centre and the Convention Centre.

A D Choudhury
The Convention Centre complex comprises the Grand Theatre (2232 seating capacity), one Mini Auditorium (392 seating capacity) and a seminar hall building with 11 halls ranging from 15 to 100 seating capacity, indoor (270sq.m.) and open air exhibition ground (20000 sq m). The auditoria’s and seminar halls are fully air-conditioned. With a view to further expand its convention centre facility, Science City, Kolkata, plans to develop a permanent structure in its exhibition ground. “We are looking at going in for public private partnership to expand the convention facility,” says A D Choudhury, director, Science City, Kolkata. The convention centre is occupied 235 days in a year. It can host up to 5,000-6,000 people which is usually the case during medical conferences which takes place once or twice a year. The major programmes conducted are from November to February (medical and other national and international meetings). “West Bengal as a MICE destination is definitely growing. Earlier there were 50-60 events taking place round the year and lately the number has increased manifold to 400-500 events a year,” adds Choudhury.
Most of the star-category hotels and budget hotels are located in Kolkata and a few in Darjeeling and cities like Siliguri and Durgapur. There are some luxury resorts in the Dooars region. Business visitors have been the larger chunk of guests at hotels in Kolkata, who come to the city for their official or business engagements. This is because over the years, Kolkata has emerged as an important IT/ITeS and MICE destination in the country, which has scaled up business travel to the city pushing up occupancy in the city's star-category hotels.
Currently several leading hospitality groups are either setting up or in the process of setting up their properties in the region. ITC Hotels, which is already operating its luxury property ITC Sonar, is setting up its second hotel in the city adjacent to its existing property. The Park Hotel, the flagship brand of the Apeejay Group also plans to set up another property on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass on the outer limits of the city. The Great Eastern Hotel is being majorly re-modelled and the new rechristened hotel is likely to be inaugurated soon. Home grown SPS Group took over a non-operational property and relaunched it as 'Fortune Loudon' after entering into an arrangement with ITC Fortune. ITC Fortune is also operating another hotel in Howrah on the other side of the river Hoogly.
Swiss hospitality major Swissotel Hotels & Resorts in association with Ambuja Realty of the Neotias has launched Swissotel, Kolkata, one of the finest properties in the city. The hotel brand also has plans to expand the facilities in the near future. Several other hotel projects are lined up along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. JW Marriott and InterContinental too has plans for the city. SP Jain's Pride Group is all set to inaugurate its maiden project - Pride Biznotel in Kolkata soon. Hilton is also setting up a property in the city.
Newer avenues

Science City, Kolkata
Major projects are also lined up in Asansol-Durgapur region and Siliguri, the industrial towns of the state. Hospitality major Wyndham is all set to enter Asansol after joining hands with Kolkata based BlueChip Projects. Besides, several leading players like Peerless-Sarovar combine, Rose Valley, Citi Residenci and other mid-sized business hotels are already operating from Durgapur. Bengal Aerotropolis Projects, is developing the country's first privately owned Aerotropolis in association with Changi Airport Consultants at Andal near Durgapur, which when launched will increase business travel manifold in the region.

Goutam Deb
Siliguri, which is the 'Gateway to the north east' and a major trading hub too has several business class hotels like the Sarovars, Sinclairs, etc. “The growth prospects of Siliguri is tremendous. Siliguri, not only is a business and trading hub but at the same time a transit point for the entire region. Tourists going to either the north east, Darjeeling hills or the Dooars have to pass through Siliguri. So there is demand for more quality rooms,” says Goutam Deb, minister in charge (MIC), North Bengal Development, Government of West Bengal.
With players like Ambuja Realty and Sarovars present in the region, Hyatt has shown interest to set up a new property in North Bengal. In neighbouring Jharkhand, most of the hospitality related activities are more or less confined in and around Ranchi, the state capital. The state government bagged investment proposals for setting up new hospitality projects in the state. Among the investment proposals, one of them is from the Mumbai-based AVI Hospitality' for setting up mid-sized hotels in places like Deoghar, Dhanbad and Parasnath at an investment of Rs 50 crore, which will provide direct employment opportunities to around 300 people.
Looking at Guwahati, there are several star category hotels in the city which meet the requirements for mid-sized meetings and conventions. Prominent among them is The Brahmaputra Ashok, Hotel Dynasty, Hotel Rajmahal, Hotel Starline, Hotel Agneedeep Continental. The Brahmaputra Ashok plans to add a convention centre facility for 1000 guests as part of its expansion plans.
Vikas Sarawgi, honorary treasurer, Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI)- Eastern region and director NCS Travel and Tours says, “ Though major cities of the east like Kolkata, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar and Ranchi have tremendous possibilities in terms of MICE movements, they lack of proper convention facilities and air-connectivity. In case of Guwahati, though it is an important commercial and business hub and the gateway to the north east, the MICE sector is again dominated by regional players and SMEs.”
DS (Assam) Hospitality Limited, a joint venture between Dharampal Satyapal Group and Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) is setting up a 196-room keys five-star hotel in Guwahati and the hotel will be branded as Radisson Hotels, Guwahati. It will have state-of-the-art convention facilities for 500 odd people. “Darjeeling, the hill station can be explored as a MICE destination in the summer season. Sunderbans too is an ideal destination for official meetings and interactions, but lack of proper road connectivity and hotel accommodation are the major deterrents for the growth of the MICE sector,” adds Bose.

Dr Suborno Bose
Odisha is another state in the eastern radar which has done wonders in terms of travel and tourism in the last few years. Several hospitality groups are present in the state, which include the home-grown Swosti Group, The Chariot, The Crown, Mayfair Hotels & Resorts, Trident Hotels, Ginger Hotel, Royal Mid Town, Hotel Kalinga Ashok, etc. Besides, several new properties are coming up in the state at Bhubaneswar and at the beach resorts of Puri and Konark. Bhubaneshwar on the other hand is fast growing as a MICE destination. “The Odisha government and Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation have taken up several initiatives to spruce up infrastructure of the city and state as a whole. Road connectivity has been improved between Bhubaneswar, Rourkela, Puri, Konark, Cuttack, etc. However, the airport at Bhubaneswar falls short of international requirements and cannot handle huge air-traffic. It needs to be upgraded to the international status at the earliest to meet the growing demands,” adds Dr Suborno Bose, chairman & chief mentor, IndiSmart Group Worldwide (Owner of star category Business Hotels & IIHM and IAM Hotel Schools).

J K Mohanty
“The Odisha tourism department has now started spending huge amounts on advertisements to attract tourists. But in order to tap the MICE segment the government is yet to do anything,” adds J K Mohanty, chairman and MD, Swosti Group.
Need for infrastructure

Sundarwasala at Ffort Raichak
The road connectivity between Kolkata and nearby tourist locations like Digha, Mandarmoni, Bishnupur needs to be improved in order to attract MICE tourists into the state. Smaller destinations like Durgapur and Siliguri in West Bengal have immense opportunities but lack proper infrastructure like good air-connectivity. Bagdogra airport also lacks the capacity to handle large passenger traffic. On a positive note, Guwahati's Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport is connected with major cities of the country like Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and others. Guwahati is well connected with other parts of the country through a well-knit railway network. However, the state governments need to lobby hard to bring at least few top-ranking international carriers to the region.
Future ahead
The future of MICE tourism in the east is encouraging. Once the upgraded Kolkata international airport is fully operational and all the infrastructural activities in and around the city like setting up of new flyovers, metro rail connectivity, etc., is over it will become an international destination.
“If the state government understands the importance of setting up a dedicated convention centre and pursues it, we sincerely feel that the city with its exotic tourist attractions, hospitality, strong cultural background, safety and security would emerge as an ideal MICE destination. Bhubaneswar has an immense growth potential as far as a MICE destination is concerned,” adds Bose.
With the launch of new luxury properties coming up in Guwahati this will cater to the conferencing and banqueting needs of the SME sector. “But to make it large in the MICE segment, the Assam government needs to explore the possibility of setting up a large convention facility may be through private participation which can accommodate 2,000 or more delegates. It can also hard sell its tourism potentials and strengths to lure business houses to host their conventions in the city,” says Sarawgi.
(With inputs from Joy Roy Chowdhury)

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