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Located at opposite ends of the Japanese archipelago, Hokkaido is famous for snow and ice while Okinawa gets plaudits for sun-kissed beaches and water sports. Those very different attributes make both ideal—but contrasting—destinations for meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions (MICE).

The Japanese government and travel authorities are keen to promote opportunities in the MICE sector as part of their overall efforts to lift international arrivals to the 40 million mark by 2020, and these distinct locations offer attractive options.

Visa regulations for visitors from other parts of Asia are being relaxed, while new flight routes and an increase in the number of destinations served by low-cost carriers are making Japan more attractive to MICE players. A new ambassadors program has been created to promote facilities in areas that might otherwise be overlooked, and the Japan Convention Bureau is confident that inbound MICE in 2016 will surpass last year’s figures.

Hotels, local authorities, and those catering to MICE in both Hokkaido and Okinawa also firmly believe they have what it takes to deliver the ideal experience.

Ki Niseko onsen

Ki Niseko onsen

SILVER ALL YEAR ROUND
Locals in Hokkaido call winter “the silver time.” But it was not until a decade ago that the MICE sector began to find opportunities throughout the year.

“We used to have ski resorts that still had great snow on the ground in March and even April; but they were almost empty,” says Dima Azarov, a spokesman for the Sapporo Convention Bureau’s MICE section. “Then we realized that these venues would be ideal for snow-based team-building activities.

“We wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities during our off-season, and from there we started to develop and expand our unique offerings for the incentive sector,” he says.

The first edition of the region’s Unique Venues and Team Building Guide was issued two years ago. Of the dozens of opportunities that have been devised for inbound clients, a number are likely to catch the eye.

The particularly adventurous—even if they are novices—can participate in snowmobile races, while the fittest can take part in a snowshoe race that culminates in an ice cream-making competition. Other venues offer snowman-building competitions, sledge-building contests—with the vehicle eventually put to the test in a race—and team treasure hunts around winterbound Sapporo.

One of Hokkaido’s claims to winter-sport fame is yukigassen, which is essentially a snowball fight with rules that were formalized in 1989. Available at a number of venues, as many as 80 people can participate in a yukigassen showdown. There are serious moves afoot to have it included in the Winter Olympic Games.

And while elsewhere shoveling snow is considered a chore, the ever-inventive people of Hokkaido have elevated it to a sport—the ultimate, perhaps, in Cool Japan.

Nearby Niseko has also attracted a strong tourist following in recent years, with the MICE offerings of Sapporo and Niseko complementing each other.

“The accommodations on offer range from internationally branded hotels such as the Hilton—which are set to increase in the near future—through to smaller hotels, condominiums, and private lodge-type properties,” says Paul Haggart, who handles MICE for the local government. “The styles of accommodations are endless, as are the options for putting together accommodations for groups who wish to stay in the area.”

The Hilton Niseko Village is a landmark of the town and recently hosted a 450-strong incentive group from a major insurance company. At the hotel’s banquet facilities, meals were served featuring fresh Hokkaido ingredients and accompanied by traditional local entertainment.

“We are seeing a clear increase in MICE events in our hotel, and I feel that Hokkaido, as a destination, has huge potential for anyone who wants to experience good food, great weather, and beautiful scenery throughout the year,” says Tomoyuki Yamanobe, general manager of the hotel.

Chris Pickering, director and group general manager of Hokkaido Tourism Management (HTM), agrees that the prefecture is the ideal destination for MICE.

“It’s perfect year-round because of the world-class snow in the winter and the sunny, warm weather—without the humidity of the rest of Japan—in the summer,” he explains.

“Looking at all the nature, whatever the season, gives people on MICE trips a feeling of total well-being,” he says. “Once you then add the incredible food—truly world-class with Michelin-starred restaurants alongside classic Japanese hole-in-the-wall izakaya and the onsen—it leaves people feeling totally satiated by nature, food, and culture.”

The Ki Niseko hotel, managed by HTM, offers a more boutique experience than other, larger facilities and can also provide hiking, golf, cycling, rafting, and team-building activities in the summer months.

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SOME LIKE IT HOT
Great outdoor opportunities are also the strength of Okinawa, and are ready to be orchestrated by companies, hotels, and organizations that are able to facilitate unforgettable events. The prefecture is looking to ramp up its reputation as a MICE destination and is preparing for three major infrastructure projects that will further boost its appeal to event planners.

The prefectural government is scheduled to open a new state-of-the-art exhibition center on the east coast of the main island of Okinawa in 2020, while a second runway is due to become operational at Naha Airport the same year. A new passenger terminal is also being planned for the city’s ferry port.

“Okinawa is not yet well developed as an international MICE destination due to limited international flights, language proficiency, and facilities catering to international markets. But future opportunities are substantial,” explains Bjorn Courage, general manager of the ANA InterContinental Manza Beach Resort.

“It is safe, high-quality, and has a perfect location—all of which means Okinawa has a good possibility of growing into a top MICE destination,” he says. “Also, the 2020 Olympic Games and 2019 Rugby World Cup will put a focus on Japan in general, and Okinawa will benefit from that as well.”

The ANA InterContinental Beach Resort

The ANA InterContinental Beach Resort

ANA InterContinental Manza Beach Resort, on the west coast of the main island, has banquet facilities for MICE groups of up to 520 people.

“We do work with event planners, but also have a wide range of options that we can organize ourselves, such as a beach Olympics, a local dance show, a karate exhibition, fireworks displays on the beach, and so on,” Courage says.

The nearby Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa recently hosted an event for a major auto manufacturer, with meals, entertainment, and fireworks for 260 people.

“MICE planners come to Okinawa for our beautiful beaches, good weather, and to enjoy the resort atmosphere, relaxation, and fun,” says Yumiko Ichikawa, the hotel’s international sales manager.

“Okinawa is starting to recognize the MICE market, but there are a limited number of hotels that have the capacity to hold major events,” she says. “And while inquiries are definitely increasing, the block-booking of a large number of hotel rooms for tourists—since Okinawa became a popular international destination—means that we cannot always meet client demands.”

Okinawa has several MICE organizers that can set up a wide range of experiences, such as cultural evenings in locations such as Zakimi Castle, which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is available to host demonstrations of traditional Okinawan martial arts, music, and dance.

Similarly, Shuri Castle, the crimson fortress that overlooks Naha, can be booked as a MICE venue.

Specialist MICE companies such as DMC Okinawa can set up tailor-made events for domestic and overseas clients, ranging from dragon-boat races to treasure hunts, as well as themed parties and a chance to perform Okinawan music.

The Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau has also introduced a number of measures designed to attract MICE planners, including having Miss Okinawa ambassadors take part in receptions and presentations, holding a welcome ceremony at the airport, and providing introductions to organizations that can put on traditional cultural events.

Extra help includes financial support for charter bus services, accommodation subsidies for incentive tours, and arranging discounts for conference venues—including the Okinawa Convention Center and the Bankoku Shinryokan party venue.

Shuri Castle in Okinawa

Shuri Castle in Okinawa

Julian Ryall is Tokyo correspondent for The Daily Telegraph
The Japanese government and travel authorities are keen … to lift international arrivals to the 40 million mark by 2020.