(STAR) By Scott R. Garceau - Every 15 minutes in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a series of ascending bell tones gently sounds, followed by a soothing voice reminding visitors that “Your next scheduled interviews will be commencing now…”

At the international booths spread around the huge convention center, ladies and gents sit down for scheduled face time: a precious 15 minutes to get to know a foreign destination, and maybe hook up later.

You can’t help thinking of speed dating. And maybe that’s what the Asian Incentives and Marketing Exhibition (AIME) is all about. A chance for two parties — in this case, businesses and travel destinations — to make a love connection based on shared interests and desires.

But these aren’t desperate daters. They’re Philippine hotel agents trying to set up conferences and incentive tours (those “bonus” trips salespeople are rewarded with for having a good year). And on the other side of the table, you’ve got Australian business reps trying to find sexy, exotic locales where they can hold their next team-building exercises. The two parties “meet” online, exchanging preferences and swapping details in a two-way online “diary” set up by AIME before the actual meet. Then it’s all about face-to-face chemistry.

The soft bells ring again, the two parties get up from either side of the table, shake hands, exchange business cards. And the dance continues.

Recently in Melbourne with the Department of Tourism to get a look at its participation in AIME, I found that my observation was nothing new. “Yes, we refer to it as the speed dating system,” confirms AIME sales manager Ricardo Stephen. “It stops long meetings.”

AIME, a yearly exhibition staged by Reed Travel under the Melbourne Convention + Visitors Bureau, works to bring some 850 exhibitors from more than 40 countries face-to-face with the local Australian business market. But what often happens, as I learned, is that exhibitors end up transacting considerably more business with one another than with the Australians. The DOT-organized booth at AIME’s 13,500-square-meter space this year featured 10 Philippine exhibitors — up from last year’s three, and including Intas Destinations, T.R.I.P.S. Travel, the PICC, Crowne Plaza Galleria Manila, Sofitel Philippine Plaza, PAL Sydney, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, Cebu Holiday Tours & Travel, Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort and Travelvision. Several of them told me that Australian hook-ups — that is, scheduled sitdowns — represent only 20 percent of the meetings. The rest come from other Asian destinations (like India, which is hot on the Philippines right now) and from “walk-ins.”

The appointment-driven speed dating system is meant to keep business flowing at this two-day event, which features some of the most elaborate booths I’ve yet seen at an international expo. Some have two stories; others use expensive building materials like polished wood and concrete pillars. A group of Thai cultural performers make their way down the aisle; some Irish acrobats show up later; there’s even a “pampering center” for the hard-working media (though all the massage slots were booked solid by the time I wandered in).

You can see the Philippines booth all the way across the exhibition hall. The banner is 20 feet high, very colorful, with the slogan “So Much, So Near” provided by Tourism Attaché for Australia and New Zealand Consuelo Garcia Jones. At 90 square meters, it’s twice the size of last year’s DOT booth at AIME.

The space isn’t the only thing bigger for the DOT this year. Its office in Melbourne now has an annual budget of P16 million (the booth cost about P2 million to build) and the DOT pulled out all the stops for AIME, inviting Philippine media members to tour the city, even take a stunning helicopter ride above the Yarra River.

It’s a sign of growing confidence, because the DOT now charts Australia as fifth among arrivals to the Philippines (behind Korea, the US, Japan and China). This is an impressive gain, but it’s no time to slow down, not according to Jones, who oversaw the booth with Undersecretary for Tourism Planning and Promotions Eduardo Jarque Jr. “The more we get, the bigger our chances,” she notes. “You want to work harder. You want to do better. You don’t want to settle for number five, let me put it that way.”

Overseeing the exhibitors and guests like a mother hen, Jones hopes that Australia’s interest in the Philippines will grow and grow. She dismisses local outbursts like the Manila Pen mutiny attempt and political rallies as “mere hiccups” and says now is the time to keep the ball rolling.

“Surprisingly, the places we’ve visited, nobody’s brought up security,” adds Jarque. “Now, the problem (for the Philippines) is accommodations. Seats. Not enough flights. We need more of everything. People want to stay in four, five-star hotels. We’re trying to build 3,000 more rooms for this year, but people will have to wait.”

This is a scenario Senior Tourism Operations Officer Liliosa Libosasa, based in Cebu, echoes: “We’ve been clamoring for more direct flights” from Cebu to Sydney.

It’s a problem the Philippines is blessed to have. With tourist arrivals up to 3.09 million annually, tourist spending up by 40 percent and a DOT budget that allows it to attend as many international conventions as humanly possible, the opportunity is there to create huge ripples for local tourism.

But I must bring it up: Doesn’t Australia already possess a lot of the things the Philippines offers? Great beaches, five-star resorts, plenty of sun, food and shopping? Well, yes, concede Jarque and Jones. So culture is key.

“We definitely have to compete with the beaches, not only Australia’s. So we bring out our culture. We bring out a whole package,” explains Jones.

“I sell the country as a market destination. We’ve got what every tourist is looking for. Granted, you can lie by the beach, but we also have great shopping, we have upmarket shopping, but also the market style. When we talk about spas we talk about having specialty types of massages — the local Philippine hilot, and all that — in totally different settings. Which is what Australians want: they want the variety.”

Another thing people apparently want is medical tourism. Jones mentions a Queensland company that sets up dental visits to the Philippines. Called Meditours, the company, started by an Australian and his Filipina wife, has also expanded into the “facial rejuvenation” market. Not so long ago, the DOT shied away from endorsing medical tourism; but now, under the bigger umbrella of “wellness,” everything from massage to facelifts goes. As long as it’s safe. “It’s picking up so fast,” Jones confirms. “And it’s all going to help, I think, at the end of the day.”

Meanwhile, Jarque has regular sitdowns with Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano back in Manila to discuss where the DOT will go next.

For Australia, they’re talking about opening a Travel Café branch (“once investors come in”) and in-depth fam trips run by a big nationwide tour operator, highlighting the best the Philippines has to offer. “Not just two or three places,” Jarque explains. “If you’re into culture, we’ll bring you to cultural destinations; for food, we’ll bring you to food places; for spas, all the specialty spas.” Another idea is hitting the shopping malls and supermarkets with flyers and holding raffles for fam trips to the Philippines. “It’s a tie-up with local malls; we’ll bring media there, just reaching out for more people. Maximize it, right?”

Jones spreads the word through local print media: magazines like Vogue Australia, Australian Gourmet, Travel and Living, Travel & Leisure, and Stephen Morton’s E-travel Blackboard. One project materialized quickly after the Philippines participated in a Christmas parade in Melbourne last November: 23 Bayanihan dancers and a couple beauty contestants joined the float; next thing you know, the Sydney Opera House is booking the dancers to perform and trying to get Lea Salonga to headline a concert. “It’s a simple case, but the media we created — amazing!” recalls Jarque. “Because we saw it and said, ‘There must be something here, we just have to make a lot of noise.’”

Though the Philippine booth at AIME lacks the typical bells and whistles of performers and towering bamboo, Jarque is talking about bringing chefs in for special events; or local designers and models sporting indigenous materials for fashion shows. The sky’s the limit, especially when the budget’s bigger.

“I usually call it a period of feast or famine,” says Jarque. “Now, the money’s basically there. The budget, the brochures, the materials are out there.” But the unspoken assumption is, who knows if the money will still be there after 2010? “This is a race,” Jarque admits. “The mandate of the DOT is very simple: bring warm bodies, make them stay longer, make them stay more. Period.”

For now, Jones is pleased to tick off Australian arrivals, which broke the 100,000 mark back in 2006, hit 112,244 last year, and have risen 19 percent compared to January 2007. The market is “excellent,” she says. “We’ve really shown significant growth.”

But the fact does remain, Australia seems awfully good at selling itself back to the people who are trying to sell themselves to it: a peek inside the press room reveals mounds of “green” tourism kits: CDs and free flash drives (instead of tree-unfriendly brochures and pamphlets) promoting every Oz destination from the Gold Coast to Perth. How can all these visiting countries even keep up? The Philippines does its best, supplying its own fat press kit (presented in old-fashioned paper, by the way) with separate pamphlets hailing “Shopping,” “Meeting” and “Breakaway” opportunities. Key destinations like Bohol, Boracay, Cebu and Palawan get the blue waters/white sands pictorial treatment. Will it lure scads more Australians to our shores?

The DOT seems to think so. It’s now at its fourth AIME show, and sees no reason to stop now. After all, that 15-minute bell comes up pretty quick.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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