“The best way to promote the Philippines effectively is to leave the Philippines out” of the marketing message, Camarines Sur governor Luis Raymund “Lray” Villafuerte, Jr. told 250 delegates to the MICECON 2010 conference in Subic Bay last week. Although Mr. Villafuerte’s remarks were met with stunned silence initially-quickly followed by boos and “No’s”-the young governor was steadfast, repeating his advice at least twice more.
MICECON 2010 is a project of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Philippine Convention and Visitors Corporation (PCVC) and is the product of the merger of two precursors, The Philippine Incentive Marketing Conference first organized in 1991 by the informal private-sector Movement of Incentive Travel Executives; and, the Philippine Asian MICE Forum, launched in 2008 by the Philippine Association of Convention & Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers.
The combined conference was meant to consolidate resources and unify the industry to better position it for selling the Philippines as a MICE destination. MICE stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, and Exhibitions-collectively considered the “Rolls Royce” of the tourism industry because sponsors and delegates channel very significant funds into local economies where these events are held.
Mr. Villafuerte was a panelist in one of the more anticipated sessions, which focused on Brand Philippines. Other panelists included BBDO Guerrero chairman and chief creative officer David Guerrero and JWT Manila CEO Jos Ortega. BBDO Guerrero and JWT are two of the Philippines’ top advertising agencies, and Messrs. Guerrero and Ortega-formerly partners-played instrumental roles in the development of the WOW Philippines brand campaign.
Mr. Guerrero’s principal message was that the Philippines is not visible in MICE markets because it chooses not to be. “We have to speak up,” he told delegates, but also cautioned that “we have to work on the product” that is the Philippines. While many speakers at the conference and delegates alike were quick to praise Filipinos as wonderful hosts and the Philippines as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, there was near unanimous agreement that creaky, underdeveloped infrastructure-including the Subic Bay International Convention Center where the conference was held as well as airports and roads all over the country-requires immediate and substantial investment.
The message of Mr. Ortega was that the Philippines in thinking of its brand visibility, must develop many unique attributes that distinguish the country from its growing number of competitors throughout Southeast and North Asia. Although the Philippines was once the MICE capital of Asia, that distinction has long been lost. Now, every Asian city of consequence is targeting the lucrative MICE market. Pressure to meaningfully and credibly distinguish the Philippines from these competitors is intense.
Messrs. Guerrero and Ortega are extremely accomplished in their field, but Mr. Villafuerte could claim that he has truly “been there and done that” when it comes to place branding and marketing. He believes that it’s prudent to brand and market a place “sans the Philippines” not so much because the country has a negative brand image, but because it is mostly invisible, as Mr. Guerrero concluded. “I don’t want to have to sell the Philippines and then sell Camarines Sur,” he explained. “It’s easier to just sell Camarines Sur.”
The province’s classy website, camsur.com, showcases the campaign that has transformed the 39th poorest province in the country into the 10th richest, according to Mr. Villafuerte and others. “I had to think out of the box,” he says about the task of developing the province’s sad economy when he was elected in 2004. Determined that tourism could play an important role in creating jobs and raising incomes, he set about fostering a brand backed by substance, and then worked hard to generate visibility for the rebranded province of “CamSur.”
The website actually consists of seven different web properties, each devoted to a particular brand attribute, such as international sports events, family tourism, and romantic holidays. Slick videos on the main site provide a powerful glimpse into the province’s value proposition. Mr. Villafuerte says he runs the province as an enterprise, and he serves as the CEO accountable for progress.
CamSur-and Brand Philippines-is still a work in progress, and so is MICECON, which takes place in Cebu next year. But its progress is impressive and serves as an inspirational benchmark for other local governments. The conference session itself, while excellent in many respects, could have been much more meaningful for delegates if it hadn’t been hijacked by a facilitator who believed he was the most important person on stage rather than the panelists.
But progress always comes in steps. Hopefully, quick steps.