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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Becoming a Global Meeting Hub

Feb. 28, 2017

As tourists flock to Japan, the country is looking to international conferences as a way to attract even more foreign visitors.

Such events are nothing new, but their market value has grown significantly, to about 62 billion dollars. The country has been working hard to attract international events in an effort to stimulate the economy.

The southern city of Fukuoka has become Japan's second biggest destination for international conferences. Last year, an international exchange event was held there by the Lions club, the world’s largest voluntary social services organization. About 38,000 people from over 100 countries participated.

During the event, Fukuoka’s main thoroughfares closed for a parade that cost the equivalent of over 250,000 dollars to hold. The Lions Club took over 5 of Fukuoka’s conference facilities, including its international conference center, for 5 days of meetings and trade exhibitions. The event is estimated to have had an economic ripple effect of up to 46 million dollars.

International events benefit the local economy, too. A conference on human-resources education was held in Fukuoka in January and it featured discussions between researchers and government officials from 10 countries.

The participants also looked forward to their free time after the meetings. We followed 3 Australians as they hit the streets at the end of the day. One of them was looking at top-quality Hakata fabrics, a Fukuoka specialty. He bought some straight away as a souvenir for his wife. Another man was interested in another local product, dolls, and he quickly decided to buy one.

At night, they went to the food stalls downtown. The three of them thoroughly enjoyed Fukuoka’s nightlife during their 4-day stay.

On average, international conference guests spend an estimated 2,700 dollars during their stay in Japan -- that's twice as much as the average tourist.

A team made up of representatives from the private sector and the City of Fukuoka is in charge of attracting these international events. Its members are experts on the subject. They have been recruited from businesses such as travel agencies and railway companies. They use their networks to quickly acquire the schedules of forthcoming international events all over the world.

The key to winning the bid is finding a way to outsmart rival cities in other countries.

"International meetings can serve as a good stimulus to the local community -- the more of them we have, the better the economic effect. There’s potential for them to get really huge," says Ken Ude, director at MICE Promotion in Fukuoka city.

At the moment, Fukuoka is working especially hard to attract international events that will create business opportunities for local companies. This week, the city is hosting an exhibition featuring local start-ups. The team managed to bring the event here after almost a year of negotiations.

This booth belongs to a company that manufactures commercial drones. It has developed a model that can fly for longer than most drones. Now the company wants to expand and do business abroad.

One agent who negotiates deals between businesses praises the products’ world-class technology. On the spot, he and the drone company representative arrange another meeting to discuss the details of expanding the business.

"Local businesses don’t often get an opportunity to sell their goods overseas. I think this was a very substantive meeting, because there was an immediate agreement to meet again to discuss strategies for moving into the international market," says Ginijiro Nishijima, CEO of Comquest Ventures Japan.


Hisao Kawashima, a specialist in international conferences, joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: What’s the secret behind Fukuoka’s success in attracting international conferences?

Kawashima: I think there are 3 main factors. First, there are a lot of flights between Fukuoka and nearby Asian cities. Fukuoka has a compact city center, with easy access to both the airport and the port. Second, there’s the quality of the hosts. Fukuoka has some first-rate engineering and medical-science universities. International events in these fields are a big and expanding market.

And the third point is the most important one. Three years ago, the City of Fukuoka joined forces with local businesses to create a dedicated team for attracting international events. As we saw in the report, getting local businesses involved helps to ensure the events are well-run, and also creates opportunities for local companies to attract international customers.

Beppu: What kind of challenges do Japanese cities including Fukuoka face when trying to attract more international conferences?

Kawashima: Fukuoka is a major city with a population of 1.5 million. It hosts more international conferences than any other city in Japan besides Tokyo. But according to the International Congress and Convention Association, it ranks 85th in the world in terms of hosting conferences.

Even Tokyo is only 28th, behind Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong. Compare Fukuoka with Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia in Central Europe. Ljubljana is a small city with a population of just 300,000 people. But it ranks higher than Fukuoka, at 64th place. Japanese cities in general need to improve their international competitiveness if they're going to catch up.

Beppu: What do you think they can and should do?

Kawashima: The general wisdom is that cities need to build world-class event facilities, and promote themselves as tourist destinations. At the same time, it’s important not to build convention centers all over the country, because there is a risk they will become white elephants. Research also suggests that it’s not enough for a city to just be an attractive tourist destination.

Compared to other countries, Japanese convention bureaus don't have many staff who specialize in marketing international conferences.
So Japan needs to work on its marketing strategies. It can do this by identifying each city's strengths in terms of industrial and academic research, and offering special deals to target markets. To that end, it is important to hire and train convention bureau staff with knowledge and experience in foreign languages, marketing and event management because convention bureaus are the command centers for international events across Japan.