EXO Travel Vietnam FAM Trip, September 2019

If I had to choose three destinations on my wish list to visit Vietnam would've been top of that list. And with huge thanks to Phillip Skyba at EXO Travel I was able to make that wish a reality. Along with my fellow "fammers" we set off to discover just what this intriguing destination had to offer.

   When we arrived in Vietnam, after an 11 hour flight via Bangkok, we all felt understandably jaded, but fortunately the bustling city of Saigon was bristling with an energy that was impossible to deny. Once we'd checked into our first hotel, The Park Hyatt - a beautiful French colonial property in the centre of Saigon - we were shown around and given a delicious lunch consisting of typical Vietnamese cuisine. As I sat there lapping it up I remember thinking "if this is the taste of things to come, I'm going to love it here." Afterwards we were given a brief tour of the city, and as we drove from site to site in our tuc-tucs we were immersed into the city where almost everyone gets about on a scooter. The first thing we all noticed was just how happy and friendly everyone was. It was a genuine happiness too and given their not-so-distant historical turmoil, it was a unexpected but pleasant surprise. Later that evening, as we were driven pillion on the back of scooters to the restaurant, we were treated to what it was really like to drive through the chaotic traffic of Saigon. It was a truly exhilarating experience and more than once I just closed my eyes as my life flashed before me. But the drivers knew exactly what they were doing and despite what looks like complete madness to any Westerner, there doesn't seem to be any road rage. Everyone just gets with it. It's very liberating stuff. After a lovely dinner we were treated to another eye-popping experience as we went for cocktails at Chill Skybar. This is one of the places to go if you're in downtown Saigon; twenty odd floors up, looking down at the bright lights of Saigon this was indicative of everywhere else we'd visited so far. Everyone was super-friendly, from the other guests, to the bar staff, to the security; everyone just wanted to say hello and welcome you to their country. It was a great first day initiation.

   Next morning we checked out of our hotel and after a long but rapid boat ride we arrived at Cu Chi tunnels. Anyone with the slightest curiosity of the Vietnam War (or the American War as the locals call it) needs to visit here. I found it a very emotive visit; sampling what life was like for the North Vietnamese soldiers living a lot of the time under ground in their tunnels was very a sobering experience. This was brought home when we were all allowed to fire an M16 combat rifle on the firing range. Firing these or even just hearing one being fired really instilled the noise and violence that these weapons must've reaped.

   Later that afternoon we hopped on a plane to Da Nang where the Four Seasons Hotel there waited for us. Now, like many people in our industry, I've stayed at countless 5 star hotels and unfortunately, over time, you get a little indifferent to them, but with this Four Seasons Da Nang there was no chance of that happening. It has to be one of the most impressive and welcoming hotels I've had the good fortune of staying at. The villa (yes, villa!) which I shared with two of my companions backed onto the beach via a lengthy infinity pool that itself backed onto a communal living room villa we shared. Each of our sprawling private villas featured modern fixtures and fittings, outdoor shower (if you wanted it) and a four-poster bed that was to die for. After one of the best dinners I'm ever likely to have the impulse not to have a late night private pool party proved too much. Sometimes you've just got to just seize the moment and appreciate that these opportunities don't come around that often.

   Next day we visited Hoi An which is a must for anyone visiting Vietnam. We saw it during the daytime which was enchanting enough but it's best seen during the evening when the countless lanterns that decorate this ancient town are lit up. That said, just strolling around Hoi An with its many colours, smells and abundance of friendly inhabitants ensures you know you are in no other place other than Vietnam. Dinner that evening was at the splendidly quirky and extravagant Intercontinental Da Nang. Sprawling down to their own beach from the hills above this is a fabulous property with lots of different accommodation and dining options along with an awesome ballroom that really has to be seen to be believed.

   After the hardship of checking out of the Four Seasons we were back at Da Nang Airport to board our flight to Hanoi the capital of Vietnam. Once we'd checked into our hotel, the Sofitel Hanoi - another beautiful, classic, French colonial hotel - we were given a tour of the city. It being the capital of North Vietnam during the Vietnam/American War you can certainly see the communist influences in the city. But, as most Vietnamese resident will tell you; Vietnam might be a communist country but that's only in title. It retains a large amount independence from that ideology and in a rickshaw ride around the city this was very evident to see. Back on the scooters that evening, and with another hair-raising ride through a Vietnamese city, we arrived at a local beer garden where we were informed just how cheaply you could eat and drink if you were to properly immerse yourself and step away from the 5 star hotels. A beer here cost just 30 cents. This was well noted by me in particular for when I return as a tourist one day.

   Next day we drove up to the mountains of Yen Tu where we had the luxury of staying at the M Gallery there. In keeping with everything else we'd been shown during our trip, this hotel and region were jaw-dropping. I know I wasn't the only to feel a bit emotional on seeing the beauty of our surroundings. When I opened the huge doors leading out to my bedroom balcony I was taken aback by what greeted me. The scenery was so lush and unspoilt that I was reminded, if I needed it, that I could only have been in Vietnam. And once we'd taken a cable-car up to the Pagoda high up in the mountains and filled my camera with photos, I realised that this was exactly what I wanted Vietnam to be; scenic, un-westernised and traditional. It was a true feast for the senses.

   Next morning brought us another change in destination; this time we were set to embark on a 1 night cruise aboard the President Cruise ship. The ship itself was of a high standard and the cabins were modern and spacious and it was easy to forget you were actually on a ship at all. But what made the journey so special was the scenery. We had the stunning backdrop Halong Bay - a cluster of nearly 2,000 little islands of varying sizes - constantly distracting us from everything else. After a visit to the caves, where we encountered the only instance of production-line tourism whilst we'd been in Vietnam, me and half of our group visited one of the nearby island's beaches. Had it not been slightly over-subscribed by other tourists it would've been a charming little place. It was whilst we were drying off after a swim in the sea that one of my companions, Amanda, asked a group of locals that were playing football on the sand if she and I could join in. Before I knew what was happening I was running around, jostling and playing alongside my new teammates. I have to say, I've played better, but I've never played in a better setting than there. A magnificent sunset followed by a blood-red moon on that final full evening of our stay in Vietnam seemed very much in keeping with everything else that had gone before. One word that I could use to sum up the trip and Vietnam in general… Magical.

   I think Vietnam will work really well for incentive groups. There is just so much to see and do and your money will go much further there than in many other destinations. We packed two weeks' worth of activities and sight-seeing into one week and that is testament to how much is on offer in Vietnam. If you're thinking of taking a group out there, don't hesitate, do it. They won't be disappointed.

I just want to thank again Phillip Skyba at EXO Travel for inviting me along, his team out in Vietnam for hosting such an awe-inspiring trip, Donna Stevens from Thai Airways for organising the flights and making sure we all got on them. And last but not least, my companions who were an amazing group of people that all bonded so well in just a week.

Scooting Through the streets of Saigon

Scooting Through the streets of Saigon

Sunrise in Da Nang

Sunrise in Da Nang

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Yen Tu Mountains

Yen Tu Mountains

Sunset on Halong Bay

Sunset on Halong Bay

Our wonderful team

Our wonderful team

Dominican Republic: A Taste of Paradise

A little write up I did for Micebook last year…

Elite Event Connections’ Andy Hammond gives the lowdown on a recent FAM trip to Dominican Republic with amResorts

When you arrive at an airport to meet your fellow FAM-trippers you never know quite what or who to expect… fortunately, as I turned up at the airport the friendly faces that greeted me were very FAMiliar (see what I did there?) and I knew we’d all get along just fine. Our host Donna Sweeney-Simmons had cherry-picked some gregarious, charismatic and genuinely funny industry professionals for this trip… So what the hell was I doing there then I hear you ask?

Anyway, the British Airways flight to the Dominican Republic was a dream and the nine-hour flight literally flew by. We stayed two nights at the Dreams Dominicus – the welcome at the hotel was warm and friendly and our rooms were luxurious suites with enough room in them to accommodate a football team. Not wishing to share mine with anyone let alone a football team I made myself comfortable and tried not to fall asleep before our welcome dinner. The dinner itself was rather Fawlty Towers-esque with the chef and service staff not quite getting to grips with things. An impromptu appearance from a very endearing Mariachi band added to the randomness of the evening.

The next day we set off by catamaran to the idyllic island of Saona. With the music pumped up to get us in the mood and the rum free-flowing everyone was soon in the spirit of the day ahead. I’d never seen waters as clear blue as the ones I saw on that boat journey. They were quite breathtaking. We stopped off at a lagoon where many other boats had dropped anchor. With the water waste deep it was a tranquil spot to wade in the soft sand below – well it would’ve been tranquil if there wasn’t 50 or so other travellers all doing the same thing.

From our stop-off we travelled another fifteen minutes to Saona Island. This is the sort of place that literally takes your breath away with its beauty. There’s not much to do on the island itself but it’s a must-visit when you’re in the Dominican Republic. Clear blue water, white sand and leaning palm trees make it a picture-postcard location. We had lunch here and a couple of hours to soak up the sun and the Caribbean vibe. A day like this reminds you of just how fortunate you are to be in this industry; to experience, what could only be described as a perfect day in a near perfect location left us all very contented.

A dinner, this time well prepared and well delivered, more than redeemed the hotel for their previous night’s welcome meal and after the lively day we’d all had a relatively early night beckoned. It was a nice send-off from a hotel that would work well for incentive groups and had the luxury of backing straight onto the beach.

When we woke in the morning it was to the sound of tropical rain. We checked out of the hotel and were transferred to Breathless Punta Cana where we did a site visit along with its neighbouring property, NOW Onyx. Both hotels seemed very young, hip and jazzy and definitely geared up for leisure and incentive groups. Again, these were all-inclusive, contemporarily decorated and backed onto the beach.

After a sumptuous buffet lunch, we were shuttled to our next hotel stop, Zoetry Agua Punta Cana. Straight away this felt like a little slice of heaven. It’s a very green, lush and earthy Spa property and from the moment we stepped foot of our coach we all felt extremely relaxed and welcome. We were all assigned our very own butler who showed us to our rooms that all came with large balconies and spacious bedrooms designed very much in keeping with the surroundings. We spent a lovely afternoon, evening and night at this property and experienced fantastic service, wonderful food and drinks and had the additional luxury of a full-body massage. It’s not party place, more a retreat but a mighty fine retreat at that.

Saying goodbye to Zoetry Agua Punta Cana we stopped by Scape Park; “a natural theme park that we were to zip-line our way around. This was another fabulous activity and one that I’d do again in a heartbeat. Before we left the theme park completely we stopped by the Blue Hole, which was exactly what it says it is; a cave with surprisingly warm clear blue water to jump or dive into. Again, this is another must whilst you’re in Dominican Republic.

And then onto our final port of call, the lovely Secrets Cap Cana all-inclusive resort. This really was the icing on the cake of what had been a fantastic trip. This resort really stood out to me as the jewel in the crown of the amResorts properties we had the good fortune of experiencing. The resort backs onto the white sandy beach, has numerous swimming pools to relax in and by and fabulous conference facilities. Out of all the hotels we’d seen, this was the one that you’d have no hesitation in using for a conference group too.

On our final evening, we were treated to a night at Coco Bongo, another must-visit spectacle whilst here. It really was a feast for the senses and thanks to our lovely hosts we had a ringside viewpoint to take it all in.

In summary of the entire trip, I’d have to say it was one of my favourite FAMs I’ve been on. At a time when some scrutiny is on the role of a FAM trip in our industry, I can’t advocate them enough; not just because I’d had a terrific time but because they allow us to sample, not just the hotels ad locations themselves, but more importantly the service, the F&B and the feel of these. It enables us to sell them so much easier to our clients when the right brief comes in.

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Just a Venue-Finder?...

In my next blog I felt I needed to write a post to justify what I do at work. Most of my friends have trouble understanding exactly what I do all day. To them I seem to go from one luxurious destination to another; drinking and being merry on the way... Looks can be deceiving. Like a duck on a pond all looks tranquil on the surface, but under the water there's a lot of frantic paddling going on to keep forward progress. In a recent edition of a well-known industry magazine some ill-advised, ignoramus from a large agency questioned what us smaller agencies offer the world of events. Apparently we don't do anything all day and just go on FAM trips and, in their choice words, get pissed. When we're not doing that we're sitting around our living rooms (apparently we can't afford offices) in our lounge-wear whilst the multitude of commission payments roll in... Mmmmm, yes. I'd love it if that were the case. Unfortunately it's not. As an agent, I am a middle man between the suppliers/hotels/venues and my clients. I nurture these relationships on both sides, keeping in contact and making sure all parties are happy. When a client sends me an enquiry I use the knowledge at my disposal from meeting lots and lots of suppliers at lots and lots of exhibitions, forums and networking events. I pretty much know which hotel/venue/DMC/supplier works best for that specific brief. This is no mean feat given that I work on events throughout the world, not just in the UK. I provide them with a few options that fit that particular brief (not just give them every available place in a 30 mile radius), negotiate the rates to fit the client's budget and make sure the client is happy with what's been offered. If the client requires it I provide onsite management which ensures the event runs smoothly on the day. After the event a commission invoice is sent to the chosen venue and, hey presto, I get paid. It's a low risk business model that works for many agencies around the world. In a time when commission is seen as controversial word and bigger hotel chains are trying their best to phase it out, tell me, when I bring the business, why shouldn't I be rewarded?... Just a venue-finder? - I think not.    

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No One Ever Said It Was Going To Be Easy...

So, for my first entry into my blog I've decided to give an insight into what it's been like setting up a new company. In truth I don't know quite where to start; one minute I was thinking about it, the next I was registering my company at Companies House and given a company number. A certificate duly followed and that was that - easy peasy... er no. That was just the beginning of what I've found an arduously slow and laborious process. I still had to set up a company bank account, get VAT registered (probably the most convoluted process of them all), apply for a TIDS number, get a logo, an email address and business cards, aquire a domain name, build a website, familiarise myself with an accounting system and on top of all this informing clients and suppliers of what was occurring. There are no distinct set of guidelines to follow and advice that is given is, in most cases, fairly irrelevant. There have been times when my head felt like it was about to explode (this might seem overly dramatic but I'm sure there were times when the veins in my temples looked like they had a life of their own) but the term "light at the end of the tunnel" has never felt so apt. As I reach a point when most of the things listed above are now in place I can look back with a sense of pride. There's no going back now but I'm a positive forward-thinking person and going back was never an option. 

   In the month and a half since I started Elite Event Connections I've picked up a couple of new clients, won an award and pointed myself in the right direction to succeed in the future. With the aid of some fantastic industry friends, some of whom I collaborate with, I feel confident that things are going to be ok. Famous last words?... Nah, this is just the start of something good.

   It might never be easy but anything worth doing with a passion never is, which makes it all the more rewarding.   

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