|Thailand’s unique architecture and landscapes set the tone for an exotic, romantic adventure. Pictured here is Bangkok’s Grand Palace.|
Thailand may not spring immediately to mind when clients seek honeymoon travel advice, but the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is hoping to change that. More than 2,100 travel agents have already completed their official Thai the Knot online training course. And they’re enhancing efforts to entice more of the lucrative honeymoon and destination wedding market.
Thailand certainly has the right stuff for romance. Diverse scenery, unique heritage and acclaimed hospitality are all selling points covered in the Thai the Knot course. But some things are best experienced in person. This spring, Travel Agent joined a group of agents on a TAT Honeymoon FAM trip. The 12-day itinerary took us to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Koh Samui. “We wanted to bring a group of very qualified professionals to Thailand. One of our objectives was to highlight Thailand as a honeymoon destination. The agents had to be Thai the Knot specialists or have some knowledge of Thailand as a honeymoon destination,” Steve Johnson, marketing manager for the TAT New York Office, tells Travel Agent.
The 13 North American agents selected for the trip came from different geographic regions and professional backgrounds. Several had never been to or sold Thailand. Others had already booked substantial Thailand business. Many were members of consortia such as Virtuoso, Ensemble, Signature and Vacation.com.
The trip covered a lot of ground. From Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai in the north; then traveled south by minivan to Sukhothai before flying back to Bangkok and connecting to Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Four distinct destinations provided four different experiences, and agents gained a real-life snapshot of Thailand’s offerings for the romance traveler.
Beginning in Bangkok
We began in Bangkok, where the Suvarnabhumi Airport is a gateway to most of Southeast Asia. There, as in each destination, TAT broke us up into smaller groups of three or four. Each group stayed at a different hotel, each of which sponsored a site inspection as well as an elaborate lunch or dinner. The process repeated itself at each destination, though the group make-up changed.
|The floor-to-ceiling windows of the suites at the St. Regis Bangkok afford panoramic city views.|
In Bangkok, our hosts included marquee names, such as St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula. The latter two, of course, hold iconic positions on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The St. Regis Bangkok, in contrast, is a high-rise in the midst of the central business district.
One group was assigned a hotel a block away from the St. Regis, the Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel & Spa. The former Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok had been reflagged less than two weeks prior to our visit. Its owner, Minor Hotel Group, plans to make the property the flagship of its Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas brand. “Based on what else is in town, they have a long way to go. But the rooms were beautiful and spacious,” says Jeannie Cartier Sauleau, president of Sixth Star Travel in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
As important as it was to see existing (and potentially future) high-end hotel options, sightseeing also played a big role in the trip. Our TAT hosts made sure that we hit the highlights in each destination. In Bangkok, that meant stops at the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha; the Silk Museum as well as the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. In Bangkok, and throughout the trip, we learned first-hand the importance of a good ground operator. Trikaya Tours was TAT’s choice for this FAM. They did a masterful job transporting us through airport pick-ups, metropolitan rush hours, country road closures and hairpin island curves in the dead of night. More than that, they helped us “Discover Thainess,” to borrow a slogan from TAT’s marketing campaign. One guide in particular, Ketsara Chocksmai, was more teacher than tour guide. Rather than recite memorized facts, she explained everything in the context of Thai customs, traditions, superstitions and beliefs. From Ketsara, we learned about Thai lucky colors of the day and the Thai Zodiac; herbal remedies and regional foods; Thai royalty and tenets of Buddhism.
|Accommodations at Four Seasons Chiang Mai include romantic, elegant pavilions.|
Honeymoons and More
In Bangkok, the TAT presented the first of two “Amazing Thailand Romance Symposia.” (The other took place on Koh Samui.) Both included presentations from Jacqueline Johnson, president of the Global Bridal Group. Both also featured table-top sessions in which agents met with dozens of local vendors. “Having the one-on-one connection with vendors was invaluable. The people we met were so warm and helpful,” says Sharon Campbell Little, owner of Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group in Murrieta, CA.
Chiang Mai Culture
After Bangkok, our next stop was Chiang Mai, the northern Thai city known as the country’s cultural and artistic center. The short flight there provided our first exposure to Bangkok Airways. The full-service regional carrier bills itself as a boutique airline. It’s an apt description. Among other things, all guests enjoy lounge access at Suvarnabhumi Airport and flights feature onboard catering. “I really enjoyed flying Bangkok Airways and getting to see how nice some of the smaller airports are. It makes it easier to tell clients about the service level to expect,” says Brenda Staben, a front line agent with Chicago's Hobson Travel.
Our three host hotels in Chiang Mai offered distinctive but equally memorable stays. One group was assigned the Anantara Resort and Spa; another the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and a third, the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai. Those of us at the Four Seasons enjoyed a nightly cicada serenade from our bungalow pavilions. Breakfast overlooked the property’s rice fields and lily ponds, with the mist-shrouded Mae Rim mountains just beyond.
The entire group was feted at a multi-course dinner outside the hotel’s famous cooking school. It followed a tour of the Four Season’s top villas and private residences. Agents were impressed with both accommodations and affordability. “We wanted to show some of the luxury product [and] how spectacular it is in terms of facilities and service. In terms of price, luxury in Asia is far less than it is in terms of the western world,” says Johnson.
The other two Chiang Mai properties offered their own unique charms as well. The sleek, contemporary Anantara hosted the group at an outdoor feast overlooking the Ping River. “Chiang Mai in general was such a contrast to the craziness of Bangkok. The Anantara was so peaceful. I could definitely see it as a honeymoon destination,” says Karen Lantigua, founder of My Wedding Away in Toronto, ON.
In contrast to the Anantara’s modern design, the Dhara Dhevi evoked historic palaces and colonial mansions. It’s renowned for its elaborate luxury suites and villas, which some agents got to experience first-hand.
We also toured a few additional properties in Chiang Mai. One of them, the historic 137 Pillars House, had been sold by a few agents, though they’d not visited in person. Another, the Veranda Resort & Spa, offered a Zen-like atmosphere of green slopes, rice paddies and contemporary architecture criss-crossed by a gentle stream.
Chiang Mai is an international tourist hot spot, known for its temples, handicraft workshops, and indigenous hill tribes nearby. The city’s night bazaar offers handicrafts, stone and wooden carvings, scarves, colorful skirts, purses, sarongs and beach cover-ups. And spa and wellness facilities abound.
At the Patara Elephant Farm, we learned about elephant rehabilitation and breeding programs. Resident mahouts (elephant trainers) taught us how to feed, brush off and interact with the enormous creatures. Then we donned mahout shirts and climbed up for bareback rides along a jungle path.
The group’s more daring members also went zip lining in Chiang Mai, while others opted to visit the mountaintop Doi Suthep Temple, a complex of pagodas, statues, bells, shrines and fountains that dates back to the 13th century. Around us, the faithful made offerings and monks chanted in prayer.
|Sukhothai Historical Park preserves the ruins of the original capital of Thailand.|
Ancient Heritage in Sukhothai
A road trip south from Chiang Mai brought us to Sukhothai, the original capital of Thailand, where the entire group stayed at Treasure Resort Sukhothai. It was one of the least favorite hotels of the trip, due to language problems at the front desk, among other things. “Obviously, there were other properties I liked better. But with the right kind of preparation you can still sell the product. It depends who’s buying it, and if it’s a young person looking for a budget trip,” says Lantigua.
A site inspection of the Sukhothai Heritage Resort showed off the opposite end of the hotel spectrum. Owned by the family behind Bangkok Airways, it’s an elegant enclave next to the Sukhothai Airport. The airline operates two daily flights there from Bangkok. And visitors fly there for one attraction: the Sukhothai Historical Park.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with the ruins of royal palaces, temples and Buddha figures. Its grass-filled expanse is perfect for a gentle bike ride from one archaeological site to another. At night, lights illuminate the ruins, reflecting off lakes and lotus ponds.
Sukhothai proved the most valuable destination of the trip in many ways. “Our goal was to expose agents to a good cross-section and new destinations that they wouldn’t normally know about. There are a lot of memorable things to do in Thailand that make a honeymoon unforgettable. We wanted to show that Thailand offers diversity. There can be romance beyond the beach,” says Johnson.
|The Conrad Koh Samui offers modernistic cliff-side villas with private infinity pools.|
Islands of the Gulf
Of course, Thailand’s beaches are an integral part of its appeal. We ended the trip on Koh Samui, the most famous island in the Gulf of Thailand, which is home to tropical forests, laid-back beach towns and racy nightlife. It’s also home to several luxurious resorts. Our group stayed at two of them. The Conrad Koh Samui on the southwest tip of the island features modernistic cliff-side pool villas, private infinity pools and steeply terraced views of the gulf. At the opposite tip of the island, the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui offered island-elegant residence villas accented with teaks, rosewoods and silks. Some of the villas had as many as five bedrooms.
Koh Samui appeals to active travelers, particularly those interested in water sports, such as snorkeling, kayaking and diving. Our group enjoyed a taste of adventure with a speed boat trip to Angthong Marine National Park. Afterward, we gathered for lunch at the Mai Samui Hotel before returning to relax in our private plunge pools. A beachside barbecue at the Conrad marked our last celebration together. “Clients may immediately think that Thailand is so far away. But don’t rule it out without first investigating its value. Remember that every bride wants to have those bragging rights. They want to know that they’ve been to an unforgettable place and done something that no one else has done,” says Johnson.
Stefano Ruzza, the Conrad’s general manager, was especially gracious in thanking agents for the visit. He promised special treatment for clients, and agents had no doubt of his sincerity. “The number one thing that impressed me was that the people were so great," says Staben. "They would go out of their way to do something for you. If you were on a honeymoon in Paris, could you say the same thing?”
Agents See Opportunities in Thailand
Several agents tell Travel Agent that the trip was much different from what they expected. “Overall I thought it was brilliant — and I wasn’t even expecting to like Thailand,” says Sharon Campbell Little, owner of Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group in Murrieta, CA. “Asia has never been on my radar, but I’ve noticed over the last 12-18 months, more requests are coming in for Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. They’re from Millennials who have already traveled quite a bit with their parents. They want to do something more exotic before they settle down and have kids. That’s the reason I wanted to go on this trip, I thought if we don’t get onboard with it, somebody else will take the business from us.”
|At Patara Elephant Farm, guests interact with and ride these massive mammals.|
Ryan Doncsecz, groups manager for VIP Vacations in Bethlehem, PA, says he wasn’t sure what to expect, but he discovered that “the people, food and service were great. And the excursions, such as the Marine Park and zip lining, are things that families or honeymooners like to do,” he says. Doncsecz is already using the experience to make a big booking.
“The clients are going to spend between $20,000 and $30,000. They want to do the elephant camp because they saw pictures I had posted on Facebook. And I’m using a tour operator I met at the honeymoon symposium,” says Doncsecz.
The FAM trip has also inspired Doncsecz to set a new goal. “I want to get a wedding to Thailand by the end of the year. It’s tough for East Coast people. They usually go to Mexico, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. But I’m going to try,” he says.
Connie Riker, owner of Create the Moment Travel in Seattle, WA, says that destination weddings in Thailand could be a challenge. “It’s difficult to be able to send a large group of people from an air perspective to Thailand — but I’m reserving judgment. I’m looking for the right client. I’ve already closed a honeymoon booking. It’s a truly amazing experience that’s still on the affordable end of luxury,” she says.
Karen Lantigua, founder of My Wedding Away in Toronto, ON, is focusing on the affordability sales pitch. She plans to launch a website focusing on the Canada-Thailand market. “All of my brides, when I talk about Thailand, say they would love to go. I tell them it is not that different from going to Sandals. I just sold a seven-night extension to Sandals that was $4,000. For $571 per night, I can get them something amazing in Thailand,” says Lantigua.
Brenda Staben, a front line agent with Hobson Travel in Chicago, thinks the FAM was “exceptional. “I have clients going for 12 days to Thailand. They were planning to go to Phuket. I suggested adding Chiang Mai. They didn’t even know it existed. I’ve been able to recommend things that I didn’t know existed either. You can’t ask for more out of a FAM,” says Staben.
“Thai the Knot” Specialist Course
More than 2,100 travel agents have become “Thai the Knot” specialists since the online training course debuted in 2012 at Questex's Travel Agent University. Agents give the course high marks.
Subjects covered include Thailand’s geographic areas. They hold everything from vibrant cities to remote jungles, hill tribe mountain regions, vast plains of rice fields, tropical islands and pristine beaches. Add to that a backdrop of ornate palaces, important temples and ancient ruins, and Thailand’s draw is pretty clear.
The course gives agents specific ideas for the romance client, such as Thai spa treatments; cooking lessons; once-in-a-lifetime elephant encounters; night bazaars; and boisterous Thai festivals. The central theme is clear: Thainess is best experienced together. For active honeymooners, the course sets out suggestions such as ecotours and hikes, diving, wildlife and waterfall tours in national parks.
There’s practical advice as well, on destination wedding packages, accommodations and formalities for the bride and groom. And the agent training program is still evolving, Steve Johnson, marketing manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s New York Office, tells Travel Agent. “Thai the Knot is a detailed and comprehensive introduction of what Thailand has to offer. Going forward, we’re incorporating some of the feedback coming out of the FAM. We also hope to add additional webinars,” says Johnson.
And here’s some good news for agents. The TAT plans to offer the Honeymoon FAM on an annual basis.