Category Archives: Articles

In Istanbul recently, my wife and daughter-in-law had an experience that shook them up before leaving them feeling invigorated. They each paid around AUD70 for a scrub and massage at Cemberlitas Hamami, a Turkish baths complex built in 1584 by Nur Banu, the wife of a sultan.

In a steam-filled room, lit by windows in a domed ceiling, they were soaped, pummelled and pounded by robust Turkish female masseuses, after which they each had a massage. “I feel defoliated, clean, scrubbed, relaxed . . . wonderful,” my wife said afterwards.

Later that day, in a guide book, she found a reproduction of an ancient picture of the hamam – and recognised it. The interior of the baths had changed little in four-and-a-half centuries.

Much of Istanbul’s old city, the Sultanahmet, is like that, a dreamscape washed by the froth of history yet, to visitors at least, seemingly impervious to the pressures of ballooning population or changes ushered in by the digital age.

IMG_6749For incentive travellers, especially history buffs, Istanbul can be a thrilling destination. Originally known as Byzantium, it was already a thousand years old when the emperor Constantine the Great made it the capital of the Roman empire in AD 330, when it became known as Constantinople. In 1453 it was captured by the Turks, becoming the capital of the since-dissolved Ottoman empire.

It pays to plan

While even locals will tell you the secular, bustling city of 14 million is no longer the bargain destination it once was, with the Turkish lira relatively stable, Istanbul offers value if you plan ahead and take time to seek good deals. A decent hotel room can cost as little as $85 in Sultanahmet and a typically fabulous meal of antep ezmesi – a spicy tomato, chilli, cucumber and herb dip served with flat bread – börek (savoury meat-and-cheese-filled pastry), köfte (meat balls), salad and pickles will cost $15-20 in a myriad enticing restaurants. Getting around on trams, ferries and the new underground rail line is cheap – about a dollar a ride – and entry to historical sites is free or inexpensive.

Most know that Istanbul’s uniqueness can be attributed in part to the fact that it straddles Europe and Asia, the continents separated by the Bosphorus, the narrow, incomparably beautiful strait that links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and Aegean.

As one scribe has observed, visitors should ideally approach Istanbul from the ocean, as most travellers did for the first twenty-six centuries of its existence. For me, today, it’s thrilling to catch a ferry (around $1.20 per ride) across the Bosphorus, with the sun sparkling on the water and the forest of spires, turrets and minarets of the city etched against the sky.

Mehmet IIIIstanbul’s benevolent face belies a brutal but compelling past. More blood has been spilled on the ground on which camera-carrying tourists stroll than few other places on the planet. In AD 193, for instance, when refugees from Byzantium tried to escape besieging Romans by ship, they met an awful fate. In his book, Istanbul, the Imperial City, veteran American author John Freely quotes a Roman consul Dio Cassius: “The next day the horror was increased still more for the townspeople, for when the water had subsided, the whole sea in the vicinity of Byzantium was covered with corpses and wrecks and blood.” The survivors had to surrender to the Romans, who promptly murdered all surviving soldiers and magistrates of the city.

Murder most foul

Murder was especially commonplace among the city’s rulers, many of whom drank themselves to death or were murdered in turn. One sultan amused himself by killing innocent passers-by with a bow and arrow. In January 1595, when Sultan Murat III died, his eldest son and successor Mehmet (pictured above) had all nineteen of his younger brothers strangled to ensure none would challenge him. Like many of their kin, they were buried in the garden of Haghia Sophia, the great church erected by Justinian (now a museum), which is adjacent to Topkapi Sarayi, the imperial residence and harem of the Ottoman sultans for four centuries, and the huge Blue Mosque, built in the early seventeenth century.

All of these attractions are open to the public and located in the old city on the European side of the Bosphorus. Like Paris’s Left Bank, this area is a maze of winding streets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cosy hostelries.

IMG_6770One of the most enchanting is the Kybele Hotel (pictured), where we spent a night. Its interior is a melange of maroons, mirrors, marble, bric-a-brac and objets d’art, its public spaces linked by mysterious staircases and filled with nooks of the kind that might, in true Byzantine tradition, lend themselves to intrigue and Machiavellian plotting. The lounges, restaurants, bars and bedrooms are illuminated by over 4,000 lamps.

The hotel is within easy walking distance of attractions like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the spice and grand bazaars and the extraordinary Basilica Cistern (below), said to be one of several hundred ancient reservoirs beneath the city and home to huge, slow-moving fish.

Willing to deal

Rates at Kybele Hotel start at around AUD190 per night, which includes an excellent buffet breakfast, and for groups the owners will negotiate a better rate, according to manager Vefa Yuksukcuoglu, who’s been working at the family-run property for 19 years. “When the booking’s solid we’re happy to be flexible,” he says. “On our ratings feedback, we always score ten for location and cleanliness and nine or ten for value – I think that says something about this hotel.”

301A ferry ride across the Bosphorus is a terrific way to gain perspective of the city. And a short trip in the Tünel, an underground funicular connecting the quarters of Karaköy and Beyoğlu, is worth, say, a half-day outing. Beyoğlu is the most active shopping, art, entertainment and nightlife centre of Istanbul. Its main thoroughfare, İstiklâl Caddesi, is a pedestrianised 1.6 kilometres street of shops, hip boutiques, cafés, patisseries, restaurants, pubs, wine houses and clubs, as well as bookshops, theatres, cinemas and art galleries.

All providing a rich experience for incentive visitors to the city about which Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “If the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”

From AUD190 per night

Voted by The Guardian travel people as one of the ten best boutique hotels in Istanbul, the Kybele is a riot of colour, from its sky-blue exterior to its chintzy, lamplit interiors. The best time to negotiate room deals is November to February. “[It’s] one of the most unique, friendly, magical places I’ve ever stayed in,” says one reviewer.


See video here:

The Siteseer was a paying guest at the Kybele Hotel, below.



A curtain of rain thrashes down as I alight from a taxi in central Ho Chi Minh City. Dashing into the lobby of the Rex Hotel, I find myself in a marble-walled sanctuary illuminated by recessed lights and glowing aquaria of coloured fish. Many of the women working in the reception area are clad in purple-and-white silk pyjama outfits, adding to the impression that I’ve stepped onto the set of an Indochinese movie.

The venerable Rex Hotel, where I’ve come to talk to managers and check out the facilities, has served as a haven for travellers for decades. It remains one of the best-loved five-star hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by many of its 8.4 million residents.

The Rex been expanded and renewed several times since it started life as a French garage complex in 1927. From 1959 to 1975 a Vietnamese couple renovated the building and it became the 100-room “Rex Complex” hotel.

Five o’clock follies

During the Vietnam war the American Information Service made its base here. The Rex became a favoured haunt of US officers and was the scene of daily press briefings to foreign correspondents, wryly known by them as the “five o’clock follies”. That’s because, inevitably, the soldiers and hacks would meet in the bar upstairs.


Now the Rex has 286 individually designed guest rooms, a range of function and meeting facilities, a spa, and four in-house restaurants. Located in the prettiest part of Saigon among boulevards and French colonial buildings, it’s within an easy walk of attractions like the vast Ben Thanh undercover bazaar – which expands at nights to become a bustling street market – the main cathedral, opera house, galleries and a variety of interesting museums.

These include the moving Vietnam War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, formerly the Norodom Palace. (The palace is the former home of the South Vietnamese President, through whose front gate a tank crashed during the fall of the city to the North Vietnamese army.) The Rex is also 200 metres away from the Saigon river with its teeming restaurants and river cruise dinner boats.

For MICE visitors, one of the most remarkable attributes of the Rex Hotel, as young Director of Sales and Marketing Nick Tran (below) observes, is how cheap it is. For USD150-200 per day you get luxury five-star accommodation, all your food and your meeting package thrown in, he says. “By any standard that’s pretty good, and there’s so much to do for people coming here for events.”

Nick 1 - Copy

Tunnels are worth visiting

Some 40 kilometres, about an hour’s drive, from the city are the Cu Chi tunnels. These were part of the vast underground network in which the Viet Cong hid during the war, and which served as their base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels make for a great incentive trip, says Nick. You can reach them from the city by road or fast speedboats along the Saigon river.

Within a day post-conference you can play golf, loaf on tropical beaches and tour the Mekong Delta with its rural attractions and floating markets, fish and prawn farms, (catch your own for lunch), bee farms and orchards (pick your own fruit), all within easy reach by road. “It’ll cost you less than a hundred dollars a day, including your transport, tour guide, food and drinks,” says Nick.

Around 65 percent of the Rex Hotel guests are business travellers, and much of the Asian MICE business is currently shifting from Hong Kong and Singapore to Beijing and Saigon, Nick says. Many global companies are getting established and doing business in Vietnam, which is politically stable and welcomes visitors. “The corporate sector is really opening up for us.”

From USD150 a day

That includes five-star accommodation, all meals as well as a full meeting package. Rooms-only via web bookings currently start from $104.

Visit, call 848 38292185 or email

IS_318 (1) (1)


Outdoor jacuzzi at Holiday Inn Resort, Batam

Frank Schoenherr is an old-school hotel manager. His counterparts in some hotels are ivory-tower bureaucrats who are seldom seen. Not so Frank, a German speaker born in Prague.

When I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Manila while he was general manager there, Frank’s beaming face could be seen in public spaces several times a day. He would pop up unexpectedly in corridors, meeting rooms or bars, and he’d occasionally join guests at the breakfast table for a chat. He led his staff by example. Arrival I commended him one day on his attitude to glad-handing, and he agreed wryly that it’s not hard to make people feel welcome. It’s just that many folks in his position tend to forget. Frank hasn’t, which explains why he’s doing so well in his current role as general manager of the Holiday Inn Resort on the Indonesian island of Batam, a 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore. This 275-room property, with ten multi-purpose conference and meetings facilities, is targeting events as a market with untapped potential thanks to its nearness to its industrially developed neighbour. “Batam is increasingly seen as a destination for corporate events and incentive destinations, and perfect for inclusion in corporate incentive programs,” explains Frank, whose hotelkeeping career has spanned Austria, Uzbekistan, Slovakia and the Philippines. “We create a home away from home and see guests more as friends than customers.” And he and his colleagues understand the importance of saving clients money. Batam is a short hop from Singapore, so visitors can take advantage of cheaper direct flights to the island state from Australian and other cities. The resort has lush grounds, a vast lagoon pool and a spa, and its meetings specialists provide one-on-one advice.

Frank Schoenherr

Frank Schoenherr

Package from AUD68 a day Full-day meeting packages start at SGD 79 (AUD 68, USD 63) per person, and come with two coffee breaks, lunch and complimentary WiFi access in the meeting room. A complimentary return ferry trip from Singapore, and transfers from the ferry terminal to the resort, are included. The offer is valid for stay period until 31 August 2014 with a minimum booking of 50 rooms. See Email Bedroom 45386851-H1-BTAID_1510172745_4417075261

No matter where you’ve been or how often you’ve done it, there’s something about waking up on the morning you’re set to depart on a trip somewhere else, preferably exotic, that quickens the pulse and brightens the outlook. That’s the way it is for me.

The twinge of excitement you feel when you’re about to get on a plane, ship or train to pursue a story is part of the fun of being a writer. I’ve felt it from the time I started my career as a reporter on a daily newspaper in South Africa through my time as a foreign correspondent in Fleet Street (in the old Reuters building) and editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest magazine – for more years than I care to count.

Likewise I’ve enjoyed specialised travel writing to keep myself additionally amused. It’s invariably a labour of love, not mammon, as hard-working travel-scribe colleagues know. And I’ve had a fair amount of experience in the niche meetings and events (MICE) sector, having written on the subject for a variety of publications.

This site, to be complemented by a regular newsletter, is a manifestation of that enthusiasm. It’s aimed at meetings and events planners who seek genuinely useful information about where to go and what to do. That includes advice on destinations and properties, as well as cost, the most important consideration of all.

I hope you’ll dip into these pages and accompany me on the journey, and that you’ll find The Siteseer more-than-occasionally useful.

–        Bruce

Dusk falls over the Chao Phraya river, the broad waterway that snakes through Bangkok city and surrounding countryside. Against the darkening horizon, barges and small craft churn the surface of the river into glittering points of light. On the open deck of the teak river boat Mekhala, moored beside a temple, guests are enjoying drinks before sitting down to a Thai meal.

feature_1_image_1 It’s an experience that more and more incentive groups are enjoying as they savour the delights of a Bangkok river cruise. Adventure tour company Asian Oasis operates three converted rice barges on the river, for a one-night, two-day trip that alternates upstream and downstream to and from Bangkok and the former capital of Ayutthaya.

The three boats have eighteen air-conditioned cabins in total, each a marvel of compact design, with en-suites. The overnight stop is at Wat Kai Tia, a Buddhist shrine in a tranquil rural village, where obliging staff serve central Thailand specialty dishes by candlelight on deck. The boats stop at a traditional market as well as an ethnic Mon village; for the rest of the time guests can marvel at life on the teeming waterway on which half of Thailand’s population depends.

feature_1_image_2The clientele is mostly Australian and European, says Chananya Phataraprasit (pictured), the company’s Executive Director and pioneer of eco-tourism in southeast Asia, and all meals are included. Guests pay for their own booze, or can buy a package that includes drinks.

From $110 per person per day

The cost: from around USD110 per person per day. “That’s good value for money,” says Ms Phataraprasit, with some understatement. “It’s a vibrant, unusual way for many inbound visitors to see Thailand.” As I can attest.

See or

Mekhala image

Mekhala cabin

Mekhala barges 2 (2)Mekhala dinner

It’s not as cheap as it used to be. Back in 1987, after Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni (“Rambo”) Rabuka’s coup, when the flow of tourists dried up, desperate resort operators offered extraordinary deals.

An Australian newspaper colleague of mine took his wife and four kids for a few days’ holiday to one of Fiji’s 333 islands that year for around $1,000, including airfares.

That’s changed of course. Today Fiji doesn’t provide international MICE visitors with the same value for dollars as, say, Southeast Asia. They’ll pay AUD200 and upwards a night at a resort, and up to $2,000 for the swankiest options.

So why do visitor numbers to these islands keep growing? According to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, arrivals for January 2014 totalled 47,551, a year-on-year increase of 3%.

The physical attributes are obviously a drawcard: the reefs, white beaches, nodding palms – and the beaming friendly locals. But you get the same just about everywhere in the South Pacific.

From a MICE visitor’s perspective it all depends how you define value, according to David Pearson, Director of Business Development at the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa (left), a five-star holiday and conference complex at Natadola Bay on the main island of Viti Levu.

A major attraction in a time-poor era is that Fiji is only four hours flying time from the Australian east coast and two-and-a-half from Auckland. “It takes eight to nine hours to fly to Southeast Asia,” says David. “If you’re paying executives you’re saving time and money by coming to Fiji for event.”

Moreover you don’t have to travel long and far within the small country to have wonderful outer-island incentive experiences, and the genuine warmth of the Fijians makes a difference, over and beyond other destinations in the South Pacific, asserts David – himself a cheerful presence at the resort. (Though still in his late twenties, he has nine years’ experience in the InterContinental Hotels Group in Australia).


The F&B offering in Fiji has improved tenfold in the past five years, he adds. It was never renowned for being a culinary destination, but that’s changing too, in the quality of the produce, sourced locally, and in the recipes and food offerings gleaned from IHG properties round the world.

For budget-conscious MICE visitors, the January to March rainy season may be the best time to visit the 271-room InterContinental Fiji, with rates generally more competitive, starting from AUD 250 a day per person for accommodation depending on the type of rooms you book, says David. The service and facilities are outstanding, set in beautifully designed infrastructure and grounds, and IHG works hard to keep it that way. “The engineering team works continually to maintain the rooms and grounds in pristine quality,” he says. “The resort’s five years old and it retains a freshness, as you can see.”

“And even in the wet season rain typically comes in the afternoons, then clears, and the water temperature and quality of diving and fishing’s incredible all year round.”

The resort is 45 minutes from Nadi airport and set along one of the best beaches on the main island; its pillarless ballroom can handle up to 600 delegates. Plus there’s a championship golf course on site, with the Pacific as a backdrop on 15 of the 18 holes. An airy wedding chapel fronts a green lawn and the Pacific. A global IT company held a five-day inaugural incentive for its Asia Pacific sales team of 600 here recently, taking occupancy of the whole complex.

Tariffs notwithstanding, Fiji seems set to grow in importance as a meetings and incentive venue. Generous development incentives like depreciation allowances, tax rebates and easy repatriation of capital make it attractive for investors. (Though less attractive are the incentives for the local hotel staff, most of whom only get FJD4-5 an hour). And things are happening, development-wise. A $3.5 million investment by Sheraton, for instance, has resulted in the opening, just recently, of a convention centre with the capacity to hold about 1,200.

From AUD250 a night upwards

Rates for group bookings at the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa start from AUD250 per day, and a recent summer special on the property’s website offered 30% off normal retail rates.

The Siteseer was a paying guest at the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa.

David Pearson: "you’re saving time and money by coming to Fiji for event."

David Pearson: “you’re saving time and money by coming to Fiji for an event.”

By Derryn Heilbuth

Some years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Australian Financial Review’s “AFR Traveller”. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a brief Q&A where business travellers are asked to name their favourite hotel, restaurant and travel experience and provide travel tips.

For someone who travels a lot, on business in my own right, as an occasional travel writer and the spouse of The Siteseer, naming the hotel was the most difficult part of the assignment.

What hotel did I choose? Well, two actually, equally memorable but completely different. The first was The Mayflower Renaissance in Washington DC, a perfect setting for the global speechwriters’ conference I was attending. It was here that Franklin D Roosevelt worked on his “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” inaugural address.

The hotel, which will be 90 years old next year, was said to have had more gold leaf when it opened than any other US building except the Library of Congress. It was also a favourite of President Truman’s, who proclaimed it to be Washington DC’s second best address after the White House. Not surprisingly it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Historic Hotels of America.

He mobilised the language and sent it into battle

After the conference I stayed on for a couple of days to visit the city’s museums and the Library of Congress. It was hosting an exhibition of the manuscripts of Winston Churchill’s speeches, the workings of which were real evidence of how, as JFK put it when granting Churchill honorary American citizenship, he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. Returning each night to the Mayflower, exhausted but happy, I was reminded why I love old style American hotels. No one does that understated lamplit elegance quite like the US of A.

My other favourite, the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok, which I visited 14 years ago as a conference spouse, is a world away from the Mayflower. In those days, The Siteseer was Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest. The Peninsula had recently opened and the Digest had managed to get a special deal for a meeting of its Australasian editors. It was my first visit to Southeast Asia and the hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River introduced me to everything I’ve come to appreciate about this part of the world: the delicate beauty of the orchids, the rich colours of the silks and textiles, the complex flavours of the food, the faultless taste you find in places like the Jim Thompson house or the hotel’s restored rice barges that ferried us across the river into central Bangkok and, most of all, the warmth of the Thais.

A useful reminder

My father-in-law was a newspaperman with printers’ ink in his veins and an almost childlike curiosity he never lost. A favourite saying of his was Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true”. Authentic people, leadership, experiences are what we – increasingly – crave. In a world dominated by global brands and chains it’s a useful reminder that what travellers look for is difference not ubiquity. It’s certainly what the management of these two hotels remembered. Despite the fact that they are part of large groups, it’s why they stand out above the rest.


Leaving aside clichés about stunning vistas and vibrant cultural diversity, why should events organisers in Australia and elsewhere consider South Africa as a destination? Isn’t it, well, dangerous?

“Pure and simple, it’s a value-for-money destination,” says Yolanda Woeke-Jacobs, Director Sales & Marketing of destination management company Dragonfly. “You get great bang for your buck.”

Inside the Table Bay Hotel

Inside the Table Bay Hotel

Indeed you currently get 9.8 rands for an Australian buck, which means, for example, that a fillet steak at the swanky Harbour House restaurant at Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert waterfront will set Australian visitors back about $17. And that’s really top-end. At the very pleasant Peninsula Hotel restaurant in the same city, a main course will cost R60 to R80 (AUD 6-8). In most restaurants a bottle of excellent local red retails for $5 to $8.

As an incentive destination, South Africa is an obvious choice, Yolanda says, because the motivation factor is “huge . . . it’s on everyone’s bucket list.”

Yes, but what about security? Don’t South Africans often skirt, or fail to address, this issue, which genuinely worries many would-be MICE visitors?

Palace aerial newDragonfly’s message is you’ll be perfectly safe as long as you take basic precautions – just as you would if you visited, say, New York or Barcelona.

“Security’s a problem in any big city nowadays, so we recommend people be alert and not go into areas that are unsuitable for tourists, or after dark,” says Yolanda.

She and her colleagues never take guests into areas in which they’ll be in any peril. They host and look after thousands of visitors every year and have never had an incident, she says.

“Bear in mind tourism is one of our country’s biggest industries and sources of income, so we need to ensure tourists are looked after. We’ve been operating for over 30 years so we understand the destination, the culture and the Australian ‘MICE’ client’s expectations.”

$2,335 for a five-day package including Cape Town and Lost City

For AUD2,335 per person sharing, Dragonfly will set incentive visitors up for three nights at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, and two nights at the Palace of the Lost City Hotel at Sun City, two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Johannesburg – both super-luxurious. (And there’s an option to extend the trip for a two-day visit to the Royal Livingstone Hotel at Victoria Falls.)

This package, one of many, includes transfers, cocktail functions, dinners and other meals with a specified drinks allowance, tours, safaris, meet-and-assists, gratuities and more. The rate is based on 40 participants sharing and is valid until 30 November 2014.

'Palace of the Lost City' room

‘Palace of the Lost City’ room

“If you ask me, something sinister lurks in men who avoid wine  . . . and dinnertime conversation. Such people are either gravely ill or secretly detest everyone around them.”

It was written by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1920s. He had a point, some might think.

The Dockside Group, known for its slick waterfront events venues and restaurants in Sydney, understands that a gourmet meal without a glass of wine or two is a tragedy. Which is why it’s hosting a five-course degustation dinner at Sydney’s Italian Village restaurant (right at the harbour’s edge in The Rocks) on Wednesday June 25.

They’re pairing with the New South Wales Hunter Valley’s Margan Wines to present gourmet Australian cuisine matched with some of Margan’s best wines. Vigneron Andrew Margan (below), whose family first planted vines in the Hunter in the ‘60s, will share useful insights and his philosophy on winemaking. Here’s a sample of what guests can expect:

Margan Family Wines

Half-shell scallop with pecorino and herb crumble, pork and duck roulette, Persian feta and eggplant involtini.

And those are just the canapés. To start there’s pressed pork, veal and chicken terrine with pickled vegetables, herb mayonnaise, served with a semillon. And confit ocean trout with avocado and wasabi mousse (chardonnay), and duck leg with cumin spiced lentil, roast root vegetable and jus (merlot and barbera). Sweets include “opulent opera slice,” gold leaf, vanilla macron, coffee anglaise, and chocolate shards, washed down with a botrytis semillon.

There’s room for 150 places only, and the all-in price is $130 a head. That’s great value for money for an incentive group, says Dockside Marketing Coordinator Christine Drivas.

“The dinner represents an exceptional-value night out with five courses prepared by our experienced chefs and paired with award-winning wines. It’ll also be educational and fun in fantastic surroundings.”

It’s the first time Dockside has put on a degustation dinner matched with local wines at Italian Village for the public, says Christine. “So it’s exciting for those who’ll have the opportunity to be there.”

AUD130 per person

Doors open at 7pm and dinner begins at 7.30. Tables are for 10 or 12 guests; for smaller reservations diners will be seated at communal tables.

For enquiries or bookings call 1300 115 116 or visit Or to see more details and the menu, go here: