Sarawak a major destination for meetings and conferences

Since its establishment in 2006, the Sarawak Convention Bureau (SCB) has put the state on the international meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) map. As a result, in 2013 Malaysia came eighth in the International Congress and Convention Association’s (ICCA’s) rankings for countries in Asia Pacific and the Middle East. Having played host to 117 ICCA-certified conferences that year, it trailed only Singapore (with 175 events) and Thailand (with 136 events) within ASEAN. Kuala Lumpur was the location for 68 – more than half – of the country’s events, with Kuching coming in as the next-most-popular venue with 18.

This made it the 28th-most prominent event city within Asia Pacific and the Middle East, tying it with Kobe, Japan. That Sarawak’s capital, with a population of just under 600,000 people, surpassed more established tourism hotspots such as Macau (16 events) and Phuket (14), and was only narrowly beaten out by major commercial centres like Doha (20) and Mumbai (19), demonstrates the success of the state’s MICE strategy.

MAKING AN IMPACT: According to the SCB, the average spend per person per trip for international business delegates is around RM3075 ($935). This outlay estimated to be at least three times more than what a typical leisure visitor spends. The average length of an international convention is 3.9 days, and when pre-and post-touring are taken into account, the average length of stay per delegate extends to 5.85 days. Moreover, an estimated 25% of all international conference participants bring their partner or spouse, while nearly 60% state their desire to return to the destination within the next two years, pointing to the pronounced multiplier effect generated by the MICE segment.

Given the widespread exposure winning large-scale events brings Sarawak, the state emphasises events whose themes are aligned with the state’s development ambitions in sectors such as health, renewable energy and heavy industry. “The bureau makes a point of supporting events that go beyond tourism, meaning that they foster greater education, research, foreign exchange, trade and corporate social responsibility opportunities,” according to Mike Cannon, the managing director of the SCB. In 2013 the SCB won 57 bids, bringing the total number of events secured between 2006 and 2020 to 312. Over this period, Sarawak is expecting to host 122,267 delegates, collectively staying 442,762 days and spending a total of RM270m ($82.13m). Figures for 2014 were not completely tallied, as of early 2015, but by that year’s end the bureau had been awarded some 60 bids, which were expected to generate approximately RM31m ($9.4m) in direct delegate expenditure in the 2015-17 period.

WINNING FORMULA: For event organisers, the more enticing the setting, the stronger the likelihood of attendance, and there is no doubt that Sarawak fits the bill. Although the SCB receives strong financial support from the state government, it still has to be selective about conferences to assure a strong success rate and return on investment. Looking at the range of events hosted to date, there has been a pronounced emphasis on the fields of medicine and engineering, which is likely linked to Sarawak’s unique ecology, as well as its ample investment opportunities in renewable energy and resource-related industries.

The Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) is at the core of the state’s long-term development ambitions. The Third International Conference and Exhibition on Water Resources and Renewable Energy Development in Asia hosted in 2010, and the International Hydropower Association World Congress hosted in 2013, serve as two examples of events that have taken place that dovetail with the corridor’s unique selling points and align with the SCB’s adopted marketing slogan of “Borneo – where business and adventure meet”. In support of SCORE, the SCB has stated that it will focus on bidding for international conventions in SCORE industry sectors including: aluminium, glass, steel, oil-based, palm oil, fishing and aquaculture, livestock, timber-based, marine engineering and tourism. “The SCB has a good track record not just in winning bids, but in winning ones with positive spillover and relevance,” Audry Ullok, the president of the Sarawak Tourism Federation, told OBG.

VENUE OF CHOICE: Organising an event in Kuching is considerably more affordable than in urban centres such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and the city’s more manageable size and levels of traffic make it easier to move delegates around. Even so, the SCB argues that Kuching’s smaller hotel capacity and relative lack of flight connections makes it more realistic – barring a few exceptions – for it to focus on regional rather than global mega-conferences. Indeed, this emphasis matches the worldwide trend towards organising smaller and more regionally based but more frequent events in response to the tightening of corporate budgets.

For example, the 3700-sq-metre, 4000-seat Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK), which has a total capacity of 5000, opened in 2009, and is the flagship asset of Sarawak’s MICE infrastructure portfolio. Ringed by the Sarawak River, the venue sits in a quiet enclave 8 km away from Kuching’s city centre. Thanks to new roads and bridges, the transfer time from both the airport is under 20 minutes.

Guests will soon also be able to reach the venue via a river catamaran from the Kuching City riverfront area, where most of the city’s 58 hotels are located. Delegates can avail themselves of various activities, taking in any number of Kuching’s museums, heading out for a river cruise, a rainforest hike, or a visit to a local orangutan sanctuary. Five years into its launch, the BCCK has so far hosted more than 500 events, with around 10% of the its patronage coming from international associations. The centre will be looking to expand this figure to 20% over the next five years.

GAINING EXPOSURE: Of late, Kuching has hosted a number of high-profile international events. In July 2013, the Global Tourism Cities Conference took place there. This was followed in January 2014 by the ASEAN Tourism Forum and in March by Routes Asia 2014. Routes Asia, an event focused on the issues of air connectivity and air service development, could become especially fruitful for the state if the networking opportunities it provides are advantageously leveraged. A shortfall of strategic routes serving Kuching has been cited as a significant constraint preventing the tourism industry from reaching its full potential (see overview).

The most eagerly anticipated event is the 55th annual congress of the International Congress and Convention Association, to be held in late 2016. Sarawak was awarded the event in May 2013, having been shortlisted as a finalist with Prague. The five-day conference will cost RM1m ($274,100) to host, and is expected to attract up to 1000 delegates and contribute RM2.6m ($790,920) in direct delegate expenditure. However, it is the RM5m ($1.52m) worth of public relations that the SCB is most excited about, as it will give it the opportunity to showcase the state’s MICE credentials at perhaps the foremost industry event of its kind.

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The Report: Sarawak 2015

Tourism chapter from The Report: Sarawak 2015

The Report: Sarawak 2015

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