IT’S no secret that Sarawak is a magical place – its laidback capital of Kuching is impossibly charming; it’s home to some of the most spectacular rainforest sites in the world; some of Asia’s rarest wildlife call the state home; and most prominently, some of Malaysia’s friendliest communities reside here.
None of the qualities mentioned above are commonly associated with a burgeoning MICE destination, compared with say, Kuala Lumpur’s readiness of five-star business hotels, or Singapore’s accessibility as a fast-paced city.
But Sarawak is just a bit different, to say the least, and it’s not just an underdog in southeast Asia’s growing middle class. Its offbeat offerings as a city for meetings is increasingly appealing to delegates, especially to those who find attractive the idea of veering from the (sometimes homogeneous) experiences typically offered in a bustling concrete jungle.
At the forefront of Sarawak’s MICE scene is the Sarawak Convention Bureau (SCB), a driving force in the state’s wave of success. Proof is in the 166,599 delegates who will be arriving or will have arrived between 2006 and 2020.
Between 2006 and 2015, the bureau has clinched 393 bids, excluding an additional 31 bids in 2016. From now till 2020, many more projects and events are in the pipeline.
Mike Cannon, managing director of SCB, told Travel Wire Asia, “It is approximately RM342 million (about US$82 million) total in economic returns to Sarawak if we look at the ‘direct delegate expenditure’, which means the average amount spend by delegates on food & beverage, accommodations, tours, and such.”
The “direct delegate expenditure” of visitors is estimated to be 5.7 times higher than the average tourist expenditure, thereon multiplying the state’s MICE revenues. However, Cannon said that Sarawak’s growth as a meetings destination doesn’t merely depend on monetary returns.
“The greater benefits to society are far bigger than just dollars and cents. We value the ‘yield beyond economics’ far more. Every business event that Sarawak hosts brings in greater opportunities for research collaborations, education, corporate social responsibility initiatives, legacy building, and trade,” he said.
Sarawak’s natural wonders also aid in putting the state on the (MICE) map. Cannon said, “Cities like Kuching and Miri in Sarawak provide the unconventional meeting experience filled with heritage, nature, culture and adventure which are extremely popular among seasoned business travelers seeking a unique experience.”
“Business events nestled among one of the oldest rainforests in the world [make for a] magical experience.”
He added, “Sarawak’s hospitality usually surpasses visitors’ expectations and sets the tone for every visit. There is a certain charm in the people, the scenery, and the overall experience.”
The appeal is also in the relatively low cost for organizers. Cannon said, “Our competitive prices offer top quality coupled with incredible value for money in conference rooms, hotel rooms, food, and tours. International delegates also benefit from Malaysia’s poor exchange rate.”
Cannon is also enthusiastic about the value of the business events community in Sarawak, made up of “impassioned people whose products and services are bursting with creativity, stories, and authenticity”.
However, despite Malaysia’s strategic position in the heart of southeast Asia, direct flight connectivity to Sarawak could prove an issue if interest in the state escalates. Small steps are being taken to address accessibility, including the introduction of direct flights between Hong Kong and Kuching via Hong Kong Airlines.
Cannon said that branding and marketing are some of the bureau’s biggest challenges in attracting delegates. “Some international companies may not be aware of Sarawak, and may not be well informed about Sarawak and what it offers,” he said.
The bureau is also working closely with Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB) to pool resources in intelligence and fiscal support. The two bureaus enjoy a strong rapport, and are vital to pushing Malaysia into the international arena.
As a tourism state, Sarawak is heavily dependent on the success of Borneo island as a wildlife and nature haven. Much of the state’s branding as a leisure tourism destination is associated with Borneo, and this could also be taken advantage of in the MICE sector.
For instance, the 7 Wonders of Borneo (7WOB) campaign was recently launched to “demonstrate the connection between business events and natural values”. Delegates are “offered a glimpse of the magical escapade showcasing the best of Sarawak in a spectacular seven-series feature”.
At present time, Sarawak is already hosting substantial conferences that bring in world leaders, decision makers, and potential investors. But if SCB and the Sarawak Tourism Board continue at the rate they’re going, the enamoring state could be an unlikely success story in the years ahead.