S Puvaneswary delves into the Malaysian islandâ€™s treasure trove of quirky experiences and MICE hardware, and reveals why the destination warrants a large â€śXâ€ť on the business events map
Smaller cities that are easily accessible and which can provide authentic, immersive experiences are growing in popularity among business event planners.
Sharing how trends have changed over the years, Koe Peng Kang, senior executive vice president of S P Setia, noted: â€śBusiness tourism is no longer just about people going to a destination to attend a conference. It has become a convergence of business events and leisure experiences.â€ť
And one such destination that is benefiting from such a convergence is Penang, the business hub of Northern Malaysia. Its capital, George Town, was awarded UNESCO heritage site status in 2008, as it was one of the two â€śmost complete surviving historic city centres on the Straits of Malacca with a multicultural living heritage originating from the trade routes from Great Britain and Europe through the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and Malay Archipelago to Chinaâ€ť.
And Koe strongly believes in Penangâ€™s lure, adding that the Malaysian city is able to fulfil the different interests of international delegates because of its varied product offerings.
Sadie Yeoh, general manager, Destination Asia (Malaysia), concurred: â€śInternational delegates want to be able to take home memorable experiences of the local culture, local cuisine and recreational activities that are unique to the destination. And Penang has all of that. It is a modern city, with elements of yesteryear that can be incorporated into a programme.â€ť
Some examples Yeoh gave include a trishaw ride around George Town, learning to make joss sticks, or enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail while watching the sunset at The Habitat Penang Hill â€“ a prehistoric rainforest dating back 130 million years old that is located a 45-minute drive from the city.
In fact, because Penang has so many experiences to offer, Yeohâ€™s company is seeing repeat business, especially from clients in Asia-Pacific.
Yeoh believes that planners are also â€śspoilt for choiceâ€ť as the city offers several tiers of business hotels, and modern convention centres. A wide-ranging selection of venues and spaces add to Penangâ€™s shine; from clan houses and restored colonial bungalows, to heritage buildings such as Penangâ€™s first theatre circa 1926, the Majestic Theatre, to the Suffolk House, a Georgian mansion built in the 1800s.
Presanth Chandra, managing director of Apollo Conferences, agreed that Penang is â€śblessed with many unique venues that can be tapped for business events purposesâ€ť, and possibilities were only limited to a plannerâ€™s imagination.
He recalled: â€śAt the recent Penang International Travel Exchange in October 2019, invitees enjoyed a welcome dinner we organised on Rapid Ferry, where they saw the sights of Penang onboard a moving ferry and watched the sun set over the horizon.â€ť
Moreover, Penang is a year-round destination for business events, opined Presanth.
â€śPenang is also rich in festivals and there is something interesting happening every month. Some organisers take into account the local festivals when choosing event dates, (so as to allow) delegates to experience the local scene,â€ť Presanth shared.
A local festival worth noting is the annual George Town Literary Festival which is organised by the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) for the past four years. The event is said to be the largest world literature festival in Malaysia, and the first literary event in South-east Asia to receive the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards.
Arokia Das Anthony, director, Luxury Tours Malaysia, pointed out that the event is good for visitors who are interested in literary works and would like to meet renowned authors. Last year, Luxury Tours Malaysia sent two groups to Penang as part of a post-conference tour.
For Yeoh, she has noticed a growing interest in groups asking for Instagrammable sights â€“ such as Penangâ€™s street art and murals â€“ and sustainable eco-tourism experiences.
Sharul Madi, director of sales at Shangri-Laâ€™s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa and Golden Sands Resort, Penang, has also noticed a growing interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. As such, both properties have developed nature and community-based programmes to cater to multinational corporations seeking to incorporate CSR as part of their teambuilding activities.
PCEB is also providing an avenue for business events to fulfil their CSR dreams when meeting in Penang. Penang Turtle Cares was launched in December, providing corporate groups an opportunity to assist with turtle conservation efforts at the Penang Turtle Sanctuary â€“ home to the Green and Olive Ridley turtles â€“ on Pantai Kerachut. Study tours of the work done at the sanctuary, planting of Ambung-Ambung trees as shelter for turtles to lay their eggs under, and contributions in kind are some ways to contribute.
With so many points of appeal, Yeoh intends to market Penang to European clients, in particular those in Amsterdam, Belgium and the UK.
Aside from Qatar Airwaysâ€™ four-times-weekly flights from Doha to Penang making the destination convenient for European groups, Yeoh said: â€śWith a weaker pound, I think there is potential to obtain more incentive business from the UK because of our competitive pricing, as well as our strong ties dating back to colonial times.â€ť
As for Presanth, he has seen increasing interest from the Indian Subcontinent for events in Penang.
He revealed: â€śIndian organisers who have already held events in Kuala Lumpur and its surrounds are looking for new destinations, and Penang fits their requirements. The destination is easily accessible, and within 30 minutesâ€™ drive from the airport, one can visit The Habitat Penang Hill, enjoy the scenic Batu Ferringhi beach, or visit George Town.â€ť
To help with business conversion, PCEB is dangling curated exclusive support and perks for planners who choose Penang for meetings, conferences or incentives. The bureau has also developed the BE Penang mobile app which packs in a meeting planners guide and calendar showing upcoming events and other supported business events occurring in the city.