Over coffee with Mike Cannon
The group CEO and managing director of Sarawak Convention Bureau and Sarawak Tourism talks to S Puvaneswary about his past successes
Sarawak Convention Bureau was the first state convention bureau. How has it evolved in the last decade?
Two decades ago, business events was unchartered territory in Malaysia. In 2006, the Sarawak Convention Bureau (SCB) was established, pioneering the rise of business events and making Sarawak the first Malaysian state to cohesively address the pursuit of business events, driven in tandem by the private and public sectors.
We have grown over the last 10 years. New positions have been created within the bureau to meet new demands and to service the industry better. For example, we recently created a new position for a project liaison director as we saw a need to bring conference organisers and suppliers together.
Once a conference is won, we hand it over to the project liaison director who will then liaise with the conference organiser and all relevant suppliers. We do this to ensure quality, which will result in repeat and referral business for the future.
SCB has won 424 international events with almost 167,000 delegates since day one. What is the secret to such success?
It is in finding your Unique Selling Propositions and never losing sight of them. There is a certain charm in Sarawak’s people, its scenery and the overall experience – a dynamic composition of these can never be replicated.
We capitalise on the beauty of Sarawak. Our tagline, Where business meets adventure, means we have the sophistication and the know-how to cater to events in the heart of what ranks among the world’s oldest rainforest. That’s a magical experience that is outstanding and unique compared to (what’s available in) other destinations. Delegates can get close to nature and take photographs of orangutans, or kayak under towering riverine trees, overlooking the sights of unique limestone formations, all within a 40-minute drive from Kuching city where business sessions are held.
For business events, Sarawak is extremely attractive. It has a vast array of hotel venues with conference facilities as well as a state-of-the-art convention centre. Our competitive prices are attractive, especially with the current exchange rate (on December 1) of 4.47 ringgit to US$1.
One of the secrets to our appeal is the business events community of impassioned people whose products and services are bursting with creativity, stories, and authenticity.
Who do you target?
We accept that we are a second-tier destination. Sarawak has decided since 2006 to concentrate on smaller, niche events that yield greater benefits in education, social responsibility, research or trade for Sarawak, or that lend support to the multiple industries or professions that are of state interest.
What are the challenges?
Logistics is an issue, specifically, more direct flight connectivity is needed. However, this is strategically being addressed, a recent example being the new Hong Kong-Kuching direct service. Through this service, we can make Hong Kong the next Asian hub that links more overseas visitors to Sarawak, besides Singapore and Kuala Lumpur which collectively provide 2,500 seats into Sarawak every day.
Marketing is a constant challenge, but also a playing field we use to raise our game. We like to push the envelope with this one by constantly evolving in creativity. We ensure that our marketing translates to a dynamic, integrated and consistent brand for Sarawak that marries business events and leisure tourism.
Some international companies may not be aware of Sarawak, and may not be well informed about Sarawak and what it offers. It is a challenging, complex game, but we play to win.
How has the global economy impacted business events in Sarawak?
The business events industry survives better than most in a softening global economy. Conferences and meetings are all about getting the latest research and education. Most associations continue to invest in holding meetings as these are opportunities for continued learning, which is mandatory in many professions.
Penang has set up a state convention bureau in early 2016, while Johor is going to do the same. Your thoughts?
It is a positive development for Malaysia. Branding Malaysia for business events is the greatest challenge. So without all the states being involved (by having a convention bureau to drive destination branding), we cannot possibly increase business events for the country.
We hope that going forward, (such developments will enable) MyCEB to focus on branding while the states focus on selling and winning.
How do you see the business events industry evolving a decade from now?
Face-to-face meetings are the best form of communication and problem solving you will ever get. There is Skype, webinars and digital communication, but they will never solve issues as effectively as face-to-face meetings.
Having said that, I predict the number of face-to-face meetings will grow but the average size of these meetings will not be as big as it is currently.
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