Koe Peng Kang, senior executive vice president of S P Setia, who oversees Setia SPICE Penang, shares his observations and expectations of the business
Penang has seen accelerated growth in business events over the past five years. Has it significantly changed the way local players, like yourself, work the destination?
The way Penang is presented to business event groups has changed. In the past, Penang attracted more domestic events. Event organisers were mainly locals who knew what Penang was all about.
Now, Penang attracts more global business events and international organisers who have different requirements and expectations. Some of them want to see our cultural diversity; they love it so we market this strongly. Others desire a look at our heritage or our environment, so we have made these aspects more prominent in our destination marketing.
We have had to change our strategies according to the needs and requirements of international event organisers to bring out the best of Penang. For example, what would a European organiser want for his delegates after an event? Probably want a city tour. A Chinese organiser with a Chinese group probably want to feast on durian.
Do you see Penangâ€™s strong leisure offerings as a real advantage in the contest for business events?
Business tourism is no longer just about people going to a destination for conferences, meetings and exhibitions. It has become a convergence of business events and leisure.
In the past, delegates would return home immediately after their conference. Today, heads of department can accept when their staff take a few days leave after a conference to discover the destination.
Seeing this trend, we have to market both the business events side of Penang as well as its tourism components.
What other trends in the business are you seeing that Penang should pay attention to?
Business events will be seeing more attendance from China, India and the Middle East. Malaysia has not fully marketed herself as a business events destination in these important markets. We have to dive deeper into secondary and tertiary cities in China and India to promote Malaysia better.
How about trends in the way event venues are used?
When we were planning for Setia SPICE Penang (prior to its opening in 2017), we provisioned for state-of-the-art technology, including projectors. When we opened, the world had moved on to LED screens. We had to pump in another RM4.5 million (US$1 million) to upgrade our equipment to LED screens in the main conference hall.
A few years back, we never thought green buildings were so important. When we started to market Setia SPICE Penang in Europe, organisers asked how green we were, and if our building was designed to be sustainable. So we moved on to incorporate green technology into our hardware. We became the first hybrid solar powered convention centre in the world (and the biggest solar farm in Penang), which is also Eco Green (Green Building Index) certified.
Weâ€™ve won a number of events from Europe for Setia SPICE simply because of its green features.
Letâ€™s zoom out now. Has the global economic slowdown impacted business events this year?
Nothing major, as conventions are usually planned two years ahead. There are still enquiries for future events although organisers today are more conscious about costs.
There are so many factors â€“ Donald Trump and China, Donald Trump and Europe, and Brexit. If there is an impact, we will only see it in two or three yearsâ€™ time for convention and exhibition business. Thankfully, because the market is so big, there is always demand.
What are some of the challenges for Malaysiaâ€™s MICE industry?
We need more international, direct flights to Penang. We have to work harder for Asian markets and cannot depend on the domestic market alone. This year, we planned eight business trips to generate awareness mainly for Setia SPICE. We have to dive deeper, be competitive and give value for money â€“ the keys to driving business.
Another challenge is finding the right manpower with the right service mindset and then retain them. We are happy that a lot of colleges are running hospitality courses. Hopefully, those who have been trained well do not move to Macau, China, Singapore and the Middle East to work. Due to salary disparity from (our weak) exchange rate, we lose talent. But we cannot rely on foreigners all the time, and need a systematic long-term business tourism strategy.
If you have your way, what do you wish to do to improve the MICE landscape in Malaysia?
I would like to work with the government to develop a long-term strategy to further drive business tourism in the country.
We also hope the government would give preferential incentives to business event employers who can create jobs for locals, as such incentives will further drive the sector.