Changing demands of the luxury incentive segment are driving planners to suggest emerging destinations
Ask any travel planner working with deep-pocketed incentive groups about Malaysia five years ago, and you would likely hear that capital city Kuala Lumpur is the preferred choice.
However, with greater flight connectivity, as well as a growing number of experiences and lodging catered to the niche segment today, second-tier destinations are fast becoming more popular.
Selangor, Langkawi and Penang are three such destinations that are increasingly appearing on luxury incentive itineraries. They have the culture, nature and heritage attractions the segment is looking for.
While some travel planners choose to promote them as¬†incentive destinations in their own right, others include them in a multi-destination itinerary.
One player that is tapping on the natural heritage of these emerging destinations, while still looking to capture groups that prefer to be based in the capital city, is¬†Saini Vermeulen, executive director of B2B travel agency Within Earth Holidays.
For instance, Within Earth Holidays had a Middle Eastern incentive group choosing to be accommodated in Kuala Lumpur due to convenience, while the itinerary featured Batu Caves and Forest Research Institute in Selangor.
With incentive delegates being well-travelled individuals themselves, greater expectations of a unique destination experience is driving a growing desire for authentic cultural interactions with the local community, opined Mint Leong, managing director of Sunflower Holidays.
These changing travel demands are helping to elevate Malaysia‚Äôs status as an incentive destination, and rightfully so. After all, the country is home to geological features dating back hundreds of millions of years, as well as historic, colonial towns recognised by UNESCO as living testaments to a bygone era of trade between Europe and Asia.
A short drive from Kuala Lumpur would bring incentive groups to Gombak district in the state of Selangor, home to the indigenous people or Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia.
The district‚Äôs easy accessibility from the capital city ‚Äď where some incentive groups choose to have their main event ‚Äď has led Arokia Das, director, WL Travel, to¬†propose its inclusion in luxury incentive itineraries.
Das shared that a day visit to Gombak is usually recommended, along with activities such as jungle trekking with local guides who point out endemic bird and animal species, as well as medicinal plants during the¬†walk.
The company has also hosted mocktails and luncheons in the Orang Asli Museum at Gombak, with approval from local authorities. The experience is an opportunity to learn about the history and traditions of the¬†indigenous peoples through artefacts such as hunting equipment, personal garments and musical instruments.
The museum has a mini theatre hall and a library, and facilitates research into the heritage of¬†the¬†indigenous people.
On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur is the Batu Caves, one of Malaysia‚Äôs most popular attractions, with limestone formations that are said to be about 400 million years old. Nearby the Batu Caves is the Forest Research Institute Malaysia. Surrounded by lush greenery, the 486ha reserve presents a choice location for luxury incentive travellers to go on a jungle trek and learn about the properties of herbs and trees in its gardens and arboretums.
Over at the state of Kedah in northern Malaysia is a¬†charming group of 99 islands that form Langkawi. The¬†entire archipelago was designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark back in 2007, making it another choice offbeat destination for the segment.
According to Vermeulen, taking a private cruise, exploring the islands on jet skis, or having a gala dinner on¬†Paradise 101 ‚Äď one of Langkawi day-resort islands with its own range of water activities ‚Äď are some popular experiences.
Vermeulen is careful to remember that luxury incentive travellers do not simply want to experience; they also seek to be educated.
‚ÄúWe always include an educational element in our tours. For instance, we would introduce the concept of a Geopark to groups, as well as explain the state government‚Äôs efforts to preserve the (area‚Äôs) natural beauty. Guests have found such information valuable and insightful,‚ÄĚ he shared.
For Vermeulen‚Äôs Within Earth Holidays, Langkawi is a premier additional destination for groups based in¬†Kuala Lumpur, should they have more time and wish to explore more of the country.
However, Langkawi can stand as an upmarket incentive destination on its own. The archipelago has its fair share of luxury resorts, which means lodging will not be a challenge.
In fact, many of Langkawi‚Äôs luxury resorts ‚Äď The Datai Langkawi and The St Regis Langkawi ‚Äď are located close to rainforests, making it easy to include jungle treks and nature walks in the itinerary, shared Leong.
‚ÄúWe have organised teambuilding activities in the forest at Langkawi… where groups have had to pitch tents, start a fire and cook their own meals. Such soft adventure activities are favoured by (well-heeled) incentive groups from Europe,‚ÄĚ she explained.
Cherishing Malaysia‚Äôs culture
The northern Malaysian state of Penang is a popular haunt for culture vultures. Its capital George Town features restored colonial buildings and impressive Chinese clan houses, and has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
It is little wonder that Penang has such colourful heritage: the city was a former port along trade routes from¬†Great Britain and Europe through to China.
For groups to make the most of their time in Penang, Vermeulen suggested a treasure hunt incorporating two of the state‚Äôs most celebrated spots.
Beginning at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the hunt can take travellers around George Town and end at the famed Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi clanhouse, where guests can enjoy a sumptuous private dinner party.
The appeal of the Clan House is also apparent to Sadie Yeoh, general manager, Destination Asia Malaysia. She recommended that groups head to the building on trishaws, and learn about vanishing local trades, such as Nonya beaded shoe making, before or after dinner.
Although travel restrictions remain at the time of writing, KL¬†Tan, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents is hopeful that inbound incentive travel from Asia will rebound in early 2021.
When luxury incentive travel resumes, these emerging destinations are likely to be on planners‚Äô lists when they think of Malaysia.