Making People Talk Business is Penang’s Business

loading The team at the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau.

The future of business tourism is in the hands of the newly formed Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau.

At the Ninth China MICE Industry Golden Chair Awards ceremony held in Beijing in April 2016, Malaysia was voted among the top 10 best international destinations for business tourism.

According to Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz, Malaysia is targeting to draw 30.5 million tourists or RM103bil in tourist receipts this year. In 2015 the tourism industry was the second highest private investment contributor at RM24.5bil and the third largest GNI contributor at RM67.1bil, according to news reports. Tourist arrivals for January to June 2016 have been recorded to be five per cent higher than for the same period the year before. Business tourism is an expanding part of this industry. The Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau’s (MyCEB) goal is to raise the business tourism share of total tourism from five per cent of tourist arrivals to eight per cent by 2020, that is, from 1.2 million to 2.9 million.

The Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) was set up this year to develop the meetings, incentive travel, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) industry in the state. PCEB serves as the focal point for all MICE activities, providing expert assistance to organisations and MICE planners and working closely with professional service providers and world-class hotels, convention centres and unique venues.

In fact, PCEB aims to redefine MICE. According to Ashwin Gunasekeran, PCEB’s CEO, this involves “setting a common direction for the industry to work toward achieving greater heights for the MICE business in Penang. We have also adopted the industry standard of moving towards Business Events (BE) instead of MICE.”

Facilitating Business Tourism

The Worldwide Exhibition for Incentive Travel, Meetings and Events (Imex) defines business tourism as “the provision of facilities and services to the millions of delegates who annually attend meetings, congresses, exhibitions, business events, incentive travel and corporate hospitality.” Understandably, conference organisers and hosts give priority to logistics management. And “selling” the destination itself is a good way to increase conference attendance. Conference bidders normally include destination attractions and leisure opportunities in pre- and post-conference tours in their package.

Public policy has a big role to play in supporting business tourism. The Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB) has identified China as one of the top markets for corporate meetings and incentives, contributing 25% to this sector’s arrivals. In March 2016 Malaysia decided to waive visa requirements for Chinese tourists visiting Malaysia for 15 days or less.

Ashwin Gunasekeran.

On January 1, 2015 the Asean Open Skies policy, also known as the ASEAN Single Aviation Market (ASEAN-SAM), came into effect. The aim is to increase regional and domestic connectivity, integrate production networks and enhance regional trade by allowing airlines from Asean member states to fly freely throughout the region via the liberalisation of air services under a single, unified air transport market.

Based on data gained from events hosted in Penang in 2016, PCEB has identified Malaysia, Singapore, the US and Hong Kong among its top target markets.

Marketing Penang

Penang’s cultural assets and diversity are an important selling point – and PCEB is fully aware of that. “Experiences Unfiltered” is PCEB’s three-year brand campaign to popularise Penang as a business tourism hub. “Penang is a truly unique destination – one where guests can experience radiant cultures, prized heritage, inspiring architecture, excellent cuisine and much more,” says Ashwin, referring to George Town’s Unesco World Heritage listing as proof. “These experiences are authentic, varied and eclectic, and that is what sets Penang apart from other business tourism destinations.”

As a member of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) and with its access to ICCA’s database of associations that organise meetings and conventions worldwide, PCEB hopes to generate some positive leads to put Penang on the minds of conference and business trip organisers. Penang currently ranks 48th in Asia Pacific and Middle East in the 2015 ICCA country and city rankings.

Ashwin expands on PCEB’s growth strategy: “We launched our Industry Partner Programme (IPP) to engage the various players in the business tourism industry and encourage them to apply for IPP membership. The IPP is not only an exercise in bringing industry players together, but also partners with the private sector and our stakeholders in a more meaningful way. We are also launching our BE@Penang education series to equip industry players with the knowledge and skills required to compete on an international level.”

PCEB is also looking at marketing Penang at major industry trade shows such as Imex in Frankfurt and Incentive Travel & Conventions, Meetings Asia (IT&CMA), Bangkok. PCEB has an in-house researcher actively engaged in market research who works closely with local associations and MyCEB in the bidding exercises.

Ooi Chok Yan.

Ashwin understands that PCEB must collaborate with the state’s tourism bureau, Penang Global Tourism (PGT), to leverage their marketing and branding efforts in selling Penang as a tourist destination. The leisure tourism market that Ooi Chok Yan, CEO of PGT, and his team address is different from the business tourism ecosystem that Ashwin and his team work with.

Leisure travellers tend to be more price-sensitive, for example, in booking hotels that suit their budgets, while business travellers look out for location as they need to be close to their conference or convention venue. To put it simply, travellers seek value from trusted brands while business travellers seek convenience. Leisure travellers turn to search engines to plan travel online while business travellers rely more heavily on supplier sites. However, both types of travellers share one common feature: they use the Internet. Business travellers are much more likely to book travel via a mobile app than with a mobile browser; 60% of business travellers, compared to 36% of leisure travellers, booked their hotels using a mobile app in 2014.

Ooi, who has an advertising background, understands well the power of social media and the Internet. His team is focusing more on digital and social media, and upgrading/ developing mobile apps so that they can be virtual tour guides for travellers. An initiative his office has embarked on is an e-coupon that tourists can use on their mobile phones to gain entry to certain places of interest in Penang. PGT produces and shares one-minute videos on festivals and other exciting happenings in Penang on its YouTube channel. PGT is also including more languages such as Japanese and traditional and simplified Chinese in their marketing brochures.

Infrastructure and Benefits

The increase in business events in Penang has spurred the development of facilities and infrastructure. According to Ashwin, “convention centres are key”.

“The expansion of the Subterranean Penang International Convention and Exhibition Centre (SPICE) is a landmark project for Penang. We will now be able to cater to larger events, evidenced by a 15,000-strong delegate conference that took place this year. Moreover, SPICE will have two hotels on campus by 2018, which should help attract businesses to it.”

Besides SPICE, Penang’s latest developments include venues at Komtar, which offer business events delegates “truly cosmopolitan experiences in addition to the vibrant cultural and heritage that Penang is famous for.

“The Top offers venues like Rainbow Skywalk which provides a spectacular view of Penang and a banquet hall big enough to take 800 guests and equipped with a state-of- the-art LED backdrop. Those who prefer a natural setting can choose between The Habitat Penang Hill and Tropical Spice Garden," says Ashwin.

Business tourism brings numerous benefits such as an increase in foreign exchange earnings, improved international business networks, opportunities and international collaboration, and lucrative tourism. It is suggested that almost 60% of conference delegates prefer to return to the same destination within two years. Furthermore, one full-time equivalent job is created for every RM192,450 in economic value generated by business tourism.

According to MyCEB, international conventions can often leave a legacy that benefits the local and regional community. A spin-off from successful events is that other related business events tend to gravitate to the same venue. Investor confidence in infrastructure development is given a boost as well.

Studies have also shown that an estimated 46% of international delegates extend their stay, providing benefits to the local economy. It also helps that 25% of all international participants are accompanied by a partner or spouse.

Elizabeth Su is a Mason Fellow from Harvard. She believes that one of the best ways to learn is to ask the right questions..

Related Articles

Nov 2016

Technology Transforms the Halal Industry

Things are looking good for one of Malaysia’s sunrise industries.

Apr 2014

Price Among Slaves: An 18th-century slave story still relevant for Malaysia

Who was Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori, and how can we learn from his story?

May 2013

Surely not another Cold War!

Will Asean have to take sides if tensions between the US and China reach breaking point?

May 2015

Federalism arrested

The consequences of an overly centralised state are alarming.