Sarawak Rising

Emerging from the famous rainforests of Sarawak is a jungle of another kind. Dubbed The Land of the Hornbills, you’ll be hard-pressed to actually sight one of the majestic birds if you ever visit Sarawak, but you might find in its stead, from the other end of the spectrum, a rising destination for MICE events.

The industry now termed as Business Events (BE) in Sarawak, has brought in 167 thousand delegates so far, amounting to over RM342 million ringgit in direct delegate expenditure with 424 bids since inception, with RM33 million alone last year – impressive given the global economy climate.

The inspiring figures have caught the attention of other Malaysian states, as they pay attention to the unique formula of primeval pulse and aggressive infrastructure that Sarawak is now offering world meeting planners.

The man with a vision is the current Governor of Sarawak, Tun Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud. In 2006, he pitched the idea of introducing the state as a destination for international business events, as aggressive infrastructure development plans were in the works as well. And so Sarawak Convention Bureau (SCB), then a department in Sarawak Tourism Board, became an independent entity with 9 members, a number that has tripled today.

Fronting this movement is Managing Director Mike Cannon. With the help of his growing team, he has networked local suppliers and overseas leaders in their quest for a unique solution in this industry. As a 2nd tier entrant, Sarawak is using their gateway cities of Kuching and Miri to good effect. They are selling this piece of paradise on the world’s third largest island and Malaysia’s state, as an unexpected blend of tribal adventure, old-world nature, with world-class standards in venue, service and production.

One example of their standards can be seen at the 8th annual Anak Sarawak Awards (ASA). Presented this 5th August at the Imperial Hotel, Kuching, the ceremony was held to honour 90 meeting hosts and 7 special winners for their contribution to the BE industry. This also coincided with SCB’s 10th anniversary.

Dato’ Sri Dr Muhd. Leo Michael Toyad Abdullah, Chairman of SCB, presented the affair to a room full of clients and partners – past and potential – on an extensive stage, sprawled over the gigantic Grand Ballroom of Imperial Hotel. The lights never came down as winner after winner came forward to receive their accolades as a crane camera captured the event for a broadcast after, to over 200 countries. The earnest nominee videos profiled a group of eager participants raring to contribute to the rising BE scene, a mark of exciting times to come.

The Governor was also there as a Guest of Honour. “Change brings the progress that builds nations, makes names, and marks legacies. Likewise, the science of marketing Sarawak as a destination to visit has evolved,” he shares. “A Business Event has the capacity to bring greater investment and knowledge transfer to a multitude of industries and professions in the nation that hosts it.”

The testimonials supported this at a BESarawak Education Session next morning. Participants such as Mr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Associate Professor of Tropical Conservation Ecology Lab, shared his winning bidding experience with the help of SCB. He credited the team for their help in packaging a venue that offered both substance and packaging that eventually led to his success at the panel.

Dr. Noor Hayaty Abu Kasim also enthused her introduction to SCB via their BESarawak campaign. “I felt it in my gut. But my experience (with SCB) confirmed my decision,” she shares, when asked about what led to her choice of Kuching as the venue for the Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dental Research, SouthEast Asia division in 2014. “With SCB, they are very personalised. People are happy to help and follow-up with you. I really love them. They even generated interest in delegates as far as Brazil, Tanzania and Turkey!”

From the SCB website, their vision is one of “Sarawak-style conferences (that) are sought after by the world’s meeting planners as they deliver strong business outcomes and a delightful experience for their delegates.” And as a wildlife refuge, natural haven and home to 27 ethnic groups, some not found elsewhere in Malaysia, delegate programs have been one-of-a-kind.

The crossroads of culture can be said to be most evident in the melting pot that is Kuching. The two ethnically different mayors have done a perfect balancing act maintaining social integrity, with equal influence in the city given to native, historical and immigrants alike. Colonial structures lend charm to a canvas of tempered nature in the town, and the diverse ethnic imprint can be as you travel about, between streets and cat statues; in their food and wares.

An annual highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. Under the canopy of the Borneo jungle, one can expect spiritual beats to thrum and excite. Cleverly leveraging on the structure of the Sarawak Cultural Village, the musical carnival this year invites international acts from as far as Ethiopia and Syria to perform.

As thousands of event-goers walked between the life-size replicas of the indigenous homes of the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and more, on boardwalks that took them from stalls to stage, several screens kept the musical performances accessible no matter which part of the resort you’re at. A much-welcomed thought in the 17 acre compound.

At the heart of the festival are the two forest-backed music stages. At the largest Jungle Stage, a rhythmic performance by Naygayiw Gigi Dance Troupe from Bamaga, Australia had some of the audience stamping happily in a muddy section, thanks to a passing shower. The troupe with their white mohawk headgear was a visual sight as the dancers spun their head to the hypnotic drumming. Supporting the girls were the ladies of the tribe, shaking their rainsticks in a musical ritual.

Full-on cheers also came on when Band Girls of Sabah Cultural Board gave their sister state an energetic offering at the smaller Tree Stage. Cuba lent their quirky sounds with Vocal Sampling, using acapella methods to string up melodies imitating traditional instruments. ShanRen from YunNan, China brought folk music alive with their playful, spirited numbers. With easy access to such a rarefied aural experience, it’s no wonder the festival was recognised for four consecutive years as one of the world’s best international festivals by Songlines Magazine UK.

With a spectrum that arcs from mythical to occupational, Sarawak is fast proving itself to be a rare specimen of unexampled venue for the world of business events.

First published: Epoch Times, Singapore print edition (September 2016)
All photos: Sarawak Tourism Board

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