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Sunday August 14, 2011

Wilderness sells

IT’S a universal fact: Wherever they are, conference delegates love ditching their suits and ties for unique experiences outside their meeting rooms and convention halls. And Sarawak certainly has those to offer in abundance.

“Nature meets high-tech” has been Sarawak’s selling point since the state began focusing on developing the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions, or MICE, sector. The Sarawak Conventions Bureau (SCB, sarawakcb.com) boasts a sterling track record of winning 80% of the bids it makes for smaller conventions and incentive groups below 500 that are seeking something different away from capital cities.

“SCB’s biggest achievement has been in successfully changing Sarawak from a virtual unknown conventions destination four years ago to become the second strongest venue (nationally) after Kuala Lumpur,” says Jill Henry, SCB chief executive officer.

Sarawak is cleverly leveraging its unique qualities to offer exotic events such as cocktails in caves or a delicious spread amidst nature. — Photo from the Sarawak Tourism Board

“Our strengths include the unique culture of Sarawak’s diverse people that translates into a very special, relaxed and memorable style of meetings,” she explains, adding that, nowadays, delegates are also attracted by the opportunity to “leave more than footprints behind” through programmes that allow them to participate in rural poverty and health improvement efforts or conservation.

The SCB has won nine international advertising and marketing awards for its destination marketing campaigns and bid videos that convey an adventurous spirit to event planners.

However, Henry says it is challenging to break into the national market that traditionally accounts for the majority of business in second tier cities like Kuching. Most associations are headquartered in KL.

“When people take flights, they naturally seek out international destinations although we have great venues and facilities. We recognise that as a second tier destination we do not have the population base to support large consumer based exhibitions, so we focus on specific trade exhibitions linked to association conventions. We have already held successful regional exhibitions on relevant topics including renewable energy, infrastructure development and green technology.”

The market is set to expand further, Henry adds.

“We are still very new in the international market but we are in the right part of the world, as the old bastions of the conventions industry in Europe and the United States are slowly losing market share to destinations in the Asia Pacific such as China, South Korea and India.”

Here’s a sampling of ideas for the MICE sector in Sarawak, as provided by the SCB:

Cocktails in the caves: The Niah Caves National park is the site of the oldest human settlement in South-East Asia, and features the world’s largest limestone cave entrance as well as ancient rock paintings. Groups enter the caves with torchlight to illuminate the beautiful natural formations, before settling down for a subterranean cocktail party.

Heart to heart with orang utans: The orang utan, or “man of the forest” is a much-loved international icon of the Sarawak rainforest. The orang utan keepers at the Matang Wildlife Centre will share a day of joy with these intelligent, soulful animals that were once found in abundance throughout Sarawak.

Building for the future: Participants can help make a better future for Sarawakians in need by partnering with Habitat for Humanity in building clinics, school buildings and other essential facilities in poor communities. They will be part of a longhouse community and share the people’s lives while helping to bring basic amenities to them.

Rhythms of the rainforest: From humble beginnings 10 years ago, the Rainforest World Music Festival has earned international acclaim. Arrangements can be made for visiting musicians to give a special performance or conduct workshops at conferences.

Racing longboats: To ease deadly historical enmity between warring tribes, British colonial authorities created a river race celebrating the tribes’ rowing prowess. Thus was born the Sarawak Regatta, now an important part of Sarawak culture. Every September on Regatta Day (sarawakregatta.com), the Sarawak River brims with longboats, traditional war boats, water-taxis, dragon boats, modern kayaks, row boats of all colours, makes and designs ... all vying to race each other – and guests can join in the fun.

Dishing up Sarawakian specialities: Conference delegates can impress the folks back home by learning how to make unique Sarawakian dishes. Group cooking tours can be arranged for delegates, beginning with shopping for ingredients at local wet markets for traditional recipes like pansuh manok (bamboo chicken), the celebrated Sarawak laksa and others. A local chef will be on hand to give each team a master class in cooking each dish, be it an Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu or local fusion recipe.

Related Stories:
Tapping into the lucrative MICE sector
What the world is missing
Creativity is the draw

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