Comeback trail

Events professionals in the Malaysian state of Penang recall that more than 20 years ago the destination was a strong player in the business events industry.

“Penang was very active as a MICE destination in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Lawrence Koay, managing director, Tour and Incentive Travel. “There was less competition for Penang as a MICE destination, in particular for incentive travel.”

                         Khoo Kongsi at night

Koay notes that more incentive groups have come to Penang in the last few years. He senses that the events industry on the island is on the brink of a revival, and he is not alone in this sentiment.

“The MICE business here has picked up a lot in the last three years,” says Kingston Khoo, manager for product development at Discovery Overland Holidays, whose company organised a sightseeing tour – capped by a gala dinner at the restored clanhouse Khoo Kongsi – for a 900-strong Amway India group.

Part of the reason for the renewed corporate interest may be the recognition of the capital city George Town, the historic British colonial spice trading post that dates back to the 18th century, as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. This milestone led to the restoration of many of the traditional shophouses and heritage buildings – some of which have been converted for other uses, from boutique lodgings to trendy F&B outlets.

The annual George Town Festival (GTF), which began four years ago with the aim of celebrating Penang's arts, culture and heritage, is shaping up to be a multifaceted month-long event that attracts visitors to the island. GTF is now a high-profile event on the island’s social calendar.

Furthermore, there is a general improvement in the tourism infrastructure on the island, including the on-going upgrading of airport facilities and the construction of a second bridge that will connect the island to Province Wellesy, a coastal strip on the mainland which forms part of  Penang state.

Strong incentive offerings

Ooi Geok Ling, managing director of Penang Global Tourism (PGT), points out that “uniqueness” is embedded in Penang’s DNA. “If this is a major criterion for attracting corporate groups, we have it in abundance. We have unique, exciting sites such as Fort Cornwallis, where groups can have a gala dinner. The whole area around it offers a range of experiences for pre- and post-event programmes, from trishaw rides to heritage walking tours.”

Around the island, other incentive options await. These include water sports at Batu Ferringhi Beach whose coastline is dotted with upscale resorts;  visiting Penang Botanical Gardens, which is great for team-building programmes; the train ride up Penang Hill, which is 823 metres above sea level; and a cooking class amidst the lush setting of the Tropical Spice Garden.

                               Cooking studio at Tropical Spice Garden

“Once the group size is right, it gives us plenty of opportunities to play up the programme,” says Ooi of PGT.  “For groups of 200 and 300 delegates, we can fit them nicely into unique places such as the Blue Mansion.”

For incentive groups, size is not a major concern for  Koay of Tour and Incentive Travel. “Today, the number of incentive participants is between 40 and 50 people. The number has become smaller but the budget is more flexible.” For him, the key point of an incentive is to deliver an unforgettable experience and this means putting together elements that have close ties in a destination. Tour and Incentive Travel  once organised a car rally where Malaysian-made Proton vehicles were used.

Sometimes, an unexpected turn of events allows event organisers to give a lasting impression – like when a general blackout occured on the island when a 200-people group from the UK had just finished dinner at Penang Hill and was about to take the chartered train ride at 10.30pm.

“With no electricity, we had to round up – at the last minute – a number of four-wheeler drives to bring them down the back of the hill. It took us almost three hours to get everybody down,” Koay recalls. “The funny thing was when we apologised to the delegates the next day, many thought it was part of the programme and the blackout was orchestrated. They enjoyed the trip down in almost total darkness.”

All about the experience

Gan Hooi Leng, branch manager, Penang, Holiday Tours is an expert at organising the small touches that make a programme unique. She once had a group cocktails and gala dinner held in an old-traditional coffee shop, a very unconventional venue for the event type. She also had a knack of turning a challenge into an opportunity.

“One time the Esplanade was occupied. We had a group of 1,500 cross the bridge to the mainland for hawker-style lunch in the open-air venue of Auto-City. We had to set up the stalls and assemble the best food hawkers to cater food for the event. Lunch was timed in a way that it was served in batches.”

Gan says that her job occasionally means giving recommendations that are not in the brief and this entails convincing clients to change their mind.

“I was able to persuade a pharmaceutical client to experience fine dining in Penang,” she recalls. “We booked the entire China House in George Town for a stylish dinner for 80 people.”

China House is a row of three shophouses which have been converted into a multi-use space that features retail shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and a multipurpose performance theatre.  “Handling incentive groups involves a lot of personal touch and hands-on interaction with the client. We give regular updates in the course of planning the programme so that the client knows what to expect. It is also a way for us to make delegates look forward to activities in the itinerary,” Gan says.

Getting the big groups

Penang, however, is not content to cater only to a segment of the business events market. It wants to be an all-around MICE contender. Ooi of PGT reveals that the state is now in the process of forming a dedicated convention and visitors bureau, solely tasked to push Penang as an international business events destination. It is hoped that this new MICE body will be formed by year-end.

The private sector is also doing its share to improve the island’s events infrastructure with facilities that offer event spaces for big groups. One of them is E&O, which established Straits Quay, a new waterfront attraction on Seri Tanjung Pinang which is composed of a retail complex, a performing arts theatre, F&B outlets and a marina, to name a few. It also houses the Straits Quay Convention Centre (SQCC), which can seat up between 2,300 and 2,500 people depending on the configuration.


                          Art class at the Art East + Space in Straits Quay                             

“SQCC does not operate in a vacuum. It has a lot of synergy with the establishments operating within Straits Quay,” says Emily Teh, assistant general manager, retail division, Straits Quay. “We have bespoke outlets like Sugar which can offer baking sessions either in their premises or at the convention centre. The same goes for the Art East + Space, which can offer customised art classes.”

Several indoor and outdoor areas within Straits Quays have also been used for event programmes such as Amazing-Race type treasure hunts. Groups can even charter a yacht from the Strait Quay marina.

Another private company, IJM, is also building a purpose-built convention centre, which is expected to come online around 2015. “We know that the plan is to build the facility on reclaimed land near the bridge,” says Ooi of PGT. “We know that IJM has been talking with people from Suntec about the configuration of the convention centre.”

Also under construction is the Subterranean Penang International Conference and Exhibition Centre (sPICE), a RM300 million (US$97.6 million) government project, near the Penang International Sports Arena. It is set to open in 2014.

Industry players in Penang welcome these developments. “The infrastructure must be ready for MICE groups to come in,” says Gan of Holiday Tours.



Discovery Overland Holidays



Holiday Tours & Travel



Tour & Incentive Travel




Access: Most groups fly to Penang International Airport via Kuala Lumpur. The airport, the third largest in Malaysia, also receives direct flights from  China, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. It is located 16km south of George Town, a 30-minute taxi ride or around one hour by city-airport shuttle bus. Visit

Climate: Hot and humid, with temperatures up to and over 30?C during the day and 20-24?C at night. The monsoon season is from November to March, though it can rain at any time of the year.

Visa: Most nationalities are allowed visa-free entry to Malaysia for periods ranging from two weeks to three months, though Mainland Chinese require a visa. Passports should have six months’ validity on entry. For more details visit

Language: Although ethnic Chinese form the majority population in Penang, with Malays and Indians also well represented, Bahasa Malaysia is the lingua franca – though English is widely spoken in both the business and tourism industries.

Contact: Penang Global Tourism




Based on the latest figures from the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA), Malaysia jumped three places in 2011 to retain its top 10 ranking in the Asia-Pacific listing of destinations for association meetings.

“The number of international association meetings in the country grew from 119 to 126 in 2011 – a testament to the confidence from global associations in Malaysia as a premier meetings destination,” says Zulkefli Hj Sharif, chief executive of the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB).

The country’s good showing is likely to continue this year as overseas groups keep arriving, such as the 5,299-strong delegation from 90 countries for the World Gas Conference 2012. The exhibition component of that event drew 13,803 visitors, including exhibitors from 43 countries. Organised by the Malaysia Gas Union and the International Gas Union (IGU) with Petronas as host sponsor, this was only the second time in IGU’s history that the conference had been held in Asia.

The spike in the number of events hosted in the country comes on the heels of a series of initiatives that have been rolled out in the last two years. Among them is the Subvention Programme, which provides financial and non-financial incentives in support of bids to bring international business events to Malaysia. Today, a total of 45 events have been won under this scheme, which is expected to bring in more than 80,000 overseas delegates and to contribute about US$310.2 million to the national economy.

One of MyCEB’s major schemes is the Malaysia Twin Deal (MTD) programme, aimed at attracting incentive groups by offering rewards to both incentive planners and participants. It has been launched in a number of countries, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea and India, among others.

“Since we launched MTD in China in September last year, we have booked more than 13,000 people for an incentive trip to Malaysia. The decision to launch the programme to other countries was based on this success,” Sharif says.

Meanwhile, MyCEB has also recently launched a new corporate incentive campaign on the back of its new brochure called “Malaysia – Asia Like Never Before”. The brochure provides creative ideas with sections on theme events and experiences, team building, CSR and unique venues.

The new campaign is now being promoted in China via a roadshow and will probably be expanded to other markets. “The campaign reflects the spirit and essence of Malaysia as a whole – a true microcosm of Asia,” Sharif says. “If you are looking to wow your clients, look no further because Malaysia is the place to be.”



Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Commonly known as “The Blue Mansion”, this residence on Leith Street in George Town was meant to house nine generations of Cheong Fatt Tze’s descendants when it was built in the late 19th century. It went through a rigorous four-year restoration project between 1991 and 1995. The 38-room property, which includes 16 themed bedrooms, offers a homestay programme. Corporate events can be held outdoors in its Central Courtyard or indoors in the Upper Hall, which can cater to groups of up to 120 people. Companies have the option of leasing the whole mansion, including the guestrooms, for their events.

Hotel Equatorial

With 662 guestrooms and 22 apartments, and event facilities composed of 22 ballrooms and meeting rooms, this resort is a natural fit for corporate groups. Its Grand Ballroom can accommodate 1,300 people in a theatre-style set-up and 600 for receptions. It has a couple of outdoor venues: Poolside for up to 250 people and the Waterfall Terrace for up to 120 people.

G Hotel

Located along Gurney Drive right next to the upscale Gurney Plaza, this stylish 311-room hotel is ideal for event organisers looking for a venue within the city centre. It has a grand ballroom that can fit up to 500 people for banquets and 700 people in a theatre setting. There are five meeting rooms for groups between 15 and 170 people.

Lone Pine Hotel

Constructed in 1948, this was the first resort on Penang’s most famous beach, Batu Ferringhi. The 90-room property has a huge garden overlooking the beach, which can be booked for an open-air banquet of up to 250 people. It can also serve as a team-building venue. Its 130 sqm Angsana function room can hold between 45 people classroom-style and 120 people theatre-style. The 50 sqm Areca function room has a permanent boardroom set-up for up to 16 people.

Shangri-La Golden Sands Resort

This 387-room resort stands a short distance away from its sister property Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa on Batu Ferringhi. It spacious grounds are ideal for corporate team building. Its Bunga  Raya Ballroom can cater for up to 300 people and its terrace can also be used for private receptions of up to 100 guests.

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa

Sitting within a lush, 12-hectare garden on Batu Ferringhi, this 304-room resort has fully equipped meeting facilities, including the Pelangi Ballroom and 14 breakout rooms. It has recently set up a semi-permanent, air-conditioned marquee called the Tepi Laut in its gardens. The marquee can hold up to 200 people depending on the setting.

Yeng Keng Hotel

Built in the mid-1880s as a private residence, this 20-room property was converted into a hotel in the early 1900s. It is one of the heritage buildings in George Town that has undergone a massive conservation and renewal project. Event organisers looking for accommodation with a rustic feel may want to consider this hotel. There is a conference room that can hold up to 60 people and the 1930s-inspired Yeng Keng Café Bar within the hotel compound can seat up to 47 people.



SIDE TRIP: Things to do in Kuala Lumpur

Most groups spend a day or two in the Malaysian capital before flying to Penang. Below are some must-do activities when in KL:

1. Create your own pewter bowl using traditional tools at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre’s School of Hard Knocks. A brand-new exciting workshop – the Accessories Boot Camp (ABC) – will have you making pewter accessories guided by a pewter smith who will walk you through the process of casting, polishing and decorating your masterpiece. You can choose a preferred finishing and then decorate your creation with paint and embellishment.

2. Book your post-conference visit to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), located 16km northwest of Kuala Lumpur, where a walkway canopy 30 metres above ground offers a panoramic view of the tropical rainforest. FRIM is one of the world’s leading institutions in tropical forestry research.

3. Stroll through the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, Southeast Asia’s largest. Visit the 800-species Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens, a Butterfly Park that houses some 6,000 butterflies from more than 120 species, and feed the residents of the Deer Park, all located within the area known as the Lake Gardens. Experience a lush tropical ambience while still in the city.

4. Climb 272 steps to witness the fascinating cave structures, colourful paintings and ornate Hindu shrines of the famous Batu Caves, which gathers half a million people yearly during the Thaipusam festival celebrated on 11 February every year. Incentive groups can be greeted by a “maharajah” with a traditional Indian ceremonial welcome, and a surprise classical Indian dance performance.

5. Check out local artists and craftsmen at work in lively Central Market, a treasure trove of Malaysian handicrafts, traditional batik and silk clothing, exclusively made souvenirs, antique weaponry and more. Identified recently by MyCEB as one of its off-site venues for events, a live “spice market” depicting KL’s old trading activities can be organised for visiting groups.

6. Experience the adrenaline ride of a lifetime at the Sepang International Circuit. Situated 85km from the city, it is home to world-famous Formula One and MotoGP races. Compete for the chequered flag in kart racing or for the more adventurous, participate in the F1 Driving Experience.

7. Explore the diverse and exotic city of Kuala Lumpur within a day, complete with multilingual explanation, by getting aboard the Hop On Hop Off Bus. View the city and over 40 attractions – from Central Market to the National Palace and Bintang Walk – from a double-decker bus complete with wifi for the tech-savvy.

8. There might be no better perch in KL for sipping sangrias while soaking up the sunset than at Marini’s on 57 – on the 57th floor of iconic PETRONAS Tower 3. This location raises the bar (pardon the pun) for what a rooftop nightspot can be.

9. From early morning till midnight, bargain for the best deal in Chinatown’s Petaling Street, a shopper’s paradise and foodie haven famed for its bazaar stalls selling T-shirts, handbags, shoes, sunglasses and souvenirs, and local culinary delights such as steamed dumplings, barbecued chicken, roast duck, Chinese pastries and more.

10. Go see a show at either Istana Budaya, KL Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) or The Actors Studio @ Lot 10 Rooftop. Istana Budaya, more commonly known as “The Palace of Culture”, is the first of its kind in Asia to be equipped with state-of-the-art stage equipment, allowing it to stage world-class productions like Cats, The Sound of Music and Malaysia’s very own Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical. KLPac almost always has something playing, be it a play, musical, dance or music showcase, while The Actors Studio @ Lot 10 Rooftop is a perfect space for intimate to large-scaled productions, musical performances, drama, dance, concerts, corporate events or product launches.

Gigi Onag


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