East Malaysia

East Malaysia, consisting of the rainforest-rich states of Sabah and Sarawak, continues to be a never-ending mine of creative experiences for discerning business event planners. New facilities such as the modern, environmentally conscious Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (whose roof is shaped like the indigenous ririk leaf, which also acts as a water management tool), the recently opened Terminal 1 of Kota Kinabalu International Airport [designated as a Malaysia Airlines hub], a fresh slew of hotel options and unceasing promotions by government-led tourism and convention entities as well as the private sector, have all combined to keep this fascinating region starring in corporate itineraries.

“East Malaysia provides a total contrast from the rest of the country with its blend of white sandy beaches and the jungle, tribes and wildlife like the orangutan,” observes Catherine Chong, country manager-MICE, Pacific World Destination East. “The demand for East Malaysia (for meetings and incentive travel) is growing, and this includes our local market as well.”

“There are just so many activities that we can offer,” says David De La Harpe, a veteran events specialist and consultant with Borneo Adventure. “Sabah is one big playground, and the only limit to what we can do there is our imagination.”

Adds Gennaro Nardone, director of Insight Borneo, who brings in Italian groups intent on team-building activities: “The images of jungles, rivers, beaches and tribes are exotic, especially for Europeans.”

Unique location

Granted there is no lack of natural spaces in Sabah and Sarawak to hold small brainstorming sessions or team building, but proper business still needs to get done in a controlled and comfortable environment. Kuching’s pride and joy, the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK), which began full operations in late 2009, symbolises its aspiration to attract meetings and exhibitions whose themes complement East Malaysia’s natural ambience.

Says Christina Wendt, director of business development, Sarawak Convention Bureau: “Nowhere else in the world will you find a convention centre overlooking a river and mangroves. When you go out on the terrace, you instantly feel relaxed because you are surrounded by the greenery and water.”

From small social gatherings to 5,000 delegates, BCCK is versatile enough to handle the range. The Great Hall can seat 4,000 people, both on a flat floor and tiered seating, or can be transformed into a display area for over 300 booths. An additional 14 breakout rooms accommodate between 200 and 500 people. When dressed up, the Raintree Restaurant (seating 120) with its wide verandah facing the gently meandering Sarawak River makes an elegant venue for hosting a showcase meal for top achievers or executives.

What sets Kuching apart is its ability to deliver modern conveniences without spoiling nature’s bounty.

Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, BCCK has been able to set the scene for memorable events such as last July’s dinner in the Great Hall, hosted by the Sarawak Tourism Board, for top agents of Malaysia Airlines. Moving images of marine life were projected onto white screens surrounding the banquet area, which conjured an underwater effect.

Resorts and new resources

While Sabah has yet to decide whether to go ahead with its own purpose-built convention centre, hotels in Kota Kinabalu such as the Sutera Harbour Resort, Nexus Resort Karambunai and the two Shangri-La resorts – Tanjung Aru and Rasa Ria – are competently filling the gap. All have ballrooms able to take up to or more than 1,000 guests for cocktails as well as a variety of function rooms, restaurants and sprawling grounds ideal for alfresco socials and team-building activities.

Sutera Harbour Resort even has a few more aces up its sleeve, which are expected to appeal to meetings and incentives groups. This year it was asked by the Sabah State Railway Department to manage a vintage British “Vulcan” steam engine locomotive, belonging to the North Borneo Railway. Featuring six colonial-style refurbished carriages, the train can carry 80 passengers, who will enjoy a four-hour return journey passing through Sabah’s lush countryside with glimpses of paddy fields, mangroves and the dazzling coast. A typical tiffin lunch is served onboard.

According to Frank Liepmann, chief executive, Sutera Harbour Group, they are awaiting the arrival in April 2012 of the MS Columbus. Built in the Netherlands in 1910 and now being restored to its former elegance with modern touches, the ship will sail again bearing 100 passengers. The steam-engine train and the vessel, along with the company’s two deluxe hotels (the Magellan and Pacific), the Graham Marsh-designed golf course, a marina, four lodges on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu and Manukan Island Resort, provide event planners with a broad slew of options to incorporate in their itineraries – “probably the widest offered in Kota Kinabalu,” Liepmann believes.

Helping hands

Besides reconnecting with nature or one’s colleagues, a visit to East Malaysia is increasingly being used by a growing number of corporates to immerse themselves in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives such as “adopting an orangutan,” says Catherine Chong of Kuala Lumpur-based Pacific World, who has noticed burgeoning requests to incorporate outreach programmes in itineraries. Consultant David De La Harpe points to other opportunities such as helping underprivileged students and communities. In Sarawak, Francis Cheong, managing director, Apxara Travel & Events, told Mix that he had been engaged in a project to build homes for needy families. There is no shortage of choices to be of service should an organisation desire to.

Work in Progress

Certainly a paradise of abundant natural assets, East Malaysia continues to deal with some man-made challenges. Business events experts Mix interviewed said these include the need for more unique offsite venues for large groups; a demand for new hotel options; and the dearth of international direct flights to both Sabah and Sarawak. Says Apxara’s Cheong: “I’m waiting for the Four Points Sandakan to open next year with hopefully a sizeable ballroom and sufficient breakout spaces. New hotels keep our Fortune 500 clients happy.”

The flight situation is hardly a new concern, and it’s one that destination management specialists have learned to live with. Says Pacific World’s Catherine Chong: “We often go for dual destination marketing and try to convince clients to spend one night in Kuala Lumpur before going on to East Malaysia.” The tactic has been successful, she reports. Still, the industry can’t help wishing airlines would take a risk and provide point-to-point services. “This would help the business to really grow,” says Christina Wendt of Sarawak Convention Bureau.

In the meantime, East Malaysia proudly flaunts its unique mystique of equatorial wilderness, knowing this is an irresistible draw card. Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s minister of tourism, culture and environment, said it best: “Malaysia isn’t made up of one colour, but a rainbow of colours, especially here in East Malaysia where we have so many tribes speaking so many languages. We want to make sure that rainbow stays.

Getting into the groove

Two years after forming the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB) – Tourism Malaysia’s business events arm – things are beginning to gel with the country’s efforts to win a significant chunk of the dynamic events market in Asia-Pacific.

In early November, MyCEB launched its much-awaited business events brand in Kuala Lumpur. Dubbed “Malaysia – Asia’s Business Events Hub”, it clearly signalled the country’s intention to be a serious contender as a destination for intra-regional and international events.

“We recognise the urgency to make the leap to the next stage of development. This ‘leap’ calls for a substantial need to constantly innovate and reinvent ourselves,” said MyCEB chief executive Zulkefli Hj Sharif during the unveiling in the city’s Central Market, which has been a thriving regional trading centre for 600 years.

At the event, MyCEB also launched its new website to complement the new brand campaign. The website has QR code capability, while other interactive features for product search, online leads and social media apps will be added in the second phase of its development.

“We see this progression as crucial to our communication with a global audience that demands 24/7 attention,” Sharif added. “We are stepping up to offer a seamless experience for meeting planners and providing the leading edge in terms of professionalism, best practices and business impact.”

Malaysia’s deputy tourism minister Dr James Dawos Mamit repeated the country’s vision for the year 2020, which includes growing business tourism from 5 per cent to 8 per cent at the end of the decade. The aim is to be one of the top five destinations in Asia-Pacific for international meetings.

“The outlook for the future is promising and is set to continue to grow rapidly with 78 international conferences confirmed between now and 2016 estimated to attract over 88,000 delegates and RM959 million [US$308 million] in economic impact. It is this desire and encouraging growth that gave birth to the development of this campaign,” Mamit noted.

Meanwhile, MyCEB has been busy getting the word out to industry players about the new game plan to attract business events visitors. It established the Industry Partnership Programme in February of this year, and has, as of press time, netted 85 members from a wide range of sectors including hotels, state tourism offices, venues, and even design companies and freight forwarding firms.

Besides presenting the destination in a new light, education is also a top priority for the organisation. In 2012, intensive training activities will take place for industry players to hone their skills in innovation and product development. Earlier this year, an innovation workshop was conducted for conference professionals, with another scheduled for incentive travel specialists and next year, the exhibition sector will be exposed to the same workshop module.

Mike Wilson, senior consultant with MyCEB, said: “We have the products, but how we move those forward and become competitive with them is what we have to focus on next.”

Reporting by Gigi Onag and Margie T Logarta

Winning events

Sabah and Sarawak have been punching above their weight in securing quite a number of regional and international events into the island of Borneo between 2010 and 2011.

Below are some of the notable events held at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching and Kota Kinabalu’s premier venues such as Sutera Harbour Resort and Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa in East Malaysia:


  • Third International Conference and Exhibition on Water Resources and Renewable Energy Development in Asia
  • Pacific Asia Travel Association Board Meeting
  • 14th Asean ORL Head and Neck Congress
  • Society of Wetland Scientists Asia Chapter
  • 9th World Congress of Chinese Medicine (November 2012)

Kota Kinabalu

  • 9th Annual Roundtable Meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil
  • LG Ericsson Global Partners Conference 2011
  • Media Com (M Group) APAC Conference
  • East Asia Regional Council of Overseas Schools – Teachers Conference Pfizer Australia National Sales Meeting
  •  5th Airport Council International Asia-Pacific Human Best Practice Seminar



Kota Kinabalu

A sample itinerary prepared by Pacific World Destination East Borneo

Day 1

  • Meet at the hotel’s main lobby and proceed by foot to the marina. Board the longboat and depart for a day of island-hopping fun.
  • Mouthwatering barbecue lunch on one of the islands.
  • Depart for the mainland in the mid-afternoon. Rest of the day at leisure.

Day 2

  • Meet at the hotel’s main lobby at 0600 for transfer to Kota Kinabalu International Airport for the short flight to Sandakan.
  • Arrive at 0745, then head for the Sepilok Nature Resort for a light breakfast. The world’s largest and oldest orangutan rehabilitation centre covers an area of 4,452 hectares of virgin equatorial rainforest. Here, you can experience a close encounter with the orangutan, one of Malaysia’s most endangered wildlife species, found only in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
  • At 0850, proceed on foot to the rehabilitation centre, stopping to watch a brief video presentation. The group then goes to the feeding platform to view a young orangutan receiving a meal. Normally, visitors may be able to see up to 10 of these primates. However, during the rainy season, they may see less of them. Wildlife sightings, unlike in the zoo, are not guaranteed.
  • A visit to the Rainforest Discovery Centre followed by a short trek through the oldest rainforest in Sandakan to learn more about local wildlife, flora and fauna. Try the canopy walkway and enjoy the view.
  • Lunch at the centre.
  • Depart for Sandakan Airport for the 1400 flight back to Kota Kinabalu.
  • Mid-afternoon arrival at the hotel. Rest of the day at leisure.

Day 3

  • Meet at the hotel main lobby at 0800 for “Fun Water Rafting” activity. This adventure on the Kiulu River (top left) is not only enjoyable and for all levels of ability, but also allows participants to experience a green and serene environment and catch snatches of village life.
  • Lunch at 1230.
  • Depart for Kota Kinabalu at 1330, returning to the hotel at 1430 with the rest of the day at leisure.

Day 4

  • Entire day until 1600 at leisure. Then meet at the hotel’s main lobby and transfer to Inanam Village for a cultural experience.
  • Arrive at the village where the group will be warmly ushered into tribal homes for an intimate look into the lives of indigenous people. Walking through the neighbourhood, they will be able to participate in daily activities such as making a blowpipe, starting a fire from a polod tree without matches and learning the art of tattooing and meanings of the native symbols.
  • The visit culminates in the cultural hall to enjoy a traditional dance performance and a banquet featuring local specialities such as chicken curry and vegetables.
  • Depart for the hotel at 2100.


A sample itinerary for 40 persons prepared by Apxara Travel & Events

Day 1

  • Arrive at Kuching International Airport with immigration processing through the fast lane. Luggage is transferred by van to the hotel, while the group is ushered to Volkswagen Beetles for a one-hour city tour, stopping for a photo session in front of the city’s famous statue of a cat, with local performers dressed as felines (Kuching in Malay means “cat”).
  • Lunch featuring laksa, Sarawak style.
  • Hotel check-in. Accommodation on the club floor. At leisure before evening’s exciting function.
  • Themed cocktails at The Junk, Sarawak’s coolest nightspot.

Day 2

  • Half-day conference, spiced with the “Head Hunters Tea Break” featuring a spread of local delicacies and games such as blowpipe shooting.
  • Lunch followed by shuttle transfer to the riverfront (below) to explore the area  and shopping in the bazaar.
  • Private limousine pick-up for themed gala dinner.

Day 3

  • At leisure, then check out and transfer to airport for the return flight home.


Case study: doctor’s orders

It has been said that doctors mostly don’t follow their own prescription, particularly when it comes to eating healthily. 

For the 14th Asean ORL Head and Neck Congress held in May 2011, the organisers made sure that lunches served during the three-day event were deliciously nutritious both for vegetarian delegates and those with no dietary restrictions.

“We required healthy packed lunches for our delegates, out of whom 5 per cent were vegetarian,” says Dr Kuljit Singh, organising chairman of the 2011 Congress, which was held at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK) in Sarawak. Singh was the representative of the Malaysian Society of Otorhinolaryngologists – Head and Neck Surgeons, which hosted the event.

It was the first-time the event required boxed meals as the programme has a working lunch format for the whole three days. A one-and-a-half-hour special presentation was done during each “lunch symposium”. 

For this reason, the culinary production team at BCCK customised a lunch bento box for the event. For example, on day one of the congress, the vegetarian menu included Tomato, Cucumber and Garden Greens; and Fried Tofu in Light Curry Gravy. The non-vegetarian menu had Mediterranean Chicken Salad, Snapper Fillet with Herb and Olive Pesto and French Pastry. Both menus were served with steamed rice with black sesame, mixed vegetables, soft roll and butter.

At the initial meeting between the Society led by Singh and the BCCK events team, two key issues were raised besides the request for a healthy packed lunch. One, it was the first time for the Congress to be hosted in a purpose-built venue and, second, the Society was expecting over 400 participants would be at the event, the largest attendance for the Congress to date. 

“Though the venue is equipped to cater to the needs and technicalities of our event, we needed to look into the logistics for our delegates who will be staying at five major hotels all over Kuching,” Singh recalls.

BCCK addressed these concerns by providing transportation to all delegates to and from the venue during the entire length of the event. It stationed event coordinators in each hotel at 6.30am for pick up. The venue operator also liaised with respective coach providers and committee members to ensure all delegates were accounted for and would reach BCCK on time.

The Congress took five months to organise and the event was executed smoothly despite the fact the event attracted 750 surgeons, almost double the group size than originally projected. And the Society received positive feedback from the delegates on the very things that were a cause for concern during the initial event planning.

“They said that the event was ‘impressive and well organised’, ‘the food was excellent’ and ‘the bus ride to and from the BCCK was good’,” says Singh, adding that “our VIP speakers were impressed with their special room”.

“Also, the exhibitors were pleased that they were provided a place to have their meals and not just forgotten or grouped with everyone else,” Singh says.

Singh is all praises for Sarawak Convention Bureau and BCCK for making all the arrangements as painless as possible.

“They were most accommodating and genuine. They made us look good!”

Gigi Onag

Fast facts

Event: 14th Asean ORL Head and Neck Congress 2011

Venue: Borneo Convention Centre Kuching

Date: May 12 to 14, 2011

Number of participants: 750 delegates

Organiser: Malaysian Society of Otorhinolaryngologists – Head and Neck Surgeons

Hotel highlights

Kuching, Sarawak

Hilton Kuching

The grand dame of Sarawak hotels is completing an extensive room refurbishment by year-end. Its grand ballroom and various function venues are able to take up to 750 and 240 respectively in a theatre-style set-up. Event organisers should also consider the hotel’s sister property Hilton Batang Ai, designed along the lines of an Iban tribal longhouse. On offer there is a three-day accommodation package from RM550 (US$179) per person with the team-building fee of RM14,000 (US$4,563).



Pullman Kuching

The new kid in town, located on hilly Jalan Mathies, adheres to the brand’s meeting DNA, boasting the largest ballroom in the city that caters to up to 1,500 for a sit-down banquet and 3,000 cocktail style. In addition, there are nine conference venues. The spacious lobby offers a number of areas to conduct business, including Déjà Vu bar and Café Ch@t where complimentary wif  i is available.



Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Le Méridien Kota Kinabalu

Its ballroom caters to banquets of up to 320 guests, while five breakout rooms – most featuring natural light and one with a balcony ideal for cocktails – serve smaller groups. There is also an area designed for displays that provides a productive setting for negotiation 
and discussion.


Nexus Resort Karambunai

A grand ballroom and eight meeting venues, plus the unlimited outdoor space represented by the resort’s 1,349 hectares of landscaped and natural surroundings, present event planners with a stunning range of options.



Novotel Kota Kinabalu Borneo

Part of Kota Kinabalu’s latest retail development, 1Borneo, this 263-room hotel has three meeting rooms able to take up to 240 people and a fine foyer to hold pre-dinner cocktails. A boardroom for 10 persons is located at the business centre. Speak to the events team about offsite excursions to outlying islands.



Shangri-La Tanjung Aru

Ten minutes away from downtown

KK, this secluded retreat boasts a pillarless ballroom taking up to 1,200 guests and 10 function rooms for smaller events. (Note: sister property Shangri-La Rasa Ria is  experiencing major refurbishment work until 2012.)



Sutera Harbour Resort

The 155-hectare Sutera Harbour Resort complex consists of the Magellan Sutera Resort and the more corporate Pacific Sutera Hotel, plus a range of leisure facilities like a Graham Marsh-designed golf course, spa and restaurants showcasing various cuisines and flexible event venues. Its extensive gardens are excellent for team building out in the open.



Fast facts


Both airports in Sarawak and Sabah host a small number of international airlines. They also cater to homegrown Malaysia Airlines, its low-cost subsidiary Firefly and fierce competitor AirAsia, which all fly in from Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country. Sarawak’s Kuching terminal was upgraded in 2008, while Kota Kinabalu (KK) recently launched its new Terminal 1.


The monsoon rains arrive in East Malaysia between October and February bringing an average of 5,080 mm of rain. The rest of the year is brilliantly sunny and humid, so for visitors, light cotton clothing is recommended.


Malaysia’s three major languages – Malay, Chinese and Tamil – are used in East Malaysia, along with the Iban and Dusun tribal dialects. English tends to be the working language.


Citizens of Asean-member countries (except Myanmar) can enter and stay in Malaysia visa-free for a month. A number of other non-Asean nationalities also enjoy this perk but with varying duration of stay (for details, visit www.imi.gov.my). Travellers arriving from Kuala Lumpur still have to clear immigration.


Sarawak Tourism Board

Tel: +60 82 423 600

Email: stb@sarawaktourism.com



Sabah Tourism Board

Tel: +60 88 212 121

Email: info@sabahtourism.com



The professionals


email: enquiry@apxara.com




email: info@borneoadventure.com




email: info@insightborneo.com




email: kulmice@pacificworld.com




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