South East Asia: Malaysia - Reach for the sky

While its neighbours have dominated the conference scene in the past, the opening of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre could mean it's now Malaysia's turn, writes Yasmin Razak. The opening of a new convention centre is certain to highlight any destination's conference product. But with the bonus of having five new hotels as well, Kuala Lumpur (KL) is firmly planting itself on the global MICE map and is ready to rival its popular neighbours.

The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) is set to open in June next year, and will include a plenary hall on two levels seating 3,000, four exhibition halls, a grand ballroom catering for 2,300, a conference hall and several additional meeting rooms.

KLCC marketing and sales director Jenny Salsbury says: "We hope to attract global congresses that wouldn't have thought of Malaysia before. The opening of the KLCC will give the city a professional, purpose-built venue of an international standard that will make us attractive to the C&I market."

Salsbury's considerable experience at the Hong Kong Convention Bureau means that pitching an Asian destination to the UK market will be second nature, while general manager Peter Brokenshire is a veteran of conference centre openings and has launched venues in Perth, Melborne and Durban.

Interest is growing rapidly and just three months after its opening date, the KLCC will host 1,500 delegates for the Pacific Asia Travel Association's annual conference and exhibition, while 9,000 are due to attend the World Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics in November 2006. Furthermore, the Putra World Trade Centre by KL's Pan Pacific property is expanding and a new exhibition hall will open by March 2005, adding to the city's rapidly increasing MICE offering.

In order to accommodate the expected influx of large groups, more hotels are opening and changing the face of KL's skyline. New properties include The Traders by Shangri-La, which will offer direct access to the centre, the Impiana@KLCC Hotel, the recently-launched Westin, the Hilton Kuala Lumpur and a Le Meridien. The Mandarin Oriental is also on the site of the KLCC and with the iconic Petronas Twin Towers forming a striking backdrop, the location is enviable.

Salsbury is keen to introduce all-inclusive packages to attract the UK conference market, and says that the direct flights from Europe make the destination incredibly accessible at a time when the exchange rate is particularly favourable. "KL offers a fabulous standard of hotels and they are extremely cost-effective - it is a fraction of the price of many European destinations," she says.

Competing on cost is certain to attract the interest of clients, according to H&A Motivation managing director Frank Macaluso, who praises the "unbelievable value for money and excellent hotels." But he believes the tourist board lacks promotional prowess: "Tourism Malaysia is not very proactive, unlike the Singapore Tourist Board, so perhaps they need to take a leaf out of its book."

However, the recent Global Meet Malaysia event, held in September 2004, gave agencies an ideal opportunity to examine the destination's infrastructure and experience its key assets.

World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists administrative co-ordinator Ruth Hooper was impressed with the country overall but had a few complaints regarding the timetable. "The programme kept changing at the last minute and we had to wait around on a couple of occasions. I didn't really get a feel for the city because we went to Bird Park and the Pewter Factory but then only had a short time in the Petronas Twin Towers, which is the symbol of Kuala Lumpur."

After networking with major suppliers at the show, delegates were given a choice of fam trips such as a tour of Terengganu on the east coast, relaxing in Langkawi or following Penang's heritage trail.

Set on the old spice trail of Asia, Penang is renewing its focus on history and the extensive revamp of the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang promises to reignite interest in the destination, which benefits from direct flights to the UK. Some agencies believe the island has fallen into the background with groups favouring Langkawi. Grass Roots Group operations director Mark Taylor says: "Penang has suffered quite a bit with Lang-kawi's emergence - it has risen so quickly and the Datai and Andaman properties are perfect for incentive groups and offer great rates."

Travel Impact director Susie Roberts took a group of 110 delegates out to Langkawi and praised the destination's infrastructure. With a choice of restaurants at the opulent Andaman and Datai, Roberts found there was enough to organise a dinearound within the two properties. She says: "The quality of the food was amazing and the Andaman itself is exceptionally beautiful." In January 2005, Langkawi's accommodation sector will be further boosted as the new Four Seasons resort opens, with function rooms overlooking the Andaman Sea and a veranda for receptions of up to 200.

Malaysia is certainly waking up to the huge potential that the C&I sector has to offer, and while the main developments are in the urban conurbation of KL, the country boasts an impressive choice of regions to support both pre- and post-event tours. Asian Overland Services group managing director Anthony Wong says: "Malaysia is 72% green and 56% rainforest so our options are endless. The east coast is becoming popular as are Redang and Tioman Island, which are great for soft adventure incentives."

So it seems the new KLCC will be a great coup for the country and one that Tourism Malaysia would do well to capitalise on.

DON'T MISS...

IN KUALA LUMPUR: head to the Petronas Twin Towers and gaze out across the impressive skyline before donning your F1 gear at the Sepang International Circuit. Check out the orchids at Lake Gardens and then get over to Jalan Petaling, Chinatown's street market, and haggle for DVDs, mock Gucci handbags and furry rambuttan fruit.

BEYOND: Malaysia's wildlife is worth watching so chill out with the simians in Borneo, take a boat to Taman Negara and admire the rainforest or visit the nesting turtles at the national park by Sandakan.

If, like them, you need to immerse yourself in the sea, go snorkelling off Tioman or Perhentian Islands.

SPOTLIGHT ON... PENANG

Once a major stopover on Asia's spice trail, Penang was home to Chinese, Indians, Thais, Burmese and the local Malays, not to mention the British. Today, the Penang Tourism Action Group urges groups to 'Come Home to Penang' in a campaign that highlights the island's heritage.

Indeed, Malaysia's colonial past is evident at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, fondly known as the E&O. The building's white facade and uniformed porter are testament to British ties with south east Asia.

Penang's heritage has long attracted UK groups eager to soak up the multitude of cultures on the island by visiting the Chinese clan houses, exploring the fragrant spice shops in Little India and riding through Georgetown's streets in trishaws. Facing increased competition, the island is strengthening its core appeal with the formation of the Penang Heritage Trust to keep historic buildings intact, aided by a £3m government grant.

These measures are needed, according to Travel Impact director Susie Roberts, who feels the island has been spoilt. "I would only go there for a conference, not an incentive. I hope the authorities can do something to restore Penang's charm."

Ensuring Georgetown joins the UNESCO World Heritage List is the Trust's main goal, and this endeavour is welcomed by the team at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. The vibrant blue property was the winner of UNESCO's Asia-Pacific Heritage 2000 Award for Conservation and is a popular choice for meetings or dinners in the courtyards and gardens.

Meanwhile, by Batu Feringgi Beach, the Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort is closing for two years and will be converted into an opulent 306-room resort due for a soft launch at the end of 2006.

This development, coupled with Malaysian Airlines' twice-weekly route to the island from London, could help Penang's star to rise once more.

MALAYSIA: DIRECTORY

Tourism Malaysia Malaysia House, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU

Contact Zailin Alwee

Tel: 020 7930 7932

Email: Zailin@tourism-malaysia.co.uk

Website: www.malaysiatrulyasia.co.uk

Flight duration: 12 hours

Time difference: GMT + 8 hours

Currency: Ringgit (MYR)

Current exchange rate: £1 = MYR 6.87

International dialling code: +60

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