Penang from a 'Postcard City’ to ‘Business Card City'

14th Dec, 2017

The inaugural BE @ Penang 2016 conference organised by the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) led by CEO Ashwin Gunasekaran, attracted over 120 local and regional delegates from the Business Events industry. The second edition, themed BE EMPOWERED, was held at the RM350 million SPICE project, in the world’s first hybrid solar powered convention centre on 7 & 8 December.

Ken Tan reports

This year’s Keynote speaker, the esteemed Mr Roy Sheppard kicked off the event on an energetic note by empowering industry players to act independently, yet collectively. He shared the most valuable advice imparted by his grandfather: "Being of service is the most honourable thing”. According to him, a successful person is someone who looks for and attracts opportunities for other people. "It’s not just about the job you do, but the people that you meet". Our reputation is the sum of what other people say about us or our organisation, based on how good we make our contacts and customers feel. Therefore, reputation is determined by emotion, not logic. We are all in the business of reassuring people, so what can we proactively do to enhance our organisation and destination's reputation, credibility and reliability?

Roy mentioned a term from the UK - Coopetition. If we can work hand in hand with our competitors and build trust between them, more opportunities can come from more people collaborating and learning together by sharing information. He also encouraged the audience to aim higher with another term - BHAG, Big Hairy Ambitious Goals.

Mr Martin Lewis from CAT Publications provided some insights on attracting the European market. Europe is not just one market but twenty different diverse markets with different languages and attitudes, it is crucial to be laser-sharp about what we are trying to achieve and who we are trying to target. Investors are looking for uniqueness, good urban infrastructure, and opportunities to attract talent from Asia. Associations from Europe and US have realised that the future is in Asia and they want to explore different places and experience different cultures. Penang can make the most out of that by helping them achieve that. Conventions and congresses are always looking for opportunities to taste the city, we need to be able to attract more people so that they can get a flavour and an initial positive review of the city.

A strong emphasis was placed on branding. Martin shared examples like Silicon Valley in San Francisco, and the all-encompassing I Amsterdam campaign. He also gave an example of the knowledge economy, how London had set itself as a tech city to attract technology businesses with the successful London Tech Week. Branding is about telling emotionally compelling stories, by capitalising on Penang's unique selling point of its heritage, warm hospitality and eco-tourism, there is potential for Penang to progress from a ‘postcard city’ to a ‘business card city’. By collaborating more with educational and academic establishments with credibility can bring better educated and better tourists of higher intellect, not just those that want to come and get drunk for their stag nights like in Barcelona. He further stresses: "tourism will destroy the integrity of the destination".

The panellists for the discussion on ‘Business Events: The Industry of the Future?’ elaborated on the Iceberg Theory that applies to the profound impact of the meeting industry. Mr Jason Yeh from GIS Group shared the top ten industry sectors, and encouraged focus on the top core sectors like medical and education. The basic necessities for societies are education, health and security. Besides the economic impact (delegates have higher spending power), there are also strong social impact that comes with the knowledge transfer. The involvement of local communities can bring social benefits and attention to local causes.

The panel discussion on the crucial role of technology in business events highlighted the examples and benefits of using technology to create appealing and engaging experiences. NFC based data-exchange tokens can provide exchange of contacts, presentations, video contents or marketing materials instantly with just one tap. Movement tracking devices can offer useful real-time stats update. AI-integrated chatbots allows 24-hour service and instant response. The cost of implementing new technology can also reduce the overall operational cost.

The panellists on ‘The Winning Bid’ stressed the importance of alliances when it comes to bidding. Ashwin shared about alliance formation: "When the industry collaborates, talents are involved and ideas are born. The business opportunity is vast and everyone can have a slice.” The engagement process from each part of the team is fundamental and critical, starting from the very beginning. Gracie Geikie from Place Borneo said: "A winning bid team takes more than just being dressed in your national costumes.” She also mentioned that the executive summary is the most important, keep it short to the point. When losing a bid, it is important to stay together as a team to understand and learn from it, keep the team together, and strengthen the relationship so that we don’t have to start from the starting point for the next bid cycle. The critical success factors are defined as smart partnerships, government agency's support, intensive research, getting the innovative content right, building and developing the destination's strengths and success stories.

The PR and marketing department can also do a better job in attaching the brand to engaging, unusual and emotionally connected stories. Media gurus Martin Lewis and Karen Yue (TTG Media Group) shared a few strategies like investing on eye-catching photography, highlighting good causes relevant to the brand values, utilising VIPs for press opportunities, and aligning the story or message to the government’s agenda to encourage media coverage.

In the CEO deep dive session, the delegates discussed manpower challenges faced by chief executives such as retaining the right people, engaging younger people, and making people feel integral to the change. The best piece of advice is to hire for attitude, and train for skill.

Be @ Penang 2017 brought together over 250 delegates and 20 expert international and local speakers. The conference served as a catalyst in developing Penang, a second-tier city, into a competitive Business Events destination.

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