Ashwin Gunasekeran: We are making the most of this recovery phase to get back on our feet. 13 Jul, 2020


Malaysia’s youngest convention bureau (CVB) has been making quite the ripple in the business events industry. The first CVB in Northern Malaysia, the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) was officially open for business in 2016. A brainchild of the Penang state government, it was set up by CEO Ashwin Gunasekeran.

As its founding CEO, Ashwin has led the CVB through a fast-track programme, establishing a name for the bureau itself and for Penang as a well-known meetings and incentives destination rather than just a holiday destination. In 2017, a short year and a half after its formation, the CVB led the Penang bid team to become Asia’s first ever host of the World Seafood Congress, which was successfully held in Penang last year.

We recently sat down with Ashwin to find the strategies behind the CVB’s growth and success, its “Next Normal” strategies to navigate through COVID-19, and the ICCA Asia Pacific Chapter chairmanship.

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When asked what sets PCEB apart from other national, state or city CVBs, Ashwin said one of them is the detailed yearly report of business events in Penang it produces, which goes beyond being merely a report of the CVB’s achievements.

“We produce the Business Events Penang Annual Review, a collection of data revolving Penang’s top BE sectors, segments, number of delegates, room nights and Estimated Economic Impact (EEI).”

According to the latest report released, Penang’s business events has seen an increase of 27% in number of participants from 267,518 in 2017 to 339,730 in 2019 and 50% increase in EEI from 2017 (RM 1 bil) to 2019 (RM 1.5 bil).

To make the data collection possible, PCEB has “Developed and launched a new online data submission system named ‘Vision Insight’ for the business events industry players in Penang to submit data of events taking place in Penang.”

While in the past the data was collected manually by PCEB’s in-house researchers, the online platform now allows industry partners, namely the hotels and venues, to submit their data as well as track the type of meetings and events that are being held at their hotel or venue.

Data collection and industry analysis is just one part of PCEB’s active engagement with its partners and the larger business events industry. Since its first year, the CVB has been co-organising the BE @ Penang conference.

“We organise our own conference, BE @ Penang, from scratch … from programming and invitation of speakers to execution with assistance from our partner PCO – Anderes Fourdy Events.”

The 2019 edition saw PCEB co-organising the first ever ICCA Asia Pacific Summit concurrently with BE @ Penang. The international dual-conferences was attended by 300 delegates from around the world and featured expert speakers from the global business events industry such as Gary Grimmer (GainingEdge), Roy Sheppard and Robin Siegar, as well as members from ICCA leadership James Rees (current President), Jason Yeh (the then ICCA AP Chair), and more.

Ashwin cites its homegrown events as one of factors behind PCEB’s USP. These events have not only consistently put the CVB’s name in business events news, but have also been strategic in marketing Penang to the general masses.

“We have been organising our own travel exchange for the past 3 years. Penang International Travel Exchange aims to become the preferred travel exchange show for Penang as the leading business events and leisure destination in Asia Pacific. The show is going digital this year.”

The first edition of Penang International Travel Exchange, or PITE as it is commonly known, in 2018 hosted 150 business events and travel buyers from India as part of a collaboration with India’s Global Panorama Showcase (GPS).

It is vital to note that Penang, through PCEB, is the pioneering Malaysian destination that is aggressively targeting the Indian travel and business events market. The result has been a significant rise in Indian travellers to Penang, not just for business events but also leisure.

Penang’s largest business events in recent years has been the annual V-Malaysia corporate conference, which has been drawing more than 15,000 delegates from 70 countries each year. A majority of the delegates come from India.

“We are capitalising on Penang’s rising popularity in India by organising an annual Penang Roadshow to India, covering four different cities. Since 2018, we have been promoting Penang as the preferred destination for corporate and association meetings, conferences, incentives, and leisure travel to India.”

“The Penang Immigration Department reported that for the period between Jan to Dec 2019, 61,847 Indian travellers visited via the Penang International Airport and Penang Swettenham Port (cruise liners) compared to 43,537 in the same period in 2018. This is a 42% increase, making it one of the healthiest growths we have experienced. In 2019, 4% of Business Events of Asia Pacific origin was from India, contributing RM 268.6 million or USD 65.89 million in estimated economic impact.”

But with COVID-19 affecting all international travel and India’s cases crossing the 700,000 mark in early July, it will take Penang and PCEB some time to recover the growth the state’s business events industry has experienced in the past few years.

2020 was supposed to be a big year for the state of Penang which launched its own global marketing campaign called Experience Penang Year 2020 to draw focus from the Visit Malaysia 2020. PCEB had also launched its Penang 2020: BE Unfiltered campaign to secure bids for the year.

Quick on the heels of the MCO in Malaysia, PCEB introduced its recovery campaign - #PenangHereforTomorrow. Part of the campaign was an industry-led task force set up to regain customer confidence.

“PCEB has set up a Business Events Penang Task Force comprising of our partners from the industry – hotels, convention centres, unique venues, PCOs, suppliers, DMCs, and travel agents to come up with the Next Normal Guidelines for Business Events Penang. These guidelines will be the source of reference in implementing and applied to all related businesses to ensure the safety and health of both the event and conference organisers and delegates.”

The guidelines will be launched on 18 July at the Setia SPICE Convention Centre, said to be the first event held in the convention centre post-MCO.

Besides drawing up the guidelines, which will be updated as and when Malaysia’s National Security Council and Ministry of Health changes its COVID-19 SOPs, the CVB have been actively engaging its stakeholders. International and regional events that were supposed to be held this year are being arranged to be moved to the next year.

“This creates confidence in Penang as a potential business events destination.”

The growth the business events and the larger tourism industry of Penang in the past decade saw an influx of foreign, private and government investments pouring in to build new infrastructure. Penang was slated to get its second dedicated convention centre completed in 2024 - Penang Waterfront Convention Centre -  and 10 new hotels scheduled for opening by 2022. The airport is also supposed to undergo a long-overdue expansion.

“The Penang International Airport will be fully expanded to cater to up to 12 million passengers compared to the current capacity of 6.5 million. This will also have a low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT) by AirAsia, which will turn Penang into a northern transit hub by having more direct flights from South-East Asia to the state.”

Having said that, PCEB has, as of date, decided to forgo going virtual to postpone its acclaimed BE @ Penang conference for this year.

“As much as technology is improving within the business events industry, the industry is still very much a people and social industry. Face-to-face meetings and communication have their own value and adds weight to the trust factor and intimate connection you have with your partners and clients. We might consider having BE @ Penang as a hybrid event next year, but we will iron out the overall plan before going into details.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic was an unpredictable turn of events this year, and this has caused retrenchment rates to be on the rise. For the time being, we are making the most of this recovery phase to get back on our feet. There are plans in the pipeline to address this area of discussion and we will keep the industry informed.”