Dato’ Casey Chong 18 May, 2020


As one of the oldest and biggest exhibition contractors in Malaysia, the growth and success of ES Group is well documented and talked about. ES Group grew from a humble operation in the capital city of Malaysia to a regional powerhouse with branches in Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The group today employs over 130 full-time staff, at two operations centres and four warehouses in Malaysia.

We recently sat down, virtually of course, with Dato’ Casey Chong, the managing director of ES Group to find out how the company is navigating in the aftermath of the COVID-19 disruption given that business events have come to a screeching halt.

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Dato’ Casey Chong, how bad is the situation for the events business sector the remainder of 2020?

Extremely bad. Most events have been cancelled or postponed, be they conferences or exhibitions, B2B or B2C, international or domestic. In my opinion, our industry will be devastated for next three quarters.

Why are you of that opinion?

Two main reasons.

Firstly, the confidence level will be at its lowest as there is a huge number of variables not within the control of event organisers. This is totally unprecedented – the pandemic has affected all industry verticals, spanning the world over and cutting through all income-strata groups.

For example, if the events industry vertical is bad, I can move to other spheres of business like renovation. If the Malaysian market is facing a slump, I can move on to the Philippines. If the affluent market is bad, I can look into services that cater for the lower income market.

Now, I can’t do anything as the effects of the pandemic hits us on all fronts.

Secondly, the social responsibility of social distancing will take precedence all along the supply chain for our industry. Let’s take travelling for example, aircrafts will now have limited real estate; international travel is, and will be, limited to those who are willing to take the risk. Thus, the attendance of international key opinion leaders, speakers, exhibitors, and delegates will be greatly reduced. And I foresee that countries still under quarantine will attract none.

Do you think things will change once countries ease or lift the varying forms of movement control orders (MCO) or lockdowns enforced over the past few months?

Should an event be held in the “post-MCO” period, there will be new SOPs to adhere to. Temperature checks upon entry into convention centres, the availability of sanitizers akin to the availability of drink stations, and distanced seating of six feet where applicable will be mandatory.

I would wonder if an event should be held at all if these social distancing measures have to be enforced, especially with all the hassle involved. It really defeats the purpose of business events being a face-to-face business.

When do you think your first event will take place after the MCO is lifted?

My gut feeling tells me it will be in the 1st quarter of 2021. I do have a confirmed event that is rather essential, which is an education fair.

How satisfied are you with the way the Malaysian government has handled COVID-19 and the MCO?

I believe that the government should have acted sooner. And I don’t like how they have communicated. Most of the time, they have put the horse before the cart.

They lacked a playbook when the pandemic hit. This is made apparent through blunders these past few weeks. The federal government should have consulted the state governments before calling a looser Conditional MCO. The new ministers have also embarrassed us Malaysians by wearing a PPE with the word MENTERI emblazoned on their foreheads, having lunch during MCO at their constituents' school, advising Malaysians to drink warm water to stave off COVID-19 and visiting supermarkets with their spouses. These kinds of conduct are unbecoming and set a very bad example indeed.

Furthermore, a lot of plans were not well-thought through including the moratorium on loans, check-points and the re-opening of businesses. There are better examples to follow and I suggest the government look towards what China and South Korea have been doing. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

What about the government’s plans for business revival?

Laughs. It’s certainly below my expectations.

As a business owner, I have paid all government taxes since our incorporation 22 years ago, but I hardly see anything coming back to me. In order to qualify for the Wage Supplement Programme, I will have to pay a full 6 months’ wages but each staff will be subsidized RM1,800 in totality of 6 months. This is preposterous as the total subsidy is less than what I pay my lowest salaried staff a month!

The government in other countries either pay substantially more like the UK which offers 80% of the wage and Singapore 100% of the full month’s wage. Further to that, I cannot lay-off any staff, cannot ask them to go on unpaid leave and I have to reskill them. The government is literally asking me as an employer to ensure employment yet does not give me the flexibility to stay afloat. Taking the soft loan does not help either. In any case, the loan fund has already been exhausted.

Have industry associations like MACEOS been effective in representing your interest during these times?

I am aghast at some of what they are demanding for, which of course does not represent my interests. I read somewhere they have sought for a 50% subsidy of venue rentals. If that is true, they are only benefitting certain members in MACEOS, predominantly the venue and the event organisers.  MACEOS has never been committed to represent the interest of the contractors.

MACEOS may not like what you say Dato'...

I think we must be vocal about what we like and what we don’t. The committee must be representing ALL the members instead of only certain quarters. They must be inclusive and committed to help. They should not be too high up on the pedestal that they forget the rest in the supply chain. MACEOS is after all the Malaysian Association of Conference & Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers.

What do you think about the increasing number of webinars, held across platforms like Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube etc., geared to address the pandemic? Have you found them useful?

I attended a few initially during the MCO. I find them boring, unable to address the issue, and yield no positive ideas or outcomes. They shouldn’t do it for the sake of creating something to fulfil their organization’s creation of awareness and show everyone that they are still alive.

What is your organization doing in the meantime to sustain operations?

We are commencing a Sanitization Services company in preparation of the lifting of the MCO. It will have a full array of services for commercial, industrial, and residential properties. This way, I can utilize my manpower, transportation and partially some of the equipment I use for the exhibition industry. The demand has been encouraging. My team has also been scouring the market for opportunities outside the events industry and planned ahead up until 2021.

ES is seldom known by direct consumers, namely exhibitors. However, ES is one of the most respected and well-equipped contractors with efficient operations and loyal employees. Is this intentional, and part of your marketing plan?

Trust me, it is not intentional. I am not a very good marketing person nor has ES had an effective marketing team. I am always perceived as a “Chinaman” and thus, unable to recruit an effective English-speaking marketing person. Perhaps you can recommend me one? Laughs.

There will certainly be qualified people looking for job opportunities in this period of uncertainty and layoffs. Where can you be found?

Call my office, they know my whereabouts. I will interview them personally at my watering hole – a kopitiam underneath a big tree near my factory.