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EXCLUSIVE: Sabah Convention Bureau collapses

Malaysia’s newest convention bureau “put on hold” following major reshuffle of Sabah Tourism Board.

The Sabah Convention Bureau, formed in January 2018 to attract more international meetings and events to the Malaysian state, has collapsed.

Biz Events Asia has learned that as of 1 January 2019, the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment has decided not to proceed with the establishment of the proposed Sabah Convention Bureau.

Industry veteran, Gordon Yapp, was appointed to helm the bureau as CEO last year and formed a “skeleton team” while awaiting formal endorsement by the ministry or government.

Yapp, who was previously the general manager of Sabah Tourism Board (STB), told Biz Events Asia the Sabah Convention Bureau has been “put on hold” and that his “skeleton team” has been absorbed back into STB.

“I understand [the ministry] is still studying/discussing the best way to set up the bureau and whether it should be under the ministry, STB, independent, or under another ministry or department,” he said.

“There are many factors and considerations for them to dwell upon before making a final decision. But I strongly believe that with the completion of the Sabah International Convention Centre (SICC) and the potential of MICE for Sabah, that [the bureau] will be set up eventually.”

The news comes just weeks after the sudden dismissal of STB general manager, Suzaini Sabdin Ghani on 18 April 2019, signalling further change for Sabah’s tourism industry.

Noredah Othman, STB deputy general manager, has since been appointed acting general manager, but many tourism officials and industry players remain tight-lipped on the future of Sabah’s business events strategy.

Following several delays, SICC is expected to open in 2020, and the establishment of the bureau was said to ensure the waterfront structure would not become a white elephant.

When approached by Biz Events Asia, SICC general manager, Neil Paterson, refused to comment.

“At this time, we are awaiting further details and clarifications from Sabah Tourism Board and our owner,” he said.

Proposed SICC will include 5,400-sqm convention & exhibition hall, nine meeting rooms and three VIP lounges.

STB MICE manager, Georgina Jinu, stated that STB was not in a position to make any comments and that the ministry would issue a press release should there be any news to share. “Until such time, STB will continue to carry out business as usual as per planned for the year,” she said.

To date, no statement has been made by the ministry. Nevertheless, STB recently held the Kota Kinabalu Business Events session on 23 April, in conjunction with the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau, to raise awareness of the business events sector.

Jinu said: “The programme aimed to increase awareness of the current or potential industry partners and other tourism industry operators on the roles and responsibilities of the drivers of the industry and the efforts of making business events or MICE more dynamic.”

Some 140 industry players attended the event, including destination management companies, government agencies, tourism associations, hoteliers, airline representatives, and event organisers.

In April, Sabah hosted at least five international business events with close to 3,000 delegates from China and Korea, among others.

Other notable business events secured for the rest of the year are from Guangzhou Moria International Trading Co. Ltd. with 1,500 participants in May, Manulife Shanghai with 700 participants in September, and JCI with 700 participants in September.

While tourism arrivals to Sabah remained stable in 2018 (a total of 1.36 million international tourists), international business event arrivals plummeted 18.4% to 20,109.

Jamilah Abdul Halim, Tourism Malaysia’s Sabah state director, said: “Sabah has many touristic offerings that have attracted thousands of leisure tourists to its shores such as its rainforest, beautiful islands, exotic wildlife, adventure nature and multi-cultural tribes. Business delegates may enjoy their meetings outdoors, close to nature… Another fresh experience is stargazing in Sabah. Sabah has dark skies and the potential to see the Milky Way with the naked eye on certain days is high. These attractions offer delegates with fresh, unique and unforgettable experiences.”

Sabah currently has a total of 672 hotels offering 30,214 rooms. An additional 3,815 rooms are expected to be available with new hotels opening such as Crowne Plaza, Aeropod Hotel and Jen Hotel.

With STB under new leadership, and the absence of a dedicated convention bureau, the future of Sabah’s business events industry hangs in the balance.