Monday, October 31, 2011

How to run a tourism campaign

I made this at Langkawi's Craft Center yesterday!

I’ve been to a lot of islands by now, but for some reason, I really like Langkawi for its beautiful scenery, warm people and great infrastructure. It’s very much like a Philippine island, in one sense, because it’s got simple villages and a quiet life. But at the same time, Langkawi is home to some of the most beautiful resorts in this part of the world.

The Datai, the Andaman and the Four Seasons Langkawi are the best resorts on the island and also among the best in the world, but among these three my favorite is the Datai for its seamless and unfussy but ultra-luxurious commune with nature. I'll be writing more about my interesting stay here at the Datai in my next blog entries. But for now, let me just say that these three resorts plus the fantastic views as seen from a boat as you cruise around the islands, are what makes Langkawi special. Malaysia is way ahead of the Philippines in terms of tourism infrastructure.


If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I journeyed all the way to Langkawi to attend a fancy dinner for the next Queen of Malaysia, hosted by the vivacious and energetic Tourism Minister, Dr. Ng Yen Yen. She is the most tireless person I have ever met, and boy, is Malaysia just so lucky to have her as the country’s #1 salesperson and visionary. I'm not kidding when I say she is tireless either.

That's me with the next Queen of Malaysia.
I can't print a larger or clearer photo
as this is not an official photo for publication.

We finished dinner at about 2 am and still she wanted us -- me and a couple of ladies from Jakarta, including the wife of the US Ambassador to Jakarta, the wife of the Malaysian Ambassador to Jakarta, and the owner of Indonesian Tatler -- to join her for a chat at her villa on the other side of the island. Basically she wanted to know directly from us exactly what high-end tourists from the Philippines and Indonesia would find attractive about Malaysia, so that more of this segment would visit Malaysia.

This was at 2 AM! I simply had to beg off due to fatigue. But if only more government officials worked this hard and so sincerely, all over the world and especially in the Philippines.


With such an energetic lady at the helm of tourism, no wonder Malaysia is pulling in tourism figures of 24 million to 26 million annually. And at the dinner, Dr. Ng Yen Yen publicly proclaimed that her personal goal by 2020 was 35 million tourists annually. Impressively ambitious, but with her at the helm, I have no doubt they'll reach their figures.


It’s under her direction that Malaysia has launched some amazing travel campaigns worldwide that have been so successful that almost everyone who's seen the videos can remember the images and sing the jingle in part.

At the dinner for the Queen in Langkawi, I sat through a fantastic promotional video on Malaysia produced by Tourism Malaysia. In fact, the guy in charge of undertaking the actual production was sitting next to me, and on November 7 they’re having a new version of this video launched officially in London.

Watching this video, I felt with no uncertainty that if I were Malaysian, I would certainly be bursting with national pride over this video and Tourism Malaysia’s incredibly successful campaigns. You watch one of their videos, and you immediately are made to feel an interest in their culture, country and way of life. I'm so sure that many people were encouraged to plan a visit to Malaysia after seeing one of Tourism Malaysia's compelling Malaysia, Truly Asia advertisements.

The program for the dinner with the Queen
featured songs and dances from all over Malaysia


Tears also almost welled up in my eyes, as I wondered why on earth cannot the Philippines come up – and come up really quickly – with an equally wonderful video. Talent certainly isn't an issue, although perhaps a real knowledge of the target market -- who exactly are we aiming to attract with our campaigns -- is. But this is an issue and a Marketing 101 lesson for any campaign -- whether it's a government or a business.


This brought to mind a conversation I had over dinner about three nights ago with Malaysian’s Ambassador to Jakarta and his wife, over dinner. We were all dressed in fancy outfits and cruising Putrajaya lake in a yacht with dinner catered by the Shangri-la.

And, by the way, what a beautiful sight the Malaysian government has created in its government center of Putrajaya at night. It's no secret that new government centers the world over are boring places because there's usually nothing else but government buildings; but even this Malaysia has managed to transform into something lovely, especially at night.

While cruising on Putrajaya Lake, admiring the lights worthy of a grand sound and light show, the Malaysian Ambassador to Jakarta and I were discussing why Tourism Malaysia’s campaigns have been so successful. Here are the reasons in a nutshell:


There is unity and continuity of message. The campaigns don’t stop and start and stop again just because there’s a new person at the helm. This goes way beyond the big boss. This is also why everyone can mouth the Malaysian tourism slogan -- because they're good to begin with, and they've been going on for years now. In our case, how can anyone remember campaign slogans that keep changing?


The Malaysian government takes international tourism arrivals to Malaysia very seriously, so a lot of government effort is placed on attracting tourists to Malaysia and having then return or stay there. They have a big budget for their tourism campaigns and this isn't spent on things like focus groups (although they probably had to at the very beginning) but more on actual campaigns that make their way to media all over the world -- and via them, to potential tourists all over the world.

I’m one of their target markets, in a way, because I’m seriously considering joining the Malaysia, My Second Home program, which is a program for foreigners that will allow them to live in Malaysia either part-time or full-time in the future. Why? I see a future in a country that knows its priorities and works hard to get these done.


The tourism campaigns are effective. They’re not made for the local audience but for the international audience so they're in English, they use a very catchy song that almost everyone in Asia can now sing the refrain of ("Malaysia, Truly Asia"), and they use foreigners in the videos.

The Malaysian Ambassador to Jakarta explained the reason for using foreigners in their promotional videos to me: "We heavily promote our culture. But for leisure campaigns enticing foreigners to come and enjoy our beaches and forests, of course we can put Malaysians having fun in our videos. But if you're a foreigner, why would you care if there are a bunch of Malaysians enjoying themselves? You want to see other foreigners having fun because this is something you can identify with. So we make sure to create promotional images that foreigners can understand and identify with." It certainly made sense.

So it's not just about harping on and on about how great Malaysian golf courses and beaches are; the campaigns show images of foreigners enjoying themselves. Of course. If foreigners see other foreigners on a Malaysian beach, then they might be able to also imagine themselves in a similar situation. It's all about marketing and packaging, and Malaysia has certainly done an impressive job with this.


They're also now going after upmarket tourists because these are the ones who bring in real dollars -- and you won't believe to what detail Tourism Malaysia quantifies tourism as a business and as a boost to their economy. It's really impressive how they quantify their achievements in terms of dollars spent by tourists per day, per week or per month. They know exactly where they stand and what they need to do to push these figures further.

One way is by creating more events and opportunities that will attract the higher-end tourists -- and right now, these include organizing events like international art festivals and also rolling back the taxes on luxury goods so that people who might have fly to Dubai or Hong Kong to shop will now have the option of shopping for tax-free luxury goods in Kuala Lumpur as well. But more on this success story later.

Good night from paradise.

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remains of a smoked salmon

There I was this morning, having breakfast in paradise, at the luxurious Datai in Langkawi, Malaysia, when my Blackberry pinged and it was a BBM from my friend J in Manila.

“What’s wrong with 350MB files? And shouldn’t you just get yourself more capacity in your “new” Macbook Pro?” 

He wanted to know. He’d obviously read my blog entry yesterday where I’d written how I’d had to delete half of my iTunes just to be able to open his file; so I was so happy that my villa at the Datai came with two iPods fully loaded with thousands of songs. I’d also already told him this several days ago, but obviously he was reacting to the public potshot.

* * *

What I'm listening to now with the fully-loaded iPod provided by the Datai:
by Everything But The Girl
* * *
I shot back a cheery message. I’d just finished two glasses of the Datai’s specialty energy drink, which was a combination of fresh fruits and vegetables, and was feeling especially perky. I texted back: “Good morning from paradise. No one sends 350MB Word files. We are talking about a simple document, after all. It’s not a video.”


J continued his usual critique of everything and anything in my life all while I was having my nasi lemak and prawn congee. He means well, I’m sure, but he has this endearing habit of always commenting on my life. 

Whether it’s my choice of Japanese restaurants, the fact that I flew to Dubai in July, why I put garlic after the onions for some dishes, and even how I once put together dinner for him without actually slaving in the kitchen for a couple of hours.

Yes, I agree that he should be grateful I even made him dinner at all, considering my jampacked schedule and the fact that this happened on one of my very few free days in Manila; but he doesn’t really see things that way. He wanted to see more effort rather than efficiency.


And this morning, there he was on my Blackberry again giving me unsolicited advice, this time about my computers. “Maybe you should just buy two Macbook Pros,” he messaged, after a couple of back and forths. 

Aha. Got him this time. I was smiling as I typed and as I pressed the key for SEND. 

I'd BBM-ed: “Actually, I have three Macbook Pros. But I only travel with one, of course.”

Finally, I had to ask him: “Are you BBM-ing me on this beautiful morning just to critique everything about me again? Because I’d rather have the monkeys for company at breakfast if that’s the case. They’re sweet and they don’t make my Mac break down with 350MB files.” I put a smiley face at the end of this.

Of course I'm just teasing him. 

He's actually kept me company in a virtual and rather surreal way on many of my trips, and helped me stave off boredom on many a car ride to the airport or a wait at some airport lounge. But he was editorializing my life this morning and it wasn’t my fault that I was in paradise and he was…well..stuck in Manila.


The Datai's breakfast area opens up into a gorgeous terrace with a pool, and there was greenery everywhere. Too beautiful for words. And this morning, there were also monkeys everywhere.

“Say hi to the monkeys then.” J said to me by way of reply.
And I just couldn’t resist it. I messaged back: “There’s actually a monkey here who reminds me of you. He keeps sticking his tongue out at me.”

For once, J agreed with me. “Those monkeys are so annoying. I know they’re all over Langkawi. Give the one who reminds you of me a banana.”


Then I replied with something I knew would make both of us laugh, because it would be so classic J: “I already did. But he made a face and pointed to the a la carte menu instead.”

Then I added: “And by the way, how nice it is to be BBM-ing you from the Datai and then also having this monkey in front of me. I almost feel like we’ve had breakfast together.”

At that point, the J monkey came over and picked up the few pieces of smoked salmon and capers that I’d left on my plate. Incredible. It could have been J. So I said to him: “PS: The monkey actually took the remains of my smoked salmon! That monkey really is you.”

A ping sounded again. “Hmmm. Remains of a smoked salmon,” he wrote. I smiled to myself as I read this. This was a reference only he and I would understand.

Before I signed off to return to my paradise, I typed out: “Sounds like a good title for a blog entry. Nice having breakfast with you.”


Music and me in Langkawi

Good evening from the Datai, one of the most beautiful and relaxing places on earth, at one end of the lovely island of Langkawi in Malaysia. It's a luxurious and very environment-friendly resort within a rainforest, and yet with a white sand beach and an amazing bay view. I finished my official schedules regarding the personal invitation of the Honorable Minister of Tourism of Malaysia so now I'm on some R&R in this fantastic place favored by celebrities, business tycoons and ultra-stressed people for its low-key luxury and complete discretion. This is real privacy with all the pampering.

If someone in Manila were to ask me to describe the Datai in more detail, I would say that it's a mix of the exclusivity and atmosphere of Amanpulo, with the stunning natural scenery of El Nido, and the intimacy with nature of The Farm at San Benito and also the relaxing Oriental design and quality of service of Chiva-Som. So it's everything I want and every place I like all in one. Now if only I could find some way to live here...


I'm staying in a beautiful and large villa where monkeys come up to the balcony in the mornings for a bit of fun, and it has the kind of bathroom I could actually spend hours in. Best of all, my villa comes equipped with two iPods -- one large one for the stereo and one small one for walking around with -- and it has thousands of songs already inputted.

How very apt as I've been bereft of my iTunes for the past few days -- so I've been playing the same songs over and over again in Malaysia -- since my friend J gave me a Word file that was about 350MB in size. Do you know anyone who actually sends Microsoft Word files this large? I had to delete half of my iTunes just to open his document. I may have been able to open it without a problem, but I just couldn't risk a fourth Mac crash in 12 months.

And when I told him about it the other day, his response was: "There are more important things than iTunes." Then he added a smiley face at the end. Like what could be more important than music in life?


So all afternoon, in between massages, I've been walking the beach and the wooden bridges that lead to nowhere within a massive rainforest, listening to songs I haven't heard in ages and also discovering a couple of new ones. I had a wonderful catch-up dinner tonight with my friend Anthony Sebastian who runs the world-class and world-famous Datai, by the way; but more about that when I find myself stuck in some airline lounge pretty soon. It seems a crime to be on my computer in such a beautiful place when I could be on the beach with my newly-filled iPod.

But here's what's on my Datai playlist today. Some of these songs really got me sentimental tonight:

Letting Love Go
by Everything but the Girl

Love x Love
by George Benson

Two Star
by Everything but the Girl

by Everything but the Girl

I Gotta Try
by Michael McDonald

You Get What You Give
by The New Radicals

If I Ever Lose My Faith in You
by Sting

Someday We'll Know
by The New Radicals

Tracks of My Tears
by Michael McDonald

by Earth Wind & Fire

Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife. Good night from paradise.

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Line-dancing with Malaysia's future Queen

Today began in Kuala Lumpur with an early morning trip to the airport to catch the flight to Langkawi to have dinner with the next Queen of Malaysia and Malaysia’s dynamic Minister of Tourism, Dr. Ng Yen Yen. As usual, I was cutting it close. It was just a little over 90 minutes to my flight and there I was getting into my car parked in the hotel driveway, in the middle of KL's CBD. The driver was understandably nervous, so he literally raced down the highway as soon as we cleared the city.

Just then, my friend J BBM-ed to comment on some previous blog entry, and specifically about something only he would understand. It was very convenient, actually, as I had 45 minutes to KLIA to chat about anything and everything with him.

I messaged him, after we'd discussed a couple of things: "This feels like old times. I'm BBM-ing you from a speeding car on the way to KLIA." We'd had lots of BBM chats from airport limousines, airline lounges, check-in counters and airplane seats -- and literally from all over the world -- in the course of two very busy Travelives.

“Isn’t Malaysia about 50 years ahead of the Philippines?” He asked, with a sad smiley face at the end of the BBM. Yes, it is. If the Philippines is 3rd World, Malaysia is about 1.5, especially around KL where everything works, things are efficient, and they’ve actually had enough foresight to keep the greenery going. And, yes, the airport is nice and clean, and Malaysians can be proud of it.


Then on the plane to Langkawi, I bumped into Mr. Hotel Owner who I’d had lunch with the previous day. I’ve decided to call him Mr. Monopoly instead, as Mr. Hotel Owner is a gross understatement. I think I wrote about him in a past entry, but if Kuala Lumpur were a Monopoly board, he would literally own half of it. And he also happens to own one of the most beautiful resorts in Malaysia – if not in the world – as well. Well, Mr. Monopoly was attending the same dinner I was going to in Langkawi, as he's a good friend of the Tourism Minister, so we had a nice chat about just how good it must be to live in Malaysia.


In Langkawi, my welcoming committee was in place. I was very kindly provided with a very impressive limo with state-of-the-art stuff I'd not yet seen in other cars, a great driver who was an excellent resource on life in Langkawi, and the most patient guide in the world.

After I’d checked into my hotel, you see, I had a few hours before dinner; so I took a map of Langkawi out and pointed to everything I wanted to see. I’m going on someone’s yacht tomorrow to see Langkawi’s famous surrounding scenery -- apparently this is similar to Vietnam's Ha Long Bay -- so this afternoon, all I wanted to do was shop. And these two gentlemen took me everywhere I wanted to go.


I went to a couple of crafts places and ended up in Langkawi’s largest duty-free mall just to see what it was like. The whole island is duty-free and I was given a list of best-buys in Langkawi by well-meaning friends in KL, so I decided to check these out at the Langkawi mall. That took care of the afternoon. The standard stuff to get include chocolates, alcohol and -- for some reason -- glassware. But perfume, make-up and luxury goods are good buys here too.


In the evening, I had just enough time to get into a long gown – the theme tonight was black and gold – and head for the party before the arrival of my host, and the arrival of the Queen of Langkawi and Kedah, who will be the Queen of Malaysia from December since the kingship is rotated between the different sultanates. A princess from a neighboring state was joining the party as well.

The hotel put out a yellow carpet from the driveway all the way to the venue, and staff spent all afternoon keeping it spic and span until the arrival of the Queen. Apparently, no one is supposed to step on this yellow carpet while the Queen is walking on it.

When I met the royals, they all seemed curious that someone had flown all the way from Manila to join them for dinner tonight. But they were great conversationalists – as many royals the world over are – and equally great dancers. After dinner, a band came on and I soon found myself line-dancing next to the future Queen of Malaysia while the Princess went up on stage to sing a few songs.


I smiled to myself, remembering how just over a week ago, I’d literally danced all night at the AIESEC party we organized at the Peninsula Conservatory. And then I’d flown to Cebu and danced under the moon and the stars. And tonight, there I was in Langkawi line-dancing next to the future Queen of this beautiful country until 130 AM. The Queen is so charming, and she certainly dances wonderfully.

And tomorrow night, it’s dinner and a stay at one of the most beautiful resorts in the world. Nope, it's not Mr. Monopoly's resort because that very famous place is in an entirely different part of Malaysia. But the one I'm going to tomorrow is equally well-known and beautiful.

The invitation came out of the blue from an old friend, but the offer was too irresistible to say no to; so I changed all my plans, to stay at this amazing, world-famous place as soon as my host leaves Langkawi tomorrow at noon. That's when my official schedule ends and some private time begins.

Just another couple of days in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife.

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Malaysia in style, and winning at Monopoly

Good evening from Kuala Lumpur. It's a bit surreal to be back here so many times in the last 18 months, but I'm very happy over my good fortune to be able to do so. I woke up really early this morning in Manila
to catch the first flight out to Malaysia. This was one of the rare days I literally had to drag myself out of bed -- usually I'm just raring to get up, get out and have the competition for merienda -- and I was so slow and sleepy all the way to the plane. Then I spent the entire three hours on board editing someone's story about a Caribbean cruise. No time even for breakfast.


I'm in Malaysia at the very kind and personal invitation of Malaysia's highly-esteemed and extremely powerful Minister of Tourism, a dynamic and very vivacious lady who is the architect and guiding force behind Malaysia's incredible "Malaysia, Truly Asia" tourist campaigns, and who is also one of the best presenters I have ever seen. She certainly knows how to sell her own product, and how lucky Malaysia is to have her.

Well, Malaysia's Minister of Tourism also knows how to entertain in style. I think I'm generally a pretty luxe traveler, but this trip to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi is certainly one for the luxury books.
I arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and breezed through priority immigrations with the pass card provided to everyone in club class; and waiting at the arrivals halls was my personal guide for my short stay in Kuala Lumpur, who was holding a sign with my name, and the senior chief from Tourism Malaysia, along with the lady in charge of the Philippine desk. They'd also prepared a very nice limousine to take me to my hotel and to wherever I wanted to go this afternoon.


But first we went for an early lunch at a really charming and apparently very popular local restaurant in a township not far from the airport, called Aunty Aini's. It was basically a compound of old-fashioned wooden huts and cottages that had been turned into a half open-air restaurant serving Malay food and Western dishes. The place was full but I didn't spot a single foreigner as I walked through the whole compound. Talk about insider knowledge.

"This is one of my favorite restaurants," the bureau chief confessed. "I take people here when I want to talk because the food's good and it's very relaxing. In fact, I took my son here recently when I wanted to discuss something serious with him."

We ordered a bunch of Malay specialties, many of which were really local dishes as this was still not even Kuala Lumpur. One of the dishes, for instance, was fried chicken -- but it was chicken made from local free-range chicken rather than farmed chicken, so it was really tasty.

We also had a fish stew made with tamarind and chillies that was an incredibly fiery color - so fiery in color, in fact, that I almost was afraid to taste it. However after my tongue got over the chili shock, I really enjoyed it because the tamarind and chili went incredibly well together. I had about four helpings of this, and was still spooning sauce onto my rice while the bill was being paid.


Then it was on to my very grand hotel, located right smack in the middle of everything in KL's most prestigious shopping district. I'd planned to quickly check in and then to head out for the two places I really wanted to go to since I was provided with a limo, a driver and a guide for the rest of the day. I was meeting up with an old AIESEC friend at 6 pm but I had the afternoon free and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
When I reached my hotel, the staff was waiting in the driveway for my arrival. Now this is pretty standard for luxury hotels as limo drivers usually ring up the hotel when they're but a couple of blocks away, to alert them that their car carrying hotel passengers is arriving. But to my very great surprise, the owner of the hotel himself was in the lobby to greet me.

This owner is very well-known in Malaysia as he's among the richest men in the country. In fact, I could look out my hotel window right now and chances are, my eyes would rest on something he owns. Or we could play Monopoly of Kuala Lumpur and he would win even before the game got started. You get the picture. He owns a lot of Kuala Lumpur's CBD, including most of its most well-known hospitality and retail landmarks. And there he was waiting to say hello to me in the lobby. Now that's what I call real Malaysian hospitality. So of course, I'm hooked for life.


Anyway, Mr. Hotel Owner was really nice and almost shockingly unassuming for such a big shot. I was very impressed. And I'm having lunch with him tomorrow as well, so I hope to hear more about his success story then. Tomorrow afternoon, too, I heard he's planning to close one of his big stores for a private shopping trip for me. Now that really puts the pressure on the credit card, if you know what I mean.

But back to this afternoon for now. I was just in KL last August and I'm actually going to be back here in three weeks for something else, so there has been plenty of time in the past months to do everything I wanted to do and there will be plenty of time next month for the rest. However today, at the top of my list were a visit to Karyaneka and a visit to Central Market.

I go to the main Karyaneka store every time I'm in KL to buy a couple of hand painted silk gowns; they're my one indulgence (haha -- I can hear my friends say. One indulgence??), so by now I've amassed quite a number of these beautiful gowns. They're not cheap but they are so worth it. They're so simply designed, but so unique that you have to be prepared to stand out from the crowd when you wear one of them. There's not been a single time that I've worn one of these Karyaneka gowns to a formal event and not received rave reviews -- so this just makes me their customer for life. Or at least their customer for every single time I visit Malaysia.


Just a few weeks ago, I wore a Karyaneka gown I bought last August to the black-tie dinner and charity auction for Gawad Kalinga at the Peninsula Manila. It was different from what everyone was wearing and it looked nice enough for several women -- including a very glamorous ambassador's wife -- to come come up to me and compliment me on my gown.

This happens all the time with my Karyaneka gowns. So today I found one in a color I still didn't have, and then I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, handed my credit card over and snapped it up.


The other place I really wanted to go is a wooden clogs stand in Central Market. It's a very small outfit with a woman who hates publicity for some reason, but she sells the most beautiful hand painted wooden clogs. She'll happily talk to you about her clogs but just don't let her see you snapping photos away with anything resembling a serious camera.

Again, I bought about four pairs from her in August and everyone who sees them loves them. They're lovely works of art and also so comfortable to wear and so unique and eye-catching in Manila, or anywhere else for that matter -- so of course I had to take advantage of this unexpected trip to KL (I was supposed to be in Japan today! And if I was in Manila, I'd be drinking up with the AIESEC Alumni Organizing Committee at a Cast Party someone's house tonight) to stock up on more of them.

The lady was hard at work behind her counter, trying to tack some strips of leather onto a new pair of clogs. I walked in breathless, partly because of excitement and partly because I'd been running from the other part of the market, and I said to her: "I bought a couple of pairs last August and I love them. Do you have other styles or colors I can buy?"


The rest is history. I got back to my hotel with several shopping bags, just in time to meet up with my old friend Elcee, who I actually haven't seen in decades. The last time I saw her was for lunch at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. But interestingly, we had no problem recognizing each other and we reconnected as if we'd only met yesterday.

Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife. Good night from wonderful Kuala Lumpur. Gotta get some rest for my private shopping trip tomorrow...

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue