Vibrant festivals do so much more than cultivate a hotbed of culture, celebrate local heritage and create a sense of community. They are great in boosting Malaysia’s economy and putting the country in the map.
By Ariel Chew
Malaysia’s festivals are hives of creativity, collaboration and commerce. The best of them attract hordes of tourists, generate millions in consumer spending and create thousands of jobs.
They help spur the tourism industry, which is the country’s second highest private investment contributor at RM24.5 billion and third largest GNI contributor at RM67.1 billion in 2015.
However, getting a festival off the ground and growing it to international standards is no easy feat. Three festival founders and organisers behind some of the biggest festivals in Malaysia gave us a glimpse of just what it takes to run a festival that has a rippling and positive effect to the local economy.
It Takes a Village
All the festival founders agree that the success of a festival hinges on a lot of support from the government on the onset, and later on, the involvement of more corporates to make it into a bigger success.
Gracie Geikie organised the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) and founded Miri International Jazz Festival (MIJF) during her tenure as the former CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board from 2005 to 2009.
She said, “I don’t think RWMF and MIJF would have survived this long if not for the government’s involvement and specifically, the Ministry of Tourism if it was seen purely as a commercial event. It is a three-pronged strategy to increase tourism receipts, visitor arrivals and improve community and stakeholder interests.”
Founder of George Town Festival, Joe Sidek revealed that the festival was the brainchild of the Penang State government.
“The RFP for the Festival was issued in 2010 but no one wanted to take on the project as there was a tight deadline and a rather small budget,” said Joe.
“The then-head of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) Dato’ Maimunah Mohd Sharif asked if I could assist and that’s how it all started – six weeks, a small budget and no team!”
He called upon friends around the world to help him put together a series of events that has now morphed into an annual, month-long celebration of arts, culture, heritage and community.
“I would say the key success factors for the Festival would be the uniqueness of George Town, the amazingly supportive Chief Minister and the people of Penang as well as a love for the arts and community!”
Founder of Malaysian Urban Retreat Festival (MURFEST) Shobie Malani concurred and said, “Support from government agencies like the Ministry of Youth & Sports, Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health played a huge part in getting this home-grown event to a good start.
“The alignment of forces with corporate sponsors and partners was also crucial in getting the Festival in track and we really hope to see more corporates get involved into making it a bigger success,” she added.
What Keeps Them Coming Back
The mark of a successful festival is whether it quickly becomes a much-anticipated annual affair with a healthy growth in returning visitors as well as new ones.
Joe emphasised that visitors keep returning to GTF because they are fascinated by the rich cultural heritage offered by George Town and that they love the arts and are touched by it.
“It’s all about the community and the Swahili word ‘Ubuntu’- which means humanity to others. When ordinary people come up to me and tell me how seeing a show or an exhibition has changed them, or changed something within them, I truly consider it as the festival’s success,” he said gleaming with pride.
Gracie, who is currently Sarawak EXCO of Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) and MACEOS Sarawak Committee Chairman, observed that visitors to RWMF were die-hard fans and supporters with some having attended at least 10 years and bringing new friends to the festival.
“Repeat festival goers insist that the brilliant venue — Sarawak Cultural Village, friendly people and camaraderie, meeting friends and world music are the ingredients for them to keep coming back for more. Some people even dubbed it as the Woodstock of Sarawak!”
Her comments were based on the survey findings of the festival after 15 years which culminated in her book “The Rainforest World Music Festival – Sarawak’s Success Story”, published in 2012.
Gracie’s next book “Rainforest World Music Festival – 20 Years of Rhythm and Song in Sarawak” would be launched in 2017 and aims to capture the essence of the festival’s success and what it has done for Sarawak.
Boosting the local economy
Apart from music and wellness, these events contributed significantly to their home states and cities. “RWMF has created tremendous economic spin-offs for the local community, tourism and hospitality stakeholders, increased tourism receipts and visitor numbers for Sarawak. It has brought people together,” said Gracie.
Based on a total of 22,000 visitors for RWMF in 2012, the estimated total expenditure per visitor at the festival was RM773.66, averaging RM257.88 per day. That’s a total value of RM17 mil.
According to Joe, GTF has had a huge impact on tourism. Tourism-related activities have increased with trendy cafes and restaurants opening up in areas where the festival has concentrated its showcases and events.
“We have contingents of tourists coming from counties like Australia, South Africa and Singapore. So many hotels and hostels in Penang, and especially George Town, are completely booked during GTF’s opening and closing weekends.” (refer to Figure 1).
Figure 1: Penang Hotels Occupancy Rates (2015 & 2016)
With the evolution of KL and Klang Valley as a ‘wellness hub’, Shobie believed that since its culmination in 2014, Murfest has accidently assisted in creating this wellness-conscious communities and entrepreneurs with the sudden rise in juice bars, healthy and organic restaurants, and food stores to a whole range of yoga studios mushrooming around city.
Not Without Its Challenges
Funding, and lots of it seems to be the key challenge cited by the festival founders.
“Generally, music festivals require sufficient funding (a lot of it!) to ensure it is sustainable and can keep with the times and economic environment. Most sponsors, if they are considering any sponsorship, will look at the development and growth of the event for the first few years to make the final decision on sponsorship,” said Gracie.
She added that in a price-sensitive environment, tickets could not be priced to break-even or make a profit as it will not result in the desired crowd numbers to give an overall festive atmosphere.
“So ticket sales generally will not usually be the main income earner given the population density of our location. Sponsorships are crucial in the equation for a successful event. World renowned names and stars can attract sponsors. But even then, there is no guarantee,” lamented Gracie.
“Any event of this size would need funds to run and sustain it,” Shobie said. “The first year hit us badly as we had an airline sponsor pull out because of difficulties that hit the aviation industry in 2014. We lost a big chunk out of that and incurred massive costs flying in presenters from around the world and artist/bands that performed in the Urbanite concert.”
Thankfully, on the third year, sponsors and partners started coming to them, which was a welcome breeze.
Joe believed arts need partners and companies to see how this field can spur economic growth and play a major role in the ecosystem. “Hong Kong and Singapore are great examples of how the State has invested in the arts as an economic driver,” he cited.
Quick Takes from Festival Organisers/Founders
Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) Sarawak EXCO, former CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board and a veteran Festival organiser.
SI: Where do you see the festival in three to five years’ time?
Gracie Geikie (GG): In three to five years’ time and beyond, I see both festivals recreated to cater to a new segment of festival goers who are younger and more technology-savvy so that we can hook in and pay to see a virtual festival; thus generating bigger revenue and much higher real and ‘virtual’ festival goers! There will be less or almost an absence of baby boomers.
SI: With all the challenges that you face in organising music festivals, what keeps you going?
GG: Sarawak is in a unique destination where connectivity problems, low population density and income capacity challenges really put your limits to the test in bringing up a music festival at par with other international locations.
Now that I am witnessing 20 years of RWMF, I see how the festival grew as well as decline in some areas. In most cases, economic factors dictate. When times get hard on the pocket, you forego luxuries and cut back on social activities. Another factor is event fatigue and lack of new ideas and activities that can cause decline in festival visitor numbers.
My own festival, Miri Country Music Festival, will be four years old in 2017. So I’m excited to see through this journey of organising a ‘young’ festival. Yes, the challenges can be daunting but it is the challenge to make an event grow and be successful that keeps me going.
Founder of George Town Festival (GTF)
SI: Moving forward, how do you see GTF growing?
Joe Sidek (JS): The first seven years were devoted to brand building and now we are focusing on an ASEAN outreach as I see GTF playing a bigger role in the region. It will no doubt raise the profile of the Festival –- 600 Million Consumers makes ASEAN a good market indeed!
SI: What motivates you to organise GTF year after year?
JS: Festivals will always be challenging but that’s what excites me. It’s all about dreaming big, and taking responsibility for turning these dreams into reality.
I’d like to share a meaningful and pivotal moment. In 2012, we had a major show called MANGANIYAR SEDUCTION which we offered community tickets. A big group of orphans came. After one of the shows, an eight year old boy from one of the orphanages donated RM1.50 into our “collection box”.
When I asked him why, he said he enjoyed the show and his “teacher” had said we needed help. A little boy who probably has very little money gave me all the money from his pocket. Yet big corporations sometimes do not even answer my mails! From that day I knew why I had to continue doing this.
Founder of Malaysian Urban Retreat Festival (MURFEST)
SI: What inspired you to start Murfest? How long did it take from the conception of the idea to the actual execution of the first festival?
Shobie Malani (SM): The need for a wholesome wellness platform in Malaysia spurred me to bring MURFEST to life. The idea sprung in 2011 after a trip to Bali and having attended a similar festival there, I thought this would be something of great interest to the people back home.
Unfortunately finding out I was pregnant with my first child made me shelf the idea. After two years, in 2013 we started initiating the work and in 2014 the inaugural MURFEST took place in Putrajaya.
We hope in the future to work more closely with corporations and their ‘sports clubs’, to promote MURFEST as a ‘get fit and healthy initiative’ and to have colleagues, friends and their family all attend MURFEST as a fun and healthy recreational day out.
SI: Any memorable moments or lessons you wish to share?
SM: It was in Year 1 (2014) where yoga was still a grey area. People were worried that the Fatwa against Yoga will hurt the Muslim community who want to practice it.
With the support from relevant government agencies, we broke those barriers and a Muslim lady came up to me and thanked me profusely for bring such a festival to Malaysian shores.
It brought me to tears, as she genuinely said yoga helped cure her back pain and she has never perceived it as religious. That gave me the encouragement to pursue this and we went on year two and three.