General Manager (GM) of Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre

Taking over the reins of Malaysia’s world-class award winning venue as its new GM since March 1, John Burke is no newcomer as he has been its deputy GM since April 2017. Now in his 50s, he has behind him over 30 years of experience across all areas of operations having worked with two other convention centres in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. Do not be amazed when he tells you that due to his love for the outdoors, he has been a skydiver, Jiu-Jitsu instructor and even taught kayaking.

Having been integral in pushing Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre’s digital transformation forward when you first joined as deputy GM in 2017, how do you hope to lead it now in your current new appointment as Malaysia’s tourism and business events pick up?
I am focused on continuing what it has been successful for over the past 18 years. We have a building in the heart of the city, an experienced team and a range of offerings that are great and, they work.

Moving forward, and as per our practice over the years, we will continue to refresh our facilities. As event formats change from large auditorium presentations to smaller breakouts and discussion sessions, we see the importance in addressing these needs in order to enhance our clients’ and delegates’ experience at our venue.

With rising costs around utilities, food, and staff, I am also working on managing and enhancing our cost containment methods. We will be looking at pushing our digital transformation further across different levels of operations to improve efficiencies in offsetting these increasing costs.

You were previously responsible for overseeing the upgrade of the venue’s security infrastructure. What has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic?
We have increased the use of smart technologies, reviewed and strengthened all areas of our security management and will continue to invest in it to ensure the venue is a safe environment to do business and hold events. While the pandemic has not driven these changes, the lockdown has allowed us time to identify areas of improvement.

Besides technology, we also emphasize on staff training and development in risk management and the handling of emergency situations. Our team undergoes regular comprehensive training with the national security forces and maintains a good collaborative relationship with our group’s security teams not just to ensure the venue’s safety but also the integrated precinct that we are part of.

What are the challenges besetting Malaysia’s business events industry?
One of the challenges we face is the perception that Malaysia is not geared up for large events. Contrary to this, its venues and event supply chains are well positioned to cater to events of all sizes and profiles. Malaysia has demonstrated this over the years by successfully delivering some of the world’s biggest events. At our venue, we are very proud of having hosted a number of prestigious international events, including the United Nation’s ninth World Urban Forum that attracted over 25,000 people to Kuala Lumpur.

There are many venues in Malaysia ready and willing to host international events. Our 33,000 sq m purpose-built venue itself comes with layers of supporting facilities that can seamlessly accommodate multiple large and small events. With the surrounding hotels offering over 25,000 rooms, the reality is far from the market perception. This is where my team and I will continue to work on changing this perception and showcase Malaysia’s true ability in hosting large-scale events.

To what extent have business events in the city centre and at your venue help the hotels in the surrounding areas survive after the pandemic?
The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre was built as the premier venue for staging large international conventions and exhibitions that were previously beyond the country’s scope. This helps to bring in more foreign exchange and people to occupy the hotel besides encouraging business opportunities for trade, facilitating imports or exports and knowledge transfer. These goals are reflected in the post- pandemic scenario. With the global borders reopening and our success in providing a safe environment, we restarted strongly with 1,200 events in 2022 where our on-site and surrounding hotels benefitted from the higher occupancy levels.

We worked closely with our hotel partners under the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre Business Events Alliance (KLCCBEA) in accommodating the surge in the return of international as well as regional delegates to the capital city. Comprising international legacy-brand hotels, the national airline and nearby lifestyle establishments, the KLCCBEA represents a one-stop-solution where clients and organisers have a single- point-of-contact to everything they need for their events.

Where do you see the development of hybrid and virtual events going?
The digitisation of events or hybrid as well as virtual events and spaces have been around for some time but they grew at an accelerated pace during the pandemic due to quick developments around easier and more collaborative solutions. I believe virtual and especially hybrid events will always be with us. However, it is encouraging to see how fast people returned to face-to-face meetings and events. I believe the future focus of our industry will still be in these face-to-face meetings as the most popular and beneficial event format.

Having driven multiple sustainability projects at KLCC, which one is closest to your heart and why?
I have to say it would be our rooftop hydroponic farm. Although our roof is not large, it showed us what we can do in a relatively limited amount of space in the heart of an urban city.

We are able to grow some of our own produce to provide fresh and pesticide free salad for our guests, albeit not all that we need but it shows what we can do when we put our minds and hearts into it. I look forward to expanding this project to provide more produce.

It is an inspiring journey for us. Since setting up the farm about six months ago, we have been sharing our best practices with other businesses and entities in the city and exposing students to the benefits of urban farming and sustainable practices as we develop our educational programme around initiative. The project has also enabled us to work with a local small medium enterprise driven by single-mothers, whose vision is aligned with us, thus supporting our goal to give back to the community.

What is the venue’s latest sustainability initiative?
We are working together with the Kuala Lumpur City Centre precinct and our KLCCBEA partners to create a sustainable meeting destination for our guests to meet, dine, stay and play responsibly. Facilitated by URBANICE Malaysia, a KLCCBEA Symposium was held late last year, to define, chart and develop a long-term plan to help create a sustainable KLCC precinct aligned to Malaysia Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Cities and the country’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030.

Driven by us, the KLCCBEA Sustainability Sub-Committee played a lead role in designing, setting up and implementing the circular or regenerative sustainable system, which included sustainable sourcing, waste reduction and recycling methods and practices as well as community-wide SDGs advocacy and awareness campaigns.

How do you aim to carve new revenue streams for the venue with your team?
The opportunities for the growth of business events are great in Malaysia with the scope to develop new exhibitions and bring in more inbound entertainment. We will continue to identify gaps and new opportunities in the market where we can leverage, tapping on our expertise and long-standing reputation as a market leader in the industry. At the same time, we remain focused on ensuring revenue retention amidst the current challenges surrounding rising costs in utilities, food, staff, the possibility of recession and continued inflation in some markets.

What are your plans to expand the convention centre’s product offerings?
We are expanding our technical services to be a one-stop-hub to ease event planning processes for our clients and have a dedicated team working closely with them to cater to their technical needs with tailored solutions.Being equipped with the largest food production kitchen in Malaysia that comes with an award-winning culinary team, we are growing our food and beverage offerings and services. We have been requested to do outside catering at large sporting events and are exploring how to include different types of private events as well.

With events formats evolving from large to small collaborative style with higher priority for networking, we are looking at reconfiguring parts of the venue where organisers can leverage on our unique, customisable spaces to provide enhanced and differentiated event experience to their delegates.

Your previous job experiences were in the Middle East. Having been in Malaysia for six years now, how do you find it here? Any differences in the work culture?
Malaysia is great, I enjoy being here so much that I hope I may not have to leave. I love its work-culture. It is easy to work with Malaysians as everyone is supportive and takes a collaborative approach. Since English is widely-spoken, communications with team members, industry colleagues and our clients are smooth. I have started to learn Bahasa Malaysia and enjoy promoting Malaysia to those who have not been here.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I place strong emphasis on collaborative approach and working as a team. I have high standards and expectations in how we deliver our offerings and services to our clients and strive to balance that by providing as much support as I can to the rest of my team.

Work apart, how do you unwind?
Being an outdoor person, I take advantage of Malaysia’s beautiful terrains and like to spend my weekends amidst nature by hiking or trekking. I am about to take my examination to be a rescue diver soon and will be trying for the master diver certification later this year. Malaysia is one of the world’s best diving destinations with many fantastic dive sites.

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