Surekha Ragavan
Oct 24, 2018

The genius in indigenous

More markets are integrating local indigenous culture into meetings and events beyond incentives and CSR programs.

Bangarra Dance Theatre performs at ICC Sydney, providing all-important economic independence for aboriginal communities.
Bangarra Dance Theatre performs at ICC Sydney, providing all-important economic independence for aboriginal communities.

As the industry moves towards more meaningful experiences and compelling storytelling, key markets in Asia-Pacific are turning to their own backyard. 

While indigenous and native cultures have often been limited to incentive itineraries, leisure tourism, or CSR efforts, some cities have begun to incorporate core indigenous values into the planning and execution of meetings and events.

Supporting your tribe 

A good case study for the meshing of indigenous culture and meetings is Sarawak. The Malaysian state—home to 27 major ethnic groups—provides an unconventional and eclectic meeting experience, and it comes as an appealing proposition to the experienced business traveller. 

The state’s meetings culture is amplified through Sarawak Convention Bureau’s (SCB) “Redefining Global Tribes” campaign which upholds the values of community, unity and identity, all which make up the ethos of Sarawakian tribes. 

“It’s important to incorporate values that stem from our culture and heritage,” says Amelia Roziman, chief operating officer for SCB and a proud Bidayuh, an indigenous tribe of Borneo. “The true spirit of Sarawak’s culture and heritage is its close-knit community approach, which has given rise to the business events sector.”

While Sarawak’s status as a second-tier destination won’t match the sophisticated infrastructure and international air connectivity of capital Kuala Lumpur, the state has nevertheless managed to cleverly position its “tribal values” as a USP. 

Culture to culture… Integrate indigenous culture and practices throughout your program.

Another successful example is New Zealand’s incorporation of Māori culture into major events. “For us, Māori culture is New Zealand culture,” says Lisa Gardiner, head of marketing, international business events and premium, Tourism New Zealand. “The industry is looking at how to really embed it through the whole delegate experience. And we are increasingly using that as a way to attract and engage people.”

The indigenous economy in New Zealand is worth NZ$50 billion (US$33 billion) and it’s also a sector that’s youthful. “The average age of those in the Māori economy is 28 years old, so it brings a vitality to the experience,” says Gardiner. “It’s a living and breathing culture, it’s constantly evolving – so there are some contemporary takes on the culture.”

A common feature at events in New Zealand is the hongi greeting and a formal welcome to acknowledge the original inhabitants. The main element of signature Māori hospitality is Manaakitanga—which is the concept of looking after guests like they’re one of your own. 

“It’s culture to culture, from Māori culture to your culture,” says Paul Retimanu, managing director for Wellington Functions. “When it’s mainstream, it’s all business. Whereas with us, we want to know where you come from, what’s your family all about, and only after that we’ll talk about business.”

Retimanu adds that the culture shouldn’t simply be used in events at the beginning or the end as official greetings. It’s important to “get to know” delegates to find out if they share similar values, which can help determine if the business will be taken further. Thereon, delegates should be treated as family rather than the experience being purely transactional.

“Sometimes, conference organisers will get Māoris to do the opening, nothing in the middle, and then they do the closing. There’s a lot of opportunity for the in-between,” says Retimanu. “We can offer a lot of creativity in how they portray the messages of their company.”

An example of embodying the culture throughout the event is taking inspiration from the Māori people’s respect for the environment. “We recycle everything from oil to plasticware to cups. We could just put that in general waste and save NZ$3,000 a month, but we don’t. We do that because of Kaatikanga [guardianship and protection of the environment],” he adds.

Beyond tokenism 

Incorporating indigenous culture is all very well, but it’s important that returns are channelled back into the community. With New Zealand’s robust Māori economy, Retimanu says that small community businesses are gaining from increased exposure to the culture. “Māori businesses are incredibly successful. It used to be called ‘sleeping giant’, but in 10 years, we’ve gained NZ$42.5 billion dollars. That’s incredible,” he says.

In the case of Sarawak, Roziman says that despite more corporate outreach and CSR programs to empower indigenous communities, local cultures shouldn’t be eroded in the process. “While this advances the lives of communities, in particular isolated tribal communities, it should not influence their heritage, traditions and artisan cultures,” she says. “It should instead find ways to encourage, nurture and keep these cultures alive.”

Besides that, empowerment can also come by way of creating a legacy and impact for local communities in the future. For instance, the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre (ICC Sydney) not only incorporates cultural performances and music into its gala dinners, the team also develops strong links with indigenous tour operators for pre- or post-tour options, as well as sourcing aboriginal food products.

“There’s a growing demand of interest from international delegates to have some contact or engagement with the culture of our First Nation people,” says Geoff Donaghy, CEO at ICC Sydney.

“What we’re doing is making a contribution to the economic independence and providing employment opportunities for aboriginal people. And that’s a very important part of what they see as a path forward for themselves.”

Because the industry is largely about bringing large numbers of people to the country, Donaghy adds that it’s critical that centres engage with the local community. He says: “It’s important that we don’t just maximise the dollars delegates leave behind, but we maximise the ongoing benefits—social, societal, environmental, community.”


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