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A Successful Borneo Bird Festival 2016

With a turn out of over 7,000 people during the 8th Borneo Bird Festival 2016 in Sandakan from 15-17 September, the annual birding event was a success based on the daily attendance, activities and events held throughout the three days at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, 30 minutes from the city of Sandakan.

During the Borneo Bird Festival 2016, a total of 12 local and international teams took part in the annual bird race which saw teams from as far as Hong Kong and also China, where in a time span of 24 hours, a total of 90 bird species was spotted by the teams. Among the many contest that took place here, there was also a bird photo race that saw a large number of participants as the attractive prizes was sponsored by Canon Malaysia.
Visitors from as far as Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu made their way there to participate and take part in the many activities which also saw a number of local people coming from as far as the Kinabatangan region of east coast Sabah. One of the highlights for this year include the inaugural Borneo Bird Run 2016 where around 550 participants signed up for the fun run which offered three categories and an attractive finishing medal. 

Most of the visitors to the Borneo Bird Festival were families that spent the weekend here, exploring the RDC as it is locally called. They were seen enjoying the free guided nature walks, trying out the flying fox over the lake, exploring the steel canopy walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre and  also participating in the many activities. There were food and drink stalls which offered a variety of fast and local food and also souvenir stalls that sold local handicraft. A temporary tattoo corner was a popular spot as many children and teenagers were seen getting all sorts of bird tattoos. 

On the academic side, a number of invited speakers from around the region was invited to give speciality talks on birds, conservation and even on social media and birding where I was the speaker for that special segment that introduced the added awareness utilizing social media and the internet for birding or bird watching. Overall, with today's generation and being in the digital age, many are still unaware of the potential tools that can be used for bird watching. I truly hope that I can continue to contribute my years of experience by speaking to the bird watchers, bird guides and even bird tour companies in Malaysia.
Cede Prudente, president of the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club and organiser of the Borneo Bird Festival gives a speech
Talking to the People

As I spent three days at the birding event, I took the initiative to talk to some of the locals and visitors at the Borneo Bird Festival 2016 and from the consumer point of view, they wanted the event to be even bigger, with more international and local participation, in terms of bird watchers, competitions and also more related products and information instead of the same old vendors every year. 

Some even highlighted that this event was indeed a special event and more industry players from the region should have their presence at the bird festival while others were excited to have more international bird watchers and also bird clubs attend this auspicious event held here in Sandakan. After all, there could be a government to government (G2G) agreement to send some of the bird clubs in the region to attend this event due to it being the largest and most prominent birding event in the entire Malaysia.

A Potentially Global Birding Event, only if......

There was presence of two bird clubs, which was the Philippine Bird Club and also the Brunei Bird Club who were excited to see how the local homegrown event had taken shape after all these years. Other bird clubs from around the region had also shown interest, but the lack of funding from the local side hampered in assisting these clubs to attend the festival.

Perhaps for the next Borneo Bird Festival 2017 or Borneo Bird Race 2017, the tourism ministry, local council, corporations, airlines or even hotels could work together to assist in making this event a global birding event that would attract more birders, bird watchers and also nature lovers to participate or attend the festival. After all, it has been eight years to date. 

In other words, this would contribute largely to the tourism industry of Sandakan where foreign visitors would not only come for this but also continue to spend their trip by visiting some of the special tourist attractions around Sandakan like Sepilok Organ Utan Rehabilitation Centre, The Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary, Kinabatangan River or even venture to other places around Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia.
The Borneo Bird Festival marshals, officials and teams
Visitors at the Borneo Bird Festival 2016
Marketing the Borneo Bird Festival to the World

In terms of marketing or branding for the event, there could be more emphasis on digital and ground advertising and promotions, which should be done way in advance, at least six to ten months before the event as foreigners need to plan their trips. A different approach should be done for this as birders are a very unique audience and not your usual tourist. 

Bird Forum at the Borneo Bird Festival
Attending just one or two international bird fairs is not going to do much justice as for the British Bird Watching Fair in Rutland, England is held in August while the Borneo Bird Festival is held in September or October, plus for the Europeans to come all the way here, it would require huge costs therefore an immediate regional tactic should be imposed where the organisers and tourism board re-think the strategy, instead of looking too far. 

This means, we should start the main focus on the immediate region of Southeast Asia and Greater Asia countries as connectivity and cost are much more reasonable compared to Europe and the Americas. Neighboring countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines have a large following of bird watchers and nature lovers hence a proper strategy could easily attract these markets. 

Special packages can be created in advance to lock down the commitment of the visitors while as to attract the participants for the bird races, more attractive prizes could also be looked into, instead of the usual pocket cameras, hampers and so on. As there are many new bird watching gadgets in the market, perhaps prizes that birders seek could be in the form of scopes, binoculars, telephoto lenses and even flight tickets, which could be a pulling factor. Sometimes, going that extra mile results in better awareness, provided everyone sees the same vision.
During the Borneo Bird Festival Bird Race, teams spotting various birds at the RDC
Birding FAM Trips in Sabah Malaysia

China is one of the growing birding markets and bird watchers or bird photographers from here should also be looked into. This means, reaching the right channel or network is highly important and media trips for birders should be arranged, especially in the early parts of the year. But this being said, usually one media trip would be done and it would not yield much effect and my recommendation would be to have a series of Birding FAM trips to promote the main event to selected countries. 

Selecting the right media is highly important and having a small media group is much more effective versus trying to save cost and lump 15 media or photographers in one trip. This is clearly the old method of media familiarization trips that work for mainstream, and even that is changing too. I would highly recommend organizing special birding media trips to Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Kinabatangan River, RDC, Kinabalu Park and even in Kota Kinabalu City area, and to do this successfully, a local social media specialist should be hired to ensure that everything in the social side works as planned. 
A team member notes down the bird she saw during the Borneo Bird Race
A media trip does not mean arranging the locations to visit, transportation and guide as this is the old format of media trips. Nowadays, you need to know the digital and social milestones that can be achieved from a media trip which can easily generate a higher ROI from the trip. I truly hope that this would be seriously considered to market and brand the Borneo Bird Festival 2017 or the Borneo Bird Race 2017. 

Most organizations will revert to the old formats of media trips, simply because of cost savings, but after all these years, has it really been effective? In certain areas, it may have been, but when you are looking at special, niche or new area, you can involve outside assistance, who knows the industry or the demands from the new digital age or the new generation of tourist who depend purely on the social and digital world. 

Clients who claim to already know what is social media all about is a clear shot in the foot as there are so many different areas to cover. Sadly, most Malaysians would term social media as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but that is only the tip of the iceberg when you look deeper into it.
Kids flocking around the Bornean Bristlehead at the Borneo Bird Festival
What is Next for the Borneo Bird Festival

All of the above mentioned requires funding, and with minimal funding, the event will never grow to an international world class level. If we truly want the Borneo Bird Festival and Borneo Bird Race to be on the world map, then we really need to look into this carefully as it is a very unique event that has potential to make Sandakan the birding capital or hub of Malaysia, and the only way for this to happen is to have an open mindset from the industry players. 

In terms of the local birding professionals, I strongly believe that the Sabahan birders are already there, after years of commitment from each individual, be it the birding guides, marshals and the organizers. This I say with confidence as I have been attending the Borneo Bird Festival for years and have seen with my own eyes how each individual person involved has taken so much pride for the event. 

If you look at some of the other birding events in Malaysia, many want to achieve it but it is not easily done due to the serious lack of experience, proper trained guides, lack of passion, proper advertising and marketing and these are the main factors that ends up with a very low level participation or turn out. Malaysia is a naturally rich country filled with huge amounts of resources, but many a times, I truly wonder why we prefer to promote other man-made events. Personally, I hope that in the years to come, the Borneo Bird Festival will be one of the world renown birding events that will put Malaysia on the world map.

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