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Todt-ful way to pull in tourists Print E-mail
Monday, 06 July 2009 16:17

Appointing Jean Todt as global ambassador for tourism might be beneficial for Malaysia.

IN her role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassa­dor, Angelina Jolie’s visits to refugee camps all over the world are drawing global attention to the plight of refugees.

Likewise, Colombian singer Shakira is focusing the world’s attention on grief-stricken children in her role as a Unicef goodwill ambassador.

All over the world, celebrities are becoming the “face” for various issues and causes. Their pulling power is being used to good effect to promote various causes, be it for economic, educational or social purposes.

Similarly, Malaysia has appointed former Formula One Ferrari team executive director Datuk Seri Jean Todt as its tourism ambassador. Primarily, Frenchman Todt, who is engaged to Ipoh-born actress Datuk Michelle Yeoh, will become spokesperson to promote Malaysia globally.

His appointment, however, made news for the wrong reasons recently when PKR MP Azmin Ali questioned the rationale of paying Todt a huge amount of money for his role. Azmin also claimed that Todt had been offered a piece of land in Pulau Besar, Tereng­ganu.

In an interview, Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen says there is a lot of potential for the Malaysian tourism industry, which earned the country RM49bil last year, the second largest revenue earner.

“We only came to the world stage in the 80s and 90s. Promoting ourselves to the world is not easy. Furthermore, it’s very expensive to go on TV or to make films on the country. Even that may not be persuasive enough,” she says, adding that we face more competition from countries which had opened up recently, such as Vietnam, China and Cambodia.

Dr Ng says that besides promoting the “usual” tourism products such as beaches, forests and culture, they were also looking at promoting the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H), which she admits is moving at a slow pace.

“We wanted to find an effective, persuasive and direct way of promoting Malaysia. The word of mouth approach is more effective compared with the TV or billboards. Todt comes to Malaysia quite often and knows Malaysia well,” she says.

Todt received his approval letter for the MM2H programme in May and bought a condominium at One KL, near the Petronas Twin Towers.

“We asked him if he would consi­der telling the world what Malaysia is like and he agreed. He truly believes in Malaysia. At no time did we discuss dollars and cents. It would have been an insult to him,” says Dr Ng.

She adds that the ministry would pay for his air tickets and expenses incurred when he is required to meet anyone or to attend any function that Tourism Malaysia might host.

“That’s the least we can do. If we want to be an international player, we must have an international mindset. It is only right that we treat our ambassador of tourism correctly. People might have different opinions, but we have to do what we think is right,” she says.

Revealing that the Ministry had set aside a budget of �200,000 (RM1mil) for this purpose for two years, she says: “We are talking about Europe. Do you know the rate for a hotel room there? We are being very realistic.”

Dr Ng adds that the RM1mil was the maximum to be spent and that no money had been spent as yet. She also denies Azmin’s allegation that land was part of the deal.

Sound investment

Public Relations (PR) practitioner Lashvinder Kaur believes that having a famous personality endorse your brand or cause usually generates strong returns. The personality serves as the face of the brand and helps deliver messages pertaining to the brand, she says.

“The question is, if Louis Vuitton can use pop culture icons like Madonna or Uma Thurman as the ‘face’ of its brand, why can’t we use Jean Todt as the ‘face’ of Malaysia? Governments are usually nameless and faceless apart from their leaders and, quite frankly, the move by the Tourism Ministry to use Jean Todt to manage the brand reputation of Malaysia is quite refreshing,” says Lashvinder, who is co-managing director of PR firm WestCoast Communications.

It was reported a while ago that South Korea appointed local singer Mawi as its ambassador to Malaysia.

Lashvinder says brand ambassadors are hired for a multitude of reasons, ranging from their position to standing, following, interests, causes and social circles.

“This man (Todt) makes the news ever so often, and the return on investment is simply not quantifiable as the endorsement value is priceless. The amount in question is quite small compared with other global personalities who are commissioned to ‘sell’ a brand, be it directly or indirectly,” she says.

Dr Ng says Todt was picked as tourism ambassador because he was highly respected, had persuasive powers, was influential and, most importantly, had a network with the “right” people. She says they would like Todt to become a “working” ambassador.

“We would like him at the big film or arts festivals. He can entertain and chat with people (about Malaysia). But of course, we do not think we should impose on him more than what should be done.”

Dr Ng says she handed a letter of appointment to Todt in Paris but there were no specific terms of reference for his role.

“We are not paying him so it’s hard to talk about terms of reference. It’s not a contract and there is no retainer fee. He is happy as our ambassador and has agreed to attend two of our signature events (locally and internationally),” she says.

These events include Citrawarna (Colours of Malaysia) and Flora Fest in Malaysia, and two international sales events such as World Travel Mart, London and Arab Travel Mart which are organised by Tourism Malaysia.

At an event in Kuala Lumpur last month, Todt said he would speak to influential people overseas about the country and that he would also conduct familiarisation trips for selected groups of people in the hospitality industry and media.

“I’m very busy but I am happy to give a little contribution. As much as I can come (over), I’ll come,” he was quoted as saying when asked if he had a fixed programme as a tourism ambassador.

Azhari Mahmood, a tourism video producer cum scriptwriter, believes Todt’s appointment would prove to be a sound investment in the long run.

Azhari, who has been in the business since 1977, also believes that advertising is not as effective as word of mouth.

“Todt knows the big people in Europe. Wherever he goes, heads will turn and that’s what we want. When somebody is your ambassador, they must have the licence to spend. We cannot expect him to be flying economy class,” says Azhari, who is also in charge of the Malaysiana travel book series.

“Harrods (in London) sells Malaysian crafts. In order to do so, a connection with their owner (Mohamed) Al-Fayed had to be made. Todt is capable of connecting us. If you don’t have these sort of connections, you cannot penetrate these markets.”

Opening doors

So how will the ministry measure the effectiveness of Todt as tourism ambassador?

“We will measure it by the number of people Todt brings here to Malaysia, whether they participate in the MM2H or they just come for holidays,” says Dr Ng.

She adds that Todt introduced her to famous French movie director Luc Besson, aides of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and other high ranking people during a lunch in Paris recently.

She says Besson was contemplating shooting a film on diving here while Galleries Lafayette, a famous department store in Paris, is talking to the ministry about the possibility of having a Malay­sian week there.

“Let’s be honest and real. There was no way I could have lunch with these people if he was not there. He is basically there to open the doors,” she says.

Dr Ng also says she and Todt were discussing the idea of organising a mega familiarisation tour for his friends.

“These people rarely come here but they are always going to the Caribbean. But what does the Caribbean have that we don’t?” she says.

Azhari reckons the RM1mil spent on Todt would represent a much higher value than money used for advertising by Tourism Malaysia. The Tourism Ministry, which has 44 tourism offices overseas, has a budget of RM200mil yearly for advertising in the print and electronic media.

“I believe Todt’s extensive connections with the ‘Who’s Who’ in Europe is an ideal investment,” says Azhari.

Dr Ng believes this investment could bring in returns of at least 50 times that amount. She says she was planning on getting Jimmy Choo on board although his role would not be that of an ambassador.

“It is more of a goodwill role. For Todt’s role of ambassador, we had to go to the Cabinet and prepare a paper. It was official. This will be different,” she says.

Andrew Davidson, the CEO of publishing company Expat group, believes that having celebrity figures to promote a country always helps to raise its profile, and more so when the person does not come from that country.

“Celebrity figures have the added value of connecting with prominent people of influence, so their word carries extra weight,” he says.

Davidson, however, believes that several weaknesses of the MM2H which result in frequent complaints should be ironed out first.

“I would have preferred to see these points resolved before risking having more people come and then be unhappy with the way the programme is structured,” he says.

Source: http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2009/7/5/focus/4255706&sec=focus



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