MD and CEO of Desaru Coast Destination Resorts Roslina Arbak on the integrated development designed to keep visitors coming back for more

She also talks about how the six distinct hotels and leisure components can coexist happily.

Cognisant of the big picture, initiating ideas and action are all in a day’s work for her (Photo: Soophye)

When Roslina Arbak talks, men listen. Men in top positions who are used to doing the talking. The managing director and CEO of Desaru Coast Destination Resorts is not coy about the way she handles the general managers (GMs) of its various properties “under her”.

“Everyone here has a personality of their own, men or women. As long as there is mutual respect and mutual understanding of the common goal and nothing else but the success of the destination, I never have any issues dealing with them,” she says.

“I think honesty remains the best policy — being honest with one another and engaging in difficult conversations that need to be had. If you do it with sincerity and respect, I don’t think there are any issues at all.”

Roslina has a part in selecting the GMs and is upfront about what the senior management team looks for: candidates who are not territorial.

“They have to know the property they are going to be leading and have their own policies, processes and standards that they honour internally. But they have to realise they need to coexist with all the other properties as a larger destination.”

Aware that “we need each other”, the managers all have their hands on the table with her. Everyone pitches in because their ultimate objective is to see “guests coming happy and leaving happy — the bottom line of the hospitality industry”.


Anantara Desaru Coast is the company's first resort in Malaysia (Photo: Anantara Desaru Coast)

Cross-deployment, part of staff training, paid off after the integrated destination on Johor’s east coast reopened last year when the interstate travel ban was lifted. There were Covid cases among its 1,200 employees and when they had to be isolated, fellow workers stepped up to the plate. Every time there was a need, it was easy for the operating units to move their staff in to assist, says Roslina. “They knew exactly what to do, fast. And as far as guests were concerned, there was no disruption — our game plan here.”

The synergy that comes from knowing someone has their back carries over to when the team leaders gather to play. “You’ve seen it happen, the GMs teasing each other at dinner. We went off tangent, in a good way,” she says, recalling the final night during Options’ team visit in November to experience Desaru’s Corporate Events, Reimagined programme. She sees it happen every time they are given an accolade. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for a property or restaurant, we all cheer. Really, we literally cheer.”

Her way of breaking barriers through social engagement gets a cheer too. The managers meet for lunch monthly, with each operating unit taking turns to be host. They minimise shop talk but, comfortable in what is often a different environment, are happy to chew on issues that crop up, like how to make things better at the resorts.

Coexistence is essential in Desaru Coast, which has four hotels — One&Only, Anantara, The Westin and Hard Rock — as well as the Adventure Waterpark and The Els Club. Fronting them or a stroll away is a secluded, spotless beach that stretches beyond what the eye can see, facing the South China Sea. With nature at the doorstep of its luxury villas and suites, and championship golf courses on site, Desaru Coast won a listing on TIME magazine’s World’s Greatest Places of 2021.

The sheer size of the property and its potential for development — less than half of its 4,000 acres have been built — can be intimidating. But Roslina is not easily afraid, except of cats and being in water perhaps. Cognisant of the big picture, initiating ideas and action are all in a day’s work for her.

Her day begins with coffee. “The caffeine must be in the system first lah,” she quips as she sits down to chat at One&Only’s stunning Villa One, after striking various poses for the camera.


The secluded four-bedroom Villa One is set over two levels with a 27m pool (Photo: One&Only Desaru Coast)

Starting from before her Desaru journey began, she shares that growing up in Singapore, she picked up choice terms from watching Cantonese TV dramas such as Man in the Net. Her family still live across the Causeway while she and her husband are on the Malaysian side.

When Roslina was approached by a Khazanah Nasional Bhd subsidiary to join Desaru Coast in 2016 to help manage and prepare the destination for operations mode, only Els Club’s Ocean Course was open. All the other properties were at various stages of construction. But pre-operations were about to start and she could have some input.

Inviting internationally recognised brand names with standards that warrant recognition was a move to elevate Desaru from its sleepy-old-town image. “With the key brands, we have kind of leapfrogged into international positioning for our properties,” she says.

Tourism was a natural progression in this property lawyer’s own career as it meant greater responsibility and accountability. “I’ve always liked to see things develop. No matter what role I had — in-house counsel, company secretary, general manager or head of corporate communications, development has always been in the background of the industry I was working in. Seeing how it transforms a space and community and drives the economy has also been a personal pleasure.”

For her personally, every career path she has chosen has prepared her for the next one, and the next. Conveyancing does not require meeting many people, so being an in-house legal counsel for a property developer suited her quite well then, says the “introvert by nature”.

As general manager, Roslina had to look at sales, while corporate communications taught her to communicate and connect with people and be more extroverted. “Every role after that prepared me for the next one. It’s like God had determined my journey and was giving me building blocks.

“Every time I sit on a chair, I ask myself: ‘What does this [role] require me to do? What personality does it need me to be in this industry?”

Does it take a certain personality to helm a place like Desaru Coast?


Chilled margaritas and modern Mexican dining are delivered poolside at The Elephant & The Butterfly (Photo: Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast)

“You sometimes have to hide your emotions when it comes to making difficult decisions. You have to indulge in difficult conversations and listen. At the same time, the empathy must be there — it must be seen and felt by everyone, from senior management all the way down. You must be willing to get your hands dirty.”

Roslina’s colleagues at Themed Attractions, Resorts and Hotels (Desaru Coast’s parent company and Khazanah’s  strategic hospitality investment arm) have influenced how she manages the resort too. “They’re very important stakeholders. My boss, specifically, has been a strong supporter and critic as well. I’m so entrenched in running this [place], sometimes I overlook the big picture. That’s when I bounce ideas off her.

“They give me the freedom and space to make decisions but if I don’t engage and consult, it will be quite a challenge if, say, we make a wrong decision. We don’t want that because when we all put our minds together, we stand by one another, no matter what.”

Roslina says she is blessed to have the right people around her who ensure her schedule doesn’t go crazy. “I would be crazy to say I can do it on my own. No way. With the kind of issues I have to face, I need a strong someone beside me.

Personal assistant Mariani Lukman is the gatekeeper who controls who sees her and who does not. “Even all the GMs are afraid of her, trust me. I’m also scared of her sometimes.”

Her stylist friend was not at the photoshoot but sent a flurry of instructions and pictures showing Mariani what to do with Roslina’s different outfits. “How am I supposed to know my pin needs to be here or there? You’re going to ask me questions, I have to focus on the content.”

Content is what she and her managers will keep working on now that Malaysians have discovered Desaru Coast. Affluent locals who used to travel the world found a safe, secure and beautiful place they could visit during the pandemic. The resort’s campaign, Stay Well at Desaru Coast, drives home what it has to offer visitors: peace of mind.


The Els Club’s Ocean Course (Photo: The Els Club Desaru Coast)

The new ferry terminal linking Desaru to Bintan, Batam and Singapore is ready. When borders reopen, it should attract a deluge of foreign tourists. Roslina is prepared.

“We sell space — 17km of beachfront that not many have the opportunity to tell everyone about; 45 holes for golfers who can play from morning till night for three, four days; and kilometres of cycling tracks. As you get out of the destination, you can go right or left and not see the same things. When you lie on the beach next to a resort hotel, you will pay attention to sights and sounds.

“We want people to keep coming back and experience new things. If we have 10 things here and you have experienced all of them, we want you to come back in six months and try the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th. We’re talking to like-minded investors who want to see the destination grow because they see the potential.”

Corporate Events, Reimagined has the potential to lure busy executives tired of meeting in classroom-style cubicles and flipping charts on budget and strategy. When her team first told her they had been outselling MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions), she suggested, “Let’s do the reverse and reimagine, together, what we can do.”

The result is a programme of curated activities that start with bringing people in and getting them to relax first as they reconnect with colleagues through shared experiences in a new environment.

Put simply, you can “conteng-conteng for two hours, joget-joget, then go back, have a shower and write”, says Roslina, who finds that when people feel relaxed, they will be inspired.

“Bring your shorts, hat and sundresses. Two hours of huddling after a beach walk or a visit to a mangrove swamp will be more fruitful than sitting five hours in a boardroom trying to force yourself to think of something creative.”


Options' team-building cook-off at The Westin (Photo: Soophye)

Reimagining corporate events in fresh ways to bring out the best in people can result in an enormous amount of high-quality work, she believes. Companies can choose whatever they wish to do and the team will curate the products and activities.

Island-hopping to Mersing is being curated and she is excited. “I can tell you, Maldives, step aside. I’m serious — it’s really that beautiful. And the conservation efforts are amazing,” says Roslina, who aims to attract the international market.

More importantly, she wants to “give guests an experience they will be able to take home and look at Desaru Coast differently after their trip. Their body may be tired but they will be mentally rejuvenated. At the end of the day, I want to give people space to reconnect, with themselves sometimes”.

What people want when they travel today are experiences. It’s all about experiential tourism, not monuments and structures.

Brands are the first point of attraction because their standards are set — service, health, safety and security — and they have culinary and gastronomic offerings lined up. These factors count for peace of mind in decision-making.

“Over and above that, you want to experience. The moment you arrive here and see its setting, the geography of the property or the products in a location, you know you want to experience them. I hope that when guests come here, they want to be inspired, rejuvenated and reconnect with people, whether they come as leisure travellers or for a corporate event.”

Asked how far ahead the team plans, Roslina says Desaru Coast is heading towards the tail-end of phase one, or 1,900 acres of development. The ferry terminal will be a game-changer and a catalyst as well, and they are readying for pent-up demand and new opportunities once its service starts.



Looking around Desaru, she notes that the cultural element is lacking and the resorts are working closely with local communities to put together certain experiences for guests. “There are hidden treasures and stories of this place — we just need to get them out. We want the people to participate and show off what they have.” If there are agencies keen to facilitate that, they will be happy to collaborate.

As for experiences she looks forward to having when she starts travelling again, she says, “I would like to overcome my fear of diving. When I’m in the sea and don’t know what’s below me, I get nervous. I golf and play other games on land. I love the sea and being on a boat. But I have to conquer my fear of being in water — I nearly drowned when I was young — because there are some beautiful islands with beautiful corals around this area.”

Envious friends say that being in a resort the whole day, she already has the sea and all that surrounds it.

“Hello, sometimes sea pun tak nampak. Yes, when I go on holiday elsewhere, I want to reconnect with myself. Sometimes, you get stuck in a rut and forget about yourself. Reconnecting gives me a bigger spectrum, at different levels with others and myself.”

One of Roslina’s most memorable holiday experiences was hot air ballooning over Bagan in Myanmar. It was her second trip. “The first time, I had no money to take the balloon.

“You’re up there and you feel extremely helpless. You just follow the guide’s instructions. But it is beautiful — it’s just you and yourself.”

Another memorable trip that stays in her mind is getting up at 2am to see the sunrise over Mount Bromo in Surabaya, Indonesia. She had to take four types of transport to reach the top: a jeep stopped halfway up and she had to jump on a motorcycle. Then it too got stuck and she had to take a horse! Up to a point, the creature also got stuck — thousands were also trying to get up there at that hour. So she walked, with hundreds of heads bobbing in front of her.

“That became an experience. After you come down and you think of the whole journey, it doesn’t matter what means you take to get to your destination. The satisfaction you feel when you get there is a different experience.

“Today if you ask me, naik kuda, naik bukit, ya. Ride pillion behind some stranger in the night — done that. For me, beautiful places that are safe and secure are very important. But at the end of the day, they must give me a certain experience.”


This article first appeared on Mar 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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