Perhaps one of the most important things the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the importance of slowing down. Finding a work-life balance that is healthy while continuing to be productive is imperative. The problem with working from home, however, is the lack of human interaction, and that is especially apparent for individual departments. In some ways, we have lost touch with how to work as a team. As we slowly return to a semblance of normalcy, seeing our colleagues in person and working in the office, it feels like the ice needs to be broken again to achieve a more cohesive and strong team.
If a business were to say “company trip” or “team building conference” to their employees, a collective groan and a couple of grumbles would emerge, as these terms evoke stuffy hotels with freezing-cold conference rooms, flip charts and markers. It is essentially the office without the comfort of retreating to your own bed at home.
Desaru Coast Destination Resort — 4,000 acres of luxury hotels and exciting attractions — has launched a programme that dismantles these archaic methods of team building with a fresh new outlook. Corporate Events, Reimagined flips the script on business gatherings, retreats and travel completely. Desaru Coast’s new meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) packages are customisable, allowing companies to replace stifling boardroom meetings with inspiring nature walks and a relaxing time at the beach.
The hotels in Desaru Coast are Hard Rock Hotel, The Westin, Anantara and One&Only. Each has incredible facilities that can be adapted to suit MICE packages. There is also the Adventure Waterpark and The Els Club Desaru Coast, not to mention the gorgeous 17km stretch of beach that faces the South China Sea. As this holiday haven has been named one of TIME magazine’s World’s Greatest Places of 2021, what more stimulating and uplifting place could propose such a break from tradition?
Options had the opportunity to taste the potential of the Corporate Events, Reimagined programme, and we returned rejuvenated, inspired and more cohesive as a team. We stayed at Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas, where we were pampered with massages and champagne brunches. The team bonded over floating breakfasts that were brought specially to the private pools in the two-bedroom Lagoon Pool villas, and on our first day we took over the Observatory Bar for lunch, basking in the incredible view of the property and the restless waves in the distance.
We indulged in cocktails and devoured an amazing buffet — the mushroom risotto had us going back for seconds — and enjoyed each other’s company in a way that we haven’t been able to for quite a while. The beauty of booking your MICE package with Desaru Coast is that while you might be staying in one hotel, you can still benefit from the facilities of all the others and partake in activities in other attractions as well — which was what we ended up doing.
Since the Corporate Events, Reimagined programme is entirely bespoke, these are just some of the incredible experiences that can be organised. It is all about creating a retreat, conference or meeting that suits the needs of your business. As the managing director and CEO of Desaru Coast Destination Resorts Roslina Arbak told us, “The sky’s the limit”.
Girls just wanna have sun
Kick-starting our day at 7am, we are transported to One&Only in the hotel’s Tesla Model X, a special treat, as the all-electric luxury car is usually reserved for airport pick-ups. After failing to convince our driver Dennis to let us take her for a spin, we make our way to the beach to begin our first activity. Our morning beach walk is guided by Irshad Mobarak, consultant naturalist for Desaru Coast.
As remnants of sunrise colour the sky, Irshad explains the differences between the swiftlets and swallows flying overhead, and follows up with some fun facts — such as, some species of swiftlets can spend up to four years in flight, and while corals make up 1% of the sea, they are home to 25% of the creatures in the ocean. We catch a glimpse of a collared kingfisher in deep contemplation, perched on a rock facing the sea, and learn about biomimicry — a method of solving human problems by imitating elements of nature. Even at that early hour we are all hanging on Irshad’s words, occasionally dipping our feet in the salty waves and stopping to study the shells and other creatures on the sand.
With our salted ankles and toes covered in sand, we amble back to the hotel for our breakfast and first huddle. In the One&Only meeting room facing a lush, green lawn, we tuck into local delights, including nasi lemak and otak otak, as well as a selection of pastries, yoghurts and fruit. Every One&Only around the world has its own signature jam, and we are ready to sample the wide selection — The Palm, Dubai’s flavour is a tangy lemon and ginger; Portonovi, Montenegro has a Montenegrin forest jam; and Desaru Coast’s is a sweet mix of papaya and passionfruit.
Transitioning from high tables to comfy chairs and Ogo bean bags, our huddle sparks new ideas. The team feels comfortable and renewed, building on what we learnt at the beach and enjoying the casual environment. Alternatively, if early mornings are not ideal, One&Only can organise movie nights with the same comfy bean bags.
A little friendly competition is a great way to exercise teamwork in a way unrelated to everyday work — at least we find that to be true during The Westin’s MasterChef challenge. Split into three teams, we have an hour and a half to create a sumptuous dish starring two mystery ingredients. Aprons at the ready, and our glasses charged with champagne, we explore the incredible pantry of ingredients and are ready to compete.
Executive chef Adrian Jackson reveals our star ingredients: baby spinach and black pomfret. The teams get going — some are frantic, others calm, and those of us with a competitive streak are silently peeking at the other teams’ stations. Having never cooked with each other before, we are tested on our communication skills, and it turns out to be a lot of fun.
With 30 minutes to go, and for an additional challenge, chef Adrian reveals another ingredient that must be incorporated into our dishes — kimchi. Some of us are baffled, but we all manage to plate up pretty impressive dishes for the panel of judges. It does not really matter who wins — I’m lying; naturally my team is victorious — but it is a fun experience that allows us to bond and work together in quite a different way.
Not everyone feels comfortable in the kitchen, so if learning rather than competing is preferable, Anantara offers the Spice Spoons cooking classes, which help participants learn Malay or Thai recipes under the guidance of a trained chef. These classes include a trip to the Desaru Fruit Farm.
Stories and S'mores
Our evening at The Westin is made livelier by a cocktail demonstration of the classic gimlet and an unusual chili margarita. We have a barbecue dinner followed by S’mores over a bonfire. Lounging on glow-in-the-dark stools and comfy bean bags, we toast marshmallows and chat, prepared for the oncoming food coma.
The smoke from the bonfire trails up into the star-sprinkled sky, an uncommon sight to a city dweller. Imagine a brainstorming session under dark skies lit up by stars — such inspiring surroundings are bound to spark incredible ideas. Before we pack up for the night, we were treated to a special story-telling session by Peggy Loh, the Johor-based writer and author of My Johor Stories. She shares with us a little about the history of the state and some of her childhood memories.
It is not just physically coming around a fire, but sharing stories and anecdotes with each other — a reminder that team work does in fact make the dream work.
To the mangroves we go
After an early morning bus ride, we arrive at the jetty to catch a boat that is ready to take us on a tour of the Belungkor mangroves. Irshad and a guide whose nama glamor is Blerong Anak Usop (also known as Mohd Effendy Yusof) are our guides. As our boat sets off towards the mangroves, Blerong regales us with moving folklore, and we are enthralled by his expressive and captivating manner. Irshad gives us the facts, explaining how 70% of commercial fish need mangroves to survive, and that Rhizophora is the most dominant species of mangrove in Malaysia.
We ask Blerong about his style of storytelling. “I’m like a singer,” he says. “It’s a performance. Singers have to feel their songs, and I have to feel my stories. I have to feel like a sea gypsy, so I can tell the stories of the sea gypsies.”
As we approach the outermost mangrove trees, we observe the hanging fruit on them — called the cannonball mangrove, a round fruit that sea gypsies use to make skincare unguents or break apart to put back together again as a puzzle for entertainment. We also learn that a 200m swathe of mangroves can reduce the effect of a tsunami by 90% when the waves are about the same height as the trees. Blerong adds that the mangrove can teach us a lot about love, from the budding relationship between tree and sapling, to how the mother tree effectively prepares its young seeds to take on their journey through water and successfully grow.
As we approach a narrow path between the mangroves, the team settles down for a hearty packed breakfast. The boat must go slow as it manoeuvres through the mangroves, careful not to disturb our surroundings. As we sit in silence, in awe of the nature that encompasses us, the calm sounds of the water and occasional bird calls give us a sense of peace. Our team is huddled together, soaking in the serenity and captivating beauty of the mangroves, spotting Gong Gong snails on exposed mangrove roots and intricate spider webs between branches. From the bow of the boat you can see the trees’ large, leg-like roots mirrored in the water with streaks of sunlight shining between the top branches. It is picturesque.
It is impossible not to feel uplifted by such captivating beauty. We are loathe to leave the nature escape the mangroves provide, but we must. Completing our breakfast and morning huddle, our boat exits the mangroves and heads out to sea, passing floating homes and large ships in the distance. At this point the boat speeds up, breezing past endless views and blowing salty wind in our hair.
Going beyond golf
For another early start — mornings are clearly the best time for inspiring MICE activities — we find ourselves at The Els Club Desaru Coast. We hop onto golf buggies that take us deeper into the golf course, and start our morning nature walk with Irshad and the club’s general manager, Steven A Thielke.
Each plant or tree around us has quite a detailed story as Irshad is essentially a walking encyclopedia on all things nature. We even see his favourite, a strangler fig. “The name itself is a public relations nightmare,” he laughs. The strangler fig is the most important food source in the entire rainforest, as many animals and birds have come to depend upon it. Irshad caps this fact with a story about how he once saw a fig tree growing on the top of a bus while on his way to Singapore.
As for the fauna, it is clear that The Els Club Desaru Coast is a wilder course than most golfers are used to. Wild boar in search of juicy worms often dig up parts of the course, and snakes make an appearance too. “This is not a concrete jungle; you are playing golf in the wild here. And if you play golf in the wild, you are sharing the space with the local inhabitants, so there may be some damage. This is golf in nature; this is an experience beyond golf,” says Thielke.
Armed with binoculars, we observe myriad birds — from kingfishers to a white-bellied sea eagle. We even see the eagle feeding chicks in its nest. Along the way, Irshad pulls out a handy guide book to show us how these birds look when they are young and how their feathers change with maturity. We learn that 30% of birds are believed to be monogamous and 24% are polygamous. Towards the end of our trail, we even get to hear the whooping calls of faraway gibbons.
After we spot our second collared kingfisher of the trip, we get a surprise: breakfast served from the most elegant food truck at Signature Hole 3, Coast at Els Club Ocean Course which over looks the South China Sea. Pastries, salads, a selection of fruit and more are laid out. It is here that we have our last team huddle, surrounded by the best nature has to offer and with a feast too.
Afterwards, we pay a quick visit to The Els Performance Golf Academy, where our less-than-stellar swings are examined with state-of-the-art technology that can guide both amateurs and pros on how to improve. For those short on time, The Els Club Desaru has a short nine-hole course that has been adapted for foot golf — a fun combination of football and golf.
A versatile villa
On Options’ last evening at Desaru Coast, we are treated to a dinner at the One&Only’s Villa One. The four-bedroom villa includes a 27m pool, indoor and outdoor living spaces, a private spa treatment room and a spectacular view of the sea. On a long table set in the middle of the lawn, we are served sharing plates of freshly grilled dishes barbecued in front of us. As dessert emerges, we each take turns as DJ for the night, playing party favourites, singing along and eventually dancing too.
A space like Villa One is incredibly versatile. It can host dinners like ours — especially as there is a sizeable kitchen to help cater for larger crowds — or organise a myriad of tailored MICE activities. With a capacity to accommodate up to eight adults for the night, it could even be the perfect team-building venue for smaller C-suite groups. Much like Corporate Events, Reimagined, so much of Villa One can be moulded into an experience that suits the particular needs of a company. Bespoke to a tee, the possibilities are truly endless.
This article first appeared on Nov 29, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.