I kicked off 2012 with a mega-project which I have never had any experience before – bringing 15 other NTU Toastmasters on overseas exchange with students from University of Macau. From its name, it seems Iike it’s just another ‘group holiday’ or a ‘school tour’. But it hardly is.
We returned from our 6-day trip a few days back, and so I decided to document how this whole trip unfolds…
It all started with a visit by University of Macau Public Speaking Team to our club in April 2011. From my knowledge, it’s the first ever foreign club that visited NTU Toastmasters Club in my 3 years with them. Then, we had a friendly speech contest which I gave a speech on ‘Japan Tsunami‘. At the end of the contest, I was remembered as the ‘lying policeman’.
Long story short, I sent the whole UM team off at our Changi airport, and wished everyone a safe trip back home. During my many discussions with their members, they suggested our club to make a visit to Macau too.
It was really a good idea to have an overseas trip to Macau as a club, but I had no idea how to do it. But I gave a promise we would visit them one day.
When I went back to discuss with my club members, they suggested I will be in charge of planning and organizing the whole trip, as I had the contacts of the UM members, and I have been to Macau before.
Initial Challenges Faced
I have been on several school overseas trip in the past. Then, it was easy. Pass the money and your passport information to the teacher-in-charge, and everything is settled. When you arrive, you will have food, hotel room keys, bus waiting at airport, tour guides…everything there ready for you.
But for this exchange trip, it’s the other way round. Members who are going will be passing money and passport information to me, and I will be the one getting the air tickets, hotel rooms, itinerary and programmed, transport arrangement, food for everybody when we arrive.
Fortunately, I don’t have to do this alone, as there are many helpful toastmasters who lend a hand in planning this trip.
So now I’m like a ‘tour leader‘… I have to take care of these:
1. School funding and cost of entire trip
Find out how much the school is willing to sponsor us, and draw up an estimated expenditure required for this trip.
2. Writing of a trip proposal for school to grant us funds
The school wants to know where we will be going exactly, why we will be doing there, what members will learn from this trip…etc
3. Attending of courses
Trip leaders (me and a few) will have to attend courses during school holidays to learn how to organize an overseas trip. I have to attend a first-aid course, as NTU require a first-aider in each trip.
4. Planning of itinerary
Contacting University of Macau students the dates to meet up, finding a suitable date where NTU members are available to travel, planning enough places of interests in Macau & Hong Kong…etc
5. Immigration restrictions
We have Singaporeans, Malaysian and Chinese traveling to Macau. No worries for Singapore and Malaysia passports, but not the Chinese. Chinese passports are restricted to travel to Macau and Hong Kong, and are required to apply visas or other passes to go through. I have to study which are the ones they need to apply…
6. Member Participation
Got to decide how many member to bring on this trip.
7. Emergency needs
Finding the nearest hospital, clinics, emergency numbers, embassies in Macau & Hong Kong.
First Proposal Rejected in July 2011
When UMac students visited us in April, we thought a good time to visit them would be during our summer holidays between June to August, since we have lots of time. However, NTU told us that it was too rush, and funding will not be provided. They require us to submit the plan 3 months before the trip, and lots of admin stuffs to do.
Then, I thought of dropping the whole idea of this exchange trip as there’s seems to be so much things to do just to get funding to go on a group trip. I even thought of asking my club to go on our own expenses, as we don’t expect much funding also. Own money, less work.
Project On Hold
Whole project stalled until August when my club president announced that we are definitely going to Macau. Oh! I thought they have forgotten, but No!
Then, I can see the excitement in our club members hoping they can part of this Macau trip, and speak publicly in a foreign environment, and an exciting holiday in Macau.
Then I had nothing much to answer to my club president (as I didn’t do much since), but I told him I will get it done. Time to get to work! When things get so overwhelming, I roped in a few toastmasters to help out.
Thanks to them, we managed to get everything done in the next 2 months, in October.
- We set the duration of the trip, exact meetings dates with University of Macau clubs & the whole trip itinerary.
- Exchanged numerous emails to organize friendly speech contest and Toastmasters chapter meeting in Macau
- Booked the cheapest available plane tickets to and fro Macau
- Booked the best suited hotels to accommodate 16 people in both Hong Kong & Macau, for a price of $40 SGD each for 5 nights.
- We attended all courses required by the school, and I also signed up for first-aid course to attend in December 2011.
- We checked with Chinese Embassies on the visa or travel passes required to enter Macau and Hong Kong, for Chinese passports.
- We submitted our trip proposal to NTU Students’ Affairs Office for receipt of funding.
- Most importantly, we received our funding 3 weeks before the trip!
By December, almost everything is settled. However, one of the biggest concern for this trip is the application of visa or travel passes for Chinese Passports. I informed all my Chinese friends to make their respective passes, and just hoped that they get approved in time for travel.
On the issue of travel passes, something which I’m totally confused about, fortunately, a fellow toastmaster, Mo Ting helped me out. All application of the correct passes are completed on the day of the trip!
The Day Has Come!
Everybody is excited about the trip! I’m even more excited, or rather, anxious how the whole trip program will turn out. There’s lots of challenges during the trip, which I think we tackled everyone quite well.
For this accomplishment, I have to thank the cooperation of all the members, and a few leaders who helped me out.
Challenge 1: Getting everybody together
On the day of the trip, there’s only 13 members flying from Singapore to Macau. 3 others have arranged to meet up in Hong Kong from China on the 2nd day instead. I have made lots of arrangement to make everyone come together on the 2nd day in Hong Kong.
Tackled?: Yes! We did! All 16 of us met up in Hong Kong hotel on 3rd Jan afternoon for lunch. That happens, it’s like a reunion for me. Challenge One completed!
Challenge 2: Communication woes
As a leader of this trip, I got to have a working phone, so everyone else can contact me. I bought a MOP$50 prepaid card which allowed me to use it for the whole trip. However, not every member are buying cards too. Only some leaders have.
Another problem faced is the communication with Macau & Hong Kong people. Many of us communicated in Mandarin, Chinese, but the locals communicated in Cantonese. A big problem cropped up when we arrive in Macau airport. We wanted to ask the immigration officers about the second entry for Chinese passports. However, communication breakdown on both sides and that held us back for about 30 minutes.
Tackled?: Yes! We did! For the challenge of working phones, I advised members w/o phone to stick close to the other leaders who had phones. This arrangement to allowed me to get everybody together anytime, anywhere throughout the trip.
For the communication breakdown with the Macau immigration officers, a club member from Malaysia, Cheng Heng, came out and helped us communicate in Cantonese with the officials (Thank God he’s part of this trip!). A few Cantonese sentences from him solved the whole issue.
Then on, he’s our official Cantonese spokesperson in Hong Kong & Macau in asking for directions or information. Communication problem solved!
Challenge 3: Accommodation Woes
This is by far the most challenging issue I know I will face in Macau. As cost of hotel accommodation in Hong Kong and Macau is costly, we arranged to fill 4 rooms with 16 people. Of course, we booked the ‘Deluxe’ big rooms so its still comfortable to fill more than the required 2 pax/room. But that’s not the issue. It’s about escaping the eyes of the hotel staffs and security that we are over-staying.
Tackled?: Yes! We did! Our beautifully crafted plan allowed everyone to move into respective rooms and escape the eyes and suspicions of any overstaying. There’s once we were almost caught as the security guard on duty that night was too alert. Luckily, Vernon, an intelligent toastmaster, crafted another excellent plan and managed to get everybody up to their hotel rooms. A good night sleep for everybody, including me!
Challenge 4: Transport Woes
Quite a manageable challenge. There’s lots of choices for us in Macau. We can take public buses, or free casino shuttle buses, or taxis. The problem comes when we couldn’t find the right transport to take to certain places.
Tackled?: We took the free casino shuttle buses to ferry terminals. All else, we shared cab, which is quite cheap (not like Singapore). Their mid-night cab fare is just less than MOP$10, for a cab fare of MOP$50. As we have 16 people, 4 cabs and everything is settled!
Challenge 5: Decision Woes
Some wanted to go shopping, some wanted to eat, some wanted to stay in hotel. What will you do? Vote for the best choice? or force them to accept my final decision? Hmmm…
Tackled?: Easy lah. After all, this is a holiday trip, and there’s no point in forcing everybody to follow me like those paid tour guides. Rather, freedom of choice matters more. I just allow everyone to go anywhere they like during the recreation time. Of course for exchange meetings with University of Macau, they must there! Other than that, it’s freedom!
Furthermore, most of them are adults already, and it doesn’t make sense to order them around like little kids. All can speak Mandarin, so they won’t get lost in Macau or Hong Kong easily.
What could I have done better?
1. Knowing more about Macau myself
On the day we landed in Macau, it was evening and everybody was hungry. We checked in hotel, and everyone was looking for food. Then, I didn’t have the contact numbers of our Macau friends, and I just bring the members around looking for food.
I thought it would just be like Hong Kong, where food is available on every street. But NO! What we find is pawn shops, Pawn shops, and more Pawn Shops! Not a big surprise as why there’s so many pawn shops in Macau, if you know that there are 40 casinos there.
Walking aimlessly in search of food for about 30 minutes, we finally settled in a cafe and had our meal. It cost more than I thought, but luckily we still get our stomach filled. If I only had know the place better and the location of food places, we won’t have to starve for so long on the first day.
Anyway, everything is solved when we met up with our Macau counterparts. Delicious food is aplenty by then.
2. Increase awareness of time
From day one, we were already playing the ‘Amazing Race‘ game. We were always rushing for time. We nearly missed our flight from Singapore to Macau, as we board the plane just minutes before the gate closed. We lost track of time as we are happily eating at Burger King at Terminal 1 Arrival Hall.
When we were about to return to Macau from Hong Kong by ferry, we rushed to board the last ferry at the terminal. Little did we know the last ferry departed at 10.30pm, as I was told by the Macau hotel staff that ferry services are 24 hours.
We reached the ferry terminal at 10.15pm, and rushed to buy the tickets for 16 people. Cash and credit cards flew around to get the tickets for everybody. Luckily, everyone made it and reached Macau safely!
If I had planned sufficient time for every commute, and be more aware of the time, we wouldn’t have to rush that much. Anyway, I think every one of us had a good time rushing here and there, playing the ‘Amazing Race’.
I’m Really Thankful For…
Although I’m the organizer for this whole exchange program, it would not have been a success without the help of many people. I’m really thankful of many things.
1. My NTU Toastmasters Club members.
There’s once I send out an SMS which asked for their NTU Matriculation card number. Within 2 minutes, I received all 15 matriculation numbers in my phone.
I sent an email to ask who want to give speeches in Macau, I get overwhelming response. Instead of persuading them to speak, I have to convince some others to do other appointment instead.
I sent an email to ask them to make their necessary visa or travel passes to enter Macau/Hong Kong, everybody made it before the trip, regardless they are in China or Singapore.
I set a time for everybody to meet up at certain places in Macau or Hong Kong, and everybody did. (though in Macau, some are stuck in casinos.)
They made my job so easy.
2. Belief from everyone I can do a great job
I had no experience in organizing a trip before. I only know how to be a tourist. Still, I made it thanks to the encouragement I get from many people when somethings cropped up. Many lend their support and help me get things done faster.
3. University of Macau Public Speaking Team & Toastmasters Club
They are the two clubs which we visited in Macau. I’m really thankful that they are willing to host us, even as they have just began their new semester. You know, when a new semester starts, you have so much things to settle, like adding new modules…etc, and I’m really grateful that they take time out to host us.
4. Macau students who brought us around Macau
A very big thank you to Catherine, Lisa, Cyndi, Esther, Eileen and many others who brought us around Macau for the last 3 days of our trip. Some of them even skipped class to become our tour guides.
They showed us all the 25 world heritage in Macau, and the local food and shopping centers. I had initially planned to be the one guiding the group with a map, but luckily we have the friendly and hospitable Macau students. It’s always cool to have friends in other countries!
There’s a night they even bring all 16 of us to late night dessert supper. Ordered more than MOP$600 of desserts. Don’t know its cheap of expensive, but all the desserts are very delicious. Especially one which is like ‘Durian Soup‘.
A big bowl full of durian! You’ll love it if you like durian. We ate till 1am that day…
5. Food, Accommodation & Weather
Food wise, I think most of us are satisfied. We didn’t have lots of proper meals, but we just eat whatever we find, and whenever we are hungry. To put in badly, we NEVER Stop eating!
Accommodation wise, I’m thankful that I chose the right hotel which have big enough rooms and beds to accommodate 4-5 people per room. I booked the hotels online, and as you know, pictures can be deceiving. I booked purely on faith that the bed would be big enough to be shared by 4 people. When we reached Macau, I’m very relieved, and everyone was happy!
Weather wise, kind of good and bad. When we reached Macau, some members said the weather is quite warm, and not the 7 degree celsius that we thought. Then, I brought them up to the PEAK in Hong Kong. With the same outfit, they almost got ‘frozen’ by the strong cold winds. (haha…)
From then, the next 4 days in Macau and Hong Kong are freaking cold. Fortunately, everyone come prepared with extra clothes and windbreaker. Though it’s cold, many of us still love the weather and wind. We also walked under the rain in Macau one night as we don’t have umbrellas. In the end, we danced in the rain. Thankfully, no one fall sick!
6. Last Ferry from Hong Kong to Macau
I’m really thankful for the last ferry which bring us back to Macau from Hong Kong. If we missed that ferry, I would have to book additional 4 hotel rooms to accommodate the members in Hong Kong for the night. Fortunately, we made it back!!
7. Wifi in Hong Kong
There’s no Wifi services in our Macau hotel. As much as I hoped to disconnect from the internet world, I find that I couldn’t do it this time. One big mistake I made is not taking down the Macau partners phone numbers which I stored in my Facebook Messages. Without the internet, I can’t get the numbers out.
Thankfully, I can accessed it in Hong Kong to retrieve all the numbers.
8. Free Casino Shuttle Bus services
We board them when we needed to go to the Macau ferry terminal to board ferry to Hong Kong. We took them again when we returned from Hong Kong. With them, I never have to book a coach to have 16 people travel around Macau together.
9. JetStar landed safely.
We thought we could never made it back to Singapore, when we experienced a crazy turbulence just 30 minutes before landing at Changi Airport. The strong wind blew the plane off its course, and the plane tilted almost 45 degrees. Passengers screamed.
Probably the plane is too small, thats why. I never encountered this on a SQ plane. Thankfully, the plane landed safely…
10. Everyone returned home!
15 of us returned to Singapore. Some went home, some went back to NTU hostel. 1 went back to her hometown in China. In all, we had lots of fun for the 6 days in Macau. Despite all the rushing and running, no one lost any item. Despite eating all kinds of food, sleeping late, dancing in the rain, no one fall ill.
One thing we all know is that a strong relationship is built between the clubs in NTU and UMac. Probably this is just the beginning, and will have many more exchanges to come!
When the day come, I don’t mind leading another team for exchange again. However, I would prefer to guide a fellow toastmasters on to how to organize a successful one like the NTU Toastmasters – University of Macau Exchange 2012!