THE flight to Opatija, described as the “Old Dame of Croatian tourism”, was not as smooth as expected. A one-hour delay at Heathrow Airport meant a sure miss of the connecting flight at Brussels Airport, and dashed all hopes of enjoying a two-hour drive through some of the most scenic routes along the Adriatic coastline to our destination.
Murphy has a knack of ensuring that his law messed up our long-planned journey. The fivehour wait for the connecting flight from Brussels to Zagreb gave my colleague and I ample time to restrategise. The initial plan to take a bus through the mountainous route to Opatija had to be changed.
We were apprehensive about taking taxis at midnight. WhatsApp messages went to and fro Wi-Fi permitting and right up to the last minute, we were resigned to taking any form of transport so as not to miss the morning session of the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) 2017 Conference. However, Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) chief executive officer Sherene Azura Azli, who was already in Opatija, came to our rescue and booked a taxi for us at Zagreb Airport.
On arrival at 10pm at Zagreb airport, it seemed that Murphy was still busy messing up our plans as our bags were still in Brussels.
Tired and annoyed at the thought of having to wear the same clothes the next day, we headed to Opatija; going through some twenty tunnels, getting glimpses of mountains and signage, and listening to interesting stories from our driver, Igor.
The country had recovered from the ravages of its war of independence when Yugoslovaia fell apart and now depended on tourism as a source of income, said Igor. My mind raced back to the times when we hosted the Bosnian peace process in London, received Bosnian refugees by the busloads and listened to their horrific experiences.
Igor didn’t say much about the conflict. He was more concerned about why the country didn’t go into farming. But, tourism is good for him; he drives tourists to Opatija to enjoy the cruise and have a Mediterranean experience there at least two or three times a week.
Opatija was fast asleep when we arrived past midnight. It was the start of Mediterranean summer, and we were expecting to enjoy four wonderful days there, despite the poor weather forecast.
Opening the door leading to the balcony the next morning, a wonderful sight of the sea and the Adriatic coastline greeted me.
On a nice day, I would have enjoyed the sunrise, but the clouds stubbornly stayed on the horizon until the day we left.
The IMTJ Conference couldn’t have been held at a better place — Opatija has a long history of tourism which stretches back to 1844. It is located in Kvarner Bay and snuggles comfortably at the foot of Mount Ucka, some 15km from Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city.
Our hotel was one of the hotels where the conference and awards ceremony was held. On a good day, the Mediterranean colours of the buildings dotting the mountain side, were a sight to behold. The narrow, winding roads and steps leading to the small town were the things one could really enjoy on a sunny day.
Sherene was there with her team from MHTC, adamant on defending Malaysia’s title as the best destination for medical tourism. They clinched the title three years ago in London when they bagged seven of thirteen awards at the ceremony, and repeated the success in Madrid last year.
I suspect Sherene, a dedicated wife and mother of two boys, is not one to lose out to anyone, and was secretly praying that Malaysia could do a hattrick — three years in a row would be really something to tweet home about.
Sherene had arrived in Opatija in a blaze of publicity about good news and awards achieved by the organisation — even though it was still in its infancy stage — compared with others attending the conference.
The most recent recognition was the Employer Branding Awards in India where MHTC clinched the Best Employer Brands Award 2017.
Sherene was one of 30 women recognised for their achievements and leadership by the Golden Globe Tigers Award.
She was also one of 50 women recognised and celebrated as Outstanding Women in Healthcare by the World Health and Wellness Congress 2017 recently.
The grey and gloomy weather saw us cooped up in the conference hall and gave me the opportunity to get to know Sherene better and watch what made her, the face of TalentCorp and now MHTC, tick.
I met Sherene a few years ago when she was Telekom Malaysia Bhd vice-president (strategy and business development) at the Old Trafford, mingling with the Manchester United greats, such as Alex Ferguson. I was in awe of her — small and petite with a very pleasant personality. She had a great mind to match her personality.
Since then, Sherene has been on my radar and I followed her career path leading to MHTC.
Whether speaking to the Malaysian diaspora, persuading professionals to go home to serve the country or promising students a bright future, Sherene was outstanding in her delivery. She was calm, composed and confident.
It is as if she had all facts and figures at her fingertips, impressing those who listened. Even those who were engrossed in their handphones would look up and listen to her.
“I am touched by this acknowledgement. Being recognised as an achiever and a leader, I feel this is a recognition for all women,” she said.
“As a career woman, we face challenges, especially when we have family and children, but we must know how to balance work and family. My family always comes first.”
She admitted being a tough taskmaster and demanded perfection from those who worked with her. She acknowledged their contribution to the success.
“The team working with me is also my family. I trust them and they must deliver. All I need to know are their strategies and their plans,” she said.
The awards ceremony on the last evening at the Royal Hotel — with the rain beating on the window panes and the waves rushing to the shore — was not a disappointment.
Sherene and her team picked up several awards. Malaysia was once again celebrated as the best destination for medical tourism. Private hospitals, such as Sunway Medical Centre and Tropicana Medical Centre received their share of recognition.
In a way, Opatija, was not a disappointment at all.
I heard the sound from the open doors leading to the open sea, enjoyed the Mediterranean smell from restaurants and felt proud that Malaysia had made its mark there.