The Gulf has long set out to establish itself as the unavoidable crossroads between the East and the West. The pioneer in this field has been the region’s robust aviation industry, with Emirates Airline leading the way, forging links between all four corners of the globe thanks to its ever-expanding network.
Carriers such as Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and to a more minor extent, Oman Air and Gulf Air, have followed suit, not only drawing in business and leisure travellers through their respective hubs, but cargo too. The impact of this hub strategy has been phenomenal with the knock-on effects for business created in the region almost immeasurable.
Couple with that the lure of major industries such as oil, gas, energy and finance – not to mention the opportunity to invest in all kinds of much-needed infrastructure – and it’s not difficult to fathom why all eyes are on the Gulf as the global hub, almost to the envy of more established centres of business convergence such as Hong Kong and Singapore. The region’s enviable geographic position – it is literally slap-bang in the middle of the world, on the doorstep of Europe, Asia, the CIS countries and Africa, with North and South America and Australasia in easy reach – combined with the aforementioned business opportunities unfolding on a daily basis, has naturally led to the development of a robust meetings industry.
It may be in its relative infancy, but the aggressive strategies of certain governments to become a meeting and incentive magnet have led to the fast turnaround of projects designed to draw in the crowds from this sector.
Stalwarts, such as the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre (DICEC), have been adapted and expanded in a bid to keep pace with client demands, plus the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) has plans to further boost its indoor and outdoor venue space offering.
In addition, a brand new convention facility recently opened in Qatar – the US$1.2 billion Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) – and new facilities are scheduled for Oman, Bahrain and Ras Al Khaimah.
Combined, these convention centres will no doubt capture the attention of planners worldwide, but will their offerings be enough to snap away big associations business from the more established meetings hubs?
Centres of excellence
One of the region’s most established centres, Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre (DICEC), which covers some 90,000 square metres, is “truly an industry leader” and has “set the pace for Dubai’s neighbours to follow”, according to Dubai Convention Bureau (DCB) director Jerad Bachar. “The centre itself is continually updated, with the most recent expansion taking place in 2010,” he says.
Bacher refers to the recent launch of the three Sheikh Saeed Halls, including an 85,000-square-metre, column-free venue designed specifically for large-scale events.
“But Dubai's success is based not only on the abilities of the convention centre,” he continues, talking up the supporting infrastructure. “It is connected to the Dubai Metro, which offers direct access to the airport and to more than 24,000 hotel rooms.
“The convention centre, the extensive network of airline connectivity, abundance of hotel options across all price points and strong, professional service providers has positioned Dubai as a desired destination in the congress industry.” Bacher stresses that Dubai’s key selling point to congress, exhibition and event planners is its “geographic location and ease of accessibility”.
“For this reason, we see strong attendance at our events with particularly large numbers from Africa, Asia and Europe,” he says. “However, Gulf destinations do need to prove affordability for attendees and we are fortunate to be able to partner with both Emirates and [low-cost carrier] flyDubai to offer delegates different price points when flying to the region.” Bacher’s colleague, DCB head of sales and convention services Karina Lance says the associations market is increasingly looking to place congress business in Dubai due to its ‘East meets West’ crossroads status. “Associations look at this market to increase their memberships and also to stage educational events,” she says. “Within a fourhour flight from Dubai, half the Earth’s population can be reached, which explains the attractiveness of the Gulf region.” Last year, the DICEC proved its worth as a global congress hub when for the first time, it staged the World Diabetes Congress (December 4 to 8, 2011)
More than 15,000 delegates attended the event, the biggest number in the event’s history, with organiser Luc Hendrickx, director of congresses at the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), declaring the event a success in terms of raising the profile of the diabetes issue both regionally and globally. “The congress has laid down a legacy for future diabetes events,” he says. “I’ve already been approached by organisers based outside of the Gulf who want to arrange an event.” From a delegate point of view, Hendrickx says attendees gained “a better understanding of the Arab culture and realised it is very different in the Gulf from what you see in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, etc”.
The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) also witnessed a landmark year in 2011, reporting a 56 percent increase in events staged, compared to 2010 (231 versus 148). “The growing number and scale of the events we host is a clear signal of our ambitions and rising prominence in the events industry,” says ADNEC managing director H.E. Ali Saeed Bin Harmal Al Dhaheri.
“In 2010, ADNEC made great strides towards its goal of becoming the most successful exhibition, conference and events centre in the region. ADNEC is raising the profile of Abu Dhabi internationally and playing a key role in boosting the volume of business tourism to the emirate.”
Key 2011 milestones for ADNEC included: a record-breaking IDEX and the launch of the co-located NAVDEX, attracting 1,060 exhibitors and utilising 124,000 square metres of event space; scooping several industry awards including ‘International Venue of the Year’ at the Association of Events Organisers (AEO) Awards; and the purchase and relaunch of BoxOfficeME.com as part of a renewed focus on ADNEC’s live events business.
In 2012, ADNEC has already hosted Abu Dhabi’s largest ever congress to date with the World Ophthalmology Congress 2012 (February 16 to 20) attracting more than 12,000 delegates. Other events of note include the World Future Energy Summit, which took place from January 16 to 19; International Security National and Resilience (ISNR) Abu Dhabi (March 19 to 21) and of course, the upcoming Gulf Incentive Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition (GIBTM) from March 26 to 28. ADNEC is also securing its future as a venue of choice by building a new multi-purpose arena on site, which will be able to seat 13,000 when it opens in 2014.
ADNEC chief sales and marketing officer Humaid Matar Al Dhaheri says the new space will complement the existing exhibition and convention offerings as well as the recently-opened 35,000-squaremetre outdoor grandstand area, which hosts live concerts and exhibitions. “We’re actively getting feedback from organisers on our plans,” he says. “We want to provide a bestpractice venue.”
Qatar on the case
Dubai and Abu Dhabi might be at the forefront of the Gulf’s flourishing meetings industry right now thanks to the established facilities they have in place, but the race is on for other dominant Gulf States to build equally impressive convention centres, with Qatar already well off the starting block.
Qatar, which after the UAE and Saudi Arabia, boasts one of the biggest corporate and meetings industry travel markets in the region, opened a new mega-facility in December. The US$1.2 billion Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) is an “unparalleled convention and exhibition centre”, boasting “iconic design, grand space and cutting-edge facilities in a world-first green-technology venue”.
In a nutshell, it provides 40,000 square metres of exhibition space divisible into nine halls; an adjoining 2,300-seat lyric-style theatre; three-tiered auditoriums, a conference hall for 4,000 and an additional 57 meeting rooms. The QNCC is also the first convention and exhibition centre of its kind being built to US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) standards with more than 3,500 square metres of solar panels providing 12.5 percent of the centre’s energy needs.
It is strategically located in Education City – an enclave of eight international universities, including the Qatar Science and Technology Park and soon-tobe- completed Sidra Medical and Research Centre. Shortly after opening, the centre hosted a prominant awards dinner in recognition of major achievements in the fields of biomedicine, energy, computing, environmental, arts, social science, humanities and Islamic studies research.
The dinner marked the culmination of the Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum that attracted 1,500 delegates and speakers from around the world. This three-day forum brought together Nobel laureates, international policymakers, students, scientists, industry leaders and top academic and research institutions to exchange knowledge, provide networking opportunities and clearly marked out QNCC’s business strategy going forward. QNCC general manager Adam Mather-Brown says the venue is specifically targeting these types of conferences and exhibitions as Qatar realises its vision of moving from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based one.
QNCC facilities, location and focus on specific industries aside, the centre’s director of business development Trevor McCartney says there are several more reasons why global planners should be looking to Qatar as a meeting place. “Qatar is one of the safest countries in the world and consistently ranks high in the Global Peace Index. Planners and buyers are seeking safe and stable destinations and Qatar fits the bill,” he says.
“Intriguing growth opportunities in the country and well-thoughtout development provide an interesting background for delegates to explore. Unlike other cities in the region, Doha preserves its heritage and culture to complement the modernity of the developing city resulting in a truly authentic Arabian experience. Modern facilities and international service standards blend well with cultural and traditional values.”
McCartney acknowledges that the UAE is Qatar’s biggest competitor from a meetings perspective given its relatively mature infrastructure, but notes that “in recent years, Qatar has made significant investments in infrastructure and attractions demonstrating the country’s ambition to create a ‘must visit’ destination for business and leisure tourists. The destination is on the right track and Doha is definitely the place to look out for”.
New kids on the block
Meanwhile, one of the region’s quieter achievers, Oman, is gearing itself up as a future meetings hub with the construction of the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre (OCEC) underway and scheduled for full completion by 2014. Convention and exhibition management firm AEG Ogden has been appointed to operate the new facility, which is set to become one of Muscat’s iconic buildings.
AEG Ogden group director, convention centres, for OCEC Geoff Donaghy says the centre and its surrounding precinct will “serve as a catalyst for the Sultanate of Oman to become a serious contender to attract lucrative international, regional and national business events”.
Located in Muscat’s Hayy Al Irfan district, just four kilometres from Muscat International Airport, the centre overlooks a nature reserve and a Wadi that is a haven for Oman’s exotic birdlife.
“The spectacular natural environment site chosen for this worldclass convention and exhibition centre is the first of its kind in the Gulf region and perhaps the world,” says Donaghy.
He continues: “Architecturally advanced in design and capability, this venue will be among the first to be built to meet the rigorous LEED Certification by the US Green Building Council.
“It will feature an elaborate tiered auditorium to seat 3,200, while the exhibition halls will include 22,000 square metres of column-free exhibition space, divisible into five separate halls.
“Halls one and two will have a superior fit-out that includes specialised acoustics plus advanced lighting and rigging to serve as a multi-purpose space for plenary sessions, concerts, performances and gala events for up to 10,000.” The OCEC will also include 14 additional meeting rooms for 70 to 360 delegates, two ballrooms seating up to 2,360, a VIP pavilion, a food-court and a multi-storey car park with a 4,000-vehicle capacity.
“The point of difference is that the centre is situated in a fully-integrated picturesque precinct that will include a five-star hotel linked to the convention centre, plus two four-star and one three-star hotels with a combined total of 1,000 rooms; a retail shopping mall; a business park; and serviced apartments,” adds Donaghy.
He says Oman’s strategic location, accessible within seven hours from Europe and Asia, is a key selling point, bolstered by plans to further develop the Sultanate’s aviation infrastructure.
“The expansion of the Muscat International Airport is currently underway and when completed in late 2014, it will increase visitation capacity to 12 million passengers per annum, with additional extensions planned,” he notes. The country’s flag carrier, Oman Air, now flies to more than 40 destinations with direct flights to Zurich launched most recently, Donaghy adds.
It is not just the centres themselves that are blowing their own trumpets, but congress organisers, based in the region support their protestations of greatness based on client feedback. Congress Solutions International (CSI) manager Alexandre Lolliot says post-congress surveys reveal that 76 percent of customers staging events in the UAE consider conference centre infrastructure in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to be of “excellent form”.
“Congress centre infrastructure in the Gulf is relatively new compared to that in Europe or the US and as such, offers more modern conference spaces and facilities, not to mention advanced technology,” he says.
“In addition, they are very close to international airports and some, like DICEC, even have a Metro stop next to the entrance gate.”
Lolliot notes that many associations are also attracted to Dubai’s flexible convention space options and supporting amenities, such as hotels, restaurants and transport. These factors are huge draw cards, he says, placing destinations such as Dubai in a favourable light, compared to traditional convention hubs.
The cons mentioned by some clients, he reveals, are that some centres are perceived as too big and the prices charged, too high.
“These perceptions are wrong and convention centres in the region should focus on dispelling these myths,” adds Lolliot. He says the Gulf is already linking the businesses and economies of the East and West due to its status as a “major convenient and affordable air-transport hub”.
“Meeting organisers understand how impactful an easy-to-reach destination is in terms of delegate attendance, particularly as around 30 to 40 percent of delegate budget is spent on air transport,” he says.
MCI Middle East and India’s managing director Sumaira Isaacs adds: “The region acting as a hub between East and West is essential in attracting meetings and the icing on the cake is the newlydeveloped convention centres and hotels that bring together the latest technology and great architecture to create ‘wow’ meeting venues.”
Isaacs also notes that in addition to attracting interest, new facilities such as the QNCC are meeting the needs of Middle East meetings professionals who seek venues that embrace their “cultural norms”. She predicts that Qatar will be a “strong competitor” in the meetings venue arena now that new facilities are in place, which not only focus on drawing in business from the knowledgebased sector, but by the State’s life-blood megaindustries such as oil and gas.
However, Isaacs warns that Gulf convention centres must “grow and prosper without losing their unique cultural identity”.
“There is a constant tension between modernising and westernising in the region,” she explains. “Modernisation is valued, but only within traditional parameters.”
An outside perspective
Industry heavyweights based outside the region are generally complimentary about the Gulf’s infrastructure and its ability to elevate its status amongst major international decision makers. International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ceo Martin Sirk says the region has “moved forward tremendously over the last five years”.
“Previously Dubai was the only really serious game player in terms of targeting international meetings, but there has been a clear adoption of top-level strategic policy decisions in many other Gulf destinations – Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman, for example – that has enabled a meeting infrastructure and capacity to be created,” he says.
The reasons planners choose the Gulf to stage their association meetings are wide-ranging and there is no “single view”, he stresses.
“For example, I know that major dental and diabetes organisations brought their world congresses to Dubai because of mission-specific objectives. In the case of the former it was the recognition that the region had one of the worst ratios of trained dentists to population and they wanted to encourage accelerated university training and government investment. In the case of the latter it was to address the epidemic-type growth in diabetes in the region and to highlight the fact that governments weren’t giving it a high enough priority,” he explains.
“Other associations see holding an event in the region as an opportunity for existing members to do business with Gulf-based suppliers, clients, consumers or partners, while others anticipate membership growth potential or the chance to push their professional accreditation programmes against competition from rivals.”
He adds: “In general, ‘tourism appeal’ is far down the list of reasons why this segment would wish to bring meetings to the region and business arguments should always be stressed when bidding for clients.” Sirk says the Gulf’s “recently constructed modern infrastructure” means it will now appear on far more planners’ shortlists.
“Before Qatar opened the QNCC, for example, even if there was a strong business case to bring an event there, organisers would have been reluctant,” he says. “However, once on the shortlist, the final decision-making factors are typically related to the business interests of the association and its members and this needs a lot more attention by many local suppliers.” Sirk says the region’s hoteliers must also look to becoming much more flexible by reducing rates and allowing associations to reserve large numbers of rooms.
Looking ahead he notes that the “strategic linking of Europe and Asia” via the Middle East is going to become more important for organisations that have a presence in all three regions. “This isn’t going to be every organisation – and we’ve noticed a trend towards the regionalisation of meetings versus global events – but it’s a very compelling
argument for the Gulf when competing against destinations in other regions,” he says. “For those events which do rotate globally, usually there is a three-way rotation pattern, enabling the Middle East to step into either the European or Asian parts of the rotation, doubling the opportunities to bid.”
Sirk’s peer, Philippe Fournier, managing director of MCI France and president of the International Association of Professional Organisers (IAPCO), concurs that perceptions of the Gulf’s meeting infrastructure are “very good” thanks to its modern facilities and latest technology.
As a result, he is placing business for a wide range of international meetings, particularly in the fields of health and energy. “The potential to place more business here is big because of the region’s easy access, status as a hub between Europe and Asia, good security, infrastructure and the way the Gulf countries are marketing themselves,” he says.
“Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are the main cities we are looking at because we know them. They are now in the running for international conferences, competing against more established destinations such Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Dehli, Mumbai and other Australian and South African cities.”
Strength in numbers
The region’s convention centres, plus convention and congress planners agree there is strength in numbers when it comes to the Gulf making its mark on the world meetings stage.
DCB’s Bacher says competition is “healthy” and there is “enough business to go round”.
He stresses the importance of keeping an “open dialogue” through industry associations such as ICCA, Site Global and MPI. “At this point, a formalised regional promotional programme for the industry has not been implemented, but who knows what could come in the future,” he says.
“We must all work together to build the industry's professionalism and effectiveness,” he adds. However, he also believes each destination must continue to improve its own offering, agreeing with Sirk that building a “strong business case” for organisations considering the Gulf as a meetings destination, is imperative.
CSI’s Lolliot says: “The opening of new congress facilities in Qatar and Oman is a sign of confidence in the region’s stability and a business strategy to attract more congress/convention visitors to the region. I personally think a larger portfolio of convention centres is positive and will ensure a healthy competition, while offering our worldwide prospects more choices,” he adds.
AEG Ogden’s Donaghy says the Gulf now offers a wide range of options to prospective clients, with each country boasting individual core strengths and special qualities.
“The development of international standard convention and exhibition centres across the region sends a united message to the world that we understand the importance of sharing knowledge, networking amongst industry peers and attracting global leaders,” he says.
“It also proves the Gulf is open for business and serious about attracting world-class events.”