Edward Rabbat, consultant, Riyadh Exhibition Company, talks to meetme about Saudi Arabia’s economic strength, how the kingdom has overtaken the UAE as an exhibitions hub, and the challenges of working within its strict Islamic guidelines
How important is the exhibitions industry to Saudi Arabia?
The exhibitions industry benefits Saudi Arabia in many ways. It facilitates technology transfer to support the Kingdom’s industrial and urban development plans, encourages the creation of small and medium enterprises, and promotes joint ventures between Saudi and foreign investors and entrepreneurs. It also expedites the growth and development of key sectors such as services and hospitality, to name a few.
What are your expectations for 2009, in terms of number of events, exhibitors and visitors, and how does this compare with 2008?
We can confidently say that the global economic crisis has had very little effect on Saudi Arabia’s economy and its development plans. The substantial growth of all of our events in 2009 so far reflects this. Some have even doubled capacity as well as the number and country of origin of participants compared to 2008 and previous years.
What are your main markets?
Italy and Germany represent our key European markets, followed by Turkey. China has become one of our largest clients, while the UAE contributes quite an impressive volume to almost all our events. Among the sectors that have been recording the highest demand are construction, IT, agriculture, plastics, packaging, printing, petrochemicals, electricity and healthcare.
What services and facilities does Riyadh Exhibitions Company offer?
Our exhibition services include in–house literature design and printing, logistics, stand design and construction, web design and management, B2B meetings and workshops, advertisement design and planning, conference and event management, and database management. We can also handle travel and accommodation, visa processing for international exhibitors and visitors, registration and other related services.
Are there plans to add to this?
We are currently expanding our conference and event management department. We are also planning new projects with some Saudi ministries and government agencies in 2010.
What are the main challenges for organising exhibitions for international clients and how do you overcome these?
We’ve been operating within the Saudi market since 1981, so we’ve had almost three decades of extensive experience in this business. Our international reputation and productive agent network in more than 35 countries are keys to our success. As a GCC business destination favoured by foreign exhibitors, Saudi Arabia has until last year always been placed second behind the UAE. We feel this has changed this year, as massive government and private sector spending continues to attract greater attention to the Kingdom’s market. There are still several obstacles to overcome, however, such as Saudi Arabia’s gender mixing policies that limit the volume of show visitors and the inability of female exhibitors to obtain visit visas.
What has been the most challenging/unusual/creative exhibition you have worked on in recent years and why?
The Rebuild Iraq series we started in Kuwait in 2004 and then moved to Amman, Jordan as of 2005 are undoubtedly our most challenging events to date. We’ve been organising these outside of our territory, which requires extraordinary coordination and mobilisation of staff and material. The size of these events and the extent of their foreign participation have been phenomenal.
How do you think exhibition products in Saudi Arabia compare with those of other markets in the Middle East?
Thanks to the exceptional efforts of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Saudi capital now has a prestigious exhibition venue that can compete with others in the region, in an industry that is still led by Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and other veteran exhibition locations. We believe that additional investments need to be made to further expand and build more of such venues. We do look forward to witnessing major developments and improved services in the domestic tourism and hospitality sectors.
What is your Unique Selling Point when attracting exhibitions to Saudi Arabia?
Our most compelling sales pitch is the massive size of the Saudi Arabian market, which is larger than all the GCC markets combined and the largest throughout the Middle East. This has been enough to attract numerous potential exhibitors.
What is REC doing to create a new home-grown base of exhibitions industry professionals?
We try to recruit young graduates in marketing and advertisement from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and train them rigorously. We shuttle them between our regional offices in Lebanon, Jordan, UAE and Qatar to provide them with good experience and industry know how.
Industry experts believe that, as global business centres move from Europe to Asia, the Middle East will benefit from increased meetings and exhibition opportunities. What is your opinion of this?
While Europe still enjoys one of the highest returns from the exhibitions industry, with Germany, France, the UK and Italy leading the pack, it is true that many renowned organisers from the region have established a good foothold in Asian countries. Many have already been running shows in key markets such as China for the past few years. The Middle East has also been witnessing tremendous growth in exhibitions during the past decade, especially in the GCC which remains the top draw for exhibitors and investors looking for a substantial and steady volume of trade.
Do you think that large-scale developments such as ADNEC in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai World Trade Centre will be enough to fulfil the region’s meetings potential? Or is more development needed?
More development is definitely needed in the next few years because of the rapid demographic growth in the region. This is particularly true for Saudi Arabia. Even if you take into account the recently completed Riyadh International Exhibition Center, the actual capacity required to meet demand is double of what currently exists, and as I mentioned earlier, the Kingdom is attracting greater interest as far as exhibitions and special events are concerned.