Not so long ago, any thought of staging a business event in the Middle East region would have been barely credible without instant reference to Dubai, that glitzy centre of modern Arabia that was busy blowing the minds of business and travel professionals worldwide. But the financial crisis in 2008 brought Dubai’s meteoric rise to a shuddering halt.
In response, it has cleverly used a budget-conscious approach to the downturn to ensure it remains a prime meetings and incentives option. But in the meantime, the events landscape has changed, broadening as other Gulf states get in on the action. Abu Dhabi is stepping up its profile as a meetings destination, while the emirate of Qatar and the sultanate of Oman have both set their sights on hosting international events to match their lofty ambitions.
Abu Dhabi takes centre stage
In the last couple of years, Abu Dhabi has raised its global profile spectacularly, emerging from its metropolitan next-door neighbour’s shadow with an impressive cluster of leisure facilities that offer a compelling proposition for business travel and incentive companies to consider when staging their next networking activity.
Delegates at the Yas hotel – located on Yas Island, home to the Formula One circuit – might be treated to a drive on the track, a round of golf on the island’s championship course, or a visit to Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park with the fastest outdoor rollercoaster. Ferrari World also has meeting space and is available for a wide range of events and incentives.
Then, there’s the fast-taking-shape Saadiyat Island, joined by two bridges to the mainland, which is a five-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi. An ecologically protected mangrove area, the 27 sq km island will offer business travellers a stone’s-throw retreat to beaches, lagoons, wetlands and a cultural district housing museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim – both due to open between 2012 and 2013.
As Thierry Bertin, vice-president of worldwide sales for Hyatt International South West Asia, says: “Abu Dhabi is now a very dynamic market. As the mix of visitors and the choice of hotels evolves, the market has become more creative in terms of weekend and golf packages, special tours, concerts and events packages.”
Capital Centre, a new commercial district located next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), the Arabian Gulf’s largest exhibition facility, will comprise 23 towers – including six branded hotels – as well as mixed-use developments and a marina. International Tower – the biggest in the development – opened in October, and the remaining buildings will open in several phases, for completion in 2013.
Little wonder, then, at the number of hotels opening – at least 13 this winter. “Abu Dhabi has a wider than ever inventory of state-of-the-art meeting facilities and a hotel room stock of 17,500, due to expand by a further 5,000 in 2011 alone,” says Gillian Taylor, business tourism manager at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).
Outside of hotels, a greater range of business event venues is also developing – from sports clubs such as the Abu Dhabi Golf Club and the Yas Marina Yacht Club, to meeting facilities offered by venues such as the Abu Dhabi University and even the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
ADTA is providing its own line of support through its dedicated business events department – the role of which is to increase the number of international meetings held in the emirate. Its 2011-2015 plan sets annual targets for winning meetings bids. “Major bid wins have included the World Ophthalmology Congress, which will be held in February 2012, as well as the Asian Pacific Congress of Cardiologists, to be held at ADNEC in 2015 for about 3,000 delegates,” Taylor says.
Dubai – still a winning option
Down the road in Dubai, the rampant building had already happened before the financial crisis hit, the same global forces that helped to build this remarkable city later causing its vulnerability.
But in 2011, Dubai’s price/value offering has become compelling. As Ben Caddy, managing director of events company Extra Cake, points out, companies are able to take advantage of world-class infrastructure – in terms of both business and leisure – and the highest standard of hotels, for a fraction of the cost they may have done previously.
“It’s such a competitive market since the downturn that rates are significantly lower and suppliers are encouraged to deliver to the highest standards to ensure repeat business,” he says. “Dubai has had plenty of bad press in recent years, but it’s still years ahead of alternatives located within the region. There is also a wealth of talent in the meetings sector from across the world – both within venues and at the agency and supplier levels – that just can’t be found in any other Middle East destination.”
Part of this infrastructure is the recently completed Dubai Metro, which has greatly enhanced ease of travel at a considerably lower cost than most other cities. The emirate’s second airport, Al Maktoum International, is now open to cargo. Its passenger terminal, projected to handle five to seven million passengers per year, was originally scheduled to open in 2011 but has been delayed, with the launch date yet to be confirmed. It will be part of a larger logistics hub called Dubai World Central that, when completed in the late 2020s, is planned to be the world’s largest airport.
“Dubai is dynamic, progressive and advanced,” says Fiona Swaffield, event director and managing partner at Siren Events. “The world sees Dubai as safe, tolerant and cosmopolitan. The city also presents a kaleidoscope of past and present.”
Hotels have needed to readjust their own offerings recently – both in terms of cost and other value aspects. “A more budget-conscious, diligent approach to annual planning has become the norm for companies,” Swaffield says. “This has resulted in smaller budgets and group sizes, a re-evaluation of meeting requirements and travel, and rescheduling of major events with less outsourcing.”
Hotels have responded to this by applying group rates to parties of ten and above (previously this might have been from 15 upwards, depending on the venue), and add-ons built into daily delegate rates – such as team-building activities or discounted spa treatments. Hotels are also offering in-house event planning support, she adds.
The pressure for Dubai hotels to maximise their value for meetings guests and business travellers in general is likely to continue. One post-downturn development has been more four-star hotels emerging.
“In terms of pricing for business groups, room rates have been more dynamic based on seasonality,” says Leonard Theng, director of sales and marketing at Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates hotel. “For business guests, hotels are redefining their offers and services to meet their requirements, such as [providing] free wifi, an area in the executive lounge to be booked for meetings, printer/computer access and 24-hour gym facilities.”
Finally, unrest in the region has inadvertently helped to strengthen “Brand Dubai”. Middle East countries considered to have more stable political systems are expected to gain substantially, and Dubai is likely to be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Oman claims the spotlight
The desert kingdom, as far as Bernard Viola, general manager of Al Bustan Palace – A Ritz-Carlton Hotel, is concerned, has all the ingredients to create an unforgettable incentive travel experience: “It has mountains, beaches, wadis [lush oases with pools, palm trees, grass and flowers], forts and castles.” He enumerates the activities that can be arranged for groups – sand skiing in the desert, scuba diving, rock climbing, trekking, surfing and sailing (the hotel can provide a yacht for large groups), cave exploration, birdwatching, bull fighting and camel races.
Content for years to assume a less showy profile to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (just a one-hour flight and 55-minute flight respectively from the capital, Muscat), Oman is starting to make more vigorous strides – following its Vision 2020 growth programme – towards shaping itself into a serious tourism and business events destination. A project that should help this ambition is the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, a major new project, expected to usher the country onto the stage frequented by conference and exhibition players.
Groundbreaking ceremonies, presided over by top government officials, took place in January of this year. The complex’s first phase will feature an auditorium able to seat up to 3,000 people and exhibition halls measuring 25,000 sqm. Future development will consist of more meeting space, banquet areas, 85,000 sqm of office space in a grade-A business park, four hotels to boast a total of 1,000 rooms and a large shopping mall.
At the topping-out ceremones, Dr Rajiha bin Abdul Ameer bin Ali, Oman’s tourism minister, said that the project complemented their tourism strategy, which not only targeted leisure travellers, “but the business sector too, and this investment will provide us with an outstanding venue for conferences and exhibitions.”
Further demonstrating the sultanate’s aspirations to be regarded as a visitor’s magnet was the debut of the Royal Opera House Muscat in October, fulfilling the wishes of classical music enthusiast and Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos. The opening production was Turandot, conducted by renowned Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo. The building, which reflects contemporary Omani architecture and boasts state-of-the-art technology such as the Radio Marconi multimedia interactive display seatback system, can accommodate up to 1,100 people.
One organisation that believes in Oman’s potential as a meeting hub is The Aspen Institute, a Washingon-based nonpartisan educational and policy studies group, headed by Walter Isaacson, who penned the recently released best-selling biography of the late Steve Jobs. It is sponsoring the by-invitation-only “Creative Arts World Summit”, from November 28 to 30, predicted to draw 250 civic and arts leaders from around the world. Certainly, you can expect to hear more about business events in Oman in the future. The sultanate is going to make sure of that.
Qatar thinks big
As a global events destination, Qatar is currently punching well above its weight. Having beaten larger, more established rivals to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the tiny Gulf state has also been bidding recently for both the 2020 Olympic Games and the 2017 World Athletics Championships.
Emerging from its traditionally introspective shell, this independently minded, cash-rich state of 1.6 million people appears intent on bucking the odds against its miniscule size, hothouse desert climate and comparative inexperience to become a front-ranking contender for global meetings and events. “Today’s meeting planners and buyers are seeking safe and stable destinations, and Qatar fits the bill,” says Trevor McCartney, director of business development for the new Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC).
Located in Doha’s purpose-built Education City, surrounded by a brace of universities, the QNCC is partnered with the Qatar Foundation, a patron for funding and research programmes. McCartney says the centre, with 57 rooms for meetings of ten people upwards, is on the doorstep of some 50 multinational companies that have established their Middle East bases here.
Alongside 40,000 sqm of exhibition or conference space for up to 10,000 people, it includes a multipurpose convention hall for 4,200 delegates, a 2,500-capacity auditorium and a 500-seat theatre.
Winning the 2022 FIFA bid, for which 12 new stadiums will be built, together with increasing hotel room stock, has heightened worldwide interest in Qatar as a premier choice venue, McCartney observes. The first few months of 2012 will witness completion of the first phase of the New Doha International Airport, which will be capable of handling 50 million passengers annually by 2015. Additionally, according to Ahmed Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), up to 20 new four- or five-star hotels with their own dedicated function rooms are currently coming on stream or are in the late stages of development, adding to an overall room stock that will have trebled to an estimated 30,000 between 2013 and 2014.
Besides the QNCC and the existing three-year-old Doha Exhibitions Centre (DEC), a third purpose-built convention centre is scheduled to open later in 2012. The Doha Convention Centre and Tower is set to top already comprehensive skyscraper construction at the new City Centre peninsula end of the Corniche. Adjacent to the convention centre, with 45,000 sqm of divisible space, will be a 105-storey tower with offices and apartments, a multipurpose hotel and meeting space.
Top-ranking newcomer hotel brands include the 272-room, 42-apartment Shangri-La to open in October 2012 and the 160-room, 95-apartment Mandarin Oriental to open in 2014 as the centrepiece of the new Musheireb heritage development. Marriott has just opened a three-hotel/meetings complex in the city centre, opposite Qatar Financial Centre. “It reinforces Doha’s futuristic vision and surging potential,” says Ed Fuller, president and managing director of international lodging at Marriott International.
Helping to coordinate and bolster future meetings business is the Qatar MICE Development Institute. A spokesperson says the institute is mandated by the government to drive the sector through the overseas promotion of large-scale events. We would never have guessed.
Expert advice: Incentives
How are incentive activities changing to keep groups coming back? We asked some local experts based in Dubai:
“A new angle to team-building events is the ‘amazing race’ concept, where participants are given clues to cover sights of the city. They could use public transport such as Dubai Metro, jump in a taxi or even catch an abra [water taxi] on Dubai Creek. It helps delegates to get to know the city in a far better way than a normal tour. They remember more about the destination. For larger groups, we have organised a conference on a dhow (traditional Arab sailing vessel) for 100 people. We’ve also done a three-day conference in tents in the desert. Smaller groups greatly enjoy the chef’s table, where guests can savour a specially prepared meal.”
Candida Lobo, Ovation Arabia
“More out-of-the-ordinary incentives include learning a skill – from an Arabic cooking class to belly dancing or a desert driving course. Tailor-made programmes for smaller groups include a ‘desert experience’, where rally drivers share their experience while driving the guests through the desert. Another approach is themed activities, where day one might consist of water-based activities, day two might take place in the desert and day three might be a golf day. Another interesting activity is dragon boating.”
Fiona Swaffield, Siren Events
“The traditional desert safari, dune bashing and camel riding are still the key highlights for incentive groups. We also have Ski Dubai offering sessions for groups, and DUCTAC [Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre] offering a wide range of activities. There are also more adventure-based programmes such as trekking in the wadis [huge dry river beds], an obstacle course, yacht sailing, snorkelling and scuba diving.”
Leonard Theng, Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates
Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Oman Air all operate daily connections to a comprehensive list of major Asian cities.
From November to March, the Gulf States’ cities bask in glorious 25?C to 30?C temperatures (though it can be humid), while from May to August the dry desert heat can top 45?C to 50?C.
Citizens of most countries are issued with a free visa when arriving at any major Gulf international airport. For visa requirements, see the individual country websites below.
Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken and is the lingua franca for business.
Rocco Forte Abu Dhabi
Designed in the shape of a wave with a blue-and-green glass façade, the 281-room Rocco Forte (above) opened for business in early November. It is located between the airport and downtown, close to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) and Yas Island. It has seven meeting rooms, business centre, pre-function area and 500-seat ballroom.
Hyatt Capital Gate
Located in Capital Centre, this is one of two new Hyatt hotels in Abu Dhabi – the other being the Park Hyatt on Saadiyat Island, which opened in November. Capital Gate will open by year-end, with 189 rooms and four meeting rooms, holding up to 12 people each, two of which can be joined together to host 22 people, while larger gatherings can be arranged at the adjacent ADNEC. This striking building leans 18 degrees westwards – four times more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates
Forming part of Mall of the Emirates (which houses the indoor Ski Dubai) and centrally located near the Jebel Ali free zone and the business districts, this was the first Pullman to open in the region, in September 2010. With an 800 sqm floor dedicated to meetings and events, the 481-room Pullman offers the Mosaic ballroom, accommodating up to 225 delegates, and smaller meeting rooms for between 10 and 75 people. Interesting touches include Wii competitions and shoulder massages between meetings.
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray
Operating on Palm Jumeirah since January 2011, the interior design of this beachside 405-room hotel is strongly themed on the lavish style of the Ottoman period, with Turkish artworks and murals dotted throughout the building. The property is most definitely five star, with superb sea views and facilities to cater for all manner of events, including a 300-seat theatre, a private screening room for up to 29 people, function rooms for between 30 and 70 and outdoor events for 250-350.
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
Nestled along the bay of Al Jissah is this luxurious village complex, consisting of three hotels and a sumptuous spa. Meeting and conference requirements are well served by the Barr Al Jissah Ballroom seating 700 guests banquet style, a pre-function area accommodating 850 guests and seven breakout rooms, which can cater to a variety of set-ups. To achieve optimum results, the Shangri-La Signature Events programme is offered and includes a host of benefits such as best available room rates, group online reservations and complimentary in-room internet access and function room wifi service, among others.
Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel
Four floors contain this 250-room property’s events offerings, including the Majan Ballroom which can accommodate 2,000 for a reception and the Oman Auditorium, which has seats for 628 participants. A slew of restaurants showcasing French and Chinese cuisines and an international buffet as well as a piano bar provide after-business options to retreat to.
Marriott City Centre
This contemporary property, which comprises twin 48-storey towers, is located opposite the Qatar Financial Centre. The newly opened complex houses three Marriott brands – the 257-room Renaissance, the 204-room Courtyard and 123 Executive Apartments. Spread across 19, 12 and 21 floors respectively, the properties share nine restaurants and bars, a health club and spa, plus 1,200 sqm of meeting space incorporating 17 rooms, the largest of which seats 805 delegates.
Located alongside West Bay Lagoon, this top-ranking business hotel (below) has 374 guestrooms and extensive indoor and outdoor meeting space. This includes two ballrooms, the largest with a capacity of up to 1,200 delegates, six additional function rooms and a video-conferencing suite.