Why the GCC is courting MICE visitors - Gulf Business
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Why the GCC is courting MICE visitors

Why the GCC is courting MICE visitors

The regional meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry is booming


GCC MICE is everywhere and yet, like electricity or traffic lights, something we take for granted despite powering everything along. We think of ‘MICE’ as one convenient entity but the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry is vast and produces economic benefits far beyond the conference halls and meeting rooms.

Take the recent Gitex Technology Week. Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) reported that it generated Dhs1.6bn across direct and indirect channels, and event-related spend covering space rental, stand building and attendees’ business spend totalled Dhs391m. A third of visitors (57,367) came from abroad, staying on average for around six days, and in all there were 4,500 exhibiting companies.

In a digitally oriented and environmentally conscious world, where forums debate if there is a place for business travel and trade shows, Gitex provides a resounding answer – and consider those figures in the context that it’s one event in the year-round calendar. For the UAE and other GCC countries, the MICE space is only growing in importance as they strive to be global centres for innovation, knowledge creation and data sharing, and economic diversification remains a universal goal.

Alongside established events, opportunities lie in the novel and unexplored, exemplified by Emirates’ recent hosting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) inaugural Global Accessibility Symposium. The Dubai carrier continues to expand its global network, starting flights to Mexico City via Barcelona on December 9 – which will bring new MICE and leisure traffic to the UAE.

Dubai beckons

Dubai Business Events (DBE), the city’s official convention bureau, secured 82 new business events in Q3 which attracted as estimated 29,219 delegates. Key events included Amway APAC Expo 2019, with approximately 10,000 delegates, the World Congress of Neurology (5,000) and the World Conference on Desalination and Water Re-use (1,000).

Overall DBE has won 118 bids during the first half of 2019 – up 17 per cent year-on-year – which will attract 75,288 delegates. They include Amway China Leadership Seminar 2020 (8,000 delegates), AIPPI World Intellectual Property Congress 2025 (3,000), Sun Hope International Incentive 2020 (1,500), World Hospital Congress 2021 (1,100 delegates) and Geospatial Week 2021 (750). DBE’s remit extends far beyond the emirate, organising roadshows across key markets including London, Toronto, Moscow and Chennai, and it has hosted two MICE missions from India.

Steen Jakobsen, assistant vice president, DBE, said it continues to see strong growth from across Asia, particularly in the incentive segment and especially from China, South East Asia and India.

“The past six months have been a busy and productive period in terms of DBE’s ongoing activities and projects, and Dubai’s elevation on a global scale has been supported by new hotel and venue openings, as well as activities and attractions in the city,” he said.

“Companies have repeatedly seen positive results when they offer a trip to Dubai as a reward for their workforces and customers, driving performance and in turn leading to groups sizes that far exceed expectations.”

Europe continues to be a strong source market for international association meetings, with Dubai’s location at the crossroads of East and West giving associations an opportunity to attract delegates from their key growth markets. “Corporate meeting planners in Europe and North America are also consistently seeing the attractiveness of Dubai as a destination to tailor unique itineraries and create memorable experiences for their groups.”

Corporate groups are keen to explore more of the historic and cultural offerings, such as the souqs around Dubai Creek, Al Fahidi and Al Shindagha Historical Districts and Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Team building activities such as racing experiences at Dubai Autodrome and treasure hunts are also becoming popular, while the malls and desert safaris never go out of fashion.

Association business is another key focus and the second edition of the Dubai Associations Conference takes place between December 9-10 at DWTC.

“International associations are recognising the opportunity to tap into some of the key knowledge clusters in the city, as well as the innovation that is being embraced across the public and private sectors,” he added. “They also realise that Dubai provides a platform for their own growth, both through attendance at events here and by setting up a permanent presence through the Dubai Association Centre.”

Another big event coming up in Dubai is Arabian Travel Market 2020, which will be inviting 150 hosted buyers from India, China, Russia and the Middle East, as well as partnering with CBN Travel & MICE once again to bring an additional 84 new buyers from China.

Indian, Saudi Arabian, Chinese and Russian visitors have grown in recent years due to the introduction of additional and direct airline routes; relaxed visa regulations; the growth of their respective economies; increased disposable incomes; and a new generation of leisure attractions and retail destinations as well as a broad range of hotels and resorts.

Danielle Curtis, exhibition director ME, Arabian Travel Market (ATM), which takes place at Dubai World Trade Centre from 19-22 April 2020, said: “Identifying the key players in the top source markets, along with current and emerging industry trends are two of the most valuable insights ATM has to offer. Therefore, the 2020 edition will continue to follow that successful model with a packed agenda, including new forums and networking opportunities, as well as an engaging seminar programme.”

According to research from Colliers International, in partnership with ATM, the number of Indian visitors travelling to the UAE is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7 per cent to 3.01 million by 2023, while arrivals from Saudi Arabia will witness an increase of 2 per cent to 1.76 million during the same period.

The data also predicts an above average annual growth rate for both Russian and Chinese arrivals to the UAE, with the number of Russian tourists expected to increase at a CAGR of 12 per cent to 1.6 million and Chinese tourists estimated to increase at a CAGR of 8 per cent to 1.27 million by 2023.

Expo impact

For the business events sector, all eyes are now on Expo 2020 Dubai. During the course of the Expo – which is targeting 25 million visits, 70 per cent from abroad – planners have the opportunity to incorporate it into their events, whether by taking their groups to visit the themed and national pavilions or making use of meeting facilities. More than 1,000 authorised ticket resellers have been signed up globally.

Come this time next year, with Expo 2020 in full swing, District 2020 will rise in profile as the legacy elements become more pressing. The most durable fixture in the district, which will repurpose 80 per cent of the Expo site, will be the 45,000sqm Dubai Exhibition Centre (DEC). Spread across two campuses, the centre will house a theatre, auditorium, several multi-purpose halls, four suites and 24 meeting rooms, and will be completely customisable to large events, including indoor concerts.

“As part of the legacy of Expo, DEC will remain and become a core proposition in the city’s business events offering, while the rest of the site will also include a number of hotels and other facilities,” said Jakobsen.

A single-day adult ticket (aged 18 and over) for the Expo will cost Dhs120 ($33) and a three-day pass, which is valid for a two-week period after first use, will be priced at Dhs260 ($71). Expo 2020 will also offer a range of concessions to students, children aged five and under, seniors aged 65 and over, as well as people of determination and their assistants. Tickets go on sale next year.

Tickets holder can access 60-plus live shows each day, future-shaping technologies, performances from artists, daily parades, special celebrations and more than 200 food and beverage outlets, as well as the opportunity to visit 192 country pavilions.

Abu Dhabi calling

Abu Dhabi’s calendar now covers a wide range of sectors with visitor magnets including the AFC Asian Cup, IDEX exhibition, Special Olympics World Games, Retail Abu Dhabi, Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, Al Hosn cultural site and Qasr Al Watan Library. ADNEC recently hosted the 24th World Energy Congress and 26th World Road Congress, which was being held in the Middle East for the first time, and its flagship ADIPEC conference in November featured more than 160 sessions.

RAK broadens travel offering

From the idyllic Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert to the grand Waldorf Astoria, the northern emirate has some impressive and distinctive spaces – and if you want the ultimate corporate thrill, one option is throwing yourself head first off the top of the Jebel Jais Toroverde zipline. But perhaps the most interesting development sees low-cost carrier SpiceJet starting five-times weekly flights between New Delhi and RAK in December, as the emirate seeks to broaden its traveller profile and targets 2.5 million visitors in the next five years.

New venues galore

Acrobats flying through the air, dazzling audio-visual features and gasps from all ages in the audience: La Perle must be right up there in the list of Dubai leisure attractions, but it’s also ideally suited to MICE with the auditorium catering to groups and having the capability to be hired out for events.

In nearby City Walk, the 17,000-capacity Coca-Cola Arena is looking forward to its first full season.

The versatile space can be used for ground floor standing or seating, has two fixed tiers of seating on level one and four, and two levels of hospitality suites on levels two and three, supported by 35 F&B concessions. Suites come with dedicated attendants, a variety of menus and can be customised with logos and furniture.

A major multi-purpose event venue with the capacity to seat around 18,000 people is set to open in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island next year. Yas Bay Arena will provide flexible capacity to host anywhere from 500 people to around 18,000 people, according to developer Miral. The temperature-controlled venue will host concerts, sports events, games and can also be sub-divided to serve as a MICE destination. A five-star Hilton with 546 rooms will be on site.

John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment in Abu Dhabi, said the company’s local and regional experience will ensure that it is able to attract events to the venue. “This will be a major driver of growth for the entertainment and cultural sector in Abu Dhabi,” he said.

The medical tourism element

While it may not “technically” fall under the MICE category, medical tourism is nonetheless considered by industry insiders as an informal – and important – part of the segment.

UAE medical tourism sales amounted to Dhs12bn in 2018, a 5.5 per cent year-over-year increase, driven by new government-led initiatives and a growing number of medical tourists, according to Euromonitor International data.

Etihad Airways and Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi recently signed an agreement which will promote Abu Dhabi as a premier medical travel destination. Etihad will offer specific medical travel packages to key markets, delivering a single solution for booking flights, accommodation and medical treatments at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which covers more than 40 medical and surgical specialties.

Tony Douglas, group CEO, Etihad Aviation Group, said the airline already offers specialised services for travellers with pre-existing medical conditions, including the care of an inflight nurse. “Abu Dhabi has seen substantial global investment further strengthening its medical services, and we’re proud to play a part in making this world-class healthcare more easily accessible,” he said.

The move to cooperate on medical travel services was announced as part of both companies’ support for Abu Dhabi’s wider strategy to become a leading centre for medical tourism, announced earlier this year by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health and the Department of Culture and Tourism.

With a fleet of more than 108 aircraft, Etihad Airways will bring Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s complex and critical care services to new markets.
Hasan Jasem Al Nowais, senior vice president, Mubadala Healthcare, said: “This agreement will provide a seamless patient journey that starts from the patient’s home country and takes them through treatment and aftercare.”

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi employs dedicated ‘patient ambassadors’ to guide international patients through every step of their journey, including greeting them on arrival and providing medical interpretation services.

In 2018, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi treated 1,380 international patients from more than 93 countries.

Moving to Dubai, the emirate has maintained a steady growth in health tourism and continues to enhance the experience for patients and wellness tourists. According to the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), the emirate attracted 337,011 medical tourists in 2018, who spent a combined amount of Dhs1.163bn on treatments across orthopedics, sports medicine, dermatology and skin care, dentistry and fertility treatments. The health tourism department is promoting its 70-plus DXH group members’ healthcare facilities in key source markets including GCC, Europe, Africa, Russia and China. Dubai aims to attract 500,000 medical tourists by 2021.

It’s all about personalisation and creativity

James Britchford, vice president Commercial, India, Middle East and Africa at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), said it is seeing more online requests for events via Cvent and Star Suite. Yet for all the digital advancement, clients still seek face-to-face personalisation – a recurring theme throughout hospitality, particularly at the premium end.

“However, this all has to be accomplished within a framework of tight budgets, so creativity is now at a premium,” he said. “We’ve also noticed that the expectations of event attendees are evolving and clients are looking for better ways to engage their colleagues.”

IHG has rolled out ‘unique meetings’, providing ‘one-of-a-kind’ event spaces and experiences designed specifically for those looking for non-traditional meetings that are conducive to productivity, creativity and collaboration. In a competitive market, other groups are on the same wavelength; Mandarin Oriental has its ‘mindful meetings’, for example.

“People want memorable experiences and stand-out-venues and we now offer alternative settings for business gatherings, ranging from tropical beaches to Bedouin tents, that leave guests with a long-lasting impression,” said Britchford.

Personalisation remains a key theme across travel and Sabre Corporation research recently found 59 per cent of Middle Eastern adults would pay between $101-500 on ‘extras that personalise their travel journeys’ and 40 per cent would be more loyal to an airline or hotel that offered a personalised service.

Opening new frontiers: Oman

These are interesting times for MICE in Oman with the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre (OCEC) – a short drive from the new Muscat International Airport – gaining recognition regionally and internationally.

The 3,200-seat theatre is the showpiece feature, and there is a 456-seat auditorium complemented by 19 meeting rooms, providing companies with a range of options at their disposal.

The grand ballroom offers a number of seating options including 2,688 in a theatre-style, 1,680 in a classroom-style, and 1,200 seats for a banquet setting. It can also be further subdivided into three or six individual meeting rooms using a system of acoustically rated operable walls.

The junior ballroom splits into two equal spaces to seat up to 1,026 in a theatre-style and 672 in a classroom-style and it can accommodate 540 delegates in a banquet setting.

Providing more than 22,000 square metres of column-free space, the exhibition halls can be divided into five separate areas. Halls 1 and 2 combined can seat up to 10,000 delegates in theatre style and act as a multi-purpose space for larger plenary sessions, concerts or performances.

The individual halls offer a dedicated registration desk, hospitality suites and separate offices for both the organiser and event manager.

Current calendar highlights include the Perfume Exhibition 2019, 43rd World Hospital Congress, IHF Muscat 2019, Oman Science Festival 2019, Muscat International Jewellery Exhibition and 40th SICOT Orthopaedic World Congress.

The JW Marriott Muscat – which itself has eight event rooms, the largest of which can hold 818 guests – is poised to open shortly and adjoins the centre, serving as a convenient option for delegates and complementing the Crowne Plaza OCEC a short distance away.

The sultanate’s incentive appeal is broad with mountains, beaches, caves, wadis and archaeological sites complemented by Omani cuisine and traditions, which give visitors an authentic Arabian experience.

New this season is The House of Musical Arts – a new addition to the Royal Opera House – which will host more art and musical performances and feature a permanent cultural exhibition. The district is on the up with the opening of W Muscat last summer.


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