As Dubai prepares to host the Expo 2020 Dubai, its meetings and events industry continues to grow amid a more diverse hotel selection, increased air travel accessibility, and greater focus from tourism officials.
“If you ask me what the single type of tourism that Dubai probably does better than most places in the world,” says Dubai World Trade Centre CEO Helal Almarri, “It’s definitely the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry.”
Dubai benefits from its location as a crossroads between the east and the west.
“Vegas really sucked a lot of the industry for America and South America. Shanghai and Hong Kong have emerged on that side of the world and we’re sitting in the middle,” says Almarri, who believes that Dubai’s strength and continued growth comes from the exhibition market.
“If you look at the way exhibitions work, they drive the largest number of tourists out of the events industry. The meetings and conference industries drive a lot as well but in terms of sheer numbers, it’s the exhibition industry.”
Exhibitions are generally large trade shows focused on business-to-business industries while conferences are generally shorter events designed to accomplish a specific goal.
The city-state is currently barreling towards 2020 with the goal of reaching 20 million visitors a year. Evidence of its progress is Dubai International’s record-breaking year. In 2014, the airport processed 71 million international passengers, surpassing the 68.1 million that passed through London Heathrow.
While Emirates’ network and the city’s air connectivity is considered a boost to its business tourism profile, the country’s hotel inventory was for some time considered a hindrance.
In Dubai, there is a very thin line between the private and public sector.
When the Dubai government began outlining a tourism strategy in 2011, it undertook a detailed analysis of its hotel inventory and found a gap between demand and supply, Almarri says. There were too few three- and four-star hotels available to the growing number of businesses looking to host a large-scale event in Dubai. The government agreed to the hoteliers’ requests to temporarily drop government fees.
Additional three- and four-star hotels were built once the Metro line started running in 2009.
Almarri doesn’t believe that Dubai is losing any business today because it doesn’t offer enough hotel options for meeting planners.
“The metro just brought a completely different dynamic in terms of the ease of getting people in and out of these exhibitions,” says Almarri.
Established five-star hotels are also seeing an increase in business travel.
A spokeswomen for Jumeirah Beach Hotel, a well-known five star hotel, says the hotel saw a “huge increase in group bookings” in 2014.
Skift spoke with two executives at events and logistics companies who each believe that Dubai’s hotel inventory is sufficient for buildings its meetings and events industry.
“Certainly hotels are spread around the city, but the inventory is sufficient in my opinion,” said Mason Group president Cathy Mason.
Mason and Julie Ann Schmidt, managing partner at Lithium Logistics Group, both brought up another factor that could negatively impact the destination.
“My biggest concern about hosting an event or conference in Dubai is overall unrest in the Middle East, which impacts participant perceptions and makes the clients concerned that attendees will not want to travel there,” says Schmidt.
“There is now some light concern with terrorism that was previously not prevalent,” Mason says.
Although its location in the Middle East could cause safety concerns, Dubai’s perception as an exotic destination and a “safe” Middle Eastern experience is also one of its greatest attributes, according to Mason.
Another benefit of Dubai’s location is that it is becoming an increasing popular place for multinational corporations to set up headquarters.
Twenty percent of the Dubai population are expatriates and there are strict regulations and laws that mandate they have a work contract to live there.
“Our business tourism is driven a lot by us being a hub for multinationals,” Almarri says.
“For example, Shell’s Lamborghini consolidated its operations here from all over the wider region. People have three-month contracts and there is continuous air travel and hotel occupancy.”
Expo’s Branding Power
In addition to the regular events industry, Dubai is now preparing to host the Expo 2020 Dubai, an event which officials hope will attract more large-scale exhibitions and events. The Expo is held every five years, attracts millions of visitors, and features hundreds of exhibitions and events examining the economic, cultural and social aspects of a specific topic.
Dubai Tourism CEO Issam Kazim likens the potential impact to that of the annual meetings of the boards of governors from the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund, which Dubai hosted in 2003, a time when few people thought the city would win hosting rights.
“The IMF got the ball rolling so then people realized that Dubai hosted a complex event so smoothly, so efficiently, that we started getting many of the biggest dental congresses, cardiology congresses, the world bar association,” says Kazim.
“All of these started happening back to back that led to us winning the Expo because we had a proven track record now.”
Almarri is also focused on what comes after the events: Its legacy and how it impacts Dubai and the United Arab Emirates as a whole.
“Being such a huge international event, it helps elevate and accelerate Dubai as a destination for meetings and events,” he says.
“It gives Dubai a lot of credibility and we’re already seeing increased interest from international meetings planners.”
Preparing for the Expo is also pushing Dubai officials to set up protocols that could be useful when hosting other large global events. For example, the city has set up committees that can be activated for any kind of event, including the Expo.