A new study this month shows that almost three out of four North American-based associations are possibly interested in organizing a convention in the Persian Gulf area, but only one-third have done so.

That highlights a large gap between demonstrable interest and past booking execution among U.S. meeting planners organizing international business events. For primary Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) convention destinations, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, Doha in Qatar, and Muscat, Oman, the study suggests there’s significant opportunity for those cities to grow North American market share.

It’s really only a matter of time, considering the growing airlift and convention infrastructure supply among GCC nations and the growing demand for new destinations among U.S. buyers Produced by Development Counsellors International (DCI) in New York, the “Inside the Business Events Dilemma in the Middle East” study polled 166 senior association executives in North America who source long-haul destinations for international events.

DCI Middle East 1

As noted in the above chart, 73.9% of North American meeting buyers are willing to consider hosting a convention in the GCC region, while only 33.1% (below chart) have organized a large program there. That portends well for a region that is betting heavily on becoming a global meetings hub.

According to the November 2014 research paper, “How the GCC Can Become a Meetings Hub,” produced by Strategy& (a subsidiary of PwC), it states:

“Many GCC countries have new, technologically advanced meeting facilities that can host sizable gatherings. For instance, the square footage of Dubai’s largest indoor exhibition center exceeds Hong Kong’s largest indoor space by more than 40 percent. At its base configuration, Doha’s largest auditorium seats more people than the largest auditoria in London, Paris, or Madrid.”

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Meanwhile, according to the DCI study, among the 33.1% of associations that have hosted a convention in the Middle East, 38.2% of the organizers have chosen Dubai. The emirate’s popularity is followed by Abu Dhabi at 16.4%, Doha at 16.3%, and Muscat at 5.5%.

“Dubai has that first mover advantage because they’ve been involved in the North American meetings market for over eight years, where they’ve had an office based in the U.S.,” says Daniella Middleton, director of business events at DCI. “The Dubai International Convention Center has also been pretty aggressive marketing to North Americans and helping shape perceptions, and change perceptions, of the UAE as a strategic business hub with alliances in the U.S.”

Associations Need to Grow Membership

Another factor driving increased attention toward the GCC, many established North American associations are having challenges growing their membership base for two reasons. One, they have reached capacity somewhat among North American constituents, and two, Millennials are proving to be a much more difficult audience to capture than their predecessors.

At the same time, the GGC nations are vastly under-represented among international organizations, as shown in this chart from the Strategy& study. This suggests an open opportunity for organizations to build their brand within the Gulf region and further expand their reach globally.

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In the DCI study, 62% of respondents agree that the GCC “offers an opportunity to create and grow Middle East regional membership for their organizations.” A total of 79% responded the same way specifically with regard to Dubai.

“That’s really important where associations want to get in-market in their industry, and that’s potentially a huge coup because there’s not a lot of competing organizations in there now,” says Middleton. “A lot of association members we spoke to say that’s their main priority, because the locals in the region are not necessarily members of industry organizations yet.”

The challenges for the GCC to continue to build its meetings and conventions sector are many, including deeply embedded perceptions about cultural and security concerns, a lack of established professional conference organizer companies catering to the North American market, and a lack of marketing outreach to Western planners from the region’s hotel groups.

In response, the GCC member nations have been developing new industry tradeshows over the last decade, such as IBTM Arabia. The International Congress & Convention Association is also developing a stronger Middle East chapter, with 42 member organizations presently participating from six countries.

Furthermore, the U.S.-based Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) is developing an official collaboration with Oman to create new business relationships. In April 2014, PCMA brought 15 leaders from the international meetings industry together with regional travel suppliers for the inaugural PCMA Sultanate of Oman Advisory Summit in Muscat.

A big motivation for that is the new Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre, scheduled to open in 2016.

Photo Credit: Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (right) and Hyatt Capital Gate (left). ADNEC