EW spoke to some of the exhibition industry leaders instrumental in the recent UFI MEA Conference and shares their insights on prospects for future development in the region.
Naji El Haddad, regional director MEA for global association of the exhibition industry, UFI, was responsible for developing the themes for this year’s regional conference. He told EW that although there has been plenty of talk of cancelled events, dropped revenues, redundancies, and other challenges, now is the time to speak about an industry rebounding. “Our determination to restart and thrive again, rethinking the future of our industry and its people and new strategies to manage this and any future disruption, helped form the theme of the conference,” said El Haddad.
The programme’s main talking points included: economic outlook, Dubai Expo, best practices and lessons learned, skills of the future, research and data analysis, as well as innovation and technological advancement to support face-to-face.
El Haddad said the main goal of the conference had been to provide the audience with concrete, tangible solutions for them to take away and implement in their businesses.
Equally important was the forging of connections and partnerships among attendees to enable them to continue the conversation beyond the conference.
“It wasn’t easy to organise but UFI is committed to supporting the exhibition community anywhere in the world in any way possible,” El Haddad added. “After seeing Dubai and the UAE reopening for large-scale events such as GITEX in December 2020, it was a sound place to host the UFI MEA Regional Conference.”
Conference host venue Dubai World Trade Centre delivered the highest standards of safety and hygiene, mostly based on UFI’s Global Guidelines.
El Haddad said most countries in the region had responded swiftly and efficiently to the pandemic, with all six Gulf states implementing economic stimulus packages (Oman $20bn, UAE $27bn) to support businesses and individuals across many sectors.
“The governments in the Gulf region, UAE and Qatar in particular,” said El Haddad, “have shown resilience and agility in planning the restart of their economies, and very early identified business events as a key catalyst for economic rebound.”
In 2019, a joint study between UFI and Oxford Economics illustrated the economic impact of exhibitions on the Middle East economies. The market size was put at 125,000 exhibiting companies and 3 milllion sqm of net space rented, with 6.25m visitors. That market produced $1.4bn in direct spending and $800m in direct GDP, as well as 14,000 jobs, according to the research.
The situation is tough, however, in terms of reskilling and training, with most companies in the region having had to let go a number of their people. El Haddad noted the greatest risk has been the uncertainty. “If executives had known the crisis would last for a certain number of months, I am sure they could have managed it in a different way.
“On a positive note, we are seeing quite a good number of companies slowly bringing back their ‘former’ people or recruiting new ones but, of course, not going back to their 2019 operational size.”
“In terms of future skills needed in the rebounding phase, executives in the region will be looking at candidates combining both soft and technological skills,” said El Haddad, who believes the power of data has never been more important for the industry, as well as demand for professionals with the skills of analysing that data and transforming it into a product/service.
In terms of the mood music, El Haddad believes a sense of risk will remain, be it of a new wave of Covid, or cyber, climate, political, or any other risk. “The exhibition industry will need to learn from the current crisis to partially re-invent itself – and I am not talking here about virtual exhibitions; I strongly disbelieve those are a solution – to become more resilient, more relevant and more needed. The general mood in the region is a positive one; we have seen mega scale exhibitions taking place very successfully and safely in the UAE, such as GITEX, IDEX, Gulfood, Arab Health, The Hotel Show, and Arabian Travel Market. Other countries in the region are less active at the moment but all are preparing the ground for a strong return soon.”
Easing of access restrictions
Although health and safety and testing issues vary from one country to another in the region, there is a general easing of ‘access’ restrictions. Dubai recently announced its hotels could go back to 100% occupancy and Abu Dhabi will not require visitors to quarantine from 1 July.
Some kind of electronic travel health passports are thought likely, however, El Haddad believes.
On the question of event technology, the biggest lesson learned, in El Haddad’s, opinion is that it can help us stay connected when we cannot meet in person. “And this role should continue even if we go back to the ‘old normal’. Technologies of the likes of AI driven matchmaking engines, big data, online connectivity are here to stay and to support face-to-face events – although they are not new to us,” he said.
“Creating a year-long dialogue with the communities that the events serve is important,” El Haddad noted, believing that technology companies that ‘claim’ to replace the physical exhibitions while providing the same experience are taking the wrong path and are overpromising. “They might have their own value proposition but cannot claim the same one as physical exhibitions.”
Organisers had to adopt technologies that could first help them achieve their core mandate of connecting businesses and creating marketplaces – with the ability to monetise them in the future. “Building an online booth with an avatar is not the solution, the need or the purpose,” El Haddad said.
Dubai’s path out of the pandemic
Issam Kazim, CEO, Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM), told EW his organisation’s main focus for helping the events sector has been to show meeting planners and other stakeholders that there was a path out of the pandemic. “By resuming international business events in October 2020, we demonstrated that it was possible to host events of all sizes safely, while at the same time delivering the benefits that only face-to-face events can bring,” he said.
“We understand, of course, that we exist within a wider business events ecosystem, and along the way have been eager to share our knowledge and other experiences, including with other destinations, to ensure the industry as a whole can recover. This has been done through events such as our Dubai Global Events Re-Opening Forum in March and May’s UFI MEA Conference.
“We also maintained a strong calendar of activities throughout the pandemic, and even when physical sales and study missions, tradeshows and other face-to-face interactions were not possible, a programme of webinars and virtual meetings allowed us to stay connected to meeting and event planners across our key markets.”
And what of the new priorities post-pandemic for building back this business again?
Issam Kazim says the main role of the corporation’s network of global offices is providing a local touchpoint for Dubai with organisers.
The network of offices will also be leveraging the power of Expo 2020 Dubai, he said, both as a hook for potential events but also as an opportunity to show organisers the city’s capabilities, it’s growing knowledge base and focus on creating lasting legacies. “In recent months we have resumed our programme of study missions into Dubai and in-market activities, such as sales missions. This will gather pace through the remainder of 2021, especially from the start of Expo 2020 on 1 October,” Issam Kazim said.
The DCTCM CEO explained that Dubai Tourism had been operating a ‘digital, social and mobile first’ strategy for a few years. This, he said, had played a vital role throughout the pandemic, in keeping Dubai top of mind among its target audiences while acknowledging the challenges faced globally.
The visitor experience is further enhanced, said Issam Kazim, by the Dubai Way platform, which offers online training for government and private sector staff engaged in visitor-facing roles.
“For business events specifically, we have focused on a targeted digital campaign, aimed at making event planners aware of Dubai’s resumption of business events and our ability to host them safely,” he added, saying that targeting is not dependent purely on ability to travel right now, but rather aligned with longer term strategically targeted markets. Europe and North America remain important target markets for association conferences, while Latin America, India, China and South East Asia present strong opportunities for corporate incentive travel programmes, he noted.
The CEO acknowledged that the ability to travel to Dubai is dependent on the situation in a traveller’s home country and bilateral arrangements with the UAE, but said that once destinations reopen to Dubai, there is a strong appetite to visit, boosted by the rescaling of operations by Emirates, flydubai and other airlines.
Another aspect is the degree of confidence travellers have in the destination. “We worked with multiple public and private stakeholders to ensure stringent and effective guidelines were put in place across the tourism and business events ecosystems,” said Issam Kazim. “This covers everything from the arrival into Dubai International Airport, transportation around the city and sanitisation in hotels and restaurants, to social distancing and hygiene in events venues.
“In addition, we introduced the Dubai Assured stamp, which indicates that venues are meeting the high standards set, and the city has been awarded the Safe Travels stamp by the World Travel & Tourism Council.”
As well as delivering on the key hygiene factors, Issam Kazim sees Dubai’s advantage in its continued focus on innovation and economic diversification across a range of sectors, from trade, finance and logistics, through to the industries of the future, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and 3D printing.
So, how does he view Dubai’s prospects for developing the ‘E’ in MICE, namely the exhibition sub-sector?
“Exhibitions and tradeshows are an essential part of our business events ecosystem in Dubai, and indeed have played a crucial role in the city’s economic growth in recent decades. Events such as Gulfood, Arab Health and GITEX have built a strong reputation over many years, while more recently the likes of AI Everything and Future Blockchain Summit have shown how, for the industries and sectors of the future, well-organised and programmed exhibitions and tradeshows can continue to play a vital role,” Issam Kazim said.
“These events also contribute significant numbers to our overall international visitation, providing a backbone for continued business visitor growth.”
Riyadh on the move
At the lastest edition of the Future Investment Initiative, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that Riyadh will become one of the 10 largest city economies in the world (currently it is number 40). The FII event, which attracted more than 10,000 registered attendees as well as millions more on social media, also heard that 24 multinational companies had signed up to establish their regional headquarters in Riyadh.
EW asked Chiara Palieri, a special advisor on conferences and exhibitions in Riyadh, to share a personal view on the market there, where she says there are increased levels of promotional activity for tourism. “Governments in the MENA region have taken impressive and timely steps to contain the pandemic and gradually restart the opening of exhibitions,” she said.
“PEOs have majorly suffered but they have showed incredible resiliency in reinventing business models and upgrading existing events with hybrid formats; the pandemic has ruthlessly operated a natural selection, making or breaking businesses,” she added, but believes morale is hopeful and forward looking. “We have all learnt to bounce back quickly and reset our modus operandi.”
Palieri is one of the group leaders of the ETT MENA Professionals within the Exhibition Think Tank Club founded by MBB Consulting and UFI and regularly discusses the development of the exhibition industry with colleagues around the region. She said it was now fully equipped to thrive either in a physical dimension or omnichannel one.
“Across the region, we have witnessed a solid co-operation in co-designing the new chapter of our industry and I believe we are equipped to thrive together, creating new synergies between government and the private sector,” Palieri added, noting that, “co-operation over competition has been the underlying pillar of this challenging time for the exhibition industry and I look forward to explore how we can join forces in the region to thrive together”.
The optimism in the region further comes through also with the Middle East recording high hotel occupancy levels during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Sharjah (67.2%), Doha Centre (65.5%), Abu Dhabi (63.6%) and Al Khobar (63.5%) experienced the highest occupancy levels in the region. Jeddah (58.6%) and Dubai (59.7%) also showed performance improvement.