Event horizon

The Middle East has worked hard to build a reputation as a global events hub, catering to everything from conferences and awards ceremonies to sporting events. But is the market in good enough shape to survive the slowdown, asks Lucy Taylor?
Event horizon
The Palladium recently opened in the UAE’s Dubai Media City.
By Lucy Taylor
Fri 05 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

The Middle East has worked hard to build a reputation as a global events hub, catering to everything from conferences and awards ceremonies to sporting events. But is the market in good enough shape to survive the slowdown, asks Lucy Taylor?

Through its dedication to building breathtaking new venues and enticing both business and leisure tourists to take advantage of such facilities, the Middle East has become a hive of activity for events — both regional and international — of many different varieties.

For example, the World Travel Awards — travel and tourism industry accolades recognising best practice — were this year held at The Monarch Dubai.

“We were catering for 370 guests from the travel industry for a sit-down dinner,” says the hotel’s director of conference and events, Andreas Fasel.

“As for a gala event, the best solution for this type of event was a set menu, which was created by our executive chef, Ademir Husagic. We were given the full creative approach in terms of the menu selection and the organiser did not interfere in the creation of the menu or the set-up of the event; we were given total freedom to ensure high expectations in terms of quality and service were met.”

Meanwhile Fairmont Dubai’s annual Arabian Travel Market (ATM) party, this year boasting a ‘Roaring 20s’ theme, catered for 500 guests at the hotel’s Club 400 nightclub venue.

Fairmont Dubai director — food and beverage Sunny Joseph explains: “The food menu at the ATM party consisted of a hot and cold savoury buffet, a dessert room featuring a chocolate fountain and a gourmet cheese display, as well as hot and cold canapés. The menu items chosen were traditional gourmet canapés with a 1920’s flair, including ornate chocolate frills, iced figures from the 1920s era and edible cameos embellished on individual desserts.

“To ensure the smooth running of the ATM party, the planning begins three months prior to the event,” he adds. “Once the concept is finalised, the food and beverage strategy is developed to compliment the theme, venue and target audience.”

If these gatherings sound like they took a lot of planning, spare a thought for those who are continuously catering for events.

At Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), as executive chef Harald Oberender points out, the catering team could come into contact with a whole range of possible events from week to week. “To begin with, the sheer size of our catering operation is huge — last year we had more than 1.1 million customers. That gives you an idea of the size of this operation,” he explains.

“MICE is obviously the key part, but we do have a lot of weddings to cater for and we do catering in the other six emirates of the UAE as well. Plus there are seven outlets at the Centre and for big events like Gulfood there are often lunches or parties for exhibitors as well.

“For these, we’ll have various bars, live cooking stations, and so on. We have chefs from 17 different countries in our kitchen so there’s a lot of variety,” he explains.

“Staff-wise, these kinds of events can require anything from 500 members upwards. We have that many on our full-time team but for big events we have to take staff on, so that number may reach 1000.”

At The Palladium, a new multi-purpose venue in Dubai Media City, owners International Communications Entertainment (ICE) recently partnered with Jebel Ali International Hotels (JAI Hotels), making the group the exclusive food and beverage partners in catering across the whole venue.

“That covers various facets,” notes Dutco Hospitality food and beverage concept director William Harley-Fleming. “You have restaurants, lounges, the main auditorium, and the beauty of that is that it’s very flexible. We can hold a seated banquet in the main auditorium for 1200, then you can do 3000 for a seated show or 5000 for a standing concerts. So that flexibility is a major advantage and selling point of the venue.

“There are three main restaurants: a cafe-style outlet; the Meditteranean theatre kitchen; then there’s the fine-dining restaurant, which has an aerial view of the auditorium. We’ll also have a fourth outlet — a cigar lounge. That concept’s in progress at the moment. These should all be up-and-running by the end of the year.”

JAI Hotels hosted its first event — an awards ceremony — in May. “There were just over 1000 people at this seated event,” says Harley-Fleming. “We had a lot of live cooking installations, to offer as diverse a mix for the large party as possible, so it really covered a lot of aspects and had the fun element of show-cooking.”

Catering for a sporting venue is on a larger scale still. For the recent Grand Prix, Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) had to deal with catering for 34,500 spectators on a daily basis.

“On top of this, we offer catering for the paddock club guests, we cater for 34 corporate lounges and we offer team catering for another 400 people. Lastly there is the staff and volunteer catering which covers another 1500 or so people every day,” says BIC press officer Mohammed Al Awadi.

“The types of catering have evolved over the last five Grand Prix,” he continues. “The public catering is a mixture of fast food, coffees, fresh juices and sandwiches — typical event fare. We also offer the Gulf Air Club where guests can obtain hot food or drinks, then the hospitality catering is high end breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in the comfort of a hospitality lounge or suite.

“Some items can be prepared in advance and frozen, but the remaining food is prepared on a daily basis and delivered fresh to the customer.”

Event obstacles

No matter how well an event is planned there will be challenges, most of which (unintentionally or otherwise) will be caused by the guests themselves.

Fairmont’s Joseph points out that potential late arrivals must be taken into account: “Service needs to be constant throughout the night to ensure guests arriving later in the evening receive the same levels and accessibility to food and beverage.”

BIC’s Al Awadi notes that catering for large numbers is always a logistical challenge. “We have to operate out of largely temporary facilities and it is imperative that these are built to the highest standards for hygiene and safety reasons,” he explains.

“As the Grand Prix was later this year [and therefore the weather was hotter], we also had to allow for a increase in the areas where we store water and soft drinks due to the increase in demand.”Catering for carefully time-tabled events can also raise issues, as The Monarch’s Fasel points out.

“A major challenge can often be that the client’s programme does not match with the flow of the food service sequence — for example, a course being served during a speech or award presentation. Such time constraints are always challenging.”

Dutco’s Harley-Fleming asserts that “it’s the preparation prior to the event which is the most important aspect”.

“Fortunately Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa has a large and experienced catering team, which has in the past done events like the Dubai World Cup, events with Dubai Autodrome and the Desert Classic as well. So with their expertise and assistance we’ve been able to prepare well,” he says.

For DWTC’s Oberender, the key to successfully handling numerous different events is flexibility. “The Trade Centre covers thousands of square meters, and with the new hall (currently under development) it will be even more,” he says. “Things change from week to week, so we have to be adaptable.”

Finger on the pulse

Whether an event itself is a regular occurrence or a one-off spectacle, the catering itself has to be right on target — which is why the teams must stay up-to-date with market trends and the preferences of their customer base.

“The key to a successful event like our annual ATM party is to ensure that food and beverages are dispensed as seamlessly as possible,” advises Fairmont’s Joseph.

“Food should be imaginative and uncomplicated and drinks should be refreshing, especially as guests come straight to the hotel from a long day at the exhibition.”

At BIC, Al Awadi notes that customers are moving away from traditional quick-service food. “We are seeing less interest in the typical fast food that used to be popular in the earlier years of the Bahrain Grand Prix, with a move towards healthier foods and local cuisine,” he explains.

The Monarch’s Fasel says another major factor in the current climate is that “organisers are very cost-conscious”.

“Because of this, we had to find ways to incorporate client demands by offering different menu styles; for example a family-style menu offering sharing platters.”

Another impact of the economic downturn has been a slowdown in business for the events catering industry, he adds.

“The demand has slightly shifted now; and of course the summer months are usually very slow due to it being a traditional holiday period in the region.

“But I think the pick-up will start again during Ramadan, with banquet functions and corporate Iftar dinners,” predicts Fasel.

Fairmont’s Joseph agrees that there has recently been a decline in number of events being held by companies, citing the fact that “managing expenses are at an all-time high”.

“Some companies have therefore decided to merge several events,” he observes. “So for example they might hold one event in London for the whole EMEA region, while historically there would have perhaps been two events, one in Europe and one in Middle East.”

(Party) planning for the future

The general slowdown will hopefully be short-lived, with many caterers already seeing strong bookings for after summer.

DWTC’s Oberender says wedding business will keep the Centre busy over the coming months, before trade show season starts again in September. Meanwhile BIC will host an annual charity event organised by the local Rotaract Club, while The Monarch Dubai has several large banquet functions on the cards, including an Angel Appeal charity fundraiser.

JAI Hotels will cater for various events at The Palladium over the coming months, including pop concerts and theatre events.

“The model is constantly changing,” notes Dutco’s Harley-Fleming. “The key really is in looking at the clientele to find out what exactly we need to do to meet the needs of the customer base.”

The variety of events taking place in the region today proves that the Middle East has the locations and the know-how to be an extremely successful global events destination.

But as Harley-Fleming points out, it will be caterers’ attention to their customers’ needs and preferences that will ensure this region remains an events hub to be reckoned with in future.

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