By Tim Burrowes
The Middle East is the perfect host when it comes to exhibitions. But what does the future hold?
It's Show Time|~|World-Trade-centre200.jpg|~|Dubai World Trade Centre|~|It’s no wonder most Middle East-based marketing directors allocate such a big chunk of their budgets to the exhibitions world. In a region where return on investment from traditional advertising is murky at best, exhibitions offer the ultimate in measurability. You pay for your stand, you send your people and the orders either come in or they don’t. Either way, you can be certain afterwards of whether you spent your budget wisely. And with the local business culture’s natural affinity for networking, the investment usually pays off.
Little wonder then that the sector has boomed. From national exhibitions, which take place in most major cities within the Middle East, to regionally focused events based mainly in Dubai, the growth has often outstripped capacity.
One reason for the success – and particularly in Dubai – is the recognition by the authorities that exhibitions have an economic value beyond the short term. A second is that the local business environment tends to be a very positive one for exhibitions.
Anselm Godinho, managing director of International Conferences & Exhibitions, recognises that this makes life a lot easier for the industry.
He says of his Arab Oil and Gas show: “We manage to sustain the show only because of Dubai’s networking
environment. I would attribute the success of many shows to Dubai rather than the organisers. Any one of us would not be half as successful in another environment. The venue is excellent and Dubai promotes the shows internationally.”
The venue he is talking about is based around the eight halls at the Dubai World Trade Centre complex.
Bernard Walsh, managing director of DMG World Media – the organiser of some of the region’s biggest events, including Index, Big 5 and Hotel Show – says that such events bring a host city short, medium and long-term gains.
In the short term there is economic gain through bringing thousands of visitors into local hotels and restaurants. The medium-term gain is persuading the same people to come back as tourists, while the long-term gain becomes clear as deals done at the events translate into economic activity.
He says: “Dubai wants as many major exhibitions and conventions as possible and its policies will be designed to encourage that.”
That Dubai has succeeded in becoming the region’s exhibition hub is a statement that most organisers agree upon.
Abdulla Abulhoul, general director of Mediac, which organises Fabulous Four, Dubai Helishow and the Construction & Equipment events, says: “Dubai is very well established. This is because of wise policies over a long time.”
Indeed, the exhibition business has been on an upward climb for nearly three decades.
David Domoney, managing director of the Domus Group, owners of November’s Media and Marketing Show, International Property Week, Arab Lab Expo and International Finance and Banking Week, remembers somewhat basic beginnings.
“The first show I ever did in Dubai was in 1976 in a tent on the side of the Creek. In those days there were no exhibition facilities at all. There certainly wasn’t any air conditioning or anything like that. It was amazing. We needed a hoover on an extension lead cable because we’d laid the carpets on sand.
“But the ruling family very quickly realised that exhibitions could mean something for the area. The first facilities built were at the Dubai World Trade Centre – that came in at the end of 1979 and the Queen opened it.
“There is now an amazing growth in the region and an amazing awareness of Dubai across the world. It wasn’t like that 25 years ago. When I first started here, nobody had heard of Dubai.”
At first many speculated that the Trade Centre, along with the ambitions of being a regional economic hub, were driven by egos rather than foresight. Now things have gone the other way – at certain events the venue is at bursting point, with plans for tents in the car park.
Walsh says that four exhibitions have got so big they have run out of space – Index, Big 5, Gitex and Arab Health. The World Trade Centre is at one end of the notoriously busy Sheikh Zayed Road.
“They are all spaced out – we need more space for the mega shows. Particularly for the mega shows, the centre cannot handle it in terms of traffic and disruption to life in the city,” says Walsh
Many organisers are even taking their most successful shows out on the road because there’s no room to grow them further in Dubai.
Indeed, some of DMG’s growth is coming from taking Index, an interior design exhibition, and Big 5, which focuses on the construction industry, to Bahrain next May in a bid to attract more business from the neighbouring eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Walsh has already done a similar thing in New Delhi in India.
IC&E has similar tactics for its 18-year-old Gulf Education and Training Exhibition, which is a consumer show aimed at both students and working professionals. Student recruitment is the biggest part, with 438 universities from 37 different countries exhibiting at last year’s Dubai event. It attracted 27,100 visitors.
Now Godinho plans to do an autumn show in Abu Dhabi for the first time to target next year’s spring intake of students. He has also taken the show to India – the company will be doing the event in Hyderabad in April, just a week before the Dubai show.
He says: “It gives the international exhibitors the chance to do both at once. We also hope to take the show to Malaysia in 2006. Education is one of the hot subjects at the moment.”
Organisers cite Dubai’s ‘show profile’ policy as another reason they have been able to successfully establish their events.
In essence it means that once somebody has successfully established an exhibition nobody else will be allowed to use the venue to organise a copycat event if there would be a significant overlap of potential visitors or exhibitors.
It’s the kind of anti-competitive measure that would be illegal in other parts of the world as it tends to shut out new players, although it does ensure existing shows are safeguarded.
Godinho says: “It’s something that has helped tremendously. Over the years we’ve had some organisations come and go.
The worse thing that can happen is when you get fly-by-night operators who do not promote the show. Then, when the exhibitors fly in, they never want to come back. ||**||It's Show Time|~|Godinho200.jpg|~|Anselm Godinho, managing director of International Conference & Exhibitions|~|Having some sort of title protection is good.”
He believes that without it his Arab Oil and Gas show, held every two years, might not still be going. The event alternates with a similar type of show in Abu Dhabi.
Domoney also supports the policy of profile protection and urged that it should be retained for the planned Exhibition City.
He says: “One of the things that Dubai World Trade Centre does police is the profile protection policy and that means that, if an organisation comes along, they will look at the track record of the company and concept of the show and look at the client list and make sure nobody else is doing that. They will then grant me a licence and I am protected from anybody else doing it.
“For instance, in Singapore, you might have three or four organisers trying to work on the same subject and nobody has a successful event.”
However, Godinho is not happy with the way the protection policy is policed in practice.
He says: “The protection policy is an unwritten policy and you are allowed a 10% overlap. But there is no specific template about what is allowed and what is not allowed. While profile protection works to our benefit, there is no standard procedure to calculate what overlap is permissible. Some organisers use a particular set of words and get away with it.
“When you apply for an exhibition licence it’s easy enough to put forward your profile. If you look at the profile registered and what then appears on the ground, you find a lot of difference.”
He’s unhappy that the WTC gets to be the sole arbiter on this. “There should be some form of committee which is qualified to judge that. I don’t believe any single person can do it. You need a whole committee to do this, to understand the industry across the board. You almost need an auditing firm to understand the overlap.”
His criticism is relatively unusual in a region where people generally try to keep their arguments private.
Domus’ Domoney is one who believes in accentuating the positive. He says: “One of the benefits we have here is that we’ve all grown up together. The Dubai Trade Centre has learned what organisers want and expect.
“We tend to work very closely with the government so it understands the sort of shows we produce.”
But the drawback of working together in a small world is ongoing feuds.
IC&E and Domus were recently involved in a bitter legal dispute over ownership of events and Godinho says the industry is poor at speaking with one voice. An attempt to put together a group under the Chamber of Commerce umbrella fizzled out, he says.
“They have a committee of sorts but I never hear anything of it, there is never any information forthcoming. It seems to have died a natural death. The exhibition businesses here have no unity. There’s no unity among organisers, which is a sad thing since there is no workable forum.
“We have about 20 exhibition organisers and I don’t see why we cannot see eye-to-eye on general subjects. We should all be wise enough to understand that a joint effort benefits all of us. There’s no forum where we can get together without squabbling.”
If such a forum was created, there’s one issue that many organisers would like to raise – that of prices within the WTC complex.
Depending on the amount of space hired, rates have gone up between 40% and 100%, say some organisers. And while there is an argument that this merely represents the market price – the venue is at bursting point – it has still hurt established organisers.
They believe the brief for the venue has changed from one that, first and foremost, encouraged a thriving exhibition industry, to one that’s keen to maximise income above all else.
Unlike most of the world, people in the Middle East are generally resistant to paying to visit exhibitions, meaning this revenue stream is lost to local exhibition organisers.
It means that the cost of exhibiting is already higher here than the rest of the world. So passing on the extra cost to exhibitors who are already paying a high price is not an attractive option. But, then again, for the organisers, neither is simply absorbing the cost.
Abulhoul says: “It’s a very wrong policy. We are facing so many problems. The price is too high. An organiser has to pass it on to the exhibitors who will have to decide if it is viable to come or not. They need to look at it.”
Despite being approached several times, the World Trade Centre was not available for comment.
A further pressure for organisers is that rising hotel prices are causing some exhibitors to think twice. With occupancy levels among the highest in the world, many of the city’s hotels have gradually been increasing their rates.
Whatever happens, the opening of Exhibition City in four years’ time will change the game again.
In typical Dubai fashion, the plans announced last month will create the biggest exhibition facility in the world.
Sited within Jebel Ali Airport City, the venue will eventually have 19 large exhibition halls and cover 3 million square metres. Hotels, restaurants, offices and apartments will also be built there.
The first 100,000 square metre phase is due to be completed in time for the 2009 Dubai Air Show, with parking for 20,000 cars.
DMG’s Walsh says: “Clearly it’s an extraordinary development. It suggests Dubai will be building one of the biggest exhibition centres in the world. The first phase alone will double the size of the existing complex. This is a very good example of them planning for the future.”
As a smaller player, Godinho is less excited about Exhibition City. He says: “I don’t believe it will help us directly, but it will help the larger shows because they have run out of space. I think it will benefit the bigger exhibitions, provided profile protection will continue.”
Details of who will run Exhibition City are still hazy, but there is some speculation the WTC will be converted into a conference venue instead.
Domoney said that Exhibition City would need to be big enough to have spare capacity to allow for time to set up and dismantle shows.
“It takes three or four days to build an exhibition and two days to break it down, so you’ve got to have alternative facilities. You might not have 15 halls full at the same time, but you might be using ten today and the other five tomorrow.”
Abulhoul gives reserved support to the plans. “It has a future but it’s timing. I think 2009 is too early. It’s too soon to move to Jebel Ali. Perhaps 2015 would be better.”
What is certain is that Dubai is determined to keep its exhibition crown for several years yet.||**||