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Sat 23 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Meeting the challenges ahead

Reed Travel Exhibitions group exhibition director meetings and incentive events Paul Kennedy MBE discusses the region's booming meetings industry and possible challenges for the future.

Reed Travel Exhibitions group exhibition director meetings and incentive events Paul Kennedy MBE discusses the region's booming meetings industry and possible challenges for the future.

How has the meetings industry in the Middle East changed over the past few years?

If we look back 10 years, there was no recognition or understanding of the meetings industry.

Some places have a lot to offer the meetings industry but don’t get the business because getting around is a nightmare.

The Middle East followed the development of tourism in its widest possible definition, as all new markets use. That means you have leisure and business travellers first, and then the recognition of the segments you get within travel.

The meetings industry is and should be seen as quite a different economic activity, because everything about it is different from travel; now, in the Gulf and the wider Middle East, there's a growing recognition of the meetings industry's economic value.

It is recognised that this industry will bring in between four and 10 times what a leisure traveller will bring to an economy.

Then there's the fact that the national tourist boards are beginning to understand why meeting planners choose destinations: ease of access; price and price flexibility; quality of facilities; quality of service; and safety and security.

There's a great opportunity for [this region] to become a true international hub.

Do I think the Gulf is yet such a hub for meetings? No, I don't, because it's not drawing business in from every major economic hub around the world at sufficient levels to make it noticeable. So I think there's a lot to be had here, but there's a long way to go.

Which destinations in the region stand out as meetings hubs?

Our research is very clear: Dubai is the market leader, and Abu Dhabi and Oman have rocketed themselves to second and third place in terms of where people are interested in hosting meetings.

They've achieved this by being very strong marketeers with very clear messages, and they've spent a lot of money on face-to-face marketing rather than display-ad marketing - they go to exhibitions, they go to conferences, they do road shows. And face-to-face marketing clearly works.

As the meetings industry grows, what kind of challenges is the region facing?

There are a number of challenges - developing the infrastructure of a place first, for example, such as general access and the local taxi service, so they're ready in time to serve the physical meeting venues. I think that's very important; there's still some way to go for a number of destinations.

In marketing terms there are also some challenges. A destination needs to decide what sector of the business it wants to target: corporate, corporate incentives, association business. Each requires a different focus on product offer and servicing.

But I think the biggest challenge for destinations and venues in particular is to understand that the venue role is to add value to the requirements of the meeting planner. Venues that adopt that style win the business.

Taking Dubai as a prime example, fast-developing destinations seem to have problems handling the influx of people during large conferences or trade shows, particularly regarding transportation and traffic. What can be done to solve this?

There are several big destinations around the world that suffer from similar problems. There's a fine balance between having the right quantitive supply of taxis and routes and so on, and the right quality supply, regarding service.

I think that if destinations have a clean sheet, as many Gulf destinations do, their transport infrastructure needs to be really high on the agenda, because it can make or break a destination.

There are some places in the world that have a lot to offer the meetings industry but don't get the business because getting around is a nightmare.

What are your own experiences of Dubai as a host destination?

My experience has been heavy traffic and problems with taxis, on the negative side. On the positive side, I think the hotel stock is fantastic, particularly the four-star and above sector.

I think that most of the main hotel companies there have done the sensible thing and recruited meetings industry specialists, particularly on the sales side.

For me, Dubai, when it overcomes its traffic problem, will continue to build and build its meetings business.

It's got a good reputation for quality and I'm sure that in time it will become more price-flexible as a destination.

Do you think hotels in the Middle East actually understand fully what is required to properly support the meetings industry? What more needs to be done?

If they want to capitalise on the business and get occupancy up and get subsidiary spending in the hotels up, I would counsel several things.

In terms of hotel design there can be nothing better than asking one or two international meeting planners what they should be doing in their hotels, and I don't see much evidence around [of that happening] at the moment to be honest.

Also the operational staff and the sales staff must work together to provide a seamless hassle-free product for the organiser.

Instead of sales people saying to a meeting planner 'how many rooms do you want', if they start the conversations asking about the objectives of the event, the chance of converting that business and up-selling will be dramatically increased.

It's about understanding the objectives of a client, rather than starting from the premise that ‘this is the product that we offer'.

What are the key demands regarding facilities at the moment?

There is a feeling that perhaps the region is not sufficiently price-flexible, and I think it needs to deal with that.

I also think that in a few years a hotel's environmental and Corporate Social Responsibility policies will be top-10 priorities for meeting planners. The hotels will have to off-set a company's presence with their policies.

We're already seeing that emerge as a decision maker, and venues that cannot demonstrate a commitment to those areas will have problems.

In your opinion, which is the best meetings venue in the region?

I've seen no finer meeting room facilities anywhere than Emirates Palace, but I think you have to address what the best venue is for your particular event. You really need to consider what you need in terms of your particular event.

But I've used Emirates Palace, and in pure spatial terms it's as good as I've ever experienced.

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