By Aaron Greenwood
The Ritz-Carlton Doha has forged a formidable reputation as one of the Middle East's leading conference and events venues, with advanced AV technology providing the facility with a competitive edge over its regional counterparts.
Perched on two manmade islands overlooking the Arabian Gulf and the Qatari capital's rapidly soaring city skyline, the Ritz-Carlton (RC) Doha has established itself as one of the country's leading venues for major international conferences and entertainment events.
Owned and operated by Marriot International, RC Doha has played host to an eclectic range of events since opening in 2001, from touring productions of Cats and Mamma Mia, to the world's largest oil and gas conference, LNG14. It was also used as the international communications base by the organisers of the 2006 Doha Asian Games.
The pressure is on hotel venues [in the GCC] to ensure their AV facilities are cutting-edge. - Barsan
Key to the venue's popularity among international organisations is its raft of state-of-the-art AV conferencing technologies, which include an advanced 384K ISDN-based videoconferencing facility based on Polycom View Station hardware.
The hotel also boasts a dedicated AV technical support team led by Doru Barsan, who is one of only three AV professionals working in the Middle East hospitality industry to have acquired a level 3 certificate under the Marriot group's MVP International AV quality assurance training programme.
Barsan says the programme has successfully raised professional standards among AV specialists working for the hotel chain worldwide.
"Marriot International recognised some years ago that regular training and a degree of certification was required for employees specialising in AV technology," he says. "Each hotel in the group has qualified technicians on staff, which distinguishes us from our competitors. The MVP programme is recognised as a benchmark in the AV sector of the hospitality industry."
RC Doha boasts more than 2,000 sq metres of meeting, conference and banqueting space, with standout facilities including the 1,150 sq metre Al Wosail ballroom and 565 sq metre Al Muhktasar junior ballroom, which are complemented by six meeting rooms and various outdoor function areas.
The hotel also features an indoor tennis stadium, which has previously been transformed into a major theatre venue for the production of Cats in 2005 and Mamma Mia earlier this year. Barsan claims the venue is the largest of its kind in Doha.
"It obviously isn't a dedicated concert or theatre venue, but it boasts great access for production crews to bring in several tonnes of equipment and it is a comfortable venue for audiences," he says. "The only major issue is a lack of stage trussing, but in the case of Mamma Mia, the crew simply built stage arches to hang the lights."
Barsan says RC Doha typically hosts major entertainment events on a similar scale three to four times each year. He concedes that in the case of major international productions, most of the AV equipment is shipped in from overseas.
"I provide support to the promoter and production manager on any major event staged at RC Doha," he says. "However, at times we do face technical limitations in terms of meeting their demands.
"As a result, some productions source equipment from rental companies in Doha, but this is usually restricted to moving lights and some trussing, because it's hugely expensive to ship the latter."
According to Laura Haucke, RC Doha's assistant director of Food and Beverage (F&B) and a former member of the hotel's major events organising division, Cats and Mamma Mia provided valuable lessons in logistical planning.
"Both productions were on a scale previously unseen in Doha," she says. "In both instances, we provided logistical support to the production companies, ranging from organising external power and water supplies to assisting with technical aspects behind the scenes in collaboration with our AV team."
While Haucke is upbeat about Doha's emergence as an increasingly popular destination for international organisations and production companies looking to stage major events in the GCC, she concedes that the city still "can't compare itself with a highly evolved market like Dubai".
"We're still a little bit behind in terms of the overall development of our major events industry," she says.
"Dubai tends to steal the headlines in this respect. But Qatar's priorities are a little different to the UAE. The government here is focusing on attracting international organisations looking to stage financial, education and sporting events, whereas the UAE is positioning itself as a destination for leisure events."
Barsan agrees, confirming that the hotel's raft of AV equipment is more suited to conferencing applications.
"Conferences are our core business, hence the bulk of the AV equipment we have installed here is designed to support these events," he confirms.
"For a typical conference, we would supply four LCD projectors and screens, around six plasma screens, conference monitors, around 100 microphones, and a translation system that is capable of supporting up to eight languages..
"In the ballroom, we have Renkus Heinz speakers and Carver amplifiers linked to a Soundweb digital console and controlled via AMX and touch panels."
The ballroom also features multiple Christie 5500 ANSI Lumens videoprojectors in drop-down lifts.
While an analogue broadcast network currently supports videoconferencing services linking the various meeting rooms and ballroom, Barsan says the hotel is considering investing in high definition (HD) technology.
"At the recent MVP Conference in the US, all the buzz surrounded HD," he says. "The only drawback we have here is that HD content is not readily available in the Middle East.
"Most content broadcast at conferences and seminars is shot on analogue or at best standard definition digital video. So the benefits of HD are not yet available and it's questionable as to whether it is worth investing in the technology at this point. However, I expect we'll be looking to acquire HD projectors over the next 12 to 24 months."
Barsan says RC Doha has however invested significantly in digital audio, particularly wireless microphone technology.
"We are committed to digital audio," he confirms. "It's very important that we provide our clients with the best quality sound and eliminate any feedback or RF interference, particularly in the case of our wireless mic network.
"Sennheiser microphones are better suited to conferences and events," he continues. "When you are staging a major conference for around 700 delegates, you face issues with radio frequency interference from cell phones, and I've found Sennheiser mics perform better in these environments.
"For live vocal performances, I replace the Sennheiser capsules with Shure capsules, as most vocalists favour the dynamic capabilities of Shure mics."
For larger events, Barsan says he sources a certain amount of equipment from local rental companies. However, he concedes that local service and support standards are significantly lower than those in more established markets such as Europe or the US.
"There are a couple of rental companies we deal with in Doha, such as Techno Q, which are great to deal with," he says. "However, when it comes to purchasing new equipment, I generally tend to deal directly with manufacturers.
"I've found that some AV equipment suppliers in Qatar don't really understand the capabilities of the products they are selling. Their salespeople might give you an overview, but they don't really appreciate the technical capabilities of certain products, particularly when you are discussing frequency limitations or dynamic features. It's often best to research products online and source them directly from the manufacturer.
"But in saying that, things have improved here in recent years. When I first came to Doha in 2004, there was one major distributor in particular whose sales staff weren't technically minded, but in the past 12 months they have replaced many of these with qualified engineers. You don't need a traditional salesperson to sell AV equipment - you need someone who understands the technical demands of the client and can suggest a number of alternative solutions."
Barsan argues that intense competition in the GCC hospitality sector is also having a positive impact on sales of AV equipment in the region, as the major hotel-based conference and events venues look to trump their rivals by acquiring the latest AV technologies. "In Europe, contractors and systems integrators are mainly responsible for setting AV trends in the hospitality sector," he claims.
"But in the Middle East, it is the opposite. Competition is driving the major hotels to invest heavily in cutting-edge AV infrastructure and services, from in-room entertainment through to conference and events technologies. The hospitality industry in the GCC countries is booming, so the pressure is on hotel venues to ensure their AV facilities are cutting-edge."