Small but perfectly formed, the second Business Travel Show Dubai received a mixed reception from exhibitors who felt the corporate travel market was missing in the visitor mix.
Taking place between October 20 and 21 at the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, the Business Travel Show (BTS) had a big neighbour down the road in GITEX the massive IT exposition that annually notches up 100,000-plus visitors.
And, it was that rival that many exhibitors blamed for the perceived poor turn-out of the target audience of BTS, those corporate travel buyers.
We had a surge on the second afternoon and this influx did include some good names.
While numbers are currently being audited, exhibition director Sally Maltby was expectant that total figures might be up to the 2000-plus mark reached last year, although she conceded that exhibitors had expressed the view that there were too few corporate buyers.
"We had a surge on the second afternoon and this influx did include some good names," she said. "While I don't know the full statistics yet, we will be analysing these to assess who was there, where they came from and the reasons for attendance."
For the big names such as British Airways and Hilton, there was a feeling of disappointment at the poor turnout, but also a commitment to drive the show forward in future.
"There seemed to be fewer buyers," said BA area commercial manager, Paul Starrs. "Feedback from my team is that companies were telling their travel people to come along, but they did not show up."
"It has been a little disheartening, but we all need to work together as this is a forum for the sector, for buyers, suppliers, TMCs etc, and we have to make it a success."
Guy Epsom, Hilton's regional director of sales & marketing, similarly emphasised the positive benefits of a forum for the business travel sector, but said the jury was still out on the success of BTS this year.
"The clash with GITEX was unfortunate; and there seemed to be a lack of pre-publicity, while we might also question whether it is the right time in the business cycle of Dubai to introduce a specialised show when the sector is less developed than elsewhere," he said.
"But, we can all learn from the experience, and the [ATN-hosted] VIP panel discussion and cocktail party were fascinating, with the right audience of buyers and suppliers, which led to lively discussions."
For Radisson Edwardian, regional director of sales Shadhad Jahanbani said the original Business Travel Show in London had similarly got off to a slow start. He suggested a ‘wait and see' attitude to evaluate the Dubai event.
"It felt quiet but we did have a fair amount of hits with our registration ‘zapper' and we will see if they come good," he said. "Expectations were high and I was hoping to meet more corporates as opposed to existing contacts - the organisers should invite more buyers."
A similar view was expressed by Rached Arfaoui, corporate sales manager for Qatar Airways, who stressed that Emirates Airline was absent from the show - a fact he believed might have affected numbers.
"Emirates would have been a big draw in this market," he said.But, away from the major names, ancillary companies from apartment bookers to limousine hire and air charter all reported good business, with First Class Cars, for instance, converting contact to business overnight.
"I've run out of cards and brochures; it was all a bit of surprise," said director Graham Coate. "I just met with the PA for the CEO of a blue-chip company who was going to Expedia for bookings, but now she has my contact, while another corporate visitor on Monday called the next morning with four bookings."
Better Homes too reported brisk business, according to marketing manager, Sumeet Khurana: "The industry wants the show to succeed and is willing to work with us to make sure that happens," she said.
The industry wants the show to succeed and is willing to work with us to make sure that happens.
"We met with international as well as UAE contacts and expect good results for our short-term lets."
And, while the stress balls and post-it giveaways might have been of more use to the exhibitors, Maltby emphasised that bookings were already rolling in for the 2009 event, suggesting even disappointed stand-holders were keeping faith with the concept.
"We were up 30% in size this year, and already for 2009, before the show even closed, we had reservations from Alshamel Travel, Virgin Atlantic, BCD Travel, First Class Cars, IHG, HTT, Travelport, Qatar Airways, Better Homes, HRS, Oxygen4Aviation, Apartment Stay, SNTTA and Jumeirah - while [British carrier] bmi was a new signing," she said.
"The industry wants the show to succeed and is willing to work with us to make sure that happens."
For their part, organiser Centaur is committing resource to the region, with Maltby now based in Dubai for three week a month.
She said following the evaluation of statistics for this year's show, new considerations might be for a hosted buyer programme, a beefed up marketing and PR programme as well as a new timings.
Tweaks might also be in the pipeline for the educational content at BTS Dubai, with more free sessions or a corporate package covering multiple sessions, according to Monique Swart, regional director for the Association of Corporate Travel Executive (ACTE), which organised the conference content.
"There was participation of nearly 100 or more at the keynote addresses by Jumeirah's Imran Changezi and HRG's David Radcliffe, but the audience for topics such as safety and security didn't make double figures," she said.
"A consideration for the future is the international/local mix - people here want examples from organisations they know rather than importing global SOPs for instance - and I want to get in those that lead by example as well as the global conglomerates."
Swart acknowledged that price had been a barrier with entrance fees of AED 300 per session at the door, although overall numbers had been up on last year.
"People were more aware of the conference side and the speakers were great. We just have to acknowledge that the education process takes time, particularly introducing new concepts," she said. On show
Technology was a major talking point at Business Travel Show Dubai with major initiatives underway to adapt and develop solutions specific to the Middle East, tailored to the needs of the local market.
BCD Travel demonstrated its TripSource NetSearch proprietary technology, aimed at simplifying comparison of web and GDS rates while tying this in to clients' managed travel programmes.
"The perception of what is needed here is very different when seen from the ground and we are streamlining our POS technology for agents," said managing director Greg O'Neil.
"We have also strengthened our regional position with the appointment of Apollo Travels as representative in Yemen."
At Alshamel International, now tied in with Carlson Wagonlit Travel for one year, vice president sales Dalia El Nazer said technology was a focus of the new partnership.
"We are working closely together to come up with local solutions, starting with reporting and management information, and the first phase is currently under development and testing - we hope to go live with this in Q1 next year," she revealed.
Dnata meanwhile scoped the competition and excited interest with the launch of the first online travel and expense (T&E) system in the Middle East, which could cut company expenditure on travel, according to Dnata Travel Services senior vice president Abdulla Tawakul. "We anticipate this technology will offer corporations savings of up to 20% of their travel spend while optimising their travel processes and providing additional services and security to travellers."
Kanoo Travel was promoting its new 24/7 corporate services centre at Kanoo Towers in Bur Dubai, while Hilton was out to tempt conference and event bookers with a programme of rewards that include Sony Playstations and Nintendo Wii consoles as well as photo printers, and navigation systems.
And, when it all got too much, Premier Inn, Virgin, Qatar Airways and BA all had beds on show, while the latter had a new terminal to promote too.
"The last tranche of flights went in to Terminal 5 this month and now it is bedded in, we will be seriously promoting the facility," said BA's Starrs. "There has been a substantial improvement in customer satisfaction, baggage delivery and punctuality, and it is now the best transfer proposition in Europe, if not the world."
But, the last word went to the camel, patiently standing guard at entrance for two days. Not just a tourist gimmick, but an advertisement for Dnata's new corporate initiative - camel polo.Now tried and tested on HRG executives, it's ideal for team building, Dnata claims.
VIP panel session tackles big issues
Leading travel industry professionals claim the global financial crisis is yet to make its mark on the Middle East's corporate travel market.
Discussing the issue at a VIP panel session chaired by ATN and MIME at the Business Travel Show Dubai, Guy Epsom, Hilton's regional director of sales & marketing, explained that GCC travel market was currently stable with bookings and room rates at his portfolio of properties across the region showing steady growth.
However, he and other panel members said the region would not be immune to the downturn and that they anticipated a slowdown in inbound leisure traffic.
"There is a big opportunity to react before the curve; we're insulated here, but we're not isolated," Epsom warned. Alshamel International CEO Derin Cameron corporates had been "mandated to tighten their belts".
"The leisure industry will be the first to disappear," she stressed. "We need to be conscious of what is around the corner; this is a wait-and-see situation."
BA commercial director Middle East Paul Starrs described the current global situation as "the perfect storm" that had created an "unprecedented" trading environment. This would see airlines cut transatlantic flights in favour of more profitable routes to regions such as the Middle East, he said.
Trends remain positive
Research released at the Business Travel Show by YouGovSiraj revealed that regional business travel volumes have remained stable while budgets continue to rise, with little impact from the credit crunch experienced by companies in the Gulf, to date.
According to Jane Wilson, director of Travel & Tourism Research at YouGovSiraj, while the data was compiled over the past month, there might be more dramatic changes as the global uncertainties continue to mount.
"We do expect the region to escape the worst of the credit crunch as trade and business travel continues," she explained.
"Nearly 75% of corporate travel bookers believe travel will increase in the next year - with nearly half saying they think it will increase 'a lot', while travel volumes are also expected to rise."
Other findings of the survey included expectations that the UK would experience a resurgence as a business travel destination, as would the US, while Italy and China were cited as ‘emerging' markets.
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