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Wed 3 Jan 2007 02:47 PM

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Trading places

In his first interview since the unveiling of Dubai World Trade Centre’s US$4.4bn redevelopment masterplan, managing director Helal Saeed Al Marri exclusively talks Andrew White through the scheme.

Just one second, sorry.” Helal Saeed Al Marri is unfailingly polite, yet manages to field three phone calls within the first 10 minutes of our interview. “Yes. We’ll talk about it. Thank you. ‘Bye.” And back to business.

It is hard to begrudge Al Marri his time on the phone — after all, the young managing director of Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) recently unveiled his vision for a US$4.4bn development at the very heart of Dubai. Alongside Dubai International Airport City, DWTC’s projects aim to reshape the city — and Al Marri is a busy man.

“We started off with our core business, which is the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) industry,” explains Al Marri. “We looked very carefully at developing the infrastructure, and looked at what we do with the MICE industry — exhibitions, conferences, meetings, corporate events, weddings, all sort of things. “We looked at what we deliver to our business clients, what the future is for the current site, and how we might best meet the needs of the industry — and what we saw is that the current site is not as suited to large-scale events given the growth of the whole area,” he continues.

The result: Dubai Exhibition City (DEC), an entirely new entrepreneurial park that will become the region’s first integrated business, events, trade and retail destination.

“It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it is looking at how you can do your best for your client,” says Al Marri.

“The ideal solution was to find a location that would allow us to develop state-of-the-art exhibition and conference facilities, and address the whole needs of the industry,” he continues. “We’re aiming at the whole value chain, the whole business cycle, and that’s how DEC was born.”

Designed by the Cox Group, one of the world’s most prestigious and experienced master planners, DEC will benefit from close proximity to Jebel Ali port and the new Dubai World Central airport. In addition to a light industrial zone and a “campus-style” office environment, the 3 sq km site will be home to a retail park and business boulevard. The whole area will be landscaped-designed, to include waterways, natural topography and parkland, allied to extensive road and rail transport networks to Dubai and elsewhere.

The site is specifically designed to host DWTC’s so-called ‘mega events’, including the GITEX, Big 5, and Arab Health conventions.

“We’re carving out the whole exhibition part, which is what everybody is talking about and is a big part of our business, and we’re moving that out to DEC,” he says. “The people that do those shows are out here with clear objectives in terms of return on investment,” continues Al Marri. “We’ve had an unprecedented reaction from businesses to the plan.

“We expect an increase in the number of events of about 50%, and we have some very big events coming to Dubai that will be announced over the coming months,” he adds.

Al Marri maintains that the new facility will allow exhibitors and participants to engage in more interactive events than they are currently able to. “It’s not only larger — this year we carried out a 30% extension, and the new project’s going to be twice the size of the current site, so we’re not slowing down by any means — but we’ve managed to bring the views of the industry into the design,” he explains earnestly.

“At the launch in Barcelona we had with us two of our biggest organisers — the people who organise the Big 5 and Index, and the people who organise the Air Show,” he continues. “These are big supporters, and it’s a tremendous commitment to something that’s still three years away.”

This close relationship with key exhibitors and industries has served DWTC well, and is certainly something that Al Marri has allowed to underpin his own approach to the development of the site.

“The way we look at things now is, what is our return for the stakeholder and the exhibitor? That’s very much the philosophy upon which DEC is based,” he says. “It’s based on an in-depth study with consultants, with ourselves, and with industry specialists. How do we address the returns on investment for people in the industry? How do we improve that?

“The answer to that is that you have to have an integrated solution that looks very carefully at the infrastructure, and how the different elements of the infrastructure and the soft and hard assets interact with each other.”

Yet while ‘mega events’ such as GITEX might steal the headlines each year, such exhibitions are not DWTC’s bread-and-butter earners.

“You need to make a clear distinction between exhibitions and the rest of the industry. If you take the number of events which happen in Dubai — let’s say it’s in the range of 3000 in total — we’ve got about 100 exhibitions out of that,” Al Marri explains. “So while that has a tremendously large impact on the economy, it’s not the only impact. The corporate meetings and events have a much higher turnover in terms of people interacting with it, and that will remain here.”

Yet the current DWTC site is also due an overhaul. As part of a US$4.4bn masterplan, Dubai Trade Centre District (DTCD) will see the generation of a business district to rival Singapore, London and New York, at the heart of the city.

“We studied the market very carefully, and looked at how we would do two projects in parallel whilst having operational projects, and we came up with our masterplan, which is effectively a mixed-use development that has a heavy focus on offices and hotels,” explains Al Marri. “The Convention Centre is a great anchor at the heart of the commercial development, and it will remain so, primarily focused on conventions, corporate meetings, gala dinners, product launches, and social events.”

The state-of-the-art business quarter will contain two hotels, 200,000 sq m of A-grade office accommodation, and as many as 2000 apartments.

“We looked very carefully at Emirates Towers and DIFC to make sure there is a complete pedestrian link between those developments,” continues Al Marri. “The beauty of what we’ve come up with is that it’s a place that people can interact with — a flow of streets and pedestrian zones that give a European feel in terms of the café culture and the outside space.

“It will be a shopping district as opposed to a mall, like Mayfair in London,” he adds. “We’re not creating something new — it’s more of an extension of the concept.”

Extension is a resounding theme with Al Marri, who is a year into DWTC’s high-profile ‘5 x 5’ strategy. The ambition is to grow to five times DWTC’s original size, within five years. They are, he insists, happily ahead of schedule.

“We’re one year in, so it’s been about building the organisational base, setting all the targets, and developing all the underlying infrastructure of the company. Things are going very well, and we’re exceeding where we thought we would be,” he explains.

“The key thing is that you don’t ever accept that you’re delivering enough to the customer. Keep

pushing, keep demanding more, and keep delivering more. We’ve got a great team of UAE nationals, and it’s great to see that these are the guys that are demanding more and more.

“We’re looking at a couple of countries now where we’re launching new shows outside the UAE, and we’re looking for a lot of growth from areas such as East Africa and India,” he continues, before politely taking issue with his own publicist’s statistics, which point toward 15% year-on-year growth. “In terms of visitor numbers and event space, the figure is very conservative,” he smiles. “That’s very much an average for us, maybe even from 2000. The figure I’m expecting for growth in confirmed events in 2007 is more than double that.

“That figure is booked and signed, and when I look at the five years ahead, in terms of pure space and volume of the whole event, I’m looking for at least threefold growth,” he insists, calmly and confidently. “We are gearing up for that — our team for next year is growing by over 30%. We have around 800 people now, but that’s growing all the time.”

That growth is such that Al Marri and his team are able to pick and choose the events and exhibitions they host. Applications, he insists, are governed by a strict assessment process, preceded by the submission of a detailed business plan.

“What we try to do is look at what experience they have in doing similar events, what they are planning for the event, whether it brings innovation, whether the industry needs that event, whether this would be an event that would be received positively by the industry, how it would effect the events market in Dubai overall, and how quickly the industry is moving,” he says. “People have to come with something that is going to add to the industry, not just add to our occupancy, because that’s not what it’s about. If I take a historic average, I’d say that around 20% of applications are accepted.” Such discretion is perhaps borne of years of high-flight experience. A qualified accountant with an MBA from the London Business School, Al Marri has worked for a series of major firms in both the Middle East and the UK, including international giants McKinsey and KPMG. He speaks with a faint London accent, yet his words are stamped with the unmistakable ambition of one committed to the success of ‘project Dubai’.

“In Dubai we’re very lucky because we have a leader who sets the benchmark himself,” he says. “Sheikh Mohammed interacts with his people, he’s very clear on where he wants everything to go, and he’s very clear on delivering.

“Also, our chairman Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum keeps very close to what’s happening here,” he continues. “I get to interact with great people — the chairman of Emirates Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum is my vice-chairman — and it’s great to be able learn from people who have much greater experience than myself.

“There’s always something to learn from people — you always learn so much from watching others work, whether they’re reporting to you, or I’m reporting to them,” Al Marri insists, his enthusiasm infectious.

“I do really enjoy what I’m doing. The industry is very interesting, as it’s always changing,” he insists. “You interact with all the different industries, and the growth prospects are phenomenal, so there’s no ceiling — your aspirations can be set as high as you can push.”

For now though, with the heavy autumn and winter exhibition season behind him, Al Marri can afford to take a breath.

And while he certainly won’t stop pushing, he will allow himself a few days off to recuperate. “My family and I will be going on holiday to a beach,” he smiles. “I’ll have my phone off, too.”

It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it is looking at how you can do your best for the client
In dubai we’re very lucky because we have a leader who sets the benchmark himself
Tough Trade

Competition

“We are always looking out for competitors in this market. Our key competitors are Europe, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The US isn’t really a competitor because events there tend to be more domestically focused, but when you look at international events, there’s a lot of competition. “When you benchmark yourself, it’s against people who have just come from conferences in Europe, for example, where they’ve been running these huge events for years. These guys have written the book on it, so we have to be one step ahead of the rest because otherwise how do you compete with the guys who have this whole track record?”

GITEX challenges

“GITEX is limited by the amount of space we have at the current site. We had a tremendous number of companies wanting more space, but we wanted a much more interactive event, for people to have their own space where they could interact with their customers a lot more. The size of the facility is not big enough, and the flexibility of the facility is not enough. “We increased the size of the facility this year by 30%, primarily for the GITEX event, and that still didn’t cut it, so we’re building the new facility in Jebel Ali at twice the size. But we still don’t expect that to be enough, and that’s why we’re building the infrastructure so that we can add almost unlimited extensions at very short notice.”

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