With the Middle East planted firmly on the world's meetings radar and new venues and companies emerging to drive more business into the region, a war for talent is raging between companies eager to employ the best of the best.
One issue emerged during April's string of educational and networking events as the most threatening challenge facing the meetings industry: the war for talent.
The growing popularity, accessibility and visibility of certain destinations in the Middle East are putting pressure on governments and the private sector to provide the venues and infrastructure to cater to the demand.
And the investors are not letting the opportunity pass them by.
Major convention and exhibition centre developments such as the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC); Dubai Exhibition World (DEW); Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC); and the Ras al Khaimah Convention and Exhibition Centre (RAKCEC) are paving the way for a dramatic increase in the amount of international conventions coming to the region.
But with all the new capacity comes a need to equip new venues with the staff to make them work to the best of their ability.
"There is a lot of competition out there," said David Kliman, president, The Kliman Group and former president of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).
"The ones that do it right will focus on the human talent, rather than just the hardware and software."
Skilled meeting industry professionals are required not only for the venues, but by event and association management companies, professional congress organisers, destination management companies and other event support services.
Industry estimates put the number of staff required by the meetings industry in the Middle East alone at somewhere in the region of 60,000 over the next 10 years.
"The Middle East is witnessing a staggering development of its meetings infrastructure," explained Joyce Dogniez, CMM, director of operations EMEA, MPI.
"But infrastructure alone is not sufficient to deliver a true experience. The development creates a massive need for additional workforce within the region. The development of a qualified, trained and largely available workforce is crucial in an increasingly competitive global market."
MPI president Bruce Macmillan concurred during a seminar delivered at the Gulf Incentives, Business Travel and Meetings exhibition (GIBTM): "It's easy for the meetings industry to get caught up in being all about the new venues and facilities, but there is something more going on here than just that," he said.
"There is a great interest in diversifying the economy, whether it's leisure or business tourism. It's become a global meeting place for many different industries; that is why having a successful meetings industry is vital to the success of this region."
Prior to GIBTM, MPI held its first Gulf Meetings and Events Conference, which took place at the InterContinental Hotel Dubai Festival City from April 5-7.
According to Macmillan, MPI research has found that 22-27% of marketing budgets in major corporations are dedicated to meetings and events, representing mammoth buying power.
"The reason for that is that meetings and events deliver a higher return on investment," he adds.
"We need a rich and professional meetings industry. This is not just a place where the meetings industry comes together; this is the place where global businesses come together.
"We have the venues, clearly. Now it's time to grow the experts to unleash the potential in these venues."
Given the immaturity of the meetings industry in the region and the pace of growth, the supply of trained professionals has struggled to keep up with the demand.
The rapid expansion of the region has meant that skilled and experienced meeting professionals are a rare and valuable commodity, and employers have been prepared to pay a premium to have them on their teams.
Although some companies go to great lengths to bring in talented staff from abroad, forking out for flights and relocation expenses, others firms have been known to poach experienced professionals from other companies.
"Our problem - the war for talent - is not only here; it is worldwide," explained Roger Tondeur, president and founder, MCI.
"You have to either import staff then train them, or you get them from the other companies.
This is particularly challenging for large corporations like MCI who invest time and money training their staff: "When people come and work with us for a few years they become very attractive targets for other companies," said Tondeur.
"Companies will come over with attractive salaries and it puts the spiral of salaries up."
Tondeur predicted that MCI's team in the Middle East, which currently comprises some 25 meeting professionals, would require almost 75 new members of staff within the next three years.
The solution to the problem and the ultimate key to success in the war for talent lies in ensuring that expectations are met in two distinct areas; job satisfaction and career development opportunities, according to Tondeur."We are growing faster than we are able to train - that is our problem. We are working on it but it is a challenge," he explained.
"Our success has been that we are growing very fast and because we are growing very fast, we are able to give a lot of internal promotion opportunities, so the people that are good can actually progress through their career rapidly by staying in the company.
"It's one of the reasons I want to continue to grow; if we don't I am going to lose some of my key talent.
Combine these opportunities with job satisfaction and you have a winning combination, he argued: "In the MCI environment, we have full delegation of power to the people who are handling the accounts.
"If you are an account director or a business unit manager you are the boss and you are fully responsible for that side of the business. I give an opportunity to people to develop themselves into a position that they like to be in, which they can never be in with a smaller company environment.
"If they are entrepreneurs in their hearts then let them be entrepreneurs - let them grow."
Making employees loyal not only to their pay cheque but to the team they work with and the "culture" of the company is therefore vital to successfully retaining staff, he added.
Congress Solutions International senior vice president Frédéric Bardin concurred and said that training staff and giving them the opportunity to grow as the company grows helped to motivate staff and win their loyalty.
"It is more and more difficult to attract people to the destination management and professional congress business," he said.
"Hiring, training and retaining are the challenges. Hiring is a challenge because you need to entice people out of their homes - that is what we do in Dubai because we don't have the local workforce, especially in our industry because we pay relatively low salaries in comparison to other industries and we have crazy working hours."
Bardin said that training was an issue throughout the hospitality industry, which led to problems with employees developing their own initiative and empowerment.
"All the staff that work for CSI go to courses at the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) or other bodies - the certified courses in the industry - to get to know what this industry is about," he explained.
"At management level we just hire people who have the experience anyway; people who know what you are talking about. You can't start from scratch at that level.
The absence of a home-grown meetings industry workforce in the Middle East has exacerbated the problem.
Until the recent emergence of international groups like MPI, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) and the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE) in the region and educations programmes running alongside events such as GIBTM and Event 360 - an event for meeting and events industry suppliers held in Dubai from April 27-20 - there was no form of external training for meeting professionals in the region.
But all that is changing: as well as the increasing number of educational opportunities afforded by attending the events mentioned above, or by becoming part of one of the international bodies that are increasing their presence in the region every year, the Qatar MICE Development Institute (QMDI) has launched the first official Gulf-based training programme for meetings industry professionals, in association with MPI.
QMDI will play a strategic role in helping to shape the future and the growth of the meetings and events industry in Qatar by raising its industry standards through training new home-grown meetings industry professionals, according to Matthew Meredith, group managing director, QMDI.
"This includes investing in people and nurturing the potential future leaders of the events industry here in Qatar," explained Meredith.
"The new and unique opportunity aims to provide the participants with an opportunity to provide specialist training, on the job skills and to be part of an experienced QMDI events team based in Doha."
To fulfil these objectives, QMDI has partnered with MPI to launch a training programme for young Qataris interested in beginning a career in meeting and events management.
"MPI has a long experience in training in the meetings industry, for conferences, certifications and continued dedication," explained MPI's Dogniez.
"It is therefore our pleasure to partner with QMDI to support the region in developing high quality training and certification programmes to be delivered locally.
Initial yearly intakes of 20 Qataris will go through a training programme that will prepare them for the MPI global certificate in meetings operations, which is targeted at professionals that have limited or no experience in the industry.
"This has been created to help meetings and event professionals with personal, professional and leadership skills and increase their specialised value and build a powerful base of knowledge," explained Dogniez.
To date, QMDI has recruited a team of 50 experienced individuals from all over the world to run its events and help position Qatar as a key destination for international meetings and events.
But Meredith concedes that recruitment is only the beginning of the battle: "There is a huge shortage of [meetings industry] professionals, but those who do have unique skill sets are approached regularly by head hunters," he explained.
"The most important thing is that people enjoy the team they are working with and that they are developing as individuals with the organisation, but it is inevitable that in the long term they will move.
While the war for talent wages, the long-term outlook is positive for one group; companies prepared to invest time and money into the training and development of their employees whilst ensuring their employees are not merely staff, but part of a team.
Organisations like QMDI who set up their own training programmes to spawn a new generation of home-grown meeting professionals will solve the problem of sourcing talent by generating their own; the challenge then is to keep hold of them.
The new venues and event companies will find their staff from somewhere, but in order to provide the professionalism and high levels of service required to impress the international meetings industry, they must be prepared one way or another to invest in people.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.