Soaring ambitions

Spurred by Expo 2020, the UAE is now wooing global association congresses and meetings to sharpen its event destination status, writes Shekhar Niyogi

Offices and residential apartments reach lofty heights in Dubai Marina, a new district built around a yacht marina

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are seeing strong inbound MICE business growth, driven by rapid development in meeting infrastructure and hotel room inventory ahead of the Expo 2020.

Meetings and incentives have been identified as a pivotal segment for Dubai, which is projecting 20 million annual visitors by 2020. The number of international trade visitors to the emirate is projected to reach 1.9 million by 2020, up from 900,000 in 2012.

Dubai Trade Centre-Jebel Ali, the 438ha site comprising a dedicated 150ha Expo area and a surrounding residential, hospitality and logistics zone, will play host to the 25 million visitors expected during the six-month Expo 2020. All major construction are targeted to complete by October 2019.

While Najeh Boughzala, MICE project manager at Alpha Tours, has not observed any impact from the Expo in winning events, he is confident that Dubai “will be in a better position to leverage the Expo” once new infrastructure, develop projects and hotels come on stream from 2016.

“Events are a key pillar of our Tourism Vision for 2020, with the objective of transforming Dubai from a regional events hub to a global destination for events,” said Helal Saeed Al Marri, director general at Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

Steen Jakobsen, director, Dubai Convention Bureau, said: “A recent ICCA survey showed that the number of associations, conferences and meetings in the Middle East has tripled over the past 10 years. In the rest of the world, it has doubled.”

The Dubai Association Centre (DAC) was launched earlier this year to attract association meetings and congresses to set up offices in the city. With a DAC license, international associations can leverage such benefits as the use and facilities at Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), residency visas for employees, and offering services and products to the UAE and other GCC markets.

Ahmed Alkhaja, senior vice president – venues, DWTC said: “Dubai’s position as a premier international business tourism destination has grown steadily in recent years, buoyed by our core focus on developing our credentials as a global hub for key industries to hold meetings, conferences and exhibitions.”

DWTC is seeing “a robust 2014 calendar”, said Alkhaja, with its 11 global congresses expected to be attended by 12,000 international delegates and generate a combined revenue of US$32 millon.

Major events for Dubai this year include the 19th Conference of the International Association of Prosecutors, Annual Congress of the International Association of Law and Forensic Sciences, Asia Pacific Dental Congress and International Cotton Association Congress. Dubai has also outshone Copenhagen, Paris and Rome to win the bid for the 34th International Congress of the Society of Blood Transfusion in 2016.

Similarly, Abu Dhabi has also established its own Convention Bureau and is eyeing to be listed among ICCA’s top 50 association meetings destinations by 2018.

According to the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), the MICE sector currently generates 2.4 billion dirhams (US$653 million) per annum for Abu Dhabi, with the figure expected to grow seven per cent to 5.1 billion dirhams by 2020.

“We are targeting 14 major wins in 2014 and 10 more in 2015” said Jasem Al Darmaki, deputy director general, TCA Abu Dhabi.

Major congresses taking place in Abu Dhabi in 2015 include the 20th Asia Pacific Society of Cardiology Congress, the 16th World Congress on Tobacco or Health and the 70th Annual Conference of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Need to know

Enchanting Arabic dining at Al Hadheerah

Located at the luxurious Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, Al Hadheerah incorporates live cooking stations, wood-fired ovens and spit roasts in its eclectic menu. A falconry display, camel caravan, horse show, Arabic singers and Tamoura dancers create an unforgettable ambience at the fort-like venue. Delicacies with distinct Middle Eastern flavour include kebbeh, traditional fired meat and crushed wheat balls filled with minced meat and spices; and cheese sambousek, a light pastry filled with Arabic cheese and parsley. The restaurant is open from sunset to 23.30.

More information available at

Dubai sings out to new opera house

Envisioned to rival the Sydney Opera House, the 2,000-seat Dubai Opera House is being built as part of The Opera District in downtown Dubai. Designed in the shape of a traditional sailing vessel, the 60,000m² multi-use venue is expected to complete in 2015. The venue can be converted into a banqueting hall or exhibition space, as 900 of the 2,000 seats can be removed with the use of hydraulic technology and stored beneath the theatre.

Jockeying for position at Meydan Racecourse

Accommodating 60,000 spectators in a 1.6km-long grandstand, the Meydan Racecourse is home to the world’s most luxurious horse racing facility. When not used for races, it also serves as a conference and business facility, with the Meydan hotel offering 284 rooms and dining facilities for incentive groups and meeting delegates.

Email or call (971-4) 327-0000

Dive into the emirate’s pearling traditions

Visitors can experience the thrill of pearling, once a source of wealth in the emirates before the discovery of oil. Clad in traditional shirts and baggy trousers and equipped with a nose clip, delegates can board a dhow (traditional boat) off the shores of Jebel Ali and set out to collect oysters under the supervision of highly trained crew and instructors, who will teach the ancient pearl-diving techniques. Pearling is also popular as a teambuilding activity.

Contact Pavilion Dive Centre at or call (971-4) 406-8828.

Wildlife calling at new safari

Scheduled to complete in 2015, the Dubai Safari Park will house over 1,000 animals across four distinct sections – an open safari, plus Arabian, Asian and African villages. In addition to a butterfly park, a botanical garden, a resort and a golf course, the 120ha eco-friendly park will also boast educational, conservation and veterinary facilities. It is being heralded as a dynamic site for incentive groups and teambuilding exercises.

How I did a 16,500-pax incentive

Nu Skin China’s mega party on Yas Island

When 16,500 sales reps from Nu Skin China visited the UAE for their incentive trip, they made up the largest-ever incentive delegation for the company and the host destination alike.

Yas Island Destination Management was engaged to provide full logistic support for the mega corporate getaway event, with the itinerary encompassing Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

For the Abu Dhabi leg, the Chinese visitors filled 16 hotels and enjoyed a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a city tour and the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi experience, over two days in April. The packed itinerary centred around the Yas Marina Circuit, including workshops, tours and a large group dinner.

More than 2,500 staff were involved and 14,000 man hours spent to deliver the event, which featured festival celebrations each day and F1-style display races. All in all, 13,500kg of F&B provisions, 64 performers, 200 buses, 200 flights and 40,000 roomnights were utilised, and close to a million photographs were taken of the event.

Al Tareq Al Ameri, CEO of Yas Marina Circuit, said: “This was an extremely complex, multi-faceted event which took months of planning and a lot of hard work to execute.”

Notwithstanding the huge variables likely for such mega events, Yas Island Destination Management director, Clive Dwyer, stressed that the destination offers myriad opportunities. “Anything is possible,” he added.

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