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May 14, 2008

Events take centre stage

Over the last two years, a growing number of international events and live communications agencies have taken the plunge into Gulf waters, having seen the opportunity to serve their clients locally, rather than exporting services on an event-by-event or campaign at a time basis.

However, it is not all plain sailing for these agencies – despite their European credentials – as beyond the budget, many clients in the Gulf are still in the early stages of realising the importance of effective events and the benefits they bring to the marketing and communications mix.

The attraction of the Middle East is clear to see. Launch parties for major real estate projects, openings of new developments, product launches, public entertainment events, festivals and corporate events are the staple diets of destinations across the Gulf, and agencies that were once brought in from more established destinations for their expertise are now seeking a slice of the action on the ground.

Natalie Krushner, global events director, KHP Consulting, which has offices in London, Munich, Paris and Bahrain, says, “It’s an amazing time to be involved in the events industry here because of the general scope of events and activities that are required. All of the developments underway in the GCC are coming online day after day and operating in very competitive marketplaces – be that in finance, entertainment, tourism and industry. First impressions are everything, which means that it’s imperative to have the right vision and the right impact to make people receptive in the long-term.”


Industry overview

As in so many business and industry areas, Dubai is blazing a trail in the events market. David Hackett, Chairman of The MINT Organization, says, “We are in a marketplace where incoming business has established Dubai as a very high profile, very credible events destination. What is changing now is that Dubai is moving to be a destination that is actually generating its own outgoing business as well. This can be seen throughout the region, but more than ever in Dubai because of its role as hub for headquarter operations.”

Going against the norm has proved beneficial for event management company, Revelation from the UK. Quick to identify an opportunity, Matt Sims, managing director of Revelation Middle East, which has set up in Abu Dhabi, says, “One segment that has grown considerably for us is traditional exports where a company puts up an event overseas. More and more of our clients are coming to the Gulf region and so we decided to come here as well. We sighted the opportunity in Abu Dhabi with ADNEC and we jumped on it.

“What we have done is react to an opportunity with a number of organisers based at ADNEC, most of whom we had worked with in the UK and who were looking for support, because there is even less talent available locally in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai.

“ADNEC is our sponsor and we are their sole event production partner based at the venue. Our key clients are the organisers based at ADNEC as well as those using the venue to organise shows.

“Within the events industry all stake holders in the UK are very acutely aware of Abu Dhabi and have been to ADNEC and are very motivated by what is going on there. In terms of the UK events industry, there is a real synergy between it and what is going on in Abu Dhabi and ADNEC,” he clarifies.

All agree that the region has a long way to go before it attains the maturity of established markets such as Europe and the US, but see it as a challenge that needs to be creatively overcome.

Hackett says, “This is still an immature market in the sense that a lot of clients don’t yet understand the difference between a locally staged event and an international event. So they are still working with people who specialise in PR to do their event logistics. But this is now changing with the emergence of professionals in each of these individual sectors, as well as quality production companies.

“What we have got to recognise is that Dubai is at the forefront and it is logical that more event companies will come into the marketplace. Our issue is to ensure we gain first-mover advantage and to make sure that we are encouraging clients that there is a difference between the supplier’s relationships that existed in the past to that of a full-service agency. It is exciting to be part of an industry that is changing very rapidly.”

Concurring with this viewpoint is Richard Beggs, managing director, MVM Events, which has offices in London, Sydney and Dubai. “Unfortunately, in Dubai and many parts of the Middle East, there still exists this feeling that ‘an event can be organised by my secretary’,” he says.


“As a consequence, things become random, they are impossible to measure and there are no pre-set objectives before the event takes place and therefore it is impossible to know if there has been a return on investment or not. I believe the discipline of event management is not something a secretary can take on board and is a specialised professional service which we are slowly beginning to get the Middle East clients to acknowledge and appreciate.

“There needs to be an element of lessons learnt to appreciate the need for event planners; professional conference organisers delivering complex events that are actually an extension of the business tools of the company,” he adds.


Integral tool

Krushner says, “I think that the perceived value of the communications industry in general within the GCC is still some way off what it is internationally. Events, together with marketing and PR, are still generally seen to be a cost rather than a necessary support tool, which in too many cases leads to a lack of quality control.

“You’re creating a physical experience of your product and brand values. That is too often overlooked, with the result that guests often come away from an event wondering where the relevance was,” she adds.

Beggs reiterates the sentiment by saying, “People here still don’t understand the power of live communication. It will take time just like everything else. But the pace in this region is admirable. I think it is part of our remit to assist in educating and cultivating corporations in appreciating live communications, and that will lead to the further strengthening of our business.”

Hackett agrees that the perceived value of live communication still does not rate very high, but also acknowledges that it not limited to the regional audience. “Internationally, it is still in an emerging stage because we have the senior management who understand it, but that has not necessarily filtered down. Though a broad generalisation, we still tend to see a lack of imagination and creativity. But we are out there talking to more and more international brand companies and I’m sure they will catch on fast,” he says.


Quality of content

“While live communication cannot be ignored, one of the challenges is expounding the importance of face-to-face communications and adding value to it,” says Revelation’s Sims. “The Internet will increasingly challenge this aspect of our business. Holograms, like the one featuring Prince Charles we used at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, add a wow factor and succeed in impressing, but the content is more important. Lights, amazing sets, fantastic venues are all great, but the event comes down to the message and content, and how that is delivered.”

“There are a lot of companies that get carried away with the technology and venues - that’s one of the challenges in this region. But what are they hanging their coat on? What’s the message? The World Future Energy Summit was a big success because it had a really strong message and content, as well as the wow factors. It ticked every box,” he adds.

Hackett believes that the more established markets in the UK and Europe understand the issues on ROI and are prepared to make serious investments in order to achieve that. “Here, clients tend to believe that if they choose a good hotel, then that’s enough. Often, little or no thought is given to creativity, setting objectives, ROI, measurement of objectives etc.

“While in the UK, purchasing and procurement want to understand the value of what we are doing, here the concentration is on the standard of the hotel, transportation etc. As a marketing agency, The MINT Organization ensures that the end objective is fulfilled as we use travel and events as tools to achieve business objectives,” he says.

KHP’s Krusher elaborates: “We’re very fortunate to be able to offer full-service work, with the PR and production of collateral integrated into the events planning and execution. That way, the strength of the messages behind the event can be maximised because everyone is contributing to the whole, rather than having a fractured network of clients, event agency, PR agency and marketing agency pulling in different directions and working to different agendas.”


Regional challenges

When setting up a new enterprise in the region, cultural differences are just one of the many challenges that need to be overcome. An unreliable supply chain and unbelievably short lead times are some of the problems that are echoed by all.

“I think it’s important to point out that no company with experience in Europe automatically gets in step with this region. It has a unique culture, ambience and expectations. Every region has different challenges. One of the most important ones we’ve had to master is royal protocol, which is very different to that in Europe. If anything, attention to detail when it comes to dignitaries is higher than anywhere else in the world, which means raising our standards to meet expectations,” says Natalie Krushner, global events director, KHP Consulting.

David Hackett, chairman of The MINT Organization, agrees that there will inevitably be cultural issues but concedes that the biggest challenge operating in this region is lead times. “The lack of time for planning means that the client often gets second best. Often they settle for facilities that are available instead of those that they would have chosen in the first place. Compromises are sad in our business. What we prefer is to have a clean sheet of paper and come up with the best solution; instead we end up choosing the best available solution.

Matt Sims, managing director, Revelation, has still to come to terms with the short lead times, but is stumped by the local interpretation of the term ‘can do’. “We were told by ADNEC that the local people do not understand the ‘can do’ attitude because their logic is of course you can do – it will cost money but we can do it. In the UK we have always taken pride to say ‘Yes we can do it!’ Here, that’s a given and I love that. That raises the bar as the challenge becomes even bigger.”

Commenting on international expertise versus local expertise, Richard Beggs, managing director, MVM Events, says, “I have to acknowledge that 35 years ago Dubai didn’t exist and in this short timeframe what has been achieved is extraordinary. However, this hasn’t allowed long enough for major infrastructure to be created which is why so much knowledge and capability in all areas is being brought into the emirate, and that includes event management. There isn’t any home-grown talent, which is not a criticism of the region but rather a part of its growing pains and applies to all industry areas. As time progresses and more university courses are running, things will catch up.”

But there is hope. KHP has established a reliable supply chain and Krushner endorses this by adding, “Last May, when we organised the launch of the Bahrain Financial Harbour, we are proud to say that every element came from within the GCC and that the performing artists were all from the Kingdom of Bahrain.”


Service differentiators

Competition is always deemed to be healthy and in the events industry it helps to raise the bar in terms of service, creativity, technology and delivery. With the arrival of many European agencies, local companies are also striving to improve standards. But while that happens, how are the big players differentiating their product offering?

Hackett of The MINT Organization says, “We are delivering global standards on a local basis. We have got great professional capabilities locally to deliver on the events side of the business but we have a much greater depth of resource behind us. We have the capacity to deliver more to a demanding and sophisticated client.

“Our biggest difference is that we have the depth of experience of The MINT Organization in Australia, Asia, China and Middle East, which in itself is a significant infrastructure. In the UK we are a much bigger business with a full-service competence, with industry professionals in creativity, IT etc. And finally there is the BI portfolio resource in the US which is much bigger than anything we have here. All of this means we are not going to another supplier but dipping into our own business – which keeps us in full control.”

Beggs believes that large international players bring in large costs, which is ultimately borne by the client. “Keeping our overheads lean and well managed means we can keep our fees to our customers moderately positioned giving us a more competitive edge and greater value for money for our client, resulting in an increase in repeat business and a long working relationship with our clients.

“Also, our team in Dubai is instilled with the knowledge gained from our international experience. This means that we are ahead of the game from the domestic operators. The fact that we are able to listen to what our client wants, understand their objectives and advise how they can be best fulfilled brings in consistent repeat business which means that we are fulfilling and exceeding our clients’ expectation,” he adds.

Sims from Revelation is secure with the good relationships already established with the major organisers based at ADNEC. “We are very well established in the UK within the corporate event production market – whether that be conferencing, exhibitions or award ceremonies. We bring all that experience to the Middle East. One of the key things that we bring is talent, knowledge and confidence. The infrastructure here is sometime weak; the supply chain is not always strong and so you need confidence to deliver something that you know will work when you are relying on an insecure supply chain. We are very developed as a company and are proud of our brand. And we always recruit talent. As the saying goes, ‘Skill - you can teach while you are born with talent’.”

“KHP has been the number one agency in international motorsport for 20 years and this expertise is what brought us to the GCC region. But once having committed to coming here, KHP realised that it had to become a regionally-focused business. As a result, our client base is much wider, incorporating property developments, government departments, vehicle importers and financial institutions as well as our core sports marketing activities, including Premiership football, La Liga and PGA golf. Yet for all that KHP remains KHP, which means we’re for people who want couture rather than off the peg,” concludes Krushner.

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