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June 9, 2008

GULF WATCH 2: A culture of change

While the meetings and events industry is expanding at a rapid rate across the Gulf region, those involved are experiencing the growing pains of an emerging market; from lack of supply chain to cultural differences.

The big players from throughout Europe are bringing their skills to the table and driving development forward, but it will take some time before the local skills and community catch up. For now these companies are in a strong position and they are making the industry their own.

“I think that the perceived value of the communications industry in general within the region is still some way off what it is internationally," says Natalie Krushner, global events director at KHP Consulting. "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 frequently come away from an event wondering where the relevance was."

A lack of understanding
Richard Beggs, managing director, MVM Events, agrees, adding: “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.”

Meanwhile, David Hackett, chairman of The MINT Organisation, believes that the more established markets in the UK and Europe understand the issues on return on investment (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," he says. "Often, little or no thought is given to creativity, setting objectives, ROI, measurement of success, 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 Organisation ensures that the end objective is fulfilled as we use travel and events as tools to achieve business objectives."

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," says Krushner. "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."

Hackett 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. Frequently, 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,” he says.

Sims 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 in saying: ‘Yes we can do it!’ Here, that’s a given and I love that. It raises the bar as the challenge becomes even bigger.”

Playing catch up
Commenting on international expertise versus local expertise, Beggs says: “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 Gulf region and that the performing artists were all from the Kingdom of Bahrain.”

Competition is always deemed to be healthy and in the events industry, as it helps to raise the bar in terms of service, creativity, technology and delivery.

The meetings and events industry may be in the ascendancy and the pockets in the region may be deep, but with the arrival of many European agencies, local companies are also striving to improve standards. But until that happens, large international players are bringing in their experience, but this comes at a cost, which is ultimately borne by the client.

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