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November 3, 2014

Middle East: New Developments Access All Areas

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In April this year, Dubai’s status as a meetings hub par excellence reached new heights when the Dubai Convention and Events Bureau (DCEB) hosted its largest-ever incentive group. Some 14,500 delegates from China’s Nu Skin Enterprises visited the city for a busy 10-day incentive programme, generating an economic impact estimated at US$80 million (AED290 million), according to Dubai’s Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing (DTCM). 

It was a feat only achievable because of the exceptional lift capacity provided by Dubai’s flag carrier, Emirates, says Steen Jakobsen, Director, Dubai Business Events. “When we originally bid for the Nu Skin event, it was for 6,000 delegates,” he explains. “We ended up bringing 14,500 delegates to Dubai and this was only possible because of our accessibility and our airlift. The group used more than 70 Emirates flights and Nu Skin even chartered two of the carrier’s A380s to bring delegates here.” 

Jakobsen cites the Nu Skin incentive trip as an example of how Dubai’s aviation industry prowess is driving increased meetings business to the emirate despite fierce competition which, in the case of the Nu Skin bid, included Singapore, Seoul and Macau. “We will definitely use the Nu Skin example as a marketing tool going forwards,” he says. “We are already in discussions with large incentive groups from other parts of Asia.” 

The increasingly dominant role of Dubai as a global aviation hub is a selling point that cannot be ignored by international planners considering the emirate for their business events. Dubai International Airport is poised to take over London Heathrow’s top slot as the busiest airport for annual international traffic, according to Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths. While London Heathrow carried 66.7 million international passengers in 2013 compared to Dubai’s 66.4 million, in the first quarter of this year, Dubai carried two million passengers more than the London hub. 

Dubai International Airport’s phenomenal passenger traffic increases are primarily driven by the fast-paced growth of homegrown carriers Emirates and flydubai. Emirates, which carried 43 million passengers in 2013, currently connects Dubai to more than 142 destinations in 80 countries, with at least seven new route launches planned for 2014, including Boston and Chicago – two major US meeting industry markets. The carrier says it will carry 70 million passengers by 2020. 

Low-cost carrier, flydubai, now serves more than 65 destinations across 35 countries and is introducing Dubai to new sources of regional business, having carried 60 percent of first-time GCC passengers to the emirate in the last two years. 

“There is no doubt the combination of Emirates and flydubai is a huge asset to the meetings industry because of the volume of passenger traffic they bring to and from Dubai,” confirms Jakobsen. “It definitely helps when we bid for events.” 

The GCC is just one potential high-growth market the aviation industry helps the DCEB tap into, he says. Others include the CIS countries, Africa, India and Asia, while the Emirates-Qantas partnership, which saw the number of Australians visiting Dubai increase by almost 40 percent in its first year of implementation, has driven an encouraging rise in small incentive group business from the continent, he adds. 

“When new routes open up, we witness an instant impact on our industry, with more visitors travelling from these destinations to hold business events almost immediately,” Jakobsen notes. “We pay very close attention to the network strategies of Emirates and flydubai and try to align our delegate-boosting strategies to these in order to leverage their very strong connections.” 


When fully operational in the 2020s, [Al Maktoum International – Dubai World Central] will cater to between 160 and 200 million passengers. This will not only enhance connectivity and passenger traffic growth, but give rise to a new convention district, as well as the facilities and venues at the adjacent Dubai Expo 2020 site.

Jakobsen says the new Emirates route that holds the most exciting potential for the congress industry is Dubai- Brussels, which started operations on September 5. “It is very beneficial to link Dubai to the Belgian capital, because many international associations are based there,” he explains. 
Dubai’s profile as a destination for rotational congresses is gaining momentum and its robust aviation offering is playing a major role in winning bids, Jakobsen continues. “The quality of the airline and aviation infrastructure, combined with our ground transportation is second to none. We tick all the boxes for planners when it comes to airlift and connectivity,” he says. 

“For many conference organisers, one of the key success factors is to obtain good delegate numbers. When we look back at events that Dubai has hosted over the last five years, we have achieved high delegate rates compared to when the event was hosted elsewhere. 

“There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of our connectivity, compared to our competitors; and secondly, because we are in a relatively untapped region when it comes to association membership. Companies want to bring their events to growth regions such as ours.” 

Dubai’s breadth of airline offering, from budget to full-service, is another congress industry growth driver, according to Jakobsen. “flydubai is extremely important for us, not only because it improves connectivity to short- and mid-haul destinations, but because it offers low-cost fares that appeal to congress delegates on a budget,” he says. 

“Scientists and researchers travelling to scientific conferences, for instance, pay for airfares out of their research and development budget and, therefore, can’t afford to spend too much. Having low-cost options such as flydubai, combined with the greater number of three- and four-star hotels coming onto the market, means we can accommodate larger groups and from more market sectors.” 

However, undoubtedly the biggest aviation-driven boost for the Dubai meetings industry will come when the emirate’s new mega hub, Al Maktoum International – Dubai World Central (DWC), starts to rev up its capacity. When fully operational in the 2020s, the facility will cater to between 160 and 200 million passengers. This will not only enhance connectivity and passenger traffic growth, but give rise to a new convention district, as well as the facilities and venues at the adjacent Dubai Expo 2020 site. 

“Companies and associations will be attracted to these new state-of-the-art facilities, plus DWC is accessible to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, located halfway between the two,” confirms Jakobsen. “The key is to ensure this new district provides a different offering to the existing convention area around Sheikh Zayed Road and Dubai International Airport.” 

The two districts combined will more than double the size of Dubai’s convention offering and double the size of the meeting industry’s potential, he adds. 
Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, which is growing increasingly popular as a destination for meetings, events and incentives due to its trio of venues – Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld – is already benefiting from DWC traffic. This is largely due to its proximity to the new airport, says Clive Dwyer, Management Director, Yas Island Destination Management

“While our growth (from three million visitors in 2012, to an estimated four million in 2013) is undoubtedly due to the breadth of attractions and the recognition that Yas Island is increasingly transforming from a regional destination to a global one, it has also been augmented by the increase in passenger traffic at Abu Dhabi International Airport and the newly opened Al Maktoum International Airport,” he says. 

“With only a few hotels and attractions currently surrounding Al Maktoum International Airport, Yas Island will further grow to be the airport’s MICE partner.” 


Dwyer also highlights the positive repercussions of the expansion and enhancement programme underway at Abu Dhabi International airport, known as the Midfield Terminal Complex (MTC), which he says will drive more meetings business to Yas Island. It is also a selling point pitched by the team at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC). 

“MTC is scheduled to open in July 2017, generating an annual capacity of 30 million passengers (compared to the airport’s 16.5 million passenger throughput in 2013),” explains ADNEC Group CEO Pieter Idenburg. “With congress business lead times ranging from two to 10 years, the ability to converse with associations and organisers referencing the new terminal is obviously a great positive.” Additonally, the publicity the MTC is receiving is helping place Abu Dhabi “firmly on the meetings map”, he adds. 

The expansion of the UAE flag carrier, Etihad Airways, to include new routes and airline alliances is a major catalyst for the growth of the capital’s business events industry, Idenburg continues. “One of Etihad’s core strategies is to increase its partnerships and codeshares, which means reaching new areas of the world and, therefore, new source markets [for business],” says Idenburg. “For example, Etihad Airways recently announced an investment in a Swiss-based regional carrier, which allows us to access new markets in Europe and begin conversations with potential clients there about bringing business and events to Abu Dhabi.” 

Idenburg is referring to the new Etihad Regional brand, operated by Switzerland’s Darwin Airline, in which Etihad is acquiring a 33.3 percent stake. Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan has said the model could be rolled out in other parts of the world, connecting Abu Dhabi to a multitude of secondary cities and destinations globally where potential meetings business can be tapped into. 

Accessibility is paramount to the success of any event destination.

The carrier – which in 2013 added six new destinations, grew frequencies on 18 existing routes and signed codeshare agreements with seven global airlines – has also announced investments in Air Serbia (formerly Jat Airways) and India’s Jet Airways, adding to an equity alliance portfolio already featuring airberlin, Air Seychelles, Virgin Australia and Aer Lingus

Given that market access relies primarily on Etihad Airways’ rapidly expanding route network, the airline plays an integral role in the emirate’s business events strategy, says Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau (ADCB) Director Mubarak Al Shamsi. “Our close working relationship with Etihad Airways is securing major business events for the destination through joint TCA Abu Dhabi-Etihad Airways bids,” he notes. 

“Good examples of this co-operative bidding process are the April 2013 World Travel & Tourism Global Summit and the June 2014 staging of The Institute of Travel & Tourism’s annual conference.” 

Another more recent joint ADCB-Etihad Airways bid will see more than 500 of Asia-Pacific’s leading travel industry professionals visit Abu Dhabi this October for the biennial Abacus International Conference (AIC) to be held at the state-of-the-art Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island. Here, delegates will evaluate and debate the latest technological innovations dominating the industry, focusing on the trends driving booking behaviour across the 31 regional markets where Singapore-based Abacus International has a network of more than 20,000 travel agencies. 

Abacus President and CEO Robert Bailey says the company selected Abu Dhabi due to the UAE capital’s emerging role as a gateway for business and leisure travel from the Asia-Pacific region and to highlight how strategic investment in network infrastructure stimulates demand. 

“The Middle East’s aviation brands are now themselves trending in Asia-Pacific, with the region’s award-winning hubs attracting more than tenfold increases in bookings on the most popular routes, year on year,” he says. “Abu Dhabi is the right setting to talk about ground-breaking growth and enterprise.” 


Qatar is another Gulf destination selected to host travel and aviation industry conferences, given its relevance as one of the world’s fastest-growing transportation hubs. In June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) opened its 70th Annual General Meeting (AGM) and World Air Transport Summit in Doha, attracting more than 1,000 delegates. 

“Recent months represent a period of significant progression for Qatar Airways, with our move to the new Hamad International Airport (HIA) and the continued expansion of our young and growing fleet of aircraft,” says Qatar Airways CEO, Akbar Al Baker, who was appointed the AGM’s President. “As such, this AGM represents the perfect opportunity for us to showcase the State of Qatar and its importance as a global aviation hub.” 

Qatar Airways currently flies to more than 134 destinations worldwide with plans to increase this to 170 by the end of 2015. Of the 10 route launches scheduled for 2014, the most significant as far as meetings industry source markets are concerned are three US cities – Philadelphia, Miami and Dallas – as well as Edinburgh in Scotland and Haneda in Japan. Add to the mix Qatar Airways’ brand new state-of-the-art home at HIA and Qatar’s aviation offering is undoubtedly a draw card for meeting planners. 

The new airport – the first in the world to accommodate unrestricted operations by all commercial aircraft, including the A380 superjumbo – has a current annual capacity of 30 million passengers, but this will increase to more than 50 million by the time it is fully operational. HIA facilities and enhanced capacity will help facilitate the biggest event in Qatar’s history – the FIFA World Cup 2022


Qatar Airways is not only the driving force behind its home country’s meetings industry growth, but is looking set to facilitate the development of Saudi Arabia’s business events sector too. 

To complement its global expansion plan, the airline is taking advantage of Saudi’s recent airline industry liberalisation by launching a new airline, Al Maha Airways, in November this year. The carrier will initially operate domestic routes, but plans, subject to regulatory approval, to launch short-haul international services. Al Maha will be joined by another newcomer, Saudi-owned start-up SaudiGulf Airlines, which also intends to launch operations this winter. The duo will bring “significant capacity” into the Saudi market, according to aviation industry intelligence firm, CAPA Centre for Aviation. 

Saudi Arabia has boasted one of the most rapidly evolving aviation markets in the Middle East since the government ended the monopoly of state-owned national carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) in 2007, according to CAPA. This end to protectionism marked the launch of Nasair (now flynas) that same year, which now flies to 26 domestic and regional destinations, and carried 3.3 million passengers in 2013. In addition, CAPA says more international airlines have increased frequencies and capacity to Saudi Arabia as a result of market liberalisation. 

The long-term impact of deregulation, according to the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), will see Saudi annual passenger traffic (international and domestic) reach 100 million passengers per annum by 2020, compared to around 65 million at the end of 2012. This spells good news for the meetings sector, which has already seen event attendance increase as a result of enhanced air connectivity, according to Tariq Al Essa, Executive Director, Saudi Exhibitions and Convention Bureau (SCEB). 

“For example, at the recent Big 5 Saudi Arabia Expo, we witnessed a 14 percent increase in exhibitors from 39 countries,” Al Essa says. He notes how the Saudi meetings and events market currently “relies heavily on the attendance of the domestic and regional markets” and in this respect, the expansion of flynas and the entry of Al Maha and SaudiGulf will facilitate substantial growth. 

“It is well known that the domestic demand in the kingdom is high and that more supply is needed,” says Al Essa. “Additional capacity created by Al Maha Airways and SaudiGulf will not only increase availability from the larger Saudi cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, but open up smaller markets such as Madinah, Qassim and Abha.” 

As Saudi Arabia’s aviation sector becomes more competitive, so too should the fares, making the kingdom a more attractive proposition for a wider range of event delegates, Al Essa stresses. However, price caps remain in force for all domestic air services in the meantime. 

“In addition to the expansion of the airlines, there is an impressive investment in airports and related services,” he adds. “New construction and renovation at Saudi airports is currently underway valued at more than US$30 billion, with a strong percentage earmarked for the country’s four main international airports in Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam and Madinah.” 

Acknowledging that “accessibility is paramount to the success of any event destination”, the SECB’s strategy, says Al Essa, includes “building strong partnerships with the primary organisations related to this sector in order to develop accessibility for event attendees”. 

“The SECB is also developing travel packages to include airline, accommodation, visa and transfers for events taking place within the country,” he says. “The bureau will work with local providers to build the packages and make them available through our online portal.” 

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