Conference calling

The summer months in the Middle East are too hot for all but the most dedicated sun-worshippers. Nonetheless, as things start to hot up, hotels in the region are still bustling as the rapidly developing conferencing market ensures a steady, year-round business for many four- and five-star properties

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By  Sarah Gain Published  July 11, 2006

|~|ShangriLa-B.jpg|~|Shangri-La Dubai. |~|Strategically positioned at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, the Middle East is beginning to make the most of its geographical position to tap into the lucrative conferencing market. Offering a world-class infrastructure and serving as a convenient middle ground for industries and governments alike, the region is ideal for international trade shows and conventions. Leading the region in the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) market, of course, is Dubai. The emirate’s impressive infrastructure, cosmopolitan population, world class properties and convenient air connections make it an international hub and enable the city to host large-scale, prestigious events. “The MICE facilities in both the public and the private sector have been expanded to meet the growing needs of the global community. Dubai’s capabilities to host more meetings, conferences and conventions are set to improve with many more ambitious projects becoming a reality in the near future,” says Awadh Seghayer Al Ketbi, director of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM)-Dubai Convention Bureau (DCB). “DCB has been working to promote and market Dubai as an excellent MICE destination throughout the year. We work to make every meeting and convention a huge success and the participants’ stay memorable.” In total, the DTCM estimates that there is already some 160,000m² of flexible meeting and exhibition space in the emirate, a figure that will be substantially augmented in the coming years. With state-of-the-art venues such as Dubai International Convention Centre and the Airport Expo, the city has fine-tuned its capabilities to host large-scale meetings. Meanwhile, when it comes to the more common — but just as lucrative — medium-scale events, the emirate’s five-star hotels provide a popular alternative. Named the Business Hotel of the Year at the DEPA Middle East Hotel Awards 2006, Dubai’s Shangri-La hotel boasts a grand ballroom and a junior ballroom, each of which can accommodate up to 500 people. Three additional function rooms can be used as breakout rooms or for smaller functions. All the meeting rooms feature natural daylight and have been kitted out with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment. The hotel also has a 24-hour business centre and wireless internet access throughout. Professional technical assistance is also on hand to help clients get to grips with the gadgetry and troubleshoot any glitches that may arise. “We have a lot of big name, international corporate clients that come to the hotel for their conferences and business events. While the facilities that we have are state-of-the-art, I think it’s the lengths that the team goes to in order to make sure that every event is successful that really sets us apart,” says Alma Au Yeung, director of events at the Shangri-La Dubai. “We know that all hotels have pretty much the same hardware and the same kind of technology available, so what makes the Shangri-La different is that we create a one-stop shop experience.” While at some hotels a client may have to deal with a number of different people in various departments in order to make the necessary arrangements for a conference, Yeung believes that too many cooks can spoil the broth. Instead of having different departments handling different parts of the request, the Shangri-La’s team of eight takes care of all the client’s criteria from the initial booking and negotiating stages, through to the planning of the event and the billing and follow-up. “The Shangri-La’s standard is that we have to respond to any enquiries within 24 hours, and this is a rule we stick to. In Hong Kong, where I am from, the pace of business is very fast, but here in Dubai, a very quick response is just as important, perhaps even more so,” says Yeung. “Time is money, and you have to show that you are keen — that’s what gives us our competitive edge. Our clients value the responsiveness.” Dusit Dubai is also striving to deliver high quality facilities and services to conference clients with comprehensive meetings packages and has recently opened a new suite of meeting rooms. “With the addition of our more flexible meeting facilities we are tapping into the ever-growing conference market in Dubai. Across the region, trends indicate a shift in business practices with the introduction and expansion of conference divisions within organisations,” says Marielle Morin, director of sales and marketing at the hotel. The new, dedicated senior executive boardroom seats 16, while the five multi-purpose meeting rooms all offer the latest technology and a spacious working environment for up to 120 guests. Designed for flexibility and comfort, the rooms feature traditional Thai interior design and, as with the Shangri-La, the majority of meeting rooms have natural daylight. “Along with the location of Dusit Dubai [on Sheikh Zayed Road], which is pivotal for ease of access, the hotel is also at the forefront for facilities and service — the meeting rooms offer the latest technology, including high-speed wireless internet. The newly-appointed meeting rooms, complemented by the Dusit Club and Grand Rooms, have created a solid platform for our corporate and MICE business,” Morin adds.||**||Technology sells|~|video-conferencing-B.jpg|~|Conference organisers require access to a variety of market-leading audiovisual and video -conferencing equipment , so hotels in the region must ensure that they stay ahead of technology trends.|~|Technology is also a key selling point for the JW Marriott Dubai where, due to the property’s location just 10 minutes away from Dubai International Airport, approximately 80% of bookings are from business clients. In total, the hotel offers over 9,400m² of meeting and conference space, including ballrooms, a VIP lounge, 11 boardrooms and meeting rooms, and space for breakout sessions. Each of the rooms is equipped with the latest electronic amenities: there is high-tech audiovisual equipment and wireless internet access, and the hotel even offers a hydraulic stage that is ideal for events such as product launches. “The hotel continues to invest in each of its meeting, conference and banquet spaces, offering the latest in video conferencing, web casting and audiovisual capabilities,” says Sharon Marett, Marriott’s director of marketing communications & PR in Dubai. “Often not enough effort is spent on training staff on technology and best practices in Dubai, but we have a dedicated team of Marriott Visual Presentations (MVP) technicians that are trained to provide assistance with audiovisual technology, video conferencing, wireless internet connections, and any other technical issues related to an event, including lighting control and sound systems.” Keeping up to date with technology trends and best practices is not the only challenge for hotels in Dubai, where almost every hotel in the four- and five-star markets is desperate to get a piece of the conferencing action. Quality hotels in Dubai achieved staggering RevPAR growth of almost 40% in 2005, according to HVS International and moreover, average room rate grew by approximately 40% on 2004, to US $202. While this may be good news for hoteliers, many conference organisers are beginning to resent the high prices and are looking for cheaper alternatives. ||**||Alternative emirate|~||~||~|As the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is attempting to position itself as a “destination with a difference”, and has tried to stay true to its culture and traditions while at the same time developing a conferencing infrastructure that comprises state-of-the-art meeting facilities and some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. The city is the ideal base from which to build a conference and events platform for regional and international businesses looking to establish a presence in the GCC, according to Ideal Management Essentials (IME), a company specialising in corporate events, marketing consultancy and executive training, which will launch officially in September. “We chose to open our first offices in Abu Dhabi to support the visionary government plans of expanding businesses, hosting world class events and increasing tourism opportunities in the capital city,” says Mohana Rao, IME’s director of international business development. “The IME business will spread throughout the GCC with set-up facilities to accommodate business requirements region-wide. The services provided are designed for leading regional and international organisations looking for high quality, custom-made and innovative services,” she continues. Abu Dhabi is already being chosen as a venue for high-profile business and governmental events, and while the meeting facilities at the impressively modern Emirates Palace may be the jewel in the capital’s MICE crown, a number of important events are also regularly held at five-star hotels in the heart of the city, as Alaa Al Ali, assistant director of sales at the Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi, points out. “The majority of our conference visitors come from the GCC and Levant, and recently we have played host to events for organisations such as the Embassy of the Hellenic Republic, Etihad Airways and the Armenian Community. In April, for instance, the Egyptian Tourism Authority chose to hold its road show at the Millennium, and Taheel LLC held a conference called “Litaarafour: The Search for Mutual Understanding”, for Danish and Muslim participants, which was obviously a very important event,” Al Ali says. It’s not all hard work, however, as organisations are increasingly seeking to mix business with pleasure at their events. Conference planners are looking for venues that can combine the requisite technology, facilities and services with a varied menu of adventure and sporting activities, according to Gabor Bors, executive assistant manager of the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, the largest city in the eastern region of Abu Dhabi. “We have received a lot of requests for team building activities and incentives, and this is an area where hotels in more remote areas can really excel and make sure we capture our share of the business market,” Bors explains. “Whether it is the closing event of a conference, to encourage employee motivation or as a gift to an important client, our incentives are varied, exciting, energetic, challenging and, most of all, fun. The programmes include activities from abseiling, canyoning and parascending to desert camps and survival courses.”||**||Build it and they will come|~|Ritz-Carlton-Doha-B.jpg|~|At The Ritz-Carlton, Doha careful planning ensures that events go without a hitch. |~|For the rest of the Middle East, demand for hotel conference venues is being driven by the new supply now available. As countries around the region invest in improving their infrastructures and hotels actively work to develop their conference facilities and MICE offerings, it seems that they are being rewarded with increased interest from the regional and international conference markets. In Lebanon, for example, as the country’s hotels invest in the types of facilities that today’s business travellers have come to expect, the conference business is starting to steadily pick up pace. According to Michelle Mallat Rishani, public relations and communication director at the InterContinental Phoenicia in Beirut, clients’ expectations are usually highest when it comes to technology-oriented requests, making this a high priority for the hotel. “We are always striving to exceed customers’ expectations and if we are to maintain the trust and loyalty of our existing conferencing clients and also gain recognition as a top-class conference venue, we must ensure we can provide unparalleled services and facilities,” she explains. “We have invested in everything from LCD, slide and overhead projectors to a full-scale sound system with clip, fixed and wireless microphones and an array of interpretation facilities including booths and headsets. We have plasma screens, ISDN lines and WiFi high-speed internet connections within each meeting area,” Rishani continues. “The InterContinental Phoenicia now has the facilities, the service, the security, the equipment and the know-how to handle grand scale gatherings and we expect that we will see continued growth in this side of the business as a result.” In Oman there is also evidence of this type of supply-driven demand and, although leisure travel has traditionally been the Sultanate’s primary revenue stream, a rise in the number of properties offering conferencing facilities over the last 12 months has resulted in a strong growth in MICE business in the country. “Approximately 25% of our business comes from the corporate and MICE segments and currently the majority of our conference visitors are coming from within the GCC and Europe, specifically France, Russia and the UK,” says Russell Loughland, director of sales & marketing at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Oman. “Recently, we have had conferences such as the World Summit for Innovation and Entrepreneurs, the Gulf Air Worldwide Sales and Marketing Conference and the Société Nationale Agences de Voyages (SNAV) conference held in the hotel.” The Barr Al Jissah’s 198-room Al Bandar hotel, which opened in February, targets the business and corporate market, promoting itself as a retreat for meetings and banquets. The five-star deluxe property features ten conference and meetings rooms, and the 700-seater Barr Al Jissah Ballroom. “Conference organisers are looking for a high level of quality in the overall experience. This includes everything from the creativity and innovation of the conference facilities themselves to the additional services, such as recreation and leisure,” Loughland adds. “An organiser wants everything from the planning and costing to the operation to move seamlessly, from arrival at the airport through to waving goodbye.” ||**||Service standards|~||~||~|The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain leverages technological solutions to help guarantee this seamless experience for its guests. Using a software programme called MeetingMatrix, the hotel’s catering and conference services team can now provide diagrams for all the ballrooms, meeting rooms and outdoor locations such as the resort’s private island to clients. The technology then enables clients to create, view and modify meeting set-ups via computer-drawn diagrams, greatly improving accuracy and efficiency at the planning stage of an event. “This efficient tool eliminates miscommunication between the meeting planner and the conference manager, reduces time previously required to manually draw the floor plans, and allows for speedier communication flow between all parties as the diagrams may be e-mailed to the clients’ head offices for immediate feedback,” says director of sales and marketing, Kenneth Hill. “After we introduced MeetingMatrix for our in-house meeting planners earlier this year, we have had an increased demand for the software from our corporate clients.” High-tech solutions might be the key to organising successful events at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, but the hotel’s sister property in Qatar prefers to rely on good, old-fashioned attention to detail and the personal touch. For Laura Haucke, director of catering and conference services at The Ritz-Carlton, Doha, careful planning is the most important element in ensuring that events go without a hitch. “Everything has to run smoothly and be perfectly planned, especially for the big, high-profile events. They can sometimes be quite a challenge to organise and the whole team has to be aware of all the different protocols and etiquette,” she explains. Haucke makes sure the hotel’s whole conference team remains visible and available to guests throughout any event held at the hotel, just in case clients have any problems or additional requests, and this hands-on approach meant that the hotel received the Convention & Conference Facilities Award at the DEPA Hotel Awards 2006. “We won the award because we are constantly striving to be a premier provider of luxury experiences, especially when it comes to personalised events. The expectations of the clientele here in Doha are getting higher, however, and after you win this type of award, they get even higher still,” she says. “Clients nowadays expect everything to be of an exceptionally high quality, from sensational service and market-leading audiovisual and technical equipment right through to ultra-modern food presentation or unique incentive activities,” Haucke continues. “The clients are usually well travelled, so they know precisely what they want, hotels must ensure that they are able to deliver perfection.” Although Dubai may dominate the Middle East’s MICE market at present, hotels elsewhere in the region are clearly eager to snare their share of conferencing clients, and are investing in facilities that will help them do just that. With such determined challengers, hotels in Dubai may have to fend off stiff competition if they are to achieve the additional 600,000 overnight stays by MICE visitors that Dubai Convention Bureau is aiming to attract by 2008.||**||

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