Helal Al Marri, the Dubai World Trade Centre showman

The Trade Centre director general and his plans for the 30th anniversary of GITEX

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Helal Al Marri, the Dubai World Trade Centre showman The 30th Anniversary of GITEX is a celebration, says Al Marri. (ITP Images)
By  Damian Reilly Published  October 10, 2010

Helal Al Marri, the Director General of the Dubai World Trade Centre, is 34. He has been putting on the international trade shows that bring the world to the emirate for eight years. This year’s GITEX will be bigger than ever. How does he make it look so easy?

Helal Al Marri, fresh from ushering HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, around the emirate’s showpiece property trade fair, Cityscape, is a picture of calm. From this office in the Dubai World Trade Centre, he oversees international tradeshows and conferences that contribute, when everything is factored in, about two percent of Dubai’s GDP. It is a job that would surely line the face of most men, but Al Marri seems able, when describing what it is he does, to make it seem the most simple job in the world. Certainly his manner is open and relaxed.

On the day we met, there would have been many who would have predicted Al Marri would be wild-eyed and worried. This year’s Cityscape, in comparison with previous years, seems a very hushed and deserted affair. HH Sheikh Mohammed, when looking at the usual beautiful replica models of the fantastical projects that are already being built in Dubai, or are planned, must have noticed the difference. Where were the visitors?

Al Marri smiles. “I think Cityscape has been very positive so far. We have had a good turnout. We weren’t expecting so many overseas visitors. Yesterday (Monday, the opening day) wasn’t as full as expected. Today was more than expected.”

More visitors than expected? Arabian Business points out it has attended several Cityscapes and never seen so few visitors.

“Yes, but there is a difference. What we have done is changed it to Cityscape Global, and focused on business-to-business, so none of the brokers are there. Because before they used to allow the real estate brokers, and it would be business-to-consumer. So the event is really focused on business-to-business, because that is what the mistake was in previous years. So now all the people down there are business people.  It is not brokers selling properties. It is more overseas investors, regional investors, local investors,” he explains, before admitting there are in the region of half last year’s visitors at the event.

He says: “I am pleased with it. Given the market, given everything, I am pleased. It is where we wanted it to be this year. You are not expecting to have queues of people lining up on stands to buy products. There is just not the market anymore. And that market was not normal. There are not that many real estate shows in the world like that.”

But it is not Cityscape that we are here to discuss. On the seventeenth of this month the great computing jamboree that is GITEX, in its thirtieth incarnation, will begin. It has become probably Dubai’s most famous tradeshow, if not necessarily its largest, and to mark the anniversary Al Marri is planning an extra special week.

He says: “Obviously this year is a celebration, so there will be a lot of the bells and whistles. We have a very exciting conference. In the thirty years, the show has grown approximately 76 times. So you are talking about in the first year it being 800sq/m, today it is 76,000sq/m. That is quite a difference. Back then there were 46 companies exhibiting. Today there are 3,500 companies. You had 3,000 visitors then. Today you have well over 100,000 visitors.”

It is easy to talk of GITEX’s growth story in terms of square metres and visitor numbers and call it a runaway success, but Al Marri is quick to point out that do so purely on these grounds would be wrong headed.

It is not on head count and size that a trade show’s importance is measured, rather it is on the quality of the people attending.

He says: “The importance of the event is measured not just by number of companies and size of the event. It is also the quality of the visitors – so these are real business visitors, not people just window shopping. They are real visitors, industry professionals, and people from across so many of the industries from the wider region. The catchment area is so much bigger than before. Take a Microsoft or IBM, 30 years ago their Dubai office was looking at Dubai, then the UAE, then the GCC – today they are taking care of Africa, India, Pakistan, much wider geographies.”

And has the global economic downturn hit the Dubai World Trade centre savagely? It would be easy to see how it could have. Poorer countries means poorer companies who might not only be less willing to participate in seemingly expensive international trade shows, but less inclined, too, to send delegates to them in the hope of drumming up business.

Al Marri shakes his head. Far from hurting business for the DWTC, the economic downturn has actually helped improve it. Not only has it caused Dubai’s hotels and the airlines to price themselves at rates more conducive to potential conference goers, but it has caused bosses to become more selective about the conferences they attend. And luckily for many of Dubai’s events, GITEX very much included, they achieved critical mass before the crisis struck.

Next year, Al Marri explains, Dubai will host more international conferences than ever, by some considerable margin.

He says: “Our mandate as DWTC is to contribute 1.5 to two percent of GDP. We generate that through business tourism. And we are doing very well at that. If you look at the number of international conferences we have won for next year, it exceeds the last five years accumulated. So you are talking serious numbers.”

And the knock-on effect for Dubai is fabulous. Trade shows and conferences equal big money for other sectors in the emirate.

Al Marri says: “The networking events around the show are massive, throughout the whole of Dubai. The hotels are full, because of the show. And then there are all the corporate meetings that happen around and because of the show. The direct impact on hotels, flights and meals, it is in the hundreds of millions. I would estimate close to $100m. But the cost of putting the show on is a lot. A lot of it goes into marketing. Something like a GITEX will make a couple of percent margin.”

No wonder Dubai’s government is so prepared to make sure anything DWTC needs when it comes to making shows run smoothly, DWTC gets. In fact, Al Marri has no hesitation in describing his team as the “best supported events team in the world.”

“In Dubai, there is never an issue. If we need a couple more buses for GITEX, the RTA have them. If we need support from the Municipality or the police for anything, it happens so easily,” he says.

And then there is Dubai itself. For the organiser of an international conference, the city is dream. Not just because its geography makes it so appealing, but because it has everything needed, in a relatively small space, to meet all the requirements of an international trade event.

“Dubai is so geared up for this. If you look at what they have spent money on since the economic crisis: it has been everything that helps us. The Metro is finished. More stands (berths) at the airport, more planes with Emirates airline, more destinations, larger planes so they can bring in the bulk. The logistics side hasn’t slowed down at all. Shipping has become cheaper. All these things work very well for us. The hotel rooms – so many of these projects have delivered in the last twelve months – so there are so many hotels that are brand spanking new,” he says.

Al Marri says he spends the bulk of his time meeting with exhibitors ahead of conferences to talk to them about what they want from exhibitions. It is easy to imagine him charming them, and boosting their confidence. He says a few years ago, a new concept was introduced at GITEX, to boost networking. Called the GITEX Majlis, it was originally hoped to attract in the region of 150 CEO level people. Last year, 1,200 turned up. This year, if you’re attending, look out for Al Marri in there. But don’t expect him to look stressed.

Because he won’t be.

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