Home to the manmade Palm Islands, visible from outer space, and the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, the city of Dubai seems conjured from dreams.
First inhabited by Bedouin nomads and sustained for centuries by fishing and pearling, this once unremarkable coastal backwater on the Arabian Peninsula is now among the planet’s most beguiling, beckoning destinations. Mission Impossible 4, shot extensively here and featuring Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa, aptly describes Dubai’s gravity-defying transformation: While Venice and Vegas are comparable mirages, the “City of Gold,” elevated from both water and sand, redefines dare-to-dream derring-do.
Built in 1978, the 37-story Dubai World Trade Centre (37 WTC is an inviting event space on the top floor) became the city’s first high-rise. Today, skyscraper-lined Sheikh Zayed Road, somewhere between Oz and Star Wars, is the main thoroughfare of a futuristic city-state built on superlatives.
Dubai introduced the first “7-star” hotel, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, where in 2008 a specialty cocktail ran for $7,440. Shaped like a breaking wave, Jumeirah Beach Hotel sits adjacent to Wild Wadi, one of the world’s biggest water-based theme parks. Housed inside the massive Mall of the Emirates, Ski Dubai is the world’s largest indoor ski slope.
The fate of Dubailand, the mega-billion-dollar entertainment complex calling for super-sized attractions, including multiple full-scale amusement parks and full-scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and other global icons, remains a tantalizing question mark.
“If you don’t take risks,” stated Dubailand’s lead developer in 2008, “you’re not serious.”
True enough—but when the global recession struck, “serious” meant potentially catastrophic financing defaults in Dubai. Would this Arabian sandcastle crumble, having flown too close to the sun? Far from it. Yes, the runaway growth got checked along with the hype, and many golden dreams were dashed. In the recession’s aftermath, though, a sturdier image has emerged: that of a rapidly maturing global business and tourism hub that is here to stay.
North American planners booking Dubai, now established as the Middle East’s premier hosting platform, can expect advanced, familiar congressional and hospitality services and techniques. While enjoying these benefits, delegates can also look forward to a profound cultural connection and return on experience like never before.
Earlier this year, the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) announced that it had selected Dubai for its eighth annual International Destination Expo (IDE) in April 2013. Established by ASTA in 2006 to be one of the travel industry’s most innovative educational events, IDE is purpose-designed to fully introduce U.S. and international travel agents to a specific travel destination.
“We are looking to grow this event year over year and continue its reputation of excellence, with an eye to increased international travel agent attendance,” says Tony Gonchar, CEO of ASTA. “We think that Dubai is ideally positioned to help us achieve this goal.”
The move is a testament to Dubai’s growing popularity in the U.S. market and the destination’s ability to stage large events.
Expecting some 1,000 attendees, ASTA selected Dubai for several reasons.
“Dynamic, progressive and sophisticated, Dubai is a tax-free haven and holiday resort that attracts millions of business professionals and pleasure seekers every year,” explains Gonchar explains. “Ideally located between East and West, Dubai is also an appealing geographical draw for North and South American agents as well as those from Asia, Africa and Australia.”
Discussions with Dubai’s top tourism officials and a comprehensive site inspection sealed the deal.
“Dubai and its appeal to the travel agency community, along with the clear commitment of Dubai’s tourism and group entities to working with us to ensure a successful event, provided the comfort level we were looking for,” Gonchar says.
To fully buy into and experience Dubai is to know the story of its transformation. Written in part by the well-documented toil of thousands of foreign workers who continue to build Dubai, its master authors are the successive rulers of the Al Maktoum dynasty, in power since 1833.
Taking advantage of Dubai’s natural harbor, the largest in the region, Sheikh Saeed (1912-1958) transformed Dubai’s economy from pearling to commerce in the 1930s.
While trade remains huge—the Dubai Chamber of Commerce reported an all-time high of $66.9 billion in exports and re-exports in 2011—it was the discovery of oil in 1966 that fueled Dubai’s meteoric rise. With the oil supply finite, however, Sheikh Rashid (1958-1990) set in motion the “anything is possible” planning for today’s post-oil economy in trade, tourism, real estate and finance.
With Sheikh Maktoum (1990-2006) and present ruler Sheik Mohammed furthering his vision, the master stroke was making Dubai apolitical and pro-business to the max.
Pillars of Growth
Dubai’s free economic zones across multiple industries, including finance, healthcare and IT, provide for rapid business set-up, with profits fully exportable and free of corporate tax. As the second-largest member of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the federalized nation of seven states formed in 1971 from the predecessor Trucial States Council, Dubai (both the city and the emirate share the name) and the UAE are pillars of stability in the Middle East and magnets for international commerce and investment.
Ranked the second-safest city in the world by Interpol, Dubai, with zero tolerance policing, remains a remarkable oasis in a region rocked by geopolitical instability. In fact, the present volatility in Syria and other local areas of unrest has only bolstered Dubai’s standing as the region’s go-to business destination.
Leisure and business travel also continue to enhance Dubai’s all-world allure.
According to Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), tourism is flourishing. Performance highlights from 2011 include a 10 percent lift in visitors to 9.3 million and a 23 percent increase in guest nights to over 33 million. (The U.S. ranked fifth among source countries, with 462,653 arrivals.)
Driving this growth is DTCM’s global promotion of the Dubai brand, with meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) included in an aggressive, multipronged campaign of strategic marketing programs, trade fairs, road shows and regional offices.
“Dubai’s tourism sector has long depended on diversified travelers from diversified source markets,” says Jerad Bachar, director of the Dubai Convention Bureau, a division of DTCM.
With four primary tourism pillars—leisure, cruise, MICE and sports—supporting its current four-year strategic plan, DTCM continues to focus on offering different types of services at different price points.
“True for hotels, airlines and attractions, this wider array of services allows Dubai to effectively host all focus-market segments,” Bachar says.
Already offering roughly 54,000 hotel rooms in around 575 properties, Dubai plans to have 100,000 rooms ready for a targeted 15 million visitors by 2015—with North American groups counted in the strategy.
“We have found that in addition to seeking a great location for their congress or event, our North American customers are also looking for long-term partnerships and new growth opportunities within their industry,” Bachar says. “Accordingly, we are increasing our network of local organizations to assist them in these endeavors, while also educating attendees that Dubai is the center of and gateway for trade, commerce and markets throughout the Middle East.”
Bottom line: Dubai has the programs, infrastructure and experience in place for doing business, and its MICE industry, serving as a “multidimensional business catalyst,” continues to generate an impressive track record of successful gatherings.
Remember Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis atop the Burj Al Arab’s helipad in 2005? Dubai can sure stage a show, but the congressional arts here have also crossed the bridge from razzle-dazzle to reality. Practiced at producing high-profile events such as the European PGA’s Dubai Desert Classic and the annual Dubai International Film Festival (Mission Impossible 4 debuted there last year), Dubai also capably hosts 1 million-plus delegates and thousands of exhibitors from around the globe at numerous trade fairs, consumer events and international conferences every year.
On the association front, ICCA currently shows Dubai in a three-way tie at 50th place for international association meetings per city, just behind Washington, D.C., and Hamburg, Germany. Remarkably, this ranking reflects Dubai going from zero such meetings in 2000 to 35 in 2010, with the UAE overall jumping from zero to 48 meetings in the same period.
Dubai’s location is key. Equidistant from London and Beijing, its close proximity to Europe, Africa and Asia helps build strong attendance.
“Last December, the World Diabetes Congress attracted over 15,000 delegates,” Bachar says. “Our largest shows, in the technology, healthcare and food sectors, annually draw upwards of 50,000 attendees each.”
Dubai’s acclaimed Emirates Airlines (which offers full-service congressional planning support via its Destination and Leisure Management division) has daily direct service from seven North American gateways, including New York (roughly 13 hours), Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles (16-plus hours) and most recently, Seattle and Dallas. Collectively, there are around 15,000 Dubai-bound seats from North America each week.
For North American planners, an ideal starting point for inquiries and information is DTCM’s North American office in New York City.
“With a modern meetings infrastructure that meets the highest international standards and expert hospitality professionals sourced from global capitals, meeting planners can instantly see that Dubai will meet their expectations, with familiar business practices,” says marketing manager Kathleen Leuba. “Familiar, however, does not mean identical. For many U.S. planners and delegates, Dubai may be their first introduction to Arabian culture, so they appreciate getting a few helpful tips beforehand.”
Planners can reliably work directly with local suppliers and resources like the Dubai Convention Bureau’s Dubai Bid Alliance, which provides a unique congressional bid package including incentives, specific discounts, pre-negotiated rates and harmonized terms and conditions from Dubai stakeholders.
However, Leuba recommends partnering with one of Dubai’s dependable DMCs or PCOs (Professional Conference Organizers).
“It’s an accepted, cost-effective way to go, especially when organizing scientific or technical programs,” she says.
The introduction in store is positively breathtaking. From the moment you land at Dubai International Airport and head into the city via Metro or taxi, it’s the start of a journey far removed from anywhere you have been before.
Plenty will indeed be familiar and mystery-free, from the 1 million-square-foot Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre to the Grand Hyatt Dubai, one of several MICE-designated hotels. Another familiar brand is making a big arrival in late 2012, when the 1,608-room JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, at just 85 feet shy of the Empire State Building, debuts as “the world’s tallest dedicated hotel building.”
Get there, and Dubai is cost-competitive with other world capitals. Most upscale restaurants are in the hotels, representing cuisines from around the globe, and in true Dubai style, everything from the chefs to the tableware is imported from the home country. With air connections to more than 200 destinations worldwide and a major cargo operation at the airport, fresh food for all tastes and dietary requirements is always available.
Then you start to take in Dubai—the outlandish architecture, the cultural treasures, the gold, textile and spice souks (markets), heirlooms like the historic Bastakiya district and Al Fahidi Fort (the city’s oldest structure, built in 1799), the desert adventures, the mosques, the shimmering heat, the sheer impossibility of it all—and the experience becomes transcendent.
In 2008, Paul Sutphin, then U.S. consul general in Dubai, said this of the city-state: “The door is open for more cultural and business engagement, and we should walk through it.”
Four years later, and that door is more open than ever: “Marhaba” (welcome) to Dubai.
Longtime Meetings Focus contributor Jeff Heilman has covered the Middle East for a number of business and legal publications.