With an increasing selection of cultural, sporting and entertainment attractions in its events calendar, and a steadily expanding supply of hotel rooms, Abu Dhabi has shown itself fully capable of drawing in large numbers of visitors. In 2015 this included a rising number of local UAE guests, as well as growth from wider regional and global markets. While key top-name museums, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, are yet to open, an expansion of existing venues – in particular Yas Island – and the many positive reviews that the emirate’s long-term plans are earning have contributed to the growing awareness of Abu Dhabi as a first-rate travel destination.
Established in 2013, Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, a division of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) continues to focus on strengthening the business events sector. In 2015 it secured the “Middle East’s Leading Meetings and Conference Destination” accolade in the World Travel Awards for the third consecutive year. It concentrates on linking with all of the main sectors of the economy. As Mubarak Al Shamsi, the bureau’s director, told OBG, this is to be achieved primarily by working together with leaders from each of these sectors, which is designed to result in better integration between the government and private enterprise. He added that to attain real success, the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) segment requires collaboration with other partners and coordination between key players.
While Abu Dhabi is well established in terms of its infrastructure, it nevertheless continues to use incentives to hold events there. This has resulted in the Advantage Abu Dhabi campaign, a three-year-old Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau incentive programme aimed at developing innovative and viable business events aligned to the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. This can include start-up financial grants for business event organisers, along with government endorsement, leadership patronage, cost rebates and marketing support.
The MICE market receives local, tailored support through the Professional Conference Organiser framework. This initiative provides start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with the opportunity to cater to specific activities surrounding events. To help build up local capacity for the conference sector, TCA Abu Dhabi announced plans in April 2015 to increase SME activity by encouraging tour operators to work with local entrepreneurs. The effort entails “dedicated inward investment” to support start-up inputs in MICE and general tourism-related industries. By providing more local goods and services to the hospitality sector, TCA Abu Dhabi envisions a more unique and authentic experience for visitors, while boosting local, non-oil economic growth. In the early stages it will concentrate on the hotel sector and local SMEs that provide distinct products.
Providing the foundation for large-scale conference and exhibition events is Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company (ADNEC), Abu Dhabi’s primary venue development and management enterprise. With total assets valued at Dh9.7bn ($2.6bn) ADNEC includes Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, Al Ain Convention Centre and ExCel London. ADNEC provides 133,000 sq metres of inter-connected floor space and hosted 1.6m people across 327 events in 2014.
ADNEC seeks to promote Abu Dhabi as a preferred global destination to host international congresses and specialised conferences. In order to achieve this goal in the most effective way possible, ADNEC has prioritised enhancing the emirate’s comparative edge over other established destinations and through consistently achieving top travel and business association rankings. This has been accomplished by offering dedicated infrastructure and facilities, along with targeted support for meeting planners and associations.
In 2015 ADNEC received recognition for its efforts in exhibition capacity and sustainability practices for the second year in a row, with awards from the Association of Event Organisers held in London. ADNEC’s direct impact in 2015 on Abu Dhabi’s economy reached Dh1.835bn ($499.5m), up from an original projected contribution of Dh1.7bn ($462.7m). In the exhibitions sector, ADNEC hosted 31 exhibitions and more than 741,000 visitors by the end of Q3 2015.
In October 2015 the National Exhibition Centre hosted 41 scheduled events in a single month for the first time since its original inception. This figure is 20% more than the monthly average of 34 events over the last five-year period between 2011 and 2015. ADNEC’s previous highest number of events in a month was recorded in October 2012, when the venue hosted 40 events.
ADNEC has drawn in more than 10.7m visitors since 2005 and its two main conference venues hosted over 1751 events since 2005, as well as hosting 327 events in 2014 alone. “Business tourism has emerged as one of the key drivers of the Abu Dhabi economy as envisioned by Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. We expect ADNEC’s contribution to Abu Dhabi’s economy to grow to Dh2.6bn ($707.7m) in 2016,” Ali Bin Harmal Al Dhaheri, managing director of ADNEC Group, told OBG. ADNEC reports that total visitor numbers grew from 50,000 in 2005 to 1.65m in 2014. “The contribution of hosting business events is gauged based on the spending by business delegates. According to a study supported by ADNEC, business delegates spend seven times more than regular leisure tourists in Abu Dhabi, and 10% of the delegates come back to Abu Dhabi as leisure visitors,” Al Dhaheri added.
Abu Dhabi’s events and conferences circuit is seeing greater numbers of guests along with innovative linkages to leisure and sport tourism. The emirate is looking at creative ways to leverage its Yas Island leisure tourism assets for business delegates and to incentivise guests as well. This includes making use of locations and attractions for alternate purposes depending on the day and time, and inspiring return visits with friends and family. According to Al Tareq Al Ameri, CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM) and Yas Marina Circuit, the most important part of Yas Marina Circuit’s growth story concerns its forays into the MICE and business events arenas. Upgrades to facilities have met the standards required by events associations, with more than 240 events having been held in 2014, and an increase to 270 expected for 2015. Event types include team-building exercises and business meetings. By offering a turnkey solution and upgraded facilities, Yas Marina Circuit is positioning itself to win more bids for these and other events in the future, Al Ameri said.
A key change over the course of 2015, according to Miral Asset Management’s CEO, Mohamed Al Zaabi, is the “very clear expansion of the global partnerships” that Abu Dhabi and Yas Island have formed in order to support growth from key source markets. Examples include dynamic travel partnership programmes, like Yas Island’s inclusion on China’s “C Trip” platform online, among others. With 20-30 strategic partnerships, the global inbound tourism industry is now starting to see Yas Island and Abu Dhabi as “the new tourist destination” for the region, according to Al Zaabi.
ADMM’s Al Ameri told OBG that Yas Marina Circuit’s ambition is to enhance the venue so that they will be in a position to compete for more major corporate events. The challenge, as Al Ameri sees it, is to improve on the high standards already set and come up with new products, services and facilities to excite consumers and business travellers. With this in mind, ADMM is looking to expand into the MICE sector further and has created “Oasis” (spectator entertainment) sites throughout the venue and in locations elsewhere in Abu Dhabi. This process is viewed as a way to engage a greater number of local stakeholders, which is a central part of the company’s longer-term goal.
According to the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau’s Al Shamsi, his office’s agenda continues to be that of strengthening the business events sector by targeting the main sectors of the economy, ranging from health to industry to infrastructure.
The impact of holding successful events in Abu Dhabi extends beyond straightforward financial considerations. As he explained in a conversation with OBG, “the strategic outcome is critical”. His department is interested in the strategic outcome of the events calendar so that it supports different business sectors in Abu Dhabi and across the UAE as a whole. The health sector, for example, can be boosted through major conferences with practical outcomes and actions taken locally and internationally, or with enhanced communications before, during and after an event through the publishing of reports or the holding of post-event meetings; the central point is to assure that the event does not take place in isolation from its larger potential strategic and economic role.
Conferences are meant to have a positive impact on a given sector, and at the same time, targeted events are meant to add value to Abu Dhabi. This includes a new seasonal focus as well, with timely products and event offerings developed in line with seasonal international travel and business metrics. TCA Abu Dhabi has eleven regional offices to support this mission globally by building and strengthening relationships in source markets.
The bureau is also looking at new ways to add value to the experience of events, and at how events feed into various sectors in the emirate and the UAE as a whole. The Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau takes an interest in being actively involved in these events, including through lending support on research or conducting case studies. A central aspect of how the bureau adds value is to approach events from the destination framework. In this way they seek to take conferences “out of the nine-to-five” in a way that adds value to the event overall, while simultaneously presenting a showcase opportunity for Abu Dhabi as a wider travel destination. Coordination and innovation in adding value are presented as two strong traits of the emirate’s growing events sector. As Yas Marina Circuit’s Al Ameri puts it, coordination among stakeholders has improved significantly over 2015. And through establishing stronger links with TCA Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways and Yas Island, the mix “is only getting better”, according to Al Ameri.
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