Meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) is one of the niches with the highest potential for bringing non-pilgrim foreign arrivals to the Kingdom. “MICE is a high-yield sector and we are working with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to make Saudi Arabia one of the major MICE locations in the Middle East,” Abdullah Al Jehani, the vice-president for tourism at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told OBG. The segment also offers other benefits to the industry, such as steady business throughout the year. “MICE can mitigate seasonality. When things are otherwise slow, conferences can help,” said Salah Al Bukayyet, the SCTA’s vice-president for investment.
In light of such benefits, the SCTA launched a strategy for the development of the segment in 2005. Key elements of this include developing the regulatory framework to encourage the growth of MICE, with a focus on issues such as visas and licencing; the SCTA, for example, is working to activate a conference visa that would be issued on the basis of an event invitation instead of requiring a local sponsor, as is currently necessary.
Another element of the strategy is the development of human resources, infrastructure and facilities, with plans in the pipeline for a Saudi Convention Bureau to promote the segment; the SCTA and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry produced a report on the matter, and expect approval soon. The SCTA is also putting together lists of organisers and calendars of events, and working with the World Bank on a report measuring the economic impact of convention centres.
Saudi Arabia currently has around 600 conference and meetings venues, and hosts approximately 100,000 meetings per year, according to the SCTA. Statistics for MICE tourists specifically are not available, but business and professional travellers accounted for 14% – some 2.49m visitors – of foreign arrivals in 2011. Unsurprisingly given their proximity and the free movement zone in place between GCC states, Gulf countries were the largest source, accounting for 52%, and constituted four of the top five individual countries; Kuwait led the way, followed by the UAE, Egypt, Oman and Yemen.
The average length of stay for business visitors in 2011 stood at 14.6 days, according to the Tourism Information and Research Centre, up from 9.1 in 2010. In domestic business tourism, Saudi business travellers made 741,016 trips in 2011, accounting for 3.3% of all domestic overnight stays. This does not take into account attendees at events who did not travel overnight. Riyadh was the most popular city for domestic business travellers in 2011, accounting for 291,432 trips, followed by Jeddah (226,726) and Makkah (24,324).
The Kingdom had 29,000 sq metres of exhibition space in 2008 and 61,428 sq metres of conference and meeting space. By city, Jeddah has the largest share of hotel meeting facility space, with 38% of the total, followed by Riyadh with 17%.
There is currently a shortage of major conference and exhibition venues, but meeting space is growing as the accommodation sector expands. “Most five-star hotels have taken into account the need for conference facilities, even in Makkah and Medina,” said Al Bukayyet. The Kingdom’s largest exhibition venue is Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Centre (RICEC). “Saudi Arabia is new to the exhibition industry, but is focusing on sectors that have a strong impact, such as energy and technology,” Abdullah Alomran, the CEO of RICEC, told OBG. In 2011 RICEC processed 187 licences for new exhibitions, a 40% rise on 2010.
While the segment is set to grow, its development is likely to be constrained in some areas. MICE in the Kingdom is primarily based around meetings, conferences and events, with the incentive element not a major part of regional corporate culture.
Difficulties for women travelling to the Kingdom and gender segregation at public events are also major challenges. “The attendance of women at conferences requires special processes and approval from authorities,” Erich Steinbock, the regional vice-president and managing director of the Rosewood Group, told OBG.
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