An impressive roster of events is helping to attract business and travellers to Abu Dhabi, as a result transforming it into a major regional tourism destination. What do the F1 season finale, the legendary British rock band The Who, the final of the International Sailing Federation Sailing World Cup, the Taste of Abu Dhabi food festival and the world premiere of a new concert by Spanish conductor Jordi Savall all have in common? The answer is that visitors to Abu Dhabi in November 2014 could enjoy all five.
In recent years, the new Abu Dhabi City has stepped into the limelight, hosting an impressive array of sporting events and concerts, accompanied by cultural festivals in the fields of Emirati history, classical music, literature and film, as well as exhibitions and conferences across a range of industries. Moreover, all these events take place in dedicated, stateof-the-art facilities and infrastructure, the product of billions of dollars of sustained investment.
The impetus behind the events industry’s impressive growth is the government’s Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which identified tourism as a key sector for investment as part of an effort to diversify the emirate’s economy away from a reliance on natural resources. The focus on drawing major international events to Abu Dhabi should therefore be seen as part of a wider, integrated tourism strategy, which has involved the development both of the physical infrastructure necessary to attract big-ticket gatherings, as well as the stakeholder coordination and industry required to exploit such investments. The goal is to reach 8m visitors by 2030, and with nearly 3.5m arrivals in 2014, according to Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), representing year-on-year growth of 25%, the emirate is well on the way to hitting that target early (see Tourism chapter).
The development of Abu Dhabi City as an events location has emphasised the creation of distinct precincts, each tailored towards specific segments of the market and different activity profiles. The most significant precincts are arguably the two island developments, Yas and Saadiyat. Yas Island, currently the more developed of the two, emphasises “experience and activity” – industry jargon for popular sporting events and concerts, as well as permanent attractions such as theme parks.
The island already boasts the Yas Marina Circuit, which has hosted the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since 2009, as well as the du Arena (a 25,000-seat open-air venue), the du Forum (an indoor venue with seating capacity for more than 2000) and two theme parks: Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld. Additional facilities include a links golf course, a beach and marina development, and, to date, seven hotels. Furthermore, Yas Mall – at 235,000 sq metres the UAE’s second largest – opened its doors in November 2014. Now that these core attractions are already in place, Yas Island is also seeking to leverage its capacity to host large-scale corporate events and attract business visitors.
By contrast, Saadiyat Island will provide visitors with events and attractions tailored towards culture and heritage. The most significant anchor investments are the three large museums and galleries due to open in phases over the next three years: Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Each has involved a partnership with a major established cultural institution, and has been designed by a leading international architect, such as Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Frank Gehry. The 6300-seat Performing Arts Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, will add another dimension to Saadiyat’s cultural offering, complementing efforts by festivals such as Abu Dhabi Classics to attract leading international performing arts companies to the emirate.
Investment in infrastructure has by no means been restricted to leisure tourism. Indeed, with business visitors historically comprising Abu Dhabi’s leading market segment, facilities for conferences and exhibitions are both substantial and well established. The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) has 73,000 sq metres of exhibition space, two conference halls, 20 meeting rooms and a 6000-seat international convention centre. Growth in this more traditional meeting, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) market has been significant in recent years. In 2013 the total number of events held at ADNEC’s facilities rose 55% to 360, while the first half of 2014 saw the number of exhibitions grow by 56%, from 18 to 28.
According to Ali Saeed bin Harmal Al Dhaheri, managing director of ADNEC, Abu Dhabi holds a competitive advantage over other locations in staging such events across a variety of different fronts. “Event planners are looking for both value for money and a safe, accessible destination for their events,” he told OBG. “For a long time the US and Europe have been the mainstays of the sector, but destinations like Singapore, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi are all rising fast because they offer the perfect combination of accessibility, facility and value.”
Rankings & Incentives
Investment in facilities has already paid off in terms of Abu Dhabi’s rapidly rising profile in what is a highly competitive (and highly mobile) global MICE market. In 2012 Abu Dhabi broke into the top 100 cities in the International Congress and Convention Association’s global rankings – jumping 134 places in the process. The emirate is seeking a top-50 ranking, with efforts being coordinated by a dedicated unit within TCA Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau.
The Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau was established in 2013 to coordinate the various partners and stakeholders within the local MICE industry, and to develop incentives to draw new business to the emirate. The bureau’s incentive scheme is marketed under the brand “Advantage Abu Dhabi”, and is divided into two streams. Advantage 1, which is the more long-standing package, is aimed at conferences and exhibitions, and in keeping with Economic Vision 2030 targets assistance for events featuring the 12 sectors of the economy identified as priorities for diversification. This assistance can include start-up grants, rebates and marketing support.
Advantage 2, which started only recently, is by contrast targeted towards meetings and incentives. The variety of incentives on offer demonstrates the extent to which Abu Dhabi’s new activities and offerings are already being used to drive new business: possibilities include free access to various attractions on Yas Island, visits to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Al Ain and desert safaris. Abu Dhabi’s new incentive scheme has already reaped rewards for the sector – and put to the test its organisational and logistical skills. Chinese cosmetics firm Nu Skin chose the emirate for its 2014 “Success Trip”, which took place in April. As part of this, 14,500 employees visited the UAE for a 10-day trip, with 6000 of those staying in Abu Dhabi. The package included hiring out Ferrari World for three days, as well as two 8000-person dinners at Yas Marina Circuit, with tables laid end to end on the racetrack.
According to Clive Dwyer, director of destination management for Miral Asset Management (the company responsible for managing Yas Island), the success of the Nu Skin event has already resulted in a 30-40% increase in inquiries from Chinese firms looking for similar deals, so much so that Miral now employs a Mandarin-speaking liaison to facilitate such bookings.
For Dwyer, events such as Nu Skin are proof that Abu Dhabi is creating a successful “visitor economy” – which he describes as a range of goods and services aimed specifically at the transient consumer. “The fact that we’ve got a hub-based airport growing exponentially, alongside a growing array of hotels and attractions, means Abu Dhabi is gearing up to be a city with a strong visitor economy,” Dwyer told OBG. Such growth brings with it new opportunities: “behind the scenes of putting events on is employment and jobs. Very few sectors of the economy can say they have nothing to do with events, even banks and media, and from a marketing and sponsorship perspective it can spawn a whole industry.” According to Dwyer, “The rest of Abu Dhabi needs to recognise that this sector is growing, and that it needs to be thought through and serviced.” Indeed, successful destination management planning in Abu Dhabi requires that all key participants and stakeholders take further steps to ensure a more integrated approach to product and infrastructure development, positioning, promotion and marketing.
Dwyer’s conclusions are backed by recently published research from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which has attempted to measure both the direct and indirect contribution of the tourism sector as a whole to the UAE economy, comparing it with other sectors. According to the WTTC, travel and tourism contributed 14.2% of GDP in 2013, or $54bn, and sustained just under 400,000 direct and indirect jobs. Further to this, the WTTC has argued that for every $1m spent in the tourism sector, $1.2m is added to GDP through direct, indirect and induced effects – higher than manufacturing and, if induced spending is removed from the equation, placing tourism among the leading sectors for value added. Therefore, as a key driver of tourism in the emirate, the events sector has played a major role in sustaining this contribution.
The added value brought to Abu Dhabi by a thriving events sector can be measured not only in terms of additional visitor numbers, a higher global profile and the knock-on economic benefits which arise from these; rather, a more “eventful” Abu Dhabi is also a better (and in some cases healthier) place to live and work. Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island, for example, now gains half its footfall from health-related events put on for the general public. As Nick McElwee, sales and marketing director of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, told OBG, “We currently open the track on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for people to jog and cycle, and on Wednesdays in particular – which is female only – almost 90% of our 1500 visitors are Emiratis.”
Similarly, Flash Entertainment, an events company which owns Yas Island’s two music venues and has brought acts such as the Rolling Stones and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast musical to town, also engages in community initiatives such as the Abu Dhabi Science Festival, as well as supplying live acts for the annual Diabetes Walk. Such initiatives not only contribute to an improved sense of community, but also provide a better experience for visitors, who (as Miral’s Dwyer notes) tend to want to interact with locals when they visit a place. The result, it is hoped, will mean not only an eventful economy, but a sustainable one too, capable of adapting to the changing needs of the future.
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