Recent years have seen a surge in activity in Abu Dhabi’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector, as business travellers have become one of the emirate’s principle sources of visitor revenue.
Indeed, in the most recent destination rankings from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), for 2015, Abu Dhabi had risen some 35 places, with the number of international association meetings and conferences in the emirate up 59% year-on-year. This follows previous rapid advances, with Abu Dhabi rising 161 places in the ICCA rankings in just three years – from 234th in the world in 2012 to 73rd by 2015.
The ICCA rankings made the city the only one in the region to advance up the tables in 2015, and this success was possible thanks to long-term planning and strategic thinking. As a result, the emirate has been able to attract MICE business despite the recent global economic downturn and the local slowdown.
Furthermore, it now possesses a number of top-ranking venues for corporate and non-corporate events, along with a high-quality soft infrastructure of supporting services and agencies. Both pillars will stand the emirate in good stead for the years to come.
Plans & Projects
Underpinning the sector’s recent development has been the emirate’s long-term economic development plan, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, and the more recently published Abu Dhabi Plan. Both of these policies identify economic diversification as the key to future prosperity, moving the emirate away from its reliance on hydrocarbon exports. This strategy has led to a focus on tourism as a priority sector, and business travel forms a key part of this initiative. The emirate can leverage several natural advantages in this segment. It is located at a crossroads between Europe, India, Asia and Africa, with frequent air connections to all continents. Some 80% of the world’s population is within an eight-hour flight of Abu Dhabi International Airport, which serves more than 100 destinations worldwide. The emirate has a wide range of high-end hotels, as well as more budget options (see overview), while its population is multi-cultural and international, providing a home away from home for many – while also providing a unique, local tradition and culture for visitors to explore.
Delivering the MICE strategy has fallen to several key bodies. First, there is the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), Abu Dhabi’s lead agency in the sector. In 2013 this was joined by a division of TCA Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, which specialises in the MICE segment. It offers one-stop-shop services, including assistance with bid strategies and promotional activities, access to its international offices, government and non-governmental contacts, and marketing and PR support.
The Convention Bureau offers the Advantage Abu Dhabi (AAD) programme, which gives additional incentives to event organisers when their event dovetails with the priorities of the Economic Vision 2030 plan. Events carried out in the energy, petrochemicals, metals, aviation and defence, pharmaceuticals, tourism, health care, education, transport and logistics, media, financial services and telecommunications sectors can all potentially benefit from the AAD’s bespoke financial and non-financial incentives.
Another central sector body is the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company (ADNEC), which operates the emirate’s largest and most well-known venue, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, along with the Al Ain Convention Centre, Aloft Abu Dhabi, the Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi, and the Capital Gate and Capital Centre in Abu Dhabi city, next to the exhibitions centre. Additionally, ADNEC also encompasses ExCel London and Aloft London ExCel in the British capital, and IDEX LLC, the company that manages Abu Dhabi’s biannual International Defence Exhibition and Conference, IDEX, and its naval defence fair, NAVDEX.
In 2016 ADNEC’s Abu Dhabi and Al Ain venues hosted 480 local and international events between them, attracting 1.5m international visitors. These numbers were up from 369 events held in 2015, according to the company. “Despite the diverse challenges facing the MICE industry globally, we are very pleased with the results of 2016,” Humaid Matar Al Dhaheri, group CEO of ADNEC, told OBG. “We see this as indicative of the successful expansion of our conference and exhibition lineup into sectors outlined under the Abu Dhabi Plan.”
The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (commonly referred to as ADNEC) is the largest such venue in the Middle East. Designed by international architects RMJM and opened in 2007, it has a total available space of 133,000 sq metres. This is made up of 73,000 sq metres of indoor space and an outdoor area of 55,900 sq metres. The centre divides into 12 dedicated exhibition halls and two conference halls, with the former ranging in size from the largest, the International Convention Centre, at 7919 sq metres, to the smallest, Hall 3, at 3168 sq metres. There is also a grandstand demonstration area of 12,000 sq metres and a central plaza area of a further 13,400 sq metres, while the ADNEC marina waterfront offers 30,500 sq metres of additional outside space.
The centre is at the heart of a complex of other, supporting structures, such as the Hyatt Capital Gate and Aloft Abu Dhabi hotels, which offers ease of movement between the centre and accommodation for attendees.
The Al Ain Convention Centre, meanwhile, offers two large halls, an auditorium, a mixed-use event space for networking and an 8125-sq-metre outdoor function area. The two large halls are 6600 sq metres and 5400 sq metres, respectively, while the auditorium can seat up to 250 people. “The development of our facilities and services is ongoing,” Al Dhaheri told OBG. “We want to ensure their competitiveness and adaptability to the full breadth of the business tourism industry.”
In addition, Abu Dhabi city offers two vast events venues, which are often used for concerts and major public events, and offer exhibition spaces – du Arena and du Forum (see analysis). There is also the Abu Dhabi International Exhibition Centre, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and offers some 21,000 sq metres of exhibition space. The facility also offers a conference area for up to 900 attendees, along with VIP areas and a range of supporting facilities.
There are a wide variety of hotels and clubs offering MICE facilities too, from the Emirates Palace to the Yas Marina and Yacht Club. Helping events planners navigate the range of potential venues is one of the ADCB’s tasks, with the sheer quantity of potential sites – as of mid-March 2017 there were 110 listed on the bureau’s website – enabling the emirate to offer a highly-tailored service. Indeed, one of Abu Dhabi’s strengths is its ability to offer locations and facilities to suit all budgets.
This strategy certainly appears to be bearing fruit. The year 2016 was another record-breaker for the Abu Dhabi MICE sector, with the ADCB successfully bidding to host 14 conferences – the largest number of conference wins to date, according to ADCB. These 14 events will bring in some 35,000 delegates over the next few years. The wins include hosting the 2019 Special Olympics, expected to attract 10,000 participants, and the International Medicine and the Healthcare Professions – Ottawa Conferences 2018. The medical and health industry is likely to see even more functions in the emirate, after the ADCB signed a memorandum of understanding with the Emirates Medical Association and ADNEC to target this sector. In 2020 Abu Dhabi is set to host both the family health WONCA World Conference and the 6th Congress of the World Union of Wound Healing Societies. In 2017 some 15,000 people are expected to attend the International Diabetes Federation Congress in the emirate.
The emirate has been successful in attracting professionals from within the tourism and travel sector to MICE events too. In 2016 the main travel agent associations of the two principal foreign countries of origin for visitors – India and the UK – both held conferences in the emirate. This was an additional vote of confidence in Abu Dhabi, further establishing it as a destination recommended by Indian and British sector professionals.
Indeed, 2017 sees IBTM Arabia take place at the emirate’s Etihad Towers. This is the region’s leading international, invitation-only MICE event, which sees one-to-one meetings and networking events aimed at building key relationships across the MICE industry itself. Abu Dhabi was selected because the emirate “is a destination which is constantly evolving,” Shinu Pillai, exhibition director of IBTM Arabia, told sector press in December 2016. Continuous growth means new venues every year, while TCA Abu Dhabi and ADCB provide “an excellent support mechanism”.
In the years to come that mechanism looks set to continue to provide the emirate with a major advantage in attracting MICE business. At the same time, more venues are set to open up, as new hotels are brought on-stream (see overview). “We are aiming to build on the success of our strategy of attracting a wide spectrum of new events to Abu Dhabi, all while supporting our existing commitments,” Al Dhaheri told OBG.