dubai, culture, camels

Back to the future

Setting aside the intense summer heat and the lack of Central European greenery that we’re familiar with, Dubai is a city of wonderful excess. We have read much about its staggering rise (and quite literally too) in the past couple of decades, but a lot less is known about its meetings industry. Let’s put it like this: why organise an event in Dubai? I have been asking myself this for quite a while now, as a few large-scale and important events and conferences will be held there in the coming years, no less so than the ICCA and IAPCO congresses. In getting to an answer, a comprehensive clue was offered to us in March, when we were guests of a mega Fam trip in this meetings destination of the future.

Myth 1: Dubai = Emirates
The first thing to confess is that the trip organisers managed to break a whole series of stereotypes and congress myths deeply embedded in my subconscious. The second thing is that I now know a little more on Middle East geography, specifically so on Dubai’s relation to the other Emirates making up the UAE, which I can now finally properly list and locate.

CEO of Dubai CVB, Steen Jakobsen explained to us that “the region is becoming increasingly popular both for corporate and association planners as it is such a dynamic region – in terms of knowledge, social and economic development, Dubai is located within one of the fastest growing regions in the world. In addition to this we also see the return of events – Dubai is no longer considered a one off destination, as events are returning here again and again”.


Myth 2: Dubai is a synonym for the luxury side of the meetings industry
The biggest myth of all is connected with Dubai’s meetings industry. There are certainly a wealth of luxury hotels, the artificial Palm and World Islands, and the highest skyscraper in the world in the midst of it all. For these reasons, a planner might not feel drawn to organising a budgeted congress in Dubai. Actual contact with Dubai, however, reveals a mature and well-organised meetings industry destination with a comprehensive offer and a variety of hotel services which also includes a growing number of three-star hotels.

As Steen Jakobsen was keen to explain, “Dubai resonates with a ‘Can Do’ attitude plus the combined partnership within the industry to ensure that we as a city are successful”. This success is not just for luxury seekers, but for everyone.


Myth 3: Dubai is a city without tradition
Although, the Middle East is regarded as the cradle of human civilisation, it sometimes feels that there is not a lot of the ancient world to go and see. We therefore got a big surprise with the Al Fahidi old fortress in the Dubai Creek area, as well as a genuine contact with Arab culture (The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding). Through a heritage tour we learned about the traditional and modern Dubai from the wonderful storytelling of an energetic guide. The exceptional cultural and culinary experience took us back to a Dubai of a tiny population of people who busied themselves with boat building and pearl fishing. Through his stories of the development of Dubai and the region, the guide managed to break some of the more unusual European perceptions about Islam and Arabic culture and give a clear and historical picture for their food, housing, clothing, religion and culture. Whilst the Muslims of Dubai have adapted the laws of their religion to modern times, it was both interesting and informative to learn about the habits and the history of the indigenous Bedouin.

Myth 4: Dubai is in the middle of the desert and has no incentive programmes
Just forget this one! Upon entering the town, you quickly lose the feeling that Dubai lies on the fringes of the second largest desert in the world. Direct contact with its Bedouin past is possible through a number of incentive programmes and mega adventures: sand skiing, desert camping with a company of Bedouins and belly dancers, smoking shisha and riding camels will all stimulate images of One Thousand and One Nights.

“We have a myriad of options, including: Cultural understanding at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, as well as our many different Souks – market places for gold and jewellery, textiles and spices for example – Dhow dining (traditional boats with restaurants), Desert Safari, Camel Polo, adrenalin types of activities including Sky Diving, Seaplane, the Autodrome, Sailing and Sand Dune offroad,” explained Steen Jakobsen.

Myth 5: Dubai has no academic tradition
Dubai has perhaps no long-standing academic tradition, but its academic achievements of recent years are helping it become one of the world’s meetings industry capitals with first rate facilities and free zones greatly helping this come to fruition. There are currently 23 free zones in Dubai, from Media and Internet City to Design City, all attracting global corporations that are following suit with their company offices and headquarters. Educational institutions are also moving in, which are themselves a generator of meetings industry events. In 2003 ‘The Knowledge Village’ was formed, which has attracted well-known universities and businesses. Today there are 450 such villages in Dubai and Dubai Academic City was built in 2007, which includes 30 campuses and faculties from 13 countries. Dubai today has a remarkably strong academic base, which is the basis for the development of regional association meetings, so we can definitely confirm that Dubai is knowledge society.

Myth 6: Dubai is not yet a global convention hub
To the question of where the bulk of Dubai CVB business wins have come from in recent years, Steen Jakobsen replied that is has been from “Asia, and particularly incentive groups from South East Asia. Europe also remains a stable key market for Dubai.” Backing this up, this year Dubai will host the Dragon awards for Chinese insurance, with 5000-8000 delegates. Helping host such numbers, Dubai today has 93,000 hotels rooms and by 2016 the number will surge to a breathtaking 150,000. The entire infrastructure is more than ready for the world’s biggest events, one of which they will host within the next five years: since 2009 work has been on-going for the Dubai metro that will help the city be ready for hosting EXPO 2020.

Myth 7: Dubai is for the big spenders
It is undeniable that the shiniest stars of Dubai are the fashion designers and luxury brands. However, this myth is far from the whole picture of the Emirate. To organise an event in Dubai you don’t need a wallet the size of the Burj Khalifa. The hotel offer is comprehensive and you can select the appropriate location for your budget. The prices of catering services are also comparable to those in Europe. If you do feel a burning urge to splash the plastic, there are more than 30 huge shopping centres (including the biggest mall in the world) that will be very happy to see you.

Myth 8: Dubai has no nightlife
Seriously? From what we saw Dubai has a very buzzing nightlife that you’ll mostly find going on in its hotels, as despite liberal views and general tolerance the residents of Dubai are still part of a traditional society. When you understand not to expect bars under palm trees and nightlife on the streets, you certainly won’t be disappointed. The main day for fun and entertainment is Thursday, although unlike most European cities the nightlife is not limited to weekends. The Souk Madinat, with its forty-five bars and restaurants, is the main place to amble from pub to pub. The Parisian Buddha Bar has also opened its own restaurant and club, instantly becoming one of the city’s most popular meeting places.

Myth 9: The main industry in Dubai is oil
That’s the perception, but the oil stock in Dubai is sufficient for just a year or two more. Since 1991, the Maktoum royal family began to intensively work on this problem, knowing that their reserves were drying up and would not bring profits indefinitely. The result of their work is that tourism is today the main industry in the Emirates, with approximately 80% of them being leisure visitors and 20% congress and FIT visitors.
Dubai has elevated its hotel and hospitality sector to a level that has been setting benchmarks across the world. Over 400 hotels supplement the innumerable diverse attractions, including a the ski slope in the middle of the desert, the artificial islands in the form of a palm tree, and a large variety of the largest, highest and longest visitor attractions of the world.

Myth 10: The road from Europe to Dubai is an expensive one
Definitely not. Dubai has excellent connections with the world, with more than one hundred airlines flying to nearly 160 cities around the world, among them also a number of low-cost carriers. Last year Dubai Airport also chalked up record passenger handling figures and became the busiest airport in the world by number of international passengers.
The exemplary cooperation between Emirates airlines, the airport and the Dubai Convention Bureau is extraordinarily impressive.

Hubert Frach, Divisional Senior Vice-President for Operations West at Emirates Airlines, presented the airline at a press conference and explained how he sees great potential in the meetings industry, with the largest number of congress passengers currently coming from Great Britain and Germany. Helping such growth, Dubai is soon to start operating from a second airport that will set a new milestone in the city’s development and will further consolidate Dubai’s position as a global aviation hub.

Steen Jakobsen, CEO of Dubai CVB
From working on a tourism project for the Ministry of Industry in Denmark, Steen made connections at the Copenhagen tourism board that took him to a new position with them and was the start of getting to where he is today.
Sten was keen to note that the key factor to succeeding as a Business Events destination is to create strong partnerships both locally and internationally, which is what they are engaging in to help elevate Dubai to the global podium for business events. This involves not only creating partnerships with people within the industry, but with key partners and stakeholders in the city and internationally, such as Dubiotech, the Dubai Health Authority, Zayed University and many other government entities.

Steen Jakobsen defining moments:

  • Craziest destination: India
  • Craziest event: Dinner at Bacardi Distilleries in Puerto Rico
  • Hotel to return to: Balmoral Edinburgh
  • Best concert: Michael Buble Dubai
  • Best rock band: U2

[td_text_with_title custom_title=”Dessert: FORMULA 1 FOR HORSES”]We stayed at the Meydan Hotel, set at the edge of the most prestigious racecourse in the world, the home of the Dubai World Cup. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rašid Al Maktoum, the largest fan of horses and horse breeding patron of Dubai in the middle of the desert created a breeding paradise. There are over a thousand breeding mares and stallions on the estate. We were thrilled by the quality of care. Dubai World Cup is a race with the biggest prize pool with three million dollars.[/td_text_with_title]

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