Qatar’s growing events and exhibitions industry

by  — 20 June 2013

With Doha now hosting various global and regional exhibitions and conferences throughout the year, The Edge probes the sector to see if all the stakeholders involved are really prepared to make the Qatari capital the most sought after MICE location of the Middle East.

Held annually, Qatar Motor Show has become one of the must-visit exhibitions in which automobile manufacturers showcase and launch luxury models in the Doha market.

In its most recent annual report, the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), reveals some impressive numbers. It states that the total number of tourists visiting Qatar in 2012 reached 217,540. This was up by 10 percent over the previous  year (2011) with a majority of the visitors coming for business-related activities. The growth in the number of tourists is in tandem with the fact that in 2012 alone, a total of 18,931 rooms were available in 110 hotels in Qatar which clearly conveys the country is seriously positioning itself as an attractive destination for business tourism. 

This was recently confirmed further  with the recently announced International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) 2012 Country and City Rankings. The ICCA reveals that Doha has strengthened its ranking among the world’s most popular convention destinations. The city moved up by 49 positions to share the 111th position with Florence, Riga and San Juan, in a list of more than 360 participating cities in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector.  

With the number of available hotel rooms increasing along with the volume of conventions and conferences, so is the relatively wider choice of exhibition and conference venues that have opened in the past three years. Before that, it was a lone Doha Exhibition Centre (DEC) that could play host to events such as the Project Qatar, Qatar Motor Show or the Doha Watches and Jewellery Exhibition, which, by virtue of their size, could not be held in hotels.

Hamad Mohammed Al Abdan, Director of Doha Exhibitions Center, says that among the brands that the QTA owns, all are crowd pullers such as the Qatar Motor Show, the HYA Abaya Exhibition and the Doha Trade Fair.

An apt indicator of the MICE volumes in Qatar comes from Trevor McCartney, director of business development of the Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC), who reveals that since its opening in December 2011, to date, it has hosted 304 events – large and small – and welcomed 176,915 delegates and visitors. “The economic impact generated from overseas delegates currently stands at an impressive QAR291 million,” says McCartney. 

Evidently, MICE is not a uniform category and the scale of events that the QNCC or the Doha Exhibitions Centre (DEC) holds are of bigger scale and size than the hotels can accommodate. Also, there can be events of various target audience and themes. While convention centres and big hotels cater to larger events, when it comes to themed events such as seminars or business or press conferences, event organisers choose hotels. Zeid F. Talhami, director of sales and marketing, Grand Heritage Doha Hotel and Spa, explains the focus of the hotel’s MICE business by saying, “We are a boutique hotel. We focus more on national and international sport teams, events, media press conferences and seminars.”

Avsar Koc, regional director of sales and marketing, Kempinski Doha, adds that they have provided the much-needed luxury accommodation for large events such as [email protected], COP 18 and the Doha Watches and Jewellery Exhibition and event space for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. For Hamad Mohammed Al Abdan, director of DEC, QTA, the year-round focus is on exhibitions, which number between 25 and 35 per year.

Doha has moved up by 49 positions to share the 111th position with Florence, Riga and San Juan, in a list of more than 360 participating cities.

Most of the events, which have now become brands in themselves, held annually at the DEC, are all crowd pullers. Al Abdan says that the Qatar Motor Show attracts more than 100,000 per year; the HYA Abaya Exhibition has a visitor turnout of over 35,000; and the Doha Trade Fair averages around 130,000 visitors per year.

Location

With a multiplicity of venue options, for event organisers, the ultimate choice of a venue depends on various factors – size, nature and what the event aims to achieve.

Walid Al Banna, founder – marketing and communications advisor, iPonti says that the decision on the venue, “depends really on the nature and the requirements of the event; and whether the delegates are local or international.  Hotels have the lodging advantages, which make them more convenient for international events, while convention centres have larger space for big events, and they are usually better equipped, not to forget that they are designed to meet the needs of the MICE industry”.

“The choice depends a lot on what kind of events we are organising and also the size of the events. If any event is more than 1000 square metres (m2), we prefer going to an exhibition centre, though hotels work out much better when it is a smaller event,” says Fady Jreissati, vice president operations, IFP Group, echoing Banna’s sentiments. 

A hotel is preferred over a convention centre for several reasons. Some, like Rachel Pullen, director events, Qanect Communications say that hotels are self-sufficient so the organiser does not need to build floors or supply power or cleaning crews. She says, “Given the growing number of hotels in Doha, one of them is also bound to have availability on your event dates, whereas the DEC, QNCC and Katara generally do not unless you are booking space more than nine months in advance.”

A meeting in progress at the QNCC.

Location and accessibility are the key factors for event organiser Informa Tharawat’s general manager Allan Kelly, who is of the opinion that especially for exhibitions, where the visitors are not obliged to attend, they have to be comfortable knowing that they can park and access the venue easily. Kelly says, “The facilities of course are vital – private and interchangeable meeting rooms, audio-visual presentation facilities, unobstructed views, suitable lighting, unlimited internet access, among others. A supportive sales team is also vital – a venue can have all the amenities but if their sales and management are indifferent to your requirements, it can make management of your event very difficult.” 

Mark Gunner, founder and chief executive officer Mark Gunner Associates Limited, attributes his choice of venue to one single factor – people. “As with any business, people are always the chief advocates. When it comes to choosing an event partner, we always look to work with venues where the staff and management have a ‘can do’ attitude.”

100,000 - The number of visitors at the Qatar Motor Show in 2013.

The most important things to consider when deciding on a venue is the contract, according to David James, senior operations director, Qatar MICE Development Institute (QMDI). James is of the view that careful negotiation of a venue contract by people who truly understand the ramifications of the various clauses that can benefit or harm an event is vital. 

Certain events held annually, such as Project Qatar, have almost become synonymous with the venue – Doha’s original exhibition space, DEC. Is it because of the ease of organising the event at the same place year after year? Jreissati who has been behind all 10 editions of Project Qatar at the DEC says, the success of the event measured by client satisfaction and profitability of the show that made the IFP Group repeat the venue, though he adds, “Next year onwards, we will have to move since the DEC is getting small for us.” 

For Gunner, it is the sectors that he works with that dictate his choice for repeat venues. Much of his work is with automotive and consumer brands. He explains, “These sectors need the creation of unique consumer experience and a changing environment that will engage audiences. Therefore, the experience leads the way and not the venue, which arguably disempowers venue loyalty. Having said this, certain events demand a certain type of venue with a specific degree of infrastructure, for example the Qatar Motor Show. There are limited venues, which could host such an event. Generally, the venue of choice at the moment for our clients is Katara and we have hosted three events there in the past eight months.”

The cost factor 

The venue of an event is dependent on the budget that the client has, but that, in turn, cannot be allowed to adversely affect the scale of an event or client expectation, suggest the event organisers. 

Kelly of Informa Tharawat says that if one books an event at a large convention centre, but only delivers an event half of what was initially planned, the venue can become very expensive and look embarrassingly empty.  “We look for flexibility to have the option to increase or decrease the size of the space due to a larger or lower than expected number of delegates or exhibitors. What is important to note is that the majority of events grow from small beginnings and if you do it right, the event will grow organically year on year, in some cases achieving growth of over 100 percent.”

Trevor McCartney, director of business development, QNCC says the centre’s rates are benchmarked against regional and international venues.

Pullen of Qanect Communications says, “The DEC offers extremely competitive rates in terms of rental fee per m2, but when you take into account the cost to build your event from the ground up, costs can quickly add up. QNCC’s pricing strategy tends to exceed most small to medium event budgets and while Katara is competitive in terms of price, they are often booked for months in advance.”

However, McCartney of QNCC rebuts the cost angle pointed out by Pullen by saying, “The QNCC rates have been benchmarked against both regional and international venues and our competitive positioning makes QNCC an attractive proposition for most exhibition organisers. For the first time in Doha, QNCC offers a fully serviced and turnkey solution to organisers. This allows for a better and more efficient delivery system to our clients as expected from all similar international venues.”

Competition and the future 

Doha’s MICE calendar is full between September and May, with the remaining months being relatively quiet. Hoteliers and exhibition centres have made their business plans to suit the seasonal nature of the MICE business in the city. 

Carsten Fritz, general manager, Sharq Village and Spa says that his establishment has created summer packages to attract families.“This year, we have created and customised a special package for GCC residents with a minimum of two nights’ stay,” he adds.

Avsar Koc, regional director of sales and marketing, Kempinski Hotels.

For some others like the Hilton, the choices are wider and it has small meetings, conferences, social and entertainment events, weddings, graduations, product launches, family days as part of the summer focus reveals Amal Daou, conferences and events manager Hilton Doha, 

At the DEC, this summer there is going to be a summer festival for the first time, which will be an extended exhibition in a souq style of handicrafts and traditional items. “The exhibition will start right after the Doha Trade Fair that is slated between June 26 and July 6,” says Al Abdan of the DEC.

As the sector, hotels are in fierce competition to attract events, and as more events come to the city, each hotel has clear strategies in place of how they are going to deal with competition and attract more events to their respective hotels.

Some hotels such as the Kempinski hint at a proactive approach, with a recently introduced interactive online MICE brochure and is in the process of developing an online MICE management portal, which will enable events professionals to plan entire events online. 

Speaking on behalf of the QTA, Al Abdan is of the view that hotels and exhibition centres are complementary parts of the business of MICE, and the DEC in no way competes with any venue whatsoever. “As the regulator of the hospitality and MICE business in Qatar, the QTA encourages hotels to promote themselves and in the process increase the number of conferences in Doha. Even the QNCC, which is managed by Qatar Foundation, has to come back to us for exhibition licensing.” In the run-up to FIFA 2022, the traffic for holding more events in the country will only increase, a challenge which convention centres and hoteliers are preparing to meet. 

Since its opening in December 2011, to date, QNCC has hosted 304 events – large and small – and welcomed 176,915 delegates and visitors.

McCartney of QNCC says, “This certainly augurs well for us. It strengthens Doha’s offering as one of the top business destinations in the region. With its rich culture and heritage, Doha is a unique destination for attracting international delegates. The opening of new properties will certainly support QNCC and the country towards the goal of establishing the destination as a global meetings centre.” In the meantime, the QNCC has won the Best Events Venue at the Middle East awards 2013.

One way to increase the MICE business is to understand the market, the customer’s expectation and the need of the country. Outlining their method in attracting more MICE events to the hotel, Fritz of Sharq Village and Spa says, “Our strategy is to grow with the country. We are getting a lot of government and sport delegations, and we want to make sure they will have the best experience with us, and they will look forward to coming back.” 

Location of the hotel is also to an extent a determinant of the kind of events that it will attract. Talhami of Grand Heritage Doha Hotel and Spa is of the opinion that being located in the Aspire Zone and close to Aspetar will be really beneficial for the hotel.  He says, “We have had a lot of sports team meetings and press conferences held in the hotel. Also the hotel gains more room nights by groups of exhibitors staying with us. On the other hand, as our hotel style really attracts the Qatari market, we receive large number of local banquet bookings as well.”

Hilton Doha has emerged as one of the primary venues of holding conferences and seminars in Qatar.

Daou of Hilton Doha believes that a number of conferences and exhibitions are already scheduled and will take place in relation to the FIFA 2022 World Cup. According to her, Hilton aims to strengthen their position in the market place and to capture its fair market share by being approachable and by targeting all international and local segments. Daou feels that more opportunities lie in the MICE and sports sectors though once all projects underway are actualised, including the new facilities of the DEC, the Doha Festival City project and the new Hamad International Airport, the opportunities will then lie in the leisure segment.

Clearly, the players show optimism in their business sentiments and are planning ahead to meet the increasing MICE volumes that the FIFA 2022 World Cup will bring. This is evident not only in the plans that they have for their existing properties, but also in the business segmentation that they are creating with their upcoming ventures, as in the case of the Kempinski property in The Pearl which will have a greater MICE focus. These initiatives of the hospitality players support Qatar’s intention of positioning itself as a major MICE venue of the Middle East, which some years back was limited to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, both of which are likely to be more saturated than Doha is as far as the MICE business is concerned.

The state-of-the-art QNCC has scaled up Doha’s exhibition calendar to include global events which have guests coming from international locations as participants. Many of these events are in the process of becoming more regular features in Doha’s convention and exhibition pattern.

Some hospitality players such as the Mövenpick Tower & Suites have segmented their business focus in a different way, and do not focus on big events and conventions. It is a conscious choice that these players have made which is reflected in the architecture of the hotel building, with the absence of large conference or meetings facilities. Instead these hotels have a number of smaller meeting rooms which serve a good purpose in holding company board meetings or smaller corporate get togethers. These rooms, many times, are booked throughout the year, which shows that demand for smaller rooms and venues are no less than the bigger facilities that some other hotels have. With business segments varying, different players have taken different routes to satisfying the needs of the MICE market. All the hospitality players are keen to keep abreast of the business trends that will gradually surface both in the run up to FIFA and afterwards. For the present, players are keen to prepare themselves for the growing number of events.

Giving a rough estimate of the average number of events, Abdo Kayali of Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels says that the number per year is around 54, which means that there is more than one event per week. “Qatar is becoming a known destination for MICE and therefore strategically speaking for most leading hotels in Doha, including ours, the percentage of business prospects as a result of MICE is huge.”

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