Can MICE roar in the Middle East?

The region has significant potential for growth, although venue and service development is needed

The MICE market is currently dominated by Europe and North America.
The MICE market is currently dominated by Europe and North America.

While it makes up a significant proportion of current tourist numbers across the Middle East, and especially in the UAE, the region’s MICE business remains significantly underdeveloped compared to more mature markets around the world.

A report published recently by Strategy& — part of professional service network PwC — notes that most MICE events are currently held in North America and Europe. In fact, the authors claim MICE events account for 80% of the world’s exhibitions, with only 2% taking place in the Middle East.

“There is a large share of MICE business just waiting to come to emerging markets, including the GCC if these countries improve their tactics and their position in the meetings market,” it adds.

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The report sets out a three-step plan to bring more MICE business to the Middle East: assess the MICE tourism ecosystem; forge a strategy to win more MICE business; and develop a governance model for MICE tourism efforts.

Jean Pierre Garat, chief operating officer of Royal Catering, does not believe that too much of the blame should be put on governments for MICE shortcomings in the region.

Speaking at the recent Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference in March, Garat said: “Very often, we as caterers rely on investment from the government from the point on infrastructure, but there are a lot of areas where we cannot depend on government support alone.”

“It’s not only one player but a combination of government support and the individual caterer to launch this market. Very often we have been waiting for too much from the government,” he added.

For Russell Impiazzi, culinary director, food & beverage, Galeries Lafayette, Lafayette Gourmet, one step towards growing the MICE business is offering a more diverse range of venues — something pointed out in the Strategy& report.

“I do think we lack creative venues,” he says. “We have beautiful hotels and fantastic ballrooms. If I look to London, they’ve got the Natural History Museum, which can be a fantastic event space, the V&A Museum, which is a great creative space. I think we do struggle with that element.”

Similarly, Andy Cuthbert, general manager, conference and events, Jumeirah Hospitality, Madinat Jumeirah, accepts that there is a lack of diversity in venue options, at his property anyway.

“Where I work, we are built for the thousands, not the hundreds. We miss out on a certain part of the business because of our inability to service the break-out groups. So we are looking at investing in venue development as well.”

One market in the region with plenty of untapped MICE potential is Saudi Arabia, where a common refrain has been about the poor levels of service.

The country’s authorities recently initiated efforts to remedy this by setting up a new academy to train young nationals to work in the field of conferences and exhibitions. The Saudi Academy for Event, Conferences and Exhibitions is expected to be up and running within the next six months.

According to His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) and head of the supervising committee of the National Convention and Exhibition Program (NCEP), the academy will have an important role in promoting the sector by building its workforce and creating a new generation of qualified Saudi youth capable of leading it.

In the UAE, there is also a recognition that talent needs to be developed in order to get the country competing with major markets when it comes to MICE.

“Training is still a big struggle in this country,” says Dubai World Trade Centre Event & Hospitality Services director of kitchens Harald Oberender. “There is a commendable offer from ICCA in Knowledge Village. These things have to be encouraged and there should be support for that.

“Let’s not forget that MICE has a critical incubation task. When you come to a country, you come usually first for business.

“They have to have the right, friendly staff. A lot needs to be done for friendly customer service.

“There is a lot of opportunity and all companies should be encouraged. It’s very much developing here but it needs more support.”

Whatever route is taken to get there, significant opportunities await any countries in the region that can find their panacea by attracting more MICE business. As Strategy& points out, MICE tourists globally account for US$11 of every $100 that tourists spend, despite only accounting for 5% of tourist arrivals.

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