Dubai flexes its marketing muscles

Negative press can be overcome by an aggressive marketing offensive

The answer to negative press and a tough financial market is an aggresive marketing campaign.
The answer to negative press and a tough financial market is an aggresive marketing campaign.
Emirates Airline's Nabil Sultan.
Emirates Airline's Nabil Sultan.
DTCM's Eyad Ali Abdul Rahman.
DTCM's Eyad Ali Abdul Rahman.
Dubai is on the promotion offensive.
Dubai is on the promotion offensive.

DTCM and Emirates Airline bosses believe negative press reports can be overcome by an aggressive marketing offensive, says Gemma Greenwood

Dubai has taken a bit of a bashing of late — the UK press seems hell-bent on rubbishing the emirate as a tourism destination going to great lengths to portray the city in a negative light.

First it was sewage in the sea, followed by tales of “poisonous algae” attacking bathers and then ill-informed journalists just couldn’t resist rolling out the good old ‘labourer abuse’ story for good measure.

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Not only that, but Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame, insinuated that anyone who left their home country to live as an ex-pat in a place like Dubai was a “loser”.

Well it’s alright for the well-paid host of a highly-successful BBC TV series to make such claims but maybe he’d feel differently if he was stuck in a miserable 9-5 job paying tax without access to top-of-the-range motor vehicles?

In that case, if he moved to Dubai, he’d have a better case of owning a decent car.

What it comes down to is ‘the bigger they come, the harder they fall’ — and Dubai was, and still is, ‘big’ — with much credit attributed to the continuous marketing efforts of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and Emirates Airline worldwide.

It was not so long ago that the UK press was ‘bigging up’ Dubai with TV series such as Dubai Dreams romanticising the ex-pat lifestyle and newspapers flagging up reports documenting ‘awesome’ phenomena, such as the ‘tallest building’ or the ‘biggest mall’.

So now they feel compelled to talk it down when the going is not so good.

Fortunately, the DTCM and Emirates are bigger and tougher than the press and despite the current financial slowdown, which they concede has impacted visitor numbers to Dubai, they have a plan of action.

The answer is to market their way through this slowdown with several campaigns, while for those members of the press who like to speculate about Dubai without having visited the emirate, they are being encouraged to visit to see it in the flesh.

“We are sending an invitation to the journalists who have hit Dubai [with negative media coverage] to come and see Dubai,” explained DTCM executive director, media relations division and acting director, business development, Eyad Ali Abdul Rahman.

“If you are talking about Dubai, please, come and see — we will not say no to you.”

Rahman added that “all successful destinations should be hit from somebody” and Dubai was no exception.

“People (the press) are big time targeting Dubai,” he said. “They are talking about sewage and saying it’s been in the sea for seven years — I mean, who will believe them? It’s a sea, not a river or a lake.”

Keep Discovering Dubai

In its bid to show journalists the real Dubai, the DTCM, in conjunction with Emirates Airline, has already invited several members of the media, as well as the travel trade, from across the globe, to visit the emirate for a three-day fam trip.

The campaign, dubbed ‘Keep Discovering Dubai’, which has also involved several hotels and DMCs, runs until May and will see more than 2000 people visit the emirate.

“We have flown them in, taken them to new properties, golf courses and shopping malls etc to show them Dubai and make sure that when they get home, they are thinking and breathing Dubai for three or four days,” said Emirates Airline senior vice president Europe commercial operations Nabil Sultan.

“We want them creating value-for-money packages to Dubai.”

Feedback from participants to date had been excellent, said Rahman.

“Now we are just waiting to see if the bookings [from travel agents and tour operators] come through,” he added.

With a giant trade campaign under its belt, the DTCM and Emirates Airline now realise that it’s time to lure visitors back to Dubai’s shores and as a result, at time of press, had just released details of the ‘Meet Dubai’ campaign.

“Now it’s time to be present in the mind of the consumer,” said Sultan.

“This will be a huge campaign across a spectrum of media and in many markets.”

He conceded that Dubai had “always been perceived as an expensive destination” and when the demand was there, that was fair enough.

“Now the market has shrunk, but we still have the ability to create and draw business to Dubai by offering value for money,” he said.

“Hotels now realise they have to offer competitive rates if they are to increase volume and to attract other market segments. The demand for travel and leisure travel I believe is there, but the question is ‘how do you position yourself?’ I believe offering the best rates and best product offering is part of the equation.”

Sultan also acknowledged the need to ensure markets such as the UK, where the value of the pound had decreased, were offered competitively-priced airfares and hotel rates.

“If you offer a 25% discount, it’s not much of a difference in a market like the UK where the value of the currency has dropped at least 20% [against the dollar/dirham],” he said.

“Hotels need to offer discounts of up to 60% for it to make a difference to the consumer and Emirates Airline’s fares are already in line with currency adjustments.”

Hotel campaigns

Rahman noted that the DTCM was currently in talks with the emirate’s hoteliers as to how to ensure business from Dubai’s key source markets — namely, the UK, Germany and the GCC — would remain buoyant during the summer and the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Last month, DTCM director general Khalid A bin Sulayem met with the members of the Hotel and Hotel Apartment Group to discuss ways to boost visitor numbers and hotel occupancies during this period.

The director of DTCM’s representative office, Aly El Zayat, briefed the meeting about the Dubai promotion in Saudi Arabia, which will run during the summer until the Eid Al Fitr and see visitors from the Kingdom get one extra night stay for every two nights they book in a hotel, plus when there are two children per room, the second room will be sold at a 50% discount. Also included are airport transfers.

The DTCM has published 60,000 booklets marketing this promotion, which supports KSA’s travel trade as it is only bookable through travel agents.

Rahman said that similar initiatives were planned for the UK and Germany.

“It’s important to provide added value with discounts on meals and for children, particularly in the UK market where the value of the pound against the dirham has dropped – we need to make Dubai more affordable [for this market],” he said.

In terms of emerging source markets, Rahman said the push into China, where the DTCM now has three offices, would continue.

“We will also push into Latin America, although our plan to open an office in Sao Paolo will now be delayed until 2010 probably,” he added.

Facts and figures

Both Rahman and Sultan were reluctant to talk figures in terms of visitors to Dubai.

“It’s a difficult question, but I’ll be honest with you — if we reach the same levels as last year (2008) or even a little bit less, that is very good,” said Rahman.

He added that contrary to popular belief, hotel occupancies were holding up now room rates had been decreased to suitable levels and that hoteliers had stopped panicking.

“In January, we had a big industry meeting with the hoteliers and travel agents and one of the managers of a big hotel was very scared about February and March, thinking he’d only have 10% occupancy. But when I saw him last week, he said he was fully booked in April and he was very happy,” Rahman explained.

“That means that we are planning right and that we are going in the right direction.  I’m not worried, honestly.”

Meanwhile, Sultan said that while load factors on Emirates were holding up, demand had softened, but this gave the airline the perfect opportunity to focus on offline markets.

“Six months ago we had spillage of traffic and we couldn’t concentrate on secondary markets, but now we have that ability because the market has slowed down,” he said.

“We are looking to stimulate demand in these markets - in places like Belgrade, Kazakstan and Almaty in East Europe and in Berlin and Stuttgart in Germany.

“It’s also a good testing ground — good research for possible new routes.”

Sultan also highlighted the opportunity to market the UAE in its entirety and said the way in which the country exhibited in one area at ITB Berlin was a good example of how that could be done.

“Selling the UAE makes perfect sense —there is so much to do across all of the emirates,” he said.

“Major tour operators in Germany are already looking to push the UAE — bringing in tourists to Dubai and then shuttling them around the region.”

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