Doha’s colossal ambitions include positioning itself as a key global business hub – and a vibrant international MICE destination. Paul Revel reports
The photo said it all. On a recent trip to Qatar, the Doha Marriott sales director Gareth Cummings hosted us to lunch on the sunny terrace of his hotel’s Corniche Restaurant. The terrace boasts panoramic views across the bright blue bay towards the bristling downtown skyline – a spectacular showcase of the latest in high-end skyscraper architecture. The same perspective from 1973 was illustrated in a large picture on display: nothing. Sea, scrubby desert and some desultory bulldozer tracks. Not even the iconic Sheraton pyramid, which opened in 1982 as a landmark and is now dwarfed by the surrounding forest of designer glass and steel.
So that multi-billion dollar skyline – the exquisite Islamic art museum by “starchitect” IM Pei, bank and business HQs, convention centres, luxury hotels by the bushel, artificial islands, global education and medical hubs – has developed at an impressive rate, though perhaps it’s something we’ve become blasé about, seeing the high-profile growth spurts in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This wasn’t the only sight that drove home the message of dynamic growth: as we taxied around the airport, I spied, scripted on the fuselage of a Boeing 777: “Qatar Airways’ 100th aircraft”. Not too shabby for a 15-year-old airline. And talking of air travel, the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) is due to open by the end of this year and, depending on who you talk to, will have capacity for 40-50 million passengers a year by the time of final-phase completion, sometime between 2015 and 2020.
I was in Doha for the lavish gala opening of Marriott’s new three-brand complex in the city centre; twin 48-story towers housing Marriott’s Renaissance and Courtyard hotel brands, as well as 123 sumptuously appointed Executive Apartments.
It’s a suitably spectacular complex – helipad with VIP rooftop check-in, 1,200sq m of meetings space, luxury spa and health club, and nine restaurants and bars – its three-brand opening bringing the Marriott total to six properties in the city.
I ask regional COO Mark Satterfield why Marriott has this large presence in a relatively small, though fast-growing, capital – most of Qatar’s 1.7 million population live in the city area – and was it sustainable? “Doha has a long-term view of where it wants to go, as do the major hotel companies and developers,” he says. “I look at what’s driving business, jobs and demand, and feel confident in the long term about where Doha’s going. There are a lot of government infrastructure projects, the strength of the energy sector, and the run-up to the Fifa World Cup in 2022.”
The Renaissance hotel’s communications director, Miet Saelens, adds: “Qatar is also investing heavily in transportation infrastructures, such as the metro, the cruise ship port, the Bahrain Causeway and the new airport.”
This is backed up by the Qatar Tourism Authority, which forecasts US$100 billion-worth of infrastructure due for completion before the World Cup. This includes 77 new hotels and 42 aparthotels, totalling 21,107 additional guestrooms. It estimates 6,369 hotel rooms were added to the market in 2011.
For meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), as well as the wide choice of hotel facilities, Doha is big on convention centres. The Doha Exhibition Centre has 15,000sq m of indoor exhibition space, plus 45,000sq m outdoors, and hosts around 35 major expos and conferences a year. The Qatar National Convention Centre opened at the end of last year in Education City, with a 2,500-seat auditorium, 4,000-capacity conference hall and a total of 57 meeting rooms. And this year will see the opening of the new Doha Convention Centre in the city centre, adding 45,000sq m of events space – including five exhibition halls which can combine to create a single display space of 29,800sq m, and a multi-functional 5,180sq m hall.
Also making a splash is the 1 million sq m Katara Cultural Village, with eye-catchingly spectacular facilities, including a state-of-the-art opera house and 5,000-seat classic Greek-style amphitheatre, plus grandly ornate events halls. It’s just the first phase in a multi-billion pound development scheme to attract world-class artistic and cultural activity to the city.
In May, the Guild of Travel Management Companies is holding its annual conference at the W hotel in Doha, so I ask the GTMC’s new chairman and Key Travel boss Ajaya Sodha why it chose the destination. “It’s easily accessible, just seven hours away [from the UK], and Qatar has invested heavily in the conference and meetings industry, so this will be an opportunity for these facilities to be showcased to our members,” he says. “Also, Qatar Airways is an active partner of the GTMC and will be the headline sponsor.”
Middle East-based hotel group Rotana is opening its second property in the city centre later this year. Regional vice-president Joseph Coubat says 95 per cent of travellers to Qatar are on business or attending MICE events, adding that the levels of investment and growth make this a “very exciting” time for the city.
Meanwhile, the Carlson Rezidor hotel group has announced its debut in the city, with the opening of a 583-room Radisson Blu in Q3 this year and its designer boutique brand Missoni set to follow in 2015.
Like many key players, Coubat’s confidence is boosted by the levels of investment in the country, and he throws out some big numbers – the landmark Museum of Islamic Art he puts at $3 billion, while the 2,200km Qatar national rail scheme, which will link with the six-state Gulf rail network, is costing $25 billion. He says there are currently 140 major projects underway in Qatar.
Carslon Rezidor’s global sales director, Yigit Sezgin, says MICE in Doha is still under development but “the large inventory that’s recently opened and the amount of upcoming government projects are putting a big emphasis on this segment.
“Add to this the activities of the Qatar Foundation, the Olympic Committee, the stability in Doha’s economy and, of course, the upcoming World Cup – all are playing a huge part in triggering this sector.”
Like several people I talk to, Sezgin also cites the national carrier as a significant part of the story, adding: “Qatar Airways is an aggressive airline, continually adding new routes, which in turn also helps the inbound MICE segment.”
Qatar Airways’ UK and Ireland manager country manager Richard Oliver says increasing capacity on the London-Doha route to five daily and the recent opening of the airline’s Premium Lounge at Heathrow reflects the strategic importance and “tremendous amount of business” on the route.
And the airline itself also reflects the country’s ambitions – Oliver points to more than 250 new aircraft on order. He expects the new airport will further boost MICE business, and said the airline, “recognising the growing importance of the MICE market, recently appointed dedicated staff to ensure smooth delivery of events for meetings and incentive planners”.
Andrew Perolls is the EMEA regional director for BCD’s meetings and incentives arm. I ask him if meetings buyers see Doha as good value. He says: “It compares favourably with other Middle East destinations, and with more properties coming on line the increase in the number of hotels and other event venues should help to keep costs competitive.”
Perolls also cites the massive infrastructure investment in the pipeline and adds: “The Middle East has been a popular event destination for a number of years now, but people may be beginning to tire of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as the ‘go to’ cities in the region. Both of those destinations offer amazing facilities, but for those looking for something a little different, Doha is an attractive alternative.”
All in all, from everyone I talk to about the sunny city sprouting from the sand, the message is clear: watch this (rapidly changing) space.