MICE: Dubai aiming high

WHEN DUBAI TOURISM INVITED MORE THAN 80 INTERNATIONAL EVENTS PLANNERS AND JOURNALISTS from Europe for an educational visit, a recurring theme was the profusion of superlatives scat­tered like gilt confetti throughout the four days. Longest, biggest, fastest, tallest, busiest…

All of these words come into play when describing both the scale of ambition and the ongoing development in Dubai. As our tour guide puts it when he points out the gleaming Dubai metro, gliding along its viaduct above us on the Sheikh Zayed road: “In 50 years, we have gone from Bedouins on camels to the longest driverless trains in the world.”

Steen Jakobsen is director of Dubai Business Events, the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibi­tions (MICE) division of Dubai Tourism. He lays out the organisation’s vision for 2020, which includes attracting 20 million annual international visitors and positioning Dubai as the “world’s leading business event destination”. These objectives, he says, are integrally linked to the development strategies of both the Emirate itself and the wider UAE.

A multifaceted approach sees Dubai Tourism’s priorities include increasing market share of existing international events, while developing new home-grown business events that support key local sectors. This also ties in with UAE strategy to establish itself as a knowledge economy, innovating in fields such as education, space travel, robotics, stem-cell research and renewable energy.

It’s worth noting that such optimism appears to remain undimmed despite recent challenges. In the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, residential property prices dropped dramatically, and more re­cently were down around 13 per cent year-on-year in 2015. Grandiose schemes, such as The World man-made islands complex, have stalled, as have many less headline-grabbing construction projects. And yet, on the vast palm tree-shaped artificial archipelago known as Palm Jumeirah, 16 of the planned 30 luxury hotels are already open, with more construction continuing apace. When we ride the world’s fastest elevators to the 148th floor of the world’s tallest tower, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa, the sense of indefatigable optimism is reflected in the development projects stretching into the desert – and the ocean.

A state-of-the-art opera house and 121-hectare safari park are slated to open this year. Meanwhile, over at Al Habtoor City, the 234-room St Regis is the first hotel to open in the ‘in­tegrated urban resort’ – next up is the Emir­ate’s first W hotel with 356 rooms, which was set to open in May, followed shortly by a Westin with more than 1,000 rooms and the complex’s main MICE facilities, plus a 450-seat theatre.

Steen Jakobsen has figures to show progress is being made. The destination’s 14.2 million international visitors in 2015 were up 7.5 per cent year-on-year, while the International Congress and Conven­tion Association’s most recent ranking for international association meetings saw it leap “a dramatic 19 places” to 44th in the world. The Dubai Expo 2020, we’re told, will be three times the size of Milan 2015 and is expected to attract 25 million visitors.

Jakobsen points out that these growth plans are supported by infrastructure and capacity, including an “unmatched hotel inventory” of 98,000 rooms and more than 15,000 in the pipeline, as well as superb air connectivity.

Dubai currently has 150 airlines flying direct to 280 destinations. Dubai international airport (DXB) is – to use more superlatives – the busiest in the world, having overtaken Heathrow with 78 million passengers last year. Despite only having two runways, larger terminals will offer a capacity of 90 million thanks to 24-hour flights.

A mere two runways, you ask, just like our own dear Heathrow? Not exactly, says Dubai Airports’ Lorne Riley: construction is underway at Dubai World Central (DWC), aka Al Maktoum international airport, which will have an initial capacity of 120 million passengers a year, but will expand in nodes to five runways and an ultimate capacity of 240 million travellers annually. The plan is for flag-carrier airline Emirates, with its bulging US$120 billion order book for more than 250 new aircraft, to move its hub to DWC by around 2025. Riley adds that, by 2030, the aviation industry will contribute more than one million jobs and 45 per cent of GDP to the region’s economy.

Back on the ground, huge sharks and rays swim lazily through the world’s largest indoor aquarium in Dubai Mall – 50 football pitches’ worth of shopping nirvana and the world’s most visited lifestyle destination. In the evening, from the sumptuous garden terraces of the Palace Downtown Dubai hotel, we watch the dancing fountains leap 140 metres to the sounds of Pavarotti and Michael Jackson, while towering above them, the Burj Khalifa is bathed in a daz­zling light display. As Donatella Versace once said (of course there is a Palazzo Versace Hotel in town): “More is more.”

New hotels

Opened in November 2015, this 234-room hotel features St Regis trademarks such as

all-butler service and afternoon tea in homage to New York society legend Lady Astor. The eight restaurant options include the fine-dining J&G Steakhouse with 15 cuts of prime beef and a raw food bar. There are also two rooftop pools and a luxurious Iridium spa. Eight meeting spaces include a ballroom for up to 600 theatre-style. The only thing marring this exquisite hotel is that, it being a low-rise building, the urban views are underwhelming.

A new 430-room hotel is set to expand the vast Madinat Jumeirah beach resort complex.

Jumeirah Al Naseem is slated to open sometime this summer. The luxury resort already includes two hotels and 36 villas, set amid lush tropical gardens and 3km of waterways, plus its own souk and 2km of private beach. It also features spaces including the Arena for up to 4,500 (2,600 theatre-style), a 1,000-seat amphitheatre and the outdoor Fort Island for up to 1,600 people.

This elegant 296-key hotel opened in August last year and features rooms, suites and al fresco dining all with spectacular views of Burj Khalifa – even from the standalone bathtubs. The range of event spaces includes boardrooms, an outdoor pool deck for 300-capacity receptions, and a ballroom for up to 440 guests theatre-style.

Vida Hotels and Resorts is a youth-oriented lifestyle brand, operated by the hospitality arm of the giant Emaar group – owners of the Burj Khalifa. It was launched in 2013 and its second property (after the Vida Downtown Dubai), the Manzil Downtown Dubai, officially opened early last year. These four-star hotels are a lower-budget alternative to the group’s luxury Address brand. Facilities at the Manzil include a swimming pool, sports bar and grill, a 24-hour gym and meeting spaces for up to 140 people.

Read some of the top venue and corporate activities available in Dubai

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