How Dubai's Events Sector Is Reimagining The Industry After Being Hit Hard By The COVID-19 Crisis
The COVID-19 crisis has required all industries to rethink their business models, but it seems that the impact has been felt most by the events sector. From small boutique event agencies to larger players, the sector has had to reshape its traditional offerings and find ways to better utilize their digital capabilities. With Dubai resuming its calendar of conferences, meetings and exhibitions (local meetings restarted on September 15, while international meetings are set to return from October 1, 2020), the city’s event organizers are being urged to closely follow the latest government announcements in order to correctly navigate the do’s and don’ts of hosting events in the safest way possible.
Omar Khan, Director of International Offices, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says that the reopening of Dubai’s meetings and events industry is an important development that will drive business tourism and boost confidence in the Emirate on a global level. “The strategic move comes at the right time, as business gets back on track and companies prepare for a post-COVID-19 recovery,” he explains. "The demand from the corporate side is already there, so it is now up to event organizers to ensure that they are following the strict regulations and preventative measures put in place by authorities. We will soon get a glimpse into what the new normal will look like in terms of physical events, which is expected to incorporate more digital elements and online interaction. In this respect, Dubai has positioned itself as a pioneer as it has successfully leveraged its sophisticated digital infrastructure to shift most of it business activities to online channels, and I am confident that other major business hubs around the world will look to the Emirate’s experience as it strengthens its reputation as a safe destination to host world-class events.”
Since the UAE reopened to international visitors in July, the authorities have been examining how gatherings can take place safely, which resulted in the launch of a new set of guidelines for the business events scene. These include following procedures that are already in place at the airport, hotels, restaurants, attractions, and other visitor touch-points around the city, as well as making use of mandatory thermal scanners or contactless temperature checks, face masks, gloves for staff in direct contact with delegates, two-meter social distancing, and thorough sterilization of venues before, during and after events, among others. Besides these, following the introduction of the new guidelines in order to ensure that Dubai is "at the forefront of the global recovery of the business events sector,” the city has also been awarding the “DUBAI ASSURED” stamp to companies and entities after they successfully undergo a stringent verification and validation process. The “DUBAI ASSURED” compliance program was launched in collaboration with the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism), Department of Economic Development (Dubai Economy) and Dubai Municipality and is based on the preventive protocols issued by Dubai’s Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management.
And several of these new protocols have already been put to use- the AI Everything x Restart Dubai Summer Conference, which took place in July, was the first in-person event held in the region since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. It served as a testbed for the global MICE sector, and all accounts point to it have been a successful event. Dubai-based Done Events is a company behind another of the first post COVID-19 live events in the city: the three sold-out shows of British comedian Jimmy Carr held at the World Trade Centre in August. Its Managing Director Girish Anil Bhat says that his team has had to learn and adapt to new circumstances quite quickly. “The biggest challenge we faced at the start of the lockdown was the rescheduling all of our on-sale events to a new date in 2021,” Bhat says. “We also had to write-off all the work that went into the planning of all corporate events for our clients that were scheduled this year, as most have decided to go virtual, or reschedule to next year. The biggest challenge in this will be to get the consumer confidence back into live events. However, I have to say that I was very impressed at how the ticket holders embraced the rules regarding social distancing in the seating, digital tickets, contactless payments, and dedicated zones as per ticket categories, for our recent sold out shows with Jimmy Carr. They were all extremely polite and understanding.”
Another of Dubai’s flagship events, Cityscape, will be organized in a new format as the Real Estate Summit, a one-off edition of Cityscape co-created with the real estate industry, and Chris Speller, Group Director - Cityscape, Informa Markets, explains that the decision is a result of listening to their partners’ wants and needs. “The overall sentiment was to push forward with the event, but not at the expense of safety and precautions,” Speller says. “With this in mind, Informa, along with other leading event organizers and government entities, came together to create the ‘Informa AllSecure’ guidelines, which outlines 10 commitments and procedures to safely host events during the global pandemic.” Speller explains that Real Estate Summit, taking place from November 16-17, 2020, will have an entirely new look when compared to a typical Cityscape Dubai event, and for one year only, the event will move away from the sizeable exhibition stands of norm, and focus instead on creating smaller pods to support developers and service providers reach the market, while considering challenged budgets in a year of unparalleled disruption.
“This year, the way Cityscape has been packaged is in direct response to what the industry has been asking of us,” Speller says. “The crux of this is using the event to bring together the industry and focus on business-to-business aspects such as knowledge-sharing and networking. We strive to offer the most secure event experiences, and the principles in ‘Informa AllSecure’ will act as a blueprint for this. Its four key pillars -physical distancing, deep-cleaning, and hygiene, protect and detect, and communication- will provide an event format that is safe and secure.” When asked about the main lessons he and his company have grasped navigating this crisis, Speller lists three key factors: communication, resilience, and adaptation. “Throughout the last few months, communication and openness have been critical for both myself and the team,” he says. “To move forward and effect change during these times, and make decisions that both positively impact stakeholders and the Cityscape team, it has been important to show as much transparency as possible. Discussing ideas and plans openly, and listening to input and feedback has been crucial to understanding how we should shape our product offering to meet the needs of our customers and audience.”
Spellers’ advice to other entrepreneurs in the events realm echoes this sentiment. “Speak with your stakeholders and partners before any major changes are made to your event,” Speller says. “It is important adapt accordingly, and to always be mindful of your customers concerns and constantly try to learn and understand market trends and needs.” Meanwhile, Done Events’ Bhat says that the future of the events sector will include a lot of hybrid shows combining digital with in-person elements, since “with current guidelines the capacity is hugely affected.” He says, “Lockdown and avoidance of social contact brought the outdoor events to a standstill, giving rise to the live streaming of events and virtual networking, but instead of seeing it as a challenge, we feel it can be an advantage,” he says. “If used strategically, this can lead to growth in audience engagement. Those who find the physical locations and venues to be extremely crowded can now get some respite, as the same events can also be enjoyed while sitting on your couch at home, and not just for people in Dubai but for fans from anywhere around the world.” In the coming months, Bhat says that he will lead his team to provide both a live experience to visitors who crave that experience and a global involvement, by giving the opportunity to customers across the world to experience their events on a digital platform.
In conclusion, in terms of advice to entrepreneurs in this sector, Bhat advises caution and focus on conducting proper due diligence given the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. “Anyone wishing to enter the industry, particularly in these current times, should ensure that they have spent a significant period of time researching into all possible costs that could arise as part of their business plan,” Bath says. “With the current market being more competitive than ever –with a significantly lower amount of work to compete against– it is important that those who get selected to execute corporate events really go over and above to deliver. In this market, there are no second chances!”