When business travel and leisure mix: A look at Abu Dhabi’s MICE sector

According to Al Dhaheri, entrepreneurs and their ideas are expected to positively affect MICE visitors, exhibitors, and organizers.

This article is a crosspost from Fikra Labs.

In 2016, $1.2 trillion was spent on business travel around the world, nearly one quarter (23 percent) of the total travel and tourism spending. But beyond the simple spend associated with business travel, economies and trade can also benefit from wide advantages.

World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2011 study, ‘Maximising opportunities for business travel growth’, found that business travel improves global corporate productivity, besides injecting dynamism to different indirectly related sectors, such as tourism, retail, cultural destinations, and even car rentals among others.

Business travel, or the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment known as MICE, broadly includes all trips that are undertaken by employees on behalf of their companies or organizations, including attending meetings, sales missions, conferences, incentives, and other events.

An active area

The business tourism sector in key GCC countries, namely in the UAE, registered positive growth. The MICE segment has expanded significantly over the past couple of years, led by the UAE which commands 50 percent share of the total GCC MICE market. The UAE has an eventful calendar all year round.

The capital, Abu Dhabi, is on the forefront of business tourism. The Emirate has been named the ‘Leading Overseas Luxury MICE Destination’ at the China Travel and Meeting Industry Awards held in Beijing. Abu Dhabi is ranked in the 74rd place worldwide in 2016 by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), up from the 108th place in 2014.

Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism launched an incentive scheme with a $2.7 million fund to boost its calendar of events. Already home to a multitude of business and entertainment events including spectacles such as the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Grand Prix, the Abu Dhabi Food Festival, Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the Abu Dhabi Classics international concert season, the tourism body is now incentivising international, regional, and local companies to build on this success and further enhance the events program.

“Regularly, we study the mega trends affecting our MICE sector and try to respond to these trends by providing new content that adds value to the customer experience. This content in most cases need to be modified and enhanced by adopting new trends such as technological trends,” explained Humaid Al Dhaheri, Group Chief Executive Officer at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC).

This mindset further accentuates Fikra Labs, a four-week acceleration program that reflects the commitment to positioning Abu Dhabi’s as a world-class tourism destination, employing the latest technology advancements to provide visitors with the best experiences. The project is led by four partners: ADNEC, Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (ADTCA), and Miral. The program will be engaging startups and enticing them to tackle specific challenges and further elevate the Emirate’s tourism and travel industries. Participating startups will undergo intensive acceleration trainings and work in teams to solve challenges listed by the partners. At the end of the program, each partner will pick one winner and each one of the winners will receive $100k as an investment in each startup.

The initiative looks to attract more investment in the tourism and travel sectors, by leveraging innovation, which in turn will increase tourism’s contribution to the economy. A key component of the Fikra Labs program will drive Emiratization within the tourism sector by building and supporting national talent in terms of developing scalable technology businesses and solutions.

According to Al Dhaheri, entrepreneurs and their ideas are expected to positively affect MICE visitors, exhibitors, and organizers across their experience with Abu Dhabi’s facilities, venues, and services. They are expected to bring in more synchronized solutions, tailored services and seamless processes. “They can help us adopt the right technology and deliver what customers really want, they can assist us in developing our future foresight initiatives related to artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality. This will affect the visitors’ journey outside and inside the boundary of ADNEC, it will cover the experience at airports, transportation, hotels, and venues like us,” he said. He believes that partnering with entrepreneurs will help offering a more complete and comprehensive experience of Abu Dhabi.

“Fikra Labs is a unique program as it provides the highest level of commitment from partners through their shared ownership of startups,” he added, explaining that this clearly distinguishes this project from other acceleration programs where the startups were left alone after the first cycle. “Having this will give Abu Dhabi’s MICE sector a competitive edge locally and regionally. It will boost the Emirate’s profile and positioning. This is going to be the first acceleration program in a MICE sector in the whole MENA region,” he said.

The program is expected to lead by example, and many sectors are foreseen to follow. “If this turns to success as we expected, other sectors will follow our steps and adopt the same idea of accelerators which eventually could lead to more innovative and futuristic sectors across Abu Dhabi,” he concluded.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs

Since 2008, Abu Dhabi started nurturing entrepreneurs and startups through different streams, and most importantly through the Khalifa Fund, which provides an enabling ecosystem for entrepreneurs, startups, and SMEs. “Recently, especially during the last three years, Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s interest and support to entrepreneurs exponentially increased through different platforms, schemes, funds, and vehicles in different sectors,” explained Al Dhaheri.

According to him, Abu Dhabi provides the opportunity of a growing knowledge-based economy, government support, and a very dynamic demography that’s willing to respond to global trends. “This is totally aligned with the government’s vision of diversification and developing a knowledge-based economy as per the economic vision 2030: An economy that will no longer depend on oil for growth.” During the last 10 years, key sectors such as tourism, re-exporting, services, banking and transportation have remarkably grown.

Recently, the government launched a national focus of future foresight (future shaping) and asked all government entities to plan for 2040-2050. The strategy aims at seizing opportunities and anticipating challenges in various sectors in the UAE. The strategy involves building future models for the health, educational, developmental, environmental sectors and the harmonization of the current governmental policies.

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