Examine the numbers. The 2022 edition of ADIPEC, reportedly the world’s largest annual assembly of energy industry professionals, gathered 15,000 attendees and generated an estimated US$8.2 billion in business from the approximately 2,200 exhibiting companies. The previous edition of the biennial International Defence Exhibition and Conference held alongside the Naval Defence Exhibition and Conference – the 2023 edition of both will be held this month – attracted 62,000 visitors and 900 local and international companies from 59 countries, with the UAE Armed Forces signing deals worth US$5.7 billion overall. Last year’s edition of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair meanwhile witnessed the participation of over 1,130 publishers from more than 80 countries and 650 cultural, educational and artistic events carried out on the sidelines of the week-long event. The evidence of a Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) industry in Abu Dhabi being in rude health is abundant.

A 2019 report from UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, found that the exhibitions sector generates more than US$81 billion in direct GDP, ranking as the 56th largest economy in the world. In 2019, Abu Dhabi licensed over 13,000 events in the city with an estimated total of 23,700 speakers and 1,300 entertainers involved.

The decision to focus on the MICE industry is central to Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 which aims to diversify the emirate’s economy beyond oil and into a knowledge-based economy. The emirate is actively engaged in attracting businesses and events to the capital of the UAE.

The ripple effects of developing a robust MICE industry reverberate across various economic verticals. “Business events generate positive financial outcomes not just through the spending of visitors, but also through the trade and foreign investment opportunities that follow the event. They also contribute to the skill and opportunity development, attracting talent to host cities, strengthening existing networks and collaborations, and forging new partnerships,” said Genevieve Leclerc, co-founder and CEO of Meet4Impact.

To help streamline, organise and facilitate the emirate’s MICE industry, in 2013, the Abu Dhabi Convention and Exhibition Bureau (ADCEB) was set up as a division within the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) to focus on building the capital of the UAE as a prime destination for this sector.

Mubarak Al Shamisi, director of Abu Dhabi Convention and Exhibition Bureau at DCT Abu Dhabi, said: “We at ADCEB work tirelessly to attract international conventions and global business events to Abu Dhabi. We are strongly committed to offering valuable guidance and support to organisers through various financial and non-financial programmes. Abu Dhabi sees MICE as a catalyst for the recovery of the tourism sector and the overall economy. Hence, we developed a 10-year strategy to grow and position the emirate as a global business events hub and our goal is to double the sector’s size by 2030.”

The ADNEC facility in Abu Dhabi
The ADNEC facility in Abu Dhabi

Laying the groundwork
Senthil Gopinath, CEO of the International Congress Convention Association (ICCA), referenced research which showed that 64 per cent of the association’s representatives are considering expanding their events calendar by at least two additional events annually. Gopinath predicted that by 2023, the events industry will be pressed in terms of the infrastructure available to meet this demand.

Abu Dhabi has ensured that it has managed to skip ahead of the curve and brace itself for the expected surge in demand by laying the groundwork of a robust infrastructure across its exhibition spaces, hospitality and aviation verticals.

For example, ADNEC Group is an international venue development and management company. Its portfolio includes the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) which is spread out over 153,678 sqm and houses 1,827 hotel rooms on site, 21 meeting rooms and 13 halls. ADNEC Group also owns the Al Ain Convention Centre in the UAE, as well as ExCeL London which is the UK capital’s largest exhibition and conference venue.

“Our tourism business, catering business and Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre all work together and attract international and local event organisers to host major forums and gatherings across a range of sectors. This one-stop-shop approach makes it easy for local, regional and international organisations to come to Abu Dhabi and run an event,” says Graham Stephenson, director of Sales at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

“The ADNEC Group has just finished a major infrastructure project, with the opening of Marina Hall, the largest multipurpose hall in the Middle East. Marina Hall was created in direct response to demand from the market for a large flexible space. Beyond Marina Hall, ADNEC Group’s Capital Events also organises some business events within the region. For example, last year ADNEC Group organised the Global Media Congress, the only event of its kind in the media sector taking place in the region, and the Abu Dhabi International Food Exhibition (ADIFE), which witnessed the signing of 55 deals and 26 MoUs valued at more than Dhs3.2 billion.”

To help make the process of narrowing down on a venue to host events easier, the Visit Abu Dhabi website has a nifty online Venue Finder tool that allows users to filter through over 120 listings based on the meeting room size, the venue type and exhibition space requirements. To aid the process, once you’ve booked the venue, the website has also listed a number of destination management companies and professional conference organisers who can be contacted to organise the venue and facilitate the event itself in Abu Dhabi.

As for the hospitality industry, there is a breadth of options that include budget and ultra-luxury as well as short- to long-term stays. According to figures shared by DCT Abu Dhabi, in H1 2022, the emirate’s hotels received 1.84 million visitors, an increase of 22 per cent year-on-year, while occupancy rates rose to 70 per cent, with the average length of stay being recorded at about 3.2 nights per guest. Hotel revenues also rose 30 per cent in the first half of 2022 to Dhs2.4 billion.

The MICE sector is heavily focused on building the emirate’s hospitality sector. “The ADNEC Group has invested strategically in its hotel portfolio, particularly to support its venues in Abu Dhabi and London. We have two hotels on-site at ADNEC in Abu Dhabi – Aloft Abu Dhabi and Andaz Capital Gate. At ExCeL in London, we have Aloft London ExCel and DoubleTree by Hilton London ExCel. The location of these hotels allows business travellers to transition quickly and easily between their hotel and the events. The other hotels in our portfolio – Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Abu Dhabi and Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara – enable us to showcase Abu Dhabi as a leading destination to international business travellers looking to either extend their work trip, or return to Abu Dhabi in the future for leisure,” says Stephenson.

Abu Dhabi’s aviation industry meanwhile comprises a mix of full-service (Etihad) and budget airlines (Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi) and is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Airport which was recently fitted with facial recognition and biometric technology to help expedite the movement of passengers within it. The UAE’s national airline, Etihad, which uses the airport as its hub has also played a pivotal role in building the local MICE sector.

“As the UAE’s national airline, we’re actively engaged in growing Abu Dhabi as both a business and leisure destination. To showcase the strength of Abu Dhabi as a destination for business meetings, conferences and events, we work closely with DCT Abu Dhabi to organise trade familiarisation trips from emerging MICE-focused markets. We also work closely with hotel partners and other hospitality stakeholders, Tourism 365 and international destination management companies,” says Martin Drew, senior vice president of Global Sales and Cargo at Etihad Airways which was awarded the World’s Best MICE Airline at the World MICE Awards 2022.

“Etihad also has a partnership with the Abu Dhabi Convention and Exhibition Bureau to support the Advantage Abu Dhabi initiative which incentivises MICE business,” adds Drew.

Etihad collaborated with ADCEB on the Advantage Abu Dhabi Meetings and Incentives 2.0 programme
Etihad collaborated with ADCEB on the Advantage Abu Dhabi Meetings and Incentives 2.0 programme

The value proposition
The Advantage Abu Dhabi Meetings and Incentives initiative that Drew references is one of the emirate’s most important programmes to support its MICE sector and all its stakeholders. DCT Abu Dhabi announced the launch of an enhanced Advantage Abu Dhabi Meetings and Incentives 2.0 programme last year. As part of a revamped programme, ADCEB has collaborated with Etihad to incentivise corporate clients to select Abu Dhabi for their MICE events. For example, when 30 airline tickets are booked, one complimentary economy class ticket is provided.

Similarly, hospitality partners on the programme have schemes specifically for the MICE sector. If 25 rooms are booked, one room is offered complimentary, and one can be upgraded to a suite. Also, there’s a 25 per cent spa discount offered on select hotels.

Intermediaries who step in to further the MICE industry in Abu Dhabi are also suitably rewarded. ADCEB launched the MICE Agency Reward Scheme to incentivise both international as well as local intermediaries for bringing business to the UAE’s capital. For example, intermediaries based outside of the UAE who bring an event with a cumulative of 500 participants to Abu Dhabi, will receive two international air tickets (which will increase to four if the event has 1,000 participants, and six if there are 2,000 participants), as well as accommodation for themselves for two nights in a five-star property. As for UAE-based intermediaries, they will receive shopping vouchers and accommodation in five-star hotels based on the number of participants they bring to the event. “Our dedicated inbound groups’ department also works closely with all Abu Dhabi stakeholders to support group travel into the region. This makes the journey as seamless as possible for travellers visiting Abu Dhabi for conferences and events, and we can tailor experiences based on group requests,” notes Drew from Etihad.

ADCEB has been engaged in forming strategic partnerships with various entities, as it has done with Etihad. Last year, it teamed up with Abu Dhabi-based Miral to create the Business Event Fund that aims to attract business events and corporate groups of over 500 attendees. It has also partnered with the likes of global MICE associations including the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI), the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

To help grow the sector despite the pandemic, in 2021, ADCEB launched the Abu Dhabi Business Events Week which was designed as a platform for MICE industry professionals to collaborate and exchange best practices via panel discussions, workshops, and networking sessions. The topics for the event are determined by an advisory committee that consists of key MICE professionals. The second edition of the event was held between September 26-27 last year and covered topics including bidding strategies, sustainability and digital disruption.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Way forward
Given a global outlook scenario whose pressure points include the international conflict in East Europe, inflationary worries coupled with precautionary cost-cutting measures by multinationals around the world, the MICE industry is compelled to rethink its value proposition and go beyond just the business aspect. It has had to, for example, appeal to the leisure aspect too – hence the rise of bleisure (business plus leisure) – in order to convince corporates to book destinations outside of their resident countries for their events. Mindful of responding to these evolving needs, in November, DCT Abu Dhabi created a list of seven authentic Emirati cultural experiences that visitors to the emirate are recommended to try. The experiences, created in collaboration with Emirati tour guides, are featured on Airbnb, and include the likes of visiting the local fish and date markets, sampling a homemade Emirati breakfast and even visiting a local ranch.

For MICE meetings with a definitive bleisure component at its doorstep, entities such as Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Marina Circuit also feature well-equipped business centres. Other unconventional offerings for business events in Abu Dhabi include Louvre Abu Dhabi, Manarat Al Saadiyat and Qasr Al Watan. For high-end gatherings where privacy is vital, there are venues such as the private resort of Zaya Nurai Island too.

As Abu Dhabi’s MICE industry grows, sustainability is of paramount necessity especially considering that the UAE has committed to a Net Zero target by 2050. “We were the first in the Middle East to sign the Paris Agreement. Abu Dhabi is home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Abu Dhabi’s flagship carrier, Etihad Airways, is recognised for its industry-leading strategies to improve aviation sustainability for both the airline itself and the entire industry. These are all testament to our commitment to combating climate change,” says Mubarak Al Shamisi, director of ADCEB.

Etihad’s Drew, also outlines the airline’s commitment to sustainability, by adding, “For corporate clients, we offer Corporate Conscious Choices, our environmentally focused loyalty programme offering corporates the opportunity to offset corporate travel, invest in sustainable aviation fuel and promote sustainable activities.”

As the MICE industry grows in Abu Dhabi, a skilled workforce will be essential to maintain momentum. Abu Dhabi has ensured local representation remains a priority in that workforce. Miral, for example, has a two-year Maharaty talent development programme and the three-month Ambassador training programme to ensure that Emiratis are trained with the necessary skills and represented across the emirate’s MICE sector. Separately, in June 2022, ADCEB signed a strategic partnership with the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) to enable employees and stakeholders to receive a professional certification and year-round access to SITE’s dedicated incentive travel events and conferences.

Abu Dhabi’s MICE sector is on a solid footing already. All it needs to do now is hold a steady line.