Dubai lures Wall Street jet-setters as events business rebounds

Dubai: The jet-setting days of Wall Street bankers and executives flocking to Davos in January might be on pause, but in the financial capital of the Middle East it's business as usual once more.

Dubai is moving full-speed ahead with in-person events on the back of fewer travel restrictions and one of the world's most-connected airports. The United Arab Emirates also has among the fastest vaccination programs, with 15 million doses administered in a population of 10 million.

As restrictions hamper travel to hubs including London and Singapore, Dubai is fast becoming a winner in the more than $1 trillion global events industry. The emirate plans to host one of the biggest gas conferences and an African investor summit this year, while top cricketers are set to gather in the UAE for a popular tournament and later, for the T20 World Cup.

Dubai is open for business

Conferences and events accounted for 3% of Dubai's $112 billion economy in 2019, said Helal Al Marri, director general of the emirate's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, or DTCM. A return to normalcy would bolster the leisure industry, which was leveled by the pandemic.

It's "an opportunity to showcase that Dubai is open and if this can be done while keeping new Covid infections in check - and the vaccine rollout will help with that - then visitors' confidence in traveling to Dubai will be high," said Scott Livermore, chief economist for Oxford Economics Middle East in Dubai.

Still, travel restrictions around the world, including requirements to quarantine following trips abroad, might impact attendance. Dubai, though, is aiming for 25 million unique visits to the Expo 2020, including delegates from almost every country. The postponed exhibition, set to open in October, is estimated to generate billions of dollars in revenue.

"The events industry is a small yet significant segment of the Dubai economy that has a considerable multiplier effect," DTCM's Al Marri said. "There aren't many places in the world with this much focus on international business events."

Gastech is relocating from Singapore citing travel restrictions and Africa Oil Week scuttled its Cape Town convention in favor of Dubai, which it said won approval from 88% of clients over other locations.

The shift is also playing out in the sports world and the Pakistan Cricket League bumped its matches to the UAE. The Indian Premier League, one of the sport's most popular tournaments, will follow suit after suspending games over the outbreak in India and the month-long World Cup is set to start soon after.

Conference city

Avaya CEO Jim Chirico flew in to Dubai from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last week for the company's first face-to-face event with customers and employees since the pandemic hit. At the Ritz Carlton, about 150 people listened to discussions on how Covid-19 changed their industry."It was truly awesome to feel like we're going back to normal and connecting face to face," said Nidal Abou-Ltaif, Avaya's president of international operations, who organized the event. Participants who flew in from across the Gulf and Egypt had to be fully vaccinated and wear masks.

The Dubai Airshow, one of the aviation industry's marquee events, is set to come back later this year. Anthony Scaramucci's SALT hedge fund conference is slated to return to Abu Dhabi, an hour south, this year for its Middle East gathering, according to Joe Eletto, SALT's director of operations. He said the team will finalize dates after receiving further public health guidance from local officials.

Face-to-face events play a critical role in bolstering businesses, DTCM's Al Marri said. "It is why we are committed to keeping Dubai safe, yet open, to the world."

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