Over 10 mil­lion business tourists ar­rive in the GCC ev­ery year; yet the re­gion is not cur­rently one of the world's prime des­ti­na­tions for the most lu­cra­tive part of tourism – meet­ings, in­cen­tives, con­ven­tions, and exhibitions.

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Over 10 mil­lion business tourists ar­rive in the GCC ev­ery year, yet the re­gion is not cur­rently one of the world's prime des­ti­na­tions for the most lu­cra­tive part of tourism – meet­ings, in­cen­tives, con­ven­tions, and exhibitions.

Th­ese vis­i­tors come to meet col­leagues based in the re­gion, to make con­nec­tions, or to prospect for business in a part of the world that has a strong eco­nomic base and that is di­ver­si­fy­ing into new in­dus­tries. How­ever, not enough of th­ese business trav­ellers come to at­tend large meet­ings, such as exhibitions and con­ven­tions – a state of af­fairs that GCC pol­i­cy­mak­ers should be look­ing to change.

The meet­ings, in­cen­tives, con­ven­tions, and exhibitions business – called the meet­ings in­dus­try for short – is small in num­bers but high in eco­nomic re­ward. Although business peo­ple who travel to at­tend an ex­hi­bi­tion or con­ven­tion rep­re­sent only around 5% of global tourist ar­rivals, they make up for their lack of vol­ume with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of spend­ing.

Any­one who has ever trav­elled to at­tend an ex­hi­bi­tion, such as Ger­many's CeBIT com­puter show or the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas, has seen first­hand how the money flows. Meet­ings' vis­i­tors ac­count for roughly QR40.04 ($11) of ev­ery QR364 ($100) spent an­nu­ally by all tourists. They tend to stay at more ex­pen­sive ho­tels and dine at bet­ter restau­rants than the av­er­age tourists. At the same time, they also take ad­van­tage of lo­cal leisure and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

To date, coun­tries in Europe and North Amer­ica have dom­i­nated the meet­ings business. To­gether, they host about 80% of the world's exhibitions. How­ever, that im­bal­ance is likely to change as de­vel­op­ing coun­tries in­creas­ingly ac­count for a larger share of world trade. GCC coun­tries in par­tic­u­lar have a great op­por­tu­nity to pick up

a share in the ex­hi­bi­tion in­dus­try, of which they ac­count at present for only a very small pro­por­tion.

Meet­ing point

The GCC has a “cross­roads of the world” lo­ca­tion and is of in­creas­ing to business trav­el­ers gen­er­ally. To do so re­quires three steps.

The first step is to gain an un­der­stand­ing of what must be put in place to have an ef­fec­tive meet­ings in­dus­try ecosys­tem. Coun­tries and ci­ties that suc­cess­fully host many con­ven­tions and exhibitions fo­cus on top­ics that fit their trade ac­tiv­ity. In Thai­land, it could be agri­cul­ture; in Tai­wan, elec­tronic com­po­nents; and in San Francisco it could the be dig­i­tal apps. GCC can take ad­van­tage of their lead­ing po­si­tions in en­ergy. They can also strengthen their moves into newer ar­eas of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, such as health care. Meet­ings lo­ca­tions also have ser­vices that support their events, in­clud­ing des­ti­na­tion man­age­ment com­pa­nies and ex­hi­bi­tion or­gan­is­ers – all of which are part of the meet­ings-in­dus­try ecosys­tem.

Another part of the ecosys­tem is gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions that play an en­abling role. For in­stance, th­ese gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­duce re­search to show which con­ven­tions and exhibitions would have the best chance of suc­ceed­ing. Or they pro­mote the des­ti­na­tion. Sin­ga­pore and Glas­gow both have con­ven­tion bureaux that play ma­jor roles in at­tract­ing new exhibitions and large-scale meet­ings. In­deed, GCC coun­tries ben­e­fit from study­ing the ecosys­tems of coun­tries that al­ready have a thriv­ing meet­ings in­dus­try. The ecosys­tem el­e­ments that are in place else­where will play a vi­tal role in the GCC as well.

New strat­egy

The sec­ond step is for the coun­try to come up with a strat­egy to win more meet­ings business. This is not un­like the anal­y­sis that a company would do in de­cid­ing whether to en­ter a new ge­o­graphic mar­ket or in­tro­duce a new prod­uct.

GCC coun­tries need to look at the at­trac­tive­ness of host­ing con­ven­tions or exhibitions around a cer­tain field, con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of business tourists who may at­tend and their likely spend­ing. They need to look at their readi­ness to host such an event, as mea­sured by their strength in that area of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

They also need to look at the com­pet­i­tive in­ten­sity of the space, mean­ing the like­li­hood of com­pe­ti­tion from other Gulf coun­tries. As part of this step, coun­tries should also fig­ure out whether their best bet is to host smaller events or large con­ven­tions, whether they should as­pire to be a re­gional or in­ter­na­tional player. Th­ese coun­tries also need to con­sider whether they should build events or­gan­i­cally or seek to have ex­ist­ing li­cence-hold­ers move their events to the GCC.

Gov­er­nance model

The third step is build­ing a gov­er­nance model. In many de­vel­oped coun­tries, the meet­ings in­dus­try is in the hands of the pri­vate sec­tor. In the GCC, where the meet­ings in­dus­try is nascent, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the gov­ern­ment have a larger role to play.

There are four main or­gan­i­sa­tional op­tions. A meet­ings bureau could be part of a coun­try's tourism pro­mo­tion agency, as is the case in Madrid and Vi­enna. It could be part of a cen­tral tourism plan­ning en­tity, as oc­curs in Abu Dhabi and Sin­ga­pore.

It could also be a body man­aged by the Min­istry of Tourism or Trade. Or it could be han­dled as a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship. The par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances and long-term of the des­ti­na­tion coun­try will de­ter­mine the best struc­ture.

Of course, as they seek to grow their share of the meet­ings in­dus­try mar­ket, the GCC coun­tries will have to over­come some chal­lenges. They have not yet built high-qual­ity pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tems, which makes it harder for peo­ple at­tend­ing con­ven­tions to get to and from lo­ca­tions. GCC coun­tries also tend to have re­stric­tive visa poli­cies, which can dis­cour­age trav­el­ers from out­side the re­gion. They also of­ten lack the an­cil­lary leisure prod­ucts that can sway a business trav­eler to make a jour­ney abroad, although th­ese are now be­ing de­vel­oped.

None of th­ese chal­lenges is beyond the reach of pol­icy or is in­sur­mount­able be­cause of re­source con­straints. Quite the con­trary, the GCC has much to of­fer as a meet­ings and con­ven­tions des­ti­na­tion. If pol­i­cy­mak­ers turn their at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ing the in­dus­try, the num­ber of meet­ings th­ese coun­tries host can rise sub­stan­tially

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