The challenges of launching Abu Dhabi International Boat Show

Alex Nicholl, Abu Dhabi International Boat Show Director, talks us through the challenges of launching a brand new show.


Exhibition organising is in our genes, but boat show organising was a new challenge which we successfully rose to, ultimately exceeding even our own expectations.

When it was decided at IDEX LLC in April 2017 that we would hold a boat show worthy of gathering international renown in just 18 months, we knew it would be a rewarding yet challenging experience.

Government support for the leisure boating industry and a strong network of 30 professionally managed marinas presented a strong commercial opportunity. This coupled with the Emirati cultural affinity for boating and fishing indicated that there was an appetite and audience for an Abu Dhabi International Boat Show.

We could certainly draw upon our many years of experience putting together the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX), which is held biennially at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC).

IDEX, and its sister event, the Naval Defence Exhibition (NAVDEX), has in time grown to become one of the most renowned and influential defence events in the world. It gathers more than 124,000 attendees and draws the participation of over 1,300 leading regional and global companies. 

We quickly realised that our key to success was to establish partnerships with key stakeholders to gain insight, exposure and access to the market. 

For the launch edition of Abu Dhabi International Boat Show (ADIBS), we partnered with British Marine Boat Shows, the organisers of the London and Southampton Boat Shows, Abu Dhabi Ports, and with the Emirate’s Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority (CICPA).  

Meetings were arranged with the UAE and international bellwethers and a “teach me, tell me what you want” approach taken that not only engaged but resulted in encouraging ownership, and ultimately participation, in the event.  

The key message from our stakeholders mirrored our own vision for ADIBS - we needed a clear differentiation between our show and other international boat shows.

The consensus was, “We don’t need another Cannes or Miami. Make the show uniquely Abu Dhabi”.

The message to our potential exhibitors was simple. Firstly, Abu Dhabi can deliver a concentrated audience of high-net-worth individuals. Secondly, not only is Abu Dhabi a marine industry hub for the Middle East but it is also a fantastic boating destination, surrounded by over 100 stunning islands, begging to be explored.

Our next targeted sector would be families. Abu Dhabi is a family oriented emirate, with large families as well as high GDP, we wanted to target this sector who may already be taking boat rides on weekends and expanding on that interest embedded in local culture. 

We decided the key to this was through creating attractions relevant to the event that would provide additional motivation for this audience to attend the show to get exposure to the industry.

From rides in a traditional abra, to Jet Ski and Flyboard demonstrations, to hands-on activities such as sailing, kayaking or stand-up paddleboard, we wanted families to understand that the boat show is also an entertainment destination.

This element proved to be a great success, particularly in the sport fishing and conservation zone. Our partners, the International Game Fishing Association, helped attract exhibitors, speakers and demonstrators, who kept attendees fully involved in the action.

The approach brought the boat show into support of the Abu Dhabi Plan and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which have goals of establishing a secure and confident society with a competitive, sustainable and open economy. Making contributions to these goals are key elements of ADNEC’s mission statement.

In October 2018, the first ADIBS was inaugurated under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation, and Chairman of Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

We exceeded our attendance targets, with over 21,000 attendees. The exhibitor and brand target was also topped by 80%, with 270 in attendance, including renowned brands such as Gulf Craft, Princess Yachts, Monte Carlo Yachts and Sunseeker. There were 96 boats on display, 20% more than we had anticipated for the first year and I’m proud to say that there were 23 new product launches during the show.

For an independent measurement of visitor and exhibitor feedback, we engaged Nielsen, who reported visitor satisfaction of 97% and an exhibitor satisfaction rate of 95% , exceeding the 85% target we had set ourselves. 

ADIBS also attracted the attention of 105 international and local media representatives, so it is safe to say that it made a splash!

The planning and preparation for the boat show provided a steep learning curve but was incredibly rewarding experience. We concluded that launching ADIBS encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit and drive that certainly in this case led to incredible success. Additionally, the unique positioning of the show as a truly Abu Dhabi focussed experience that did not emulate the style of other international shows was the key to its success.

ADIBS 2019 returns to ADNEC in October and we are already on track to have a bigger and better show than last year with an enhanced sports fishing zone and a newly introduced Luxury Boulevard.


Alex Nicholl has 15  years’ experience in the exhibitions industry and currently heads up the Abu Dhabi Boat show, part of ADNEC Group’s event organising arm, IDEX LLC. ADIBS is up for Best International Show Middle East and Africa and Best Consumer Launch Show at the AEO Awards 2019. The ADNEC venue is also up for five AEO Awards this year.