With Expo 2020 Dubai looming into view and the Emirates positioning themselves to take advantage of global business events reopening, EW hears from H.E. Saif Mohamed Al Midfa, CEO of Expo Centre Sharjah:
How have you coped in Sharjah and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from a business events point of view, over the past 15 months?
Even though the world is still struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, several countries, including the UAE, have made successful attempts to restore normalcy. Well-managed lockdowns and aggressive vaccine roll outs are accelerating the economic rebound in the country and the UAE is almost fully open for business.
The past 15 months were particularly bad for the events industry across the world. Like other markets, the UAE and the Middle East were affected. However, by the end of 2020, the industry staged a quick rebound, with physical events being organised across the country and the region, including the Sharjah International Book Fair at Expo Centre Sharjah, which was attended by over 1,000 exhibitors and 382,000 visitors. And with Expo 2020 Dubai set to be held in a few months’ time, we are fast returning to normal.
Despite the challenges, we managed to host 20 events in 2020 and are on track to organise a full calendar of more than 40 events this year. We managed this by heavily localising our events initially, as well as relying on technology to promote our events and adhering to protocols and guidelines. Our latest event, the recently concluded Big Shopper Sale, was a big success, attracting 33,000 visitors.
According to UFI data, in 2020 the exhibition industry contracted by 68% globally with profits down 58% in the Middle East and Africa region, which includes the UAE. At the peak of the pandemic last year, the drop in scheduled departure flights was more than 80% in the UAE. But, by the first quarter of 2021, the UAE tourism sector continued its recovery with the average hotel occupancy rates across the country nearing 63%.
Apart from trade, travel, tourism and hospitality sectors, most other key sectors of the economy such as the real estate and financial services are also reporting a resurgence in demand. No wonder the country has been rated as the most resilient economy in the region in 2021.
How do you see your local strengths going forward to attract MICE business?
With its premium offerings in hotels, conference centres, entertainment facilities and shopping malls, the incentives market is important to our MICE industry. The travel and tourism industry is already reporting robust corporate bookings which will only increase. With the countdown starting for one of the world’s biggest events – Expo 2020 – the regional industry will be in the global limelight, besides enhancing the reputation of the UAE as a world-leading MICE destination. We are constantly increasing our MICE capacities, and boosting our appeal as one of the top global destinations for world-class business events.
What has been the plan at Expo Centre Sharjah for resuming hosting major events?
Expo Centre Sharjah was not spared the impact of the pandemic. Events were cancelled, postponed, scaled down and modified. However, some swift thinking and action helped us to get back on our feet fast and by the end
of 2020, we were organising physical events, and fully-fledged ones at that. This has helped us in navigating the second wave of the pandemic too, and we are on course to host all scheduled events this year.
The Covid experience has brought us closer together. Which international and regional associations and organisations have you been co-operating with?
Expo Centre Sharjah is the exhibition wing of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and is a member of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), the global association of the exhibition industry (UFI), and the Society of Independent Show Organisers (SISO), besides being a World Trade Centre. Our partnership with every organisation has helped us to tide over the challenges. I had been the chairman of the Arabian Gulf Chapter of the IAEE and also the Middle East/African Chapter of the UFI, giving me the opportunity to build good relations with local, regional and international venues and associations, which all came in handy in the past 15 months.
Tell us about some of the investments at the Expo Centre and the country’s business tourism infrastructure (hotels, airports, venues, etc.).
Having undergone several phases of expansion, Expo Centre now offers 42,000sqm of premium indoor and outdoor event space, 16,000sqm of tiled outdoor event space and on-site parking slots for 1,600 vehicles. To better target the audience in Central Region and Eastern Coast of Sharjah, we have also set up sister companies in Al Dhaid and Khorfakkan. We also opened a 230-room Novotel hotel.
The travel and tourism sector has been a key growth driver of the UAE economy and the country is spending billions of dollars on new projects, including resorts, theme parks, shopping malls and cultural venues.
The MICE industry has contributed greatly to the economic diversification strategy of the UAE. The sector is poised for dynamic expansion in coming years, given that there is strong government support, a rapidly growing population, a business-friendly environment and advanced infrastructure. The country has one of the most liberal trade regimes in the region and the marquee Expo 2020 is set to underscore the UAE’s global reputation as the go-to place for major events.
A word on how you are tackling the sustainability issue?
Sustainable economic activity is an important theme for the events industry. Expo Centre Sharjah is a pioneer in this regard since one of our trade events was accredited as being carbon neutral nearly a decade ago in 2012. Since then, we have been working on reducing our carbon footprint by adopting technology and innovating continuously.
Can you pick out a major recent event that you feel highlighted the strength and capacity of Sharjah Expo?
Since we are going through the pandemic, I guess something that happened last year would be appropriate. We decided to postpone our international jewellery fair but feedback from the local industry suggested that they needed a physical platform to shore up their sales. We
then decided to launch a brand-new show that would cater to the local jewellery industry. Amid the pandemic-induced restrictions, we managed to bring everything together to launch a new event, and the Jewels of Emirates Show was born late last year. And the event was such a runaway success that we are continuing it this year, too.
What about Expo 2020. Do you see that as an opportunity for Sharjah in the business events market?
Expo 2020 would definitely give us a great opportunity to promote Expo Centre Sharjah, our events, Sharjah’s booming industrial base and other opportunities. It will offer unparalleled networking opportunities as 190 nations and millions of visitors will descend on the UAE. Since Expo 2020 is also the first event of its scale to take place in the world post pandemic, it would serve in re-kickstarting the events industry as well as international tourism, benefitting Expo Centre and Sharjah immensely.
What is Expo Centre Sharjah’s approach to winning events business and which sectors of the Sharjah economy are particularly strong?
Sharjah is the third largest emirate in the UAE and is increasingly being acknowledged as the industrial backbone of the country. Its strategic geographical location makes it a gateway to the expansive markets of the Middle East, northern and southern Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and the CIS countries. It can boast of an investor-friendly climate, flexible legal framework, simple procedures and a fair tax system, in addition to the provision of funding resources and qualified human resources with competitive costs. It has a strong manufacturing industry, and accounts for nearly 45% of the country’s industrial sector spread across 19 industrial zones and three free zones. These factors make it a firm favourite for trade show and conference organisers.
Often overshadowed by fellow emirates Dubai and Abu Dhabi for meetings and events, how can Sharjah differentiate itself?
Rather than competing, we complement each other well with different offerings and advantages. Apart from being the manufacturing base of the country, Sharjah’s focus on art, culture, heritage and education has won it the title of the Cultural Capital of the UAE, besides being crowned as the Cultural Capital of the Arab World by UNESCO in 1998 and the Capital of Arab Tourism Award in 2015. We have kept the spirit of our history alive by incorporating tradition into every aspect of contemporary development, clearly underscoring the unique advantages these factors offer to events and conferences. A comparison of the events being held in the country will provide a clear idea of how each emirate plays to its strengths. A good example will be Sharjah International Book Fair that we host annually. It is the third largest event of its kind in the world.
Our industrial units present a big opportunity for foreign companies and event organisers to tap into. The cost advantages offered by Sharjah is an appealing factor and Dubai International Airport is just 10 minutes by road from Sharjah.