When Western meeting professionals think of the Middle East, hosting a meeting in the region may sound intimidating. Headlines of political and economic instability in certain portions of the region can easily lead an organization to decide to stay closer to home. However, the Middle East as a whole cannot be summarized by challenges in certain countries.
“It’s easy to talk about a part of the world and make a general statement about the entire region,” Jennifer Sombar, Head, Travel and Event Management, CFA Institute, says. “Each country must be evaluated on a stand-alone basis, though. It’s really important to do your research to get to know the climate of each country.”
Sombar and the CFA Institute have been doing plenty of that research. For the past five years, the organization has hosted the Middle East Investment Conference in Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar. Throughout the time frame, Sombar and her London-based colleague Tina Chande, Manager, Global Travel and Events, CFA Institute, have gained a strong understanding of the Middle East. Here’s a look at some of the commonly held myths about the region and the real story behind meetings in the Middle East.
1) Myth: The entire region is risky.
Reality: Many parts of the Middle East are very safe and stable.
On a personal level, Chande says she is always mindful of adapting her lifestyle to adjust to the local culture as a safety precaution. For example, she says always wears modest longer-length clothes that cover her shoulders.
“When I first began organizing events in the Middle East, I was very conscious of my safety as a woman traveling alone,” Chande says. “However, that can be applicable to anywhere in the world. Safety and stability are not issues confined to just one region.”
“I do my due diligence and check in with our risk management department regarding the security of the destination,” Chande adds.
For delegates, Sombar says the organization is always naturally thinking about their safety. However, there have been no causes for serious concern.
“We evaluate the need for additional security measures and executive protection , but find they aren’t necessary in most situations,” Sombar says.
2) Myth: Alcohol is a no-no.
Reality: The bar is stocked differently depending on the country.
In predominantly Muslim countries, alcohol laws can be confusing. While some places may prohibit locals from buying and consuming alcohol, Chande says that many Middle Eastern countries have large ex-pat communities.
“In most cases, alcohol is available,” Chande says. “Typically, the organizer must make a request for it.”
Before an event begins, Chande says that the CFA Institute relies on local volunteers to help them make a decision on whether the event will be dry or alcohol will be served.
However, there are exceptions. As Chande and Sombar prepare to host a group of attendees in Kuwait in February 2015, there will be no request for beer, wine and spirits because the decision has already been made. Kuwait is a dry state.
While alcohol varies country to country, another substance seems to be everywhere: tobacco. Chande lives in the United Kingdom where it is illegal to smoke in enclosed work spaces and says she was initially surprised to see smoking in the hotel lobby and ashtrays in pre-function areas.
3) Myth: You’ll be all alone.
Reality: You can count on the power of strong partners to guide you through norms and processes.
“Like any global meeting, it’s important to rely on local partners in the Middle East,” Chande says. “Ask questions and glean their knowledge”
The CFA Institute has built an effective network of local members who are willing to offer guidance on which local companies to target for their exhibit and sponsorship programs.
Outside of working to secure monetary support, Chande says that hotel partners are quick to offer advice in other important areas such as food and beverage offerings and allocating rooms specifically for religious worship.
4) Myth: The infrastructure isn’t ready for your expectations.
Reality: The Middle East is adding state-of-the-art buildings all the time.
Michelle Crowley, Director, Global Development, PCMA, recently traveled to Oman for the first-ever Oman Advisory Summit, and she highlights that the Middle East definition of excellence is equivalent to western facilities and technology.
“Our event was in a hotel conference venue, and I found it to be up to par with US facilities,” Crowley says.
Across the Middle East, meeting professionals can find a similar experience.
“A lot of the buildings are new rather than retrofitted,” Crowley says. “The new construction ensures they are up-to-date on technology and design with modern capabilities.”
For example, Qatar opened the LEED-certified Qatar National Convention Centre in 2011, and Oman is preparing to open the new Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre in Muscat in 2016. Starwood recently announced plans to open 35 new hotels in the Middle East by 2017, and Marriott has nearly 60 projects in the pipeline in the Middle East and Africa.
Making The Most Of Opportunities In The Middle East
If your meetings team is unfamiliar with the Middle East, planning a conference or event there will certainly come with plenty of additional work and concerns. However, the hard work can pay big dividends. Sombar highlights that hosting the MEIC in new locations allows the organization to reach new investment professionals who are not already members or candidates of the various programs offered by CFA Institute. The organization has also been able to continually forge new connections with new journalists to expand its brand, too.
Of course, the benefits aren’t just confined to attendees and organizational objectives.
“Every time, I come back from the Middle East, I’m blown away by how warm and hospitable the people are,” Chande says. “Travel, wherever you’re going is a privilege to open your mind and experience the local culture. I’m always thrilled to get to do that in new places throughout the region.”
This informative feature was brought to you by the Omran and the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre. As the official opening of the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre approaches, every meeting professional will be hearing more buzz about why their attendees will love Oman. Click here to learn more about why other meeting planners are already making site visits to Oman.