Dubai is holding one of the world's biggest shows Expo 2020. First held in London in 1851, the next year's event is set to have over 190 participating countries. The city is gearing up for the six-month long event by adding a new airport, and expanding the hotel room inventory. Issam Kazim, the CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM), a government body that promotes tourism in the emirate, speaks to Business Today on the preparation, and his job is to promote the brand Dubai. Edited excerpts:
Business Today: What is the idea behind having the Dubai Expo next year? What kind of response you are expecting in the Expo?
Issam Kazim: In 2003, Dubai won the bid to host the IMF for the first time. At that point, a lot of people had these question marks. Dubai was relatively unknown in that space. So they were thinking that Dubai is always in news - not the right kind of news about the region in the newspapers. How will they be able to handle an event like the safety, security, logistics and so on? By their own admission, they said it was probably the best IMF meeting that they ever had. Everyone enjoyed their stay. They had a successful event, and they went back. That catapulted Dubai into the global map when it comes to hosting big events. Since then, our annual events and our exhibition counts are growing. The venues in Dubai are probably the busiest when it comes to calendar events globally.
We have GITEX which is a home-grown event on tech that has grown so much that it outgrew the space. Same thing with Gulfood, which is the biggest annual food event in the world. It shows you that Dubai has positioned itself quite strong when it comes to events. Then you look at the global events in terms of size and scale that any city or a country can host. There are three global ones, which is the global world cup for football, Olympics, and Expo. The Expo has an added complexity that it's an event that runs for six months. It happens in October and goes on for six months, so it straddles two years - 2020, 2021 - which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Golden Jubilee of the UAE being formed. For us, it's going to be a jam-packed six months of events. We will have hundreds of events taking place. (There will be) business events, of course on one side, but a lot of leisure and entertainment events.
Over time, the World Fair, as it used to be called, changed to become the World Expo. When it was World Fair, everyone knew that it had something for everyone - kids and adults. But when it became an Expo, people started to think that it was just a business event. But it's not the case. A lot of people don't realise that things like X-Ray machine was launched at an expo (for the) first time ever. Telephone was launched at an Expo. Ketchup was launched in the previous edition of this Expo. The Eiffel Tower is a legacy of Expo.
There are many things that are amazing that people can relate to. That is why I'm trying to encourage people. The first element is to make sure that you are there for the first month. It's a truly global spectacle. For us, it's (about making) people realise that Dubai has now reached that status where it can host such an event. When we wanted it, we were rubbing shoulders with players in the space that have years of experience and have established brand name. For Dubai to win that bid was such a moment of pride for us. I think that's what Expo means to Dubai.
BT: What kind of tourist inflow you are expecting during that period?
Kazim: The expo itself is looking for 25 million visits during the six months. For us, it's prime time because from October-April is more or less the peak travel period for us as well. The idea is to leverage every visitor that comes to Dubai, to encourage them to include Expo visit as part of their itinerary. Every visitor who's coming to Dubai for the first time to attend an Expo, it gives us a chance to showcase them what they have been missing out on for all this time, and to create repeat visitors out of them. From a tourism strategy perspective, we always talk about increasing the number of visitors, we are also talking about increasing the length of stay within Dubai.
BT: A 2018 Mastercard report says that the average length of stay in Dubai is about 3.5 nights. How do you plan to increase it?
Kazim: We have looked at it from multiple approaches. The people who come to Dubai; we want to make sure that they understand why one time is not enough. Dubai already has a roughly 25 per cent repeat visitation. I mean that people who have come to Dubai in the last 12 months have come back again within 12 months. That's how we classify repeat. Twenty-five per cent is quite high, which means that we are doing something right.
Then we look at our own marketing campaigns to make sure that people are aware of the breadth of things that we have to offer. When they are in Dubai, they understand that how many things they missed out on. So they come back again or they come back and understand that they need to be in Dubai for a week or 10 days at least.
But at the same time, that doesn't mean that we ignore the others who are within the transit period. Because if you look at Emirates, just as an example, they would hub via Dubai to go to Europe or the US. If we can entice them to just step in and explore a city that they hadn't probably thought of in the past, gives us a much better chance to add to that 25 per cent repeat visitation. There are different campaigns and different messaging that we do that tries to leverage every opportunity that's available to us.
BT: What are the preparations that you are doing for the next year? A lot of plans are being prepared. Whether it's adding a new airport, which is bigger than the existing one, and the hotel room inventory is also going to go up. I believe the hotel room inventory of Dubai alone would be bigger than the entire of India.
Kazim: From the strategy side, when we announced it back in 2013, it was clear. In order for us to increase numbers, there are many things that we can do. Putting a beautiful strategy in place is one thing. But if you are not doing it on your own, you are never going to get there. We are leveraging a lot of that tight relationship between the private and public sector. So [looking at] the local carriers - what is their trajectory for the next few years? At the same time, understanding from the airports, what are they doing to incentivize more carriers to come in.
We are also looking at the federal side of things. We need to also address barriers. Bringing capacity is one thing, but we look at visa issues as well. We have really come a long way with visa issues but that does not mean that we have come to the finish line yet. From our perspective, we want to make it even easier for people to come to Dubai.
Then we look at the hotel inventory. Dubai has already established its name on the five-star segment, which put Dubai on the bucket list for a lot of people. But they also think it's aspirational, and (they) cannot afford it, which is not true. Dubai always had amazing offerings for people who are budget conscious. It's just that our success was based on Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, Burj Khalifa, Palm Islands, and Atlantis, The Palm. It automatically disconnected people. There's more to it as well
BT: The average ARRs (average room rates) are about $150 per night which is quite expensive from the Indian point of view. Affordability is an issue...
Kazim: That's my point. What we also did was to make sure that we put incentives in place to encourage investments in budget-conscious hotels, three-star and four-star hotels, and boutique hotels. For example, we said anybody who invests in a three- and four-star hotel, we will waive off the 10 per cent municipality fees for five years. It encouraged investors to invest in that direction.
We understand the demand; we understand the market, and we have put the right things in place to encourage the development. In 2013, when we announced the strategy, we had 68,000 hotel rooms. Today, we have just shy of 120,000 hotel rooms. The idea is to reach anywhere between 135,000 and 140,000.
Dubai is a free market and we make sure that it stays that way. We make sure that we have educated conversations with investors, to encourage them to understand the travel patterns, behaviours, demand, and try to educate them into where they should best invest, what kind of hotel, what type of hotel and when. It has helped us to get the price down, where demand and supply is almost matching. There was a time few years ago, when during the peak exhibition time, even three-star hotels were charging high-end five-star hotel rates because demand far outstripped supply. Now we are reaching a point where it's about 75 per cent average occupancy. This gives the guests a much better variety and rates that match their budget.
BT: With 25 per cent repeat visitors, have you gone into classifying what is their purpose of revisit and what they are coming back for?
Kazim: Some of it would be for business. A lot of multinationals have taken up Dubai as their regional, if not their global hub, because of the connectivity to the rest of the world, the airports connectivity and infrastructure. They come for meetings, so on and so forth. You also have visiting friends and relatives. Eighty per cent of the Dubai's population chose Dubai to be their home. We have about 200 different nationalities that live in Dubai. Only 20 per cent are native, and the 80 per cent is made up of close to 200 different nationalities. That comes across in the cuisine, experiences, and celebrations. Indian families, for example, come during the Diwali break to celebrate Diwali in Dubai. It really embraces all of these cultures in one central place. A lot of repeat visitors come for the retail events. Today, we have close to 250 days of retail events taking place. We have 18 retail events that span month-long, couple of weeks long, and even three-day long.
BT: What would be the break-up of MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events), business and leisure travel?
Kazim: Business usually makes up roughly 20 per cent of our overall travel numbers. Over 80 per cent are leisure travelers. MICE is part of the business side.
BT: You are competing with major hubs, which are also promoting themselves as destinations. How do you plan to differentiate from them?
Kazim: There are several things. Campaign is one thing, telling them what Dubai has to offer is another thing, but delivering on the promises is a big one for us. We are glad that Dubai has such an amazing relationship between the private and public sector. So, when we want something to happen, everyone rallies together to make sure those things are delivered with the same unified objective.
We have regular meetings at Dubai tourism at least four times a year with all of the investors and I'm talking about many Indian investors also who have established their business in Dubai.
We meet with them on a regular basis in an open forum between the private and public sector. We tell them what's happening globally. We show them what are the plans that we have; we listen to them and they tell us. That kind of collaboration happens in private organisations. Dubai runs itself as a private organisation.
The department of tourism is a government entity. If you come to our offices, our work hours officially is eight to five, but you will find the team there working eight to eight maybe, including weekends as well. They are always connected. You will see even the director generals and CEOs are there. They are not just a figure that you hear about. They are rolling up their sleeves, involved with the team, and making sales calls. That is why the private sector works so closely with us.