Business tourism: how to regain customer confidence

ARTICLE

Business tourism: how to regain customer confidence

From events to aviation and hospitality to F&B, Mona Faraj, Managing Director of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International in the Middle East, discusses how – post lockdown – all industries must work together to win back business

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​​​​In the 47 years that I have lived in Dubai, I have watche​d the city grow into a truly global destination, a rich cultural melting pot where the world’s brightest minds come to exchange ideas, spark innovation and help to shape the business landscape of to​​​morrow. But, as the emirate has become an international platform for opportunity and connectivity, like all major international cities, it too feels the effects of economic downturn.

To minimise those effects and to maintain our position as a leading travel and tourism hub, post the pandemic, now is the time to reset, refocus and reenergise. It is vital that we are proactive and turn today’s challenges into opportunities, because sitting back and waiting for the tide to turn will not keep us motivated to push the boundaries of this hugely dynamic and exciting industry. So, how do we move forward?​


Implementing workable solutions

Having worked in the emirate’s hospitality industry for nearly 30 years, I feel privileged to have learnt my trade with major global hotel groups and to have experienced the incredible boom of the mid 2000s. But I also feel blessed to have lived through the downturns. Without these, and the valuable lessons they have taught, it would be much harder to overcome the challenges that the effects of Coronavirus present today.

Based on my experience, I firmly believe that collaboration is key to recovery, not just within the hospitality industry but all sectors and the wider population. By committing ourselves to the highest safety and hygiene standards, we will help to keep the rate of infection down and regain much-needed customer confidence. Enforced social distancing in restaurants, lifts, lobbies and all public spaces is essential. So, too, is regular disinfection of surfaces. In addition, we must wear PPE to contain the spread, and in doing so, people will see that hotels in Dubai are taking the pandemic seriously and gradually they will feel safe to return.

The good news is that these measures are relatively easy to implement. I recently attended an industry dinner at a hotel in Dubai Marina. The servers wore gloves and masks and I could see cleaners thoroughly sanitising all areas of the restaurant. There were 14 guests in our group and we sat on two separate tables. We socialised, discussed industry news, and – by implementing small changes to our lifestyles – enjoyed a wonderful evening of debate.

So, at both an individual and company level, we need to make only minor adjustments to help to contain the spread and instil confidence. The challenge is ensuring that everyone plays their part. There are some great examples of hotels implementing strict safety and hygiene measures, but there are also violators, some high-profile, and this has to stop. Hospitality in Dubai is world-class and so, as people within the MENA region look to us for guidance and inspiration, we have a responsibility to lead by example.

Through our collective, city-wide efforts, I am confident that Dubai will recover. We all want to attract 2019 visitor numbers again and we all want to return to pre-COVID-19 occupancy levels. To do this, it is important that we work towards long-term gains. Let us not focus on short-term wins that force us to compromise safety and hygiene and lead us back into lockdown. No one wants that.


Technological innovation

Of course, the hospitality industry is closely linked with the events sector. Without one, the other would not fulfil its true potential. For that reason, there are several ways in which the two industries can support each other through these difficult times. First, as traveller confidence remains low, the events industry could and, in my opinion, should look to run more hybrid events that combine online experiences for a virtual audience and physical experiences for an in-person audience. That way, delegates, who, for safety reasons, prefer not to travel or who do not want the expense of travel, can participate, while those for whom in-person networking is key, are still catered for. At the same time, the hospitality industry is able to earn revenue from those visitors who choose to attend physically.​

As such, through this hybrid model, organisers may well see an increase in the total number of attendees. Previously, if an event was in-person only, companies may have sent just one or two delegates due to budget constraints. If the travel costs are removed, however, and delegates can participate from the comfort of their home or their office, several hundred more people may attend virtually, which could create opportunities for the MICE market. For this reason, I believe hybrid events are here to stay, even after travel restrictions have been further eased and the aviation industry has started to recover.

Every year, the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International in the Middle East (HSMAI ME) organises ROC (the Revenue Optimization Conference), which is the only hospitality event focusing on all commercial disciplines. ROC ME 2020 will be a hybrid and, I am thrilled to say, will take place as planned at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City on 6 December.

To successfully implement this hybrid model, the events industry needs to innovate, and implement improved technological infrastructure. It needs to find a way to maintain that element of interaction between the speakers and the audience, some of whom are in physical attendance, and some behind their computers connected via streaming. How to strike that balance is the million-dollar question and there are several technologies that can integrate to deliver a highly engaging experience.  Either way, we don’t want to cancel events. This sends the wrong message. We simply need to devise ways that enable us to engage a percentage of the audience in person and the remainder online.​


Working hand in hand

Likewise, through increased flexibility, we in the hospitality sector can support the MICE industry. Moving forward, we should treat every event as a new opportunity and understand that dates do not need to be as fixed as they once were. Rules surrounding cancellations and refunds have changed in many hotels across the world, so as an industry we’re already adapting to meet new demands.

We need to seize every opportunity that event organisers present and be as creative as possible in terms of our offering so that we can promote the destination, the hotel and the event. The focus should not be on ROI only but on instilling confidence and what each event will bring back to the meetings and events industry. It’s about reassurance and showing the world we’re safe and open for business.​

Even more importantly, people across all industries – events, hospitality, aviation and more – must unite in the belief that their industry will recover. The power of positivity is huge. There are very few people who have not experienced disruption, in the form of job or business loss, or a cut in salary. We can dwell on this or we can choose to wake up every morning with a positive mindset and find ways to innovate and be creative.

We should never stop believing that the events industry will return to the in-person experience. But it must also embrace the changes that have, and will, inevitably come. We might have to wait, but the sector will bounce back. Particularly in the UAE, it is a huge source of business for hotels, whether business properties or resorts, and the whole market ecosystem is heavily reliant upon the MICE industry.

In addition, we must continue to promote Dubai and our respective industries. In 2019, hospitality, events, aviation and F&B were all reactive sectors because there was so much demand. Now the demand has gone so, we have to create it. We have to continue to believe, continue to promote and continue to sell. In the current climate, it’s hard, but it has never been more important.


The domino effect​

If we don’t implement these measures, all sectors will suffer. It’s that simple. There is a domino impact across the entire supply chain. Retail is impacted because hospitality is struggling. Hospitality is impacted because aviation is struggling. That in turn affects F&B and events. So, each and every one of us working to communicate that Dubai is safe is absolutely key to our future success.​

No matter the industry in which we work, if indeed we work at all, we must each ask ourselves: what is our role in that overall collaborative? There are some people who believe it doesn’t apply to them. It absolutely does. It flows from the airline to the hotel to the event venue to the shopping mall to the restaurants and back to the airline. It's one big circle.

The UAE government, through its various departments, is doing an incredible job of showing the world how well we have managed the crisis. Let us all play our part in protecting the health and safety of the local population, the recovery of the business community and, ultimately, the long-term economic success of this truly remarkable destination.​

Topics

  • Business
  • Events
  • Hospitality