Playing to win in the meetings industry game: How the GCC can become a meetings hub

Developing countries, such as the GCC states, are in an excellent position to compete for more of the meetings industry (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions). The GCC has growing trade activity, a “crossroads of the world” location, and increasing status as prospecting spots for business travellers generally.

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Playing to win in the meetings industry game How the GCC can become a meetings hub

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About the authors

Abu Dhabi Richard Shediac Senior Partner +971-2-699-2400 richard.shediac Beirut Antoine Nasr Principal +961-1-985-655 antoine.nasr Georges Assy Senior Associate +961-1-985-655 georges.assy

Richard Shediac is a senior partner and managing director of Strategy& in the Middle East. He has over 15 years of experience in management consulting. He has led public- and private-sector assignments covering strategy, operations, and organization projects in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Antoine Nasr is a principal at Strategy& with over 10 years of professional and management consulting experience. He leads the tourism platform globally. He has led and developed a number of public- and private-sector strategies and development plans, public policy assignments, turnaround strategies, and restructuring projects. Georges Assy is a senior associate at Strategy& in the Middle East and a member of the tourism platform. He has more than six years of professional and management consulting experience. He has led a number of assignments covering sector strategies, strategic plans for public and private entities, and restructuring projects.

Karim Bassil, Serge Eid, and Alessandro Sansa also contributed to this report.



Executive summary

The meetings industry is one of the most lucrative niches within tourism. Businesspeople who travel to a country to attend a trade show or conference tend to spend far more than other travelers. Yet the economic value associated with meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (known by the acronym MICE) is far from equally distributed. Most such events are held in either Europe or North America, allowing Western countries and cities to benefit disproportionately and leaving developing countries with a small slice of the pie. Developing countries are in an excellent position to compete for more of the market. This is especially true of many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)1 countries, because of their growing trade activity, their “crossroads of the world” location, and their increasing status as prospecting spots for business travelers generally. Gulf countries that want to increase their MICE business should use a three-step approach: assess the MICE tourism ecosystem; forge a strategy to win more MICE business; and develop a governance model for MICE tourism efforts. The countries that do these things fastest and most skillfully have an excellent chance of seeing their meetings business increase sharply in the next few years.

The GCC countries are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.



The meetings tourism opportunity
With global tourism set to grow rapidly over the next couple of decades, many emerging markets have developed strategies to increase their appeal to leisure tourists. By contrast, the efforts that most countries have made to attract business tourists are nowhere near as comprehensive. The reason is that businesspeople tend to travel to places where they already have customers, partners, or prospects with whom they want to meet. A country that does not have those attributes to begin with is not going to receive many foreign business visitors. There is, however, one exception — namely, a country that positions itself as a good place for large-scale meetings, conventions, and exhibitions. This is different from traditional business tourism as it involves large group arrivals for often high-profile events, as opposed to individuals traveling for work-related meetings. This part of business tourism consists of meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions (MICE), also known as the meetings tourism market. The formal definition of a MICE event is that it includes at least 10 participants, takes place in a paid meetings venue, and lasts four hours or more, that is, at least half a business day (see “The components of MICE,” page 5). Currently, only about 5 percent of the travelers arriving in countries in any given year fall into the MICE category. Yet these travelers spend more than other tourists, staying at the luxury hotels where meetings often take place and dining at expensive restaurants, which makes them more desirable customers. In Las Vegas, which is one of the U.S.’s most popular cities for meetings, the average MICE tourist spends US$174 a day, versus $148 for other tourists. The potential of the MICE market is evident in the fact that MICE tourists account for about $11 of every $100 that tourists spend — a disproportionately high figure compared to the 5 percent of tourist arrivals they represent.



The components of MICE
Event type Meetings Description Gatherings open only to employees or representatives of a specific organization. They are typically small in scale — often not much bigger than the 10 person minimum to qualify as a MICE event — and oriented around a specific business function. Events typically held to reward employees for excellent performance Examples A meeting that a car manufacturer may hold off-site to discuss its plan for launching a significant new product. Board of directors meetings held off-site also fit into this category.


An all-expenses-paid trip to Monte Carlo that a leading global company may offer to its 100 highest-producing salespeople The 26th Congress of the International Association of Individual Psychology, held in Paris in July 2014, was an example of a congress. A leadership forum for a company would be an example of a corporate conference. The 3rd GCC Government Social Media Summit (held in Dubai in September 2014) was an example of a non-corporate conference.


Get-togethers that are focused on sharing expertise or exchanging ideas. There are actually three types. Congresses allow delegates or members of an association to convene for a specific purpose. Corporate conferences let companies convey messages, share best practices, or open a debate. Non-corporate conferences serve the same function as corporate conferences but have different stakeholders, such as government policymakers. A show of products and services for a specific industry. Business-to-business (B2B) exhibitions are usually by invitation only and give professionals the chance to gather information and do some networking. Business-to-consumer (B2C) exhibitions are open to all and give companies a chance to showcase their products.


CeBIT, the computer-industry show in Hannover, Germany, is an example of a B2B exhibition; the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is an example of a B2C exhibition

Source: Strategy& analysis



Moreover, MICE events can be scheduled for times of year when leisure tourism is slow, countering the cyclicality of a city’s tourism trade. This is one of the ways that MICE events are used in Las Vegas (see Exhibit 1). Despite the potential of the meetings market, most emerging economies have not developed a good understanding of this part of the tourism industry. Nor do they have a well-considered strategy for getting a larger share of the pie. Those gaps have contributed to a situation in which emerging markets lag far behind the West in terms of MICE market share. Only about 2 percent of all the exhibitions in the world take place in the Middle East, and only about 4 percent take place in South America. By contrast, Europe and North America, combined, are home to more than 80 percent of the world’s exhibitions, according to the most recent data. Still, that imbalance reveals an opportunity. There is a large share of MICE business just waiting to come to emerging markets, including the GCC, if these countries improve their tactics and their position in the meetings market.

Exhibit 1 MICE tourism in Las Vegas is counter cyclical to leisure tourism
MICE Tourists and Other Tourists in Las Vegas, 2012

3,200 3,100 3,000 2,900 Number of Tourists (in ’000s ) 2,800 2,700 2,600 2,500 +30%

500 400 300 200 100 0 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec -72%

Other Tourists MICE Tourists

Source: Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority; Strategy& analysis



The MICE tourism ecosystem and success factors
The MICE ecosystem comprises four parts (see Exhibit 2). The first is the basic set of MICE products. The second part consists of MICE services. The third part is composed of the MICE sector-enablers, and the fourth part is MICE sector-system enablers.

Exhibit 2 The MICE ecosystem is composed of four areas encompassing a range of key components and subcomponents


Components Meetings

Sample Subcomponents Meetings Incentives Congresses Trade shows Event management services Culture Sports Conferences Consumer shows Transport & access services Sun & beach Health & wellness Lodging & food services Nature Urban

MICE products

Incentives Conventions Exhibitions Core services

MICE services Ancillary services

MICE sector-enablers

MICE industry planning MICE destination promotion & marketing MICE sales & facilitation MICE research & statistics Security Health and safety Environmental sustainability Infrastructure

MICE sectorsystem enablers

Source: Strategy& analysis



MICE products attract MICE tourists to a country. What enables countries and cities to develop their MICE product offering and compete in the MICE tourism market? For starters, they need clear strength in some area of economic endeavor. MICE tourism tends to be correlated with the level of trade in a country and built around a country’s trade and economic activities (see Exhibit 3). For instance, the countries that produce the most meetings, conventions, and incentives tourists for Madrid — the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal — are also Spain’s six most important export partners. Thailand’s, Taiwan’s, and Canada’s top export categories are also among their top exhibition topics — respectively, agriculture and food, electronic components, and natural resources. Silicon Valley plays host to dozens of major technology meetings each year and hundreds of smaller ones, in part because so many technology companies have their headquarters or large operations in the area. Besides being able to stake a claim to an industry, regions looking to increase their MICE-related tourism need meeting-worthy facilities. These could be convention or exhibition centers, hotel meeting spaces, or unconventional venues such as museums, historic buildings, or universities. MICE services refers to core services and ancillary services. Core services consist mainly of intermediaries that know how to bid for meetings, plan events as they approach, and handle on-site logistics. These intermediaries include professional congress organizers (PCOs), firms that arrange meetings for international associations; destination management companies (DMCs), which specialize in event logistics for corporate events; and exhibition organizers, companies that identify the opportunity for, create, and then organize exhibitions. Core services also include transport, lodging, and food services. Moreover, as businesspeople attending meetings also have an interest in leisure activities, it helps if there are entertainment or recreational services near the meeting locations. Indeed, some countries have built these ancillary services, such as integrated resorts where businesspeople can meet during the day and go to art galleries, high-end shopping malls, and gourmet restaurants at night. Resorts World Sentosa, off the south coast of Singapore, is an example. MICE sector-enablers refers to a variety of different factors. Planning is an important one. Countries usually tie their MICE plans to their long-term national tourism strategy. In terms of marketing, countries and cities align their MICE brands with their overarching destination brands, and do extensive promotion to try to get meeting and convention organizers to hold events at their venues. In locations such as Singapore, Glasgow, and Dubai, convention bureaux provide services across the entire MICE product-development value chain. Their involvement tends to be highest in the prospecting phase and lower in the event-planning and eventexecution stages, when event-management companies often take over.
8 Strategy&

MICE tourism tends to be correlated with the level of trade in a country and built around a country’s trade and economic activities.

Many convention bureaux also engage in subvention such as through financial grants. For instance, the Business Events in Singapore Fund provides financial backing, enabling Singapore to compete for strategically important MICE events. Convention bureaux and central tourism planning entities (CTPEs) can also gather statistics and do targeted research to help destinations see how they are performing with MICE tourists and improve the effectiveness of their tourism-related marketing. The ecosystem’s fourth part, MICE sector-system enablers, refers to a nation’s handling of security, health and safety, environmental sustainability, and infrastructure. These enablers support more than just the tourism sector; they are important to a country’s overall ability to compete for international business.

Exhibit 3 There is a strong correlation between a country’s trade and the number of inbound MICE tourists
MICE Tourists versus Trade1

1,600 Hong Kong 1,400 1,400 MICE Tourists (in ’000s) 1,200 1,000 800 600 400 200 Oman 0 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1,00 1,100 1,200 Sweden Thailand Spain Netherlands

UAE Saudi Arabia


t ela orr


n Tre n/


6 R=



Total trade is the sum of the country’s merchandise imports and exports in absolute value. Source: United Nations Statistics Division; World Bank; convention bureaux’ websites; Strategy& analysis

Total Trade (in US$ billions)



Advantages and hurdles as the GCC looks to become more of a MICE destination
The GCC has made progress as a destination for business travel. Total business-tourist arrivals in the GCC reached around 10 million in 2012, representing growth of more than 5 percent annually from 2009 (see Exhibit 4).

Exhibit 4 There is strong growth in business tourism in some GCC states
Business Tourist Arrivals in the GCC, 2009–2012 (CAGR, Total in Millions of Trips, % Share by Country)
+5% 8.6 5% 33% 26% 26% 37% 28% 2009 CAGR by Country, 2009–2012 Kuwait Oman Qatar Bahrain UAE Saudi Arabia 2% -3% 19% -7% 5% 16% 2012 10.0 8% 23%

3% 3%

4% 4%

Source: Euromonitor; Strategy& analysis



Although precise numbers are hard to come by, it is clear that business travelers in the GCC represent an unusually high percentage of total tourist arrivals. Whereas business tourists account for fewer than one in five tourist arrivals around the world, in the GCC as a whole the proportion of business tourists is higher — probably closer to one-third of all tourist arrivals. In Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, for example, the majority of tourist arrivals are business-related. Of the GCC countries, the UAE has the most robust MICE business (see Exhibit 5). The UAE has turned itself into the region’s most important travel hub — Dubai international airport recently surpassed Heathrow as the world’s busiest2 — and the increasing range and quality of the UAE’s leisure offerings has also increased that country’s popularity as a place for meetings.

Airports Council International, “International Passenger Traffic for past 12 months, 12-MONTHS ENDING JUL 2014” (updated monthly; http://

Exhibit 5 GCC MICE tourists represent more than a third of all business travelers
MICE Tourists in the GCC (in Thousands of Trips, 2012)





200–250 100–120 Oman MICE Penetration Estimates1 110–130 Kuwait Qatar Bahrain Saudi Arabia UAE Total








MICE penetration refers to the number of MICE tourists out of all business tourists.

Source: Middle East TravTalk; Euromonitor; Strategy& analysis



The competitive advantage of a central geographic location is not limited to the UAE; to some extent, every other GCC country has it as well. In all, GCC countries have five competitive advantages as MICE destinations. In addition to their central geographic locations, GCC countries also have advantages because of their considerable trade activity and expanding economic and corporate bases; their stable political systems; and a host of emerging ancillary services (such as restored ancient sites and rapidly improving museums). Finally, many GCC countries have new, technologically advanced meeting facilities that can host sizable gatherings. For instance, the square footage of Dubai’s largest indoor exhibition center exceeds Hong Kong’s largest indoor space by more than 40 percent. At its base configuration, Doha’s largest auditorium seats more people than the largest auditoria in London, Paris, or Madrid (see Exhibit 6).

Exhibit 6 GCC countries have a developed MICE infrastructure, notably in terms of convention and exhibition space
Total Indoor Exhibition Space (in ’000 m3)
Number of exhibition centers 6 901 152 127 77 55 Doha 3 2 1 2 1 1 1 2,671 43 30 14 2,500 2,242 2,160

Capacity of Largest Auditorium (in Number of Seats)
3,800 3,723 3,200 3,000

Las Vegas

Hong Kong


Abu Dhabi

Riyadh Kuwait Manama Glasgow Abu Dhabi1 Dubai2 Paris Madrid Barcelona London Strategy& Doha

Indoor Space per Largest Exhibition Center (in ’000 m3)
184 66 94 77

40 Doha




Las Vegas

Hong Kong


Abu Dhabi

Riyadh Kuwait Manama

The Abu Dhabi auditorium can be extended with temporary seating to fit 6,000 people in total.

The Dubai auditorium can be extended to fit 4,500 people.

Source: UFI; Strategy& analysis


However, the region also faces many challenges as a meetings destination. On the product side, the challenges include a high concentration of MICE tourists from other GCC countries. A person traveling to an exhibition in Doha is far more likely to be from the UAE or Saudi Arabia than from Germany or Australia. The advantage of travelers from further away is that they are likely to spend more and stay longer. There is also a limited market for congresses, the exchange of ideas organized by international associations, because there is not a great amount of local participation in such associations in the GCC. The number of memberships that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar have in international associations is lower than the number in most other countries (see Exhibit 7).

Exhibit 7 GCC countries have limited participation in international associations

Participation in International Associations (Number of Members1)


12,263 10,337 8,517 7,518 6,944 6,578


5,278 2,344



1,802 UAE

1,004 Oman

979 Qatar

949 Yemen France Germany U.S. Europe Canada Australia Japan Asia Pacific Brazil Argentina South Algeria Africa South Africa America

Saudi Jordan Arabia

Middle East

North America

Indicates number of members, whether individuals or national branches or independent organizations or companies or any of the other many variants of membership, with no distinction between the different types of organization. Source: UIA; Strategy& analysis



In addition, there is not much use of unconventional venues in the GCC. An alternative energy or healthcare official attending a congress in Madrid can expect to go to an event at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and to be surrounded by fine art. In Vienna, a day spent at a conference might be followed by an evening gala at the Niederösterreich Palace, with its rich history and great Gothic and Renaissance architecture. By contrast, it is unlikely that congress attendees in the GCC will find themselves guided to a similarly impressive location. Most GCC countries do not think about their unconventional venues in this way yet. On the service side, the GCC also faces challenges. The UAE has a couple dozen internationally active PCOs and DMCs, but no other GCC country has these critical intermediaries in anything like the same numbers. The GCC’s venues tend to have low accessibility because of poor public transportation systems. Hotels in the GCC have not really become involved in promoting the region as a MICE destination. Also, with the exception of Oman and the UAE, these countries do not have the ancillary leisure products that add pleasure to a business trip and that can make the difference in a businessperson’s decision to travel to a far-flung destination. The leisure-product issue also explains why Oman and the UAE are basically the only GCC countries that ever serve as incentive destinations. Finally, there is an absence of MICE sector-enablers. These include a lack of MICE-related statistics and of a MICE brand identity. Many countries do not regularly exhibit at key international MICE trade shows, such as IMEX America in Las Vegas. Although most GCC countries now have dedicated MICE bureaux, they often do not get involved in prospecting and event-planning activities. Exacerbating these problems are some more systemic issues linked to sector-system enablers, such as the difficulty of obtaining visas in the GCC. Of the 140 countries looked at by the World Economic Forum in 2013, every GCC country except the UAE was bottom-quartile in terms of the restrictiveness of its visa policies.



A structured approach to capturing more MICE market share
An emerging market that wants to improve its position as a MICE tourism destination has to take three steps: assess the MICE tourism ecosystem; forge a strategy to win more MICE business; and develop a governance model for MICE tourism efforts. 1. Assess the MICE tourism ecosystem. Understanding the existing ecosystem components in the country and comparing them with international benchmarks can help a country determine the strengths and weaknesses of its own MICE ecosystem. For example, in developed markets, intermediaries and suppliers support core MICE services such as event management services and transport and lodging, and ancillary services such as cultural excursions and outings to sports venues. Moreover, the activities of best-practice MICE bureaux, such as in Barcelona, Vienna, and Singapore, provide useful insights into the development of the important sector-enablers, namely MICE industry planning; MICE destination promotion and marketing; MICE sales and facilitation; and MICE research and statistics.



2. Forge a strategy to win more MICE business. In which types of MICE events and in what topic areas does a country have the best chance of competing? Coming up with an answer to this nitty-gritty question is essential if a country is to figure out what its MICE bureau should be doing and the high-impact programs it should be undertaking to support its strategy. From a practical standpoint, countries do not usually get involved in meetings and incentives, which are typically spearheaded by privatesector companies. For the other two categories of events, exhibitions and conventions, countries can weigh their strategic options by putting everything in quantitative terms. They can use key assessment criteria — such as attractiveness, readiness, and competitive intensity — for making topic-oriented decisions (for a hypothetical example of this approach, see Exhibit 8, page 17). Attractiveness factors in to a range of matters. These include, but are not limited to, the number of tourists that could conceivably be drawn by a certain topic, the dollar amount the tourists would spend, and the fit of the topic with the country’s national agenda and strategic priorities. Readiness measures the current number of tourists for a given topic, the fit of the topic with the current trade and economic activity of the country (mainly for exhibitions), and the availability of international associations around the topic (mainly for conventions). Competitive intensity is a gauge of whether other countries in the region are in a position to offer the same things as the destination. Once it knows where it wants to focus, the MICE bureau has to decide on a strategic play. This means deciding whether it will try to turn the country into a destination for smaller events or larger events, and/or for regional or international events, and how it will capture a larger share of the events it wants to host. For that, the country can try to create new events or persuade the license holders of existing events to hold their meetings in its domain. The decision of whether to be an incubator of new meetings or a buyer/cloner of existing ones will hinge on the likely effectiveness of those different strategies and on how easy each is to implement.

Once it knows where it wants to focus, the MICE bureau has to decide on a strategic play.



Exhibit 8 Determining where to invest
High-Level Analysis Indicates That the Country Should Focus on Conventions and Exhibitions





II III Incentives Meetings


Relative size of the bubble reflects relative market size High competition Moderate competition Low competition





For Example, the Same Criteria Are Used to Determine Which Types of Exhibitions Are Likely to Be the Most Successful Electronics, Components,
Primary focus Secondary focus Tertiary focus High
IT and Telecommunications Transportation Medical and Healthcare Agriculture, Forestry, Fishery Consumer Goods and Retail Trade Industrial and Heavy Machinery Education Food and Beverage, Hospitality Energy, Oil, Gas, Chemicals Security, Fire Safety, Defense DCS,1 Sporting Goods, Travel, Amusement Real Estate Business Services Building, Construction, Home and Repair

Electronics, Components, IT and Telecommunications Industrial/Heavy Machinery Food and Beverage, Hospitality


Medical and Healthcare Transportation


Agriculture, Forestry, Fishery DCS/Sporting Goods/ Travel/Amusement Education

Consumer Goods and Retail Trade

Building/Construction/Home and Repair Security, Fire Safety, Defense Energy/Oil/Gas/Chemicals Real Estate Business Services




Relative size of the bubble reflects relative market size High competition Moderate competition Low competition

Discretionary consumer services.

Source: Strategy& analysis



With all of these inputs and analysis in place, it should also be possible to build a comprehensive MICE tourism model, with targets for tourist arrivals, number of events per type, expected revenues, and an understanding of what it all means in terms of infrastructure requirements and investments. This would be followed by a socioeconomic impact assessment, which would evaluate the effect of MICE tourism on GDP and employment. 3. Develop a governance model for MICE tourism efforts. Countries have to decide how they want to institutionalize their respective MICE bureaux. There are four basic models. Some destinations have made their MICE bureaux part of their central tourism planning entities (as Abu Dhabi and Singapore have done) or their tourism promotion agencies (as Madrid and Vienna have done). Some developing countries such as India and Malaysia where MICE is a nascent offering at the national level have formed a dedicated MICE body under the control of their ministries of tourism or trade. In developed countries where MICE events are an economic priority on a local level, the MICE bureau is often a stand-alone entity formed as a partnership between the public and private sectors. This is the case in two Australian cities — Sydney and Melbourne. In cities such as New York and Las Vegas where MICE events are already well established, there may be no dedicated MICE entity at all. In these locations the responsibility for different MICE-sector functions is distributed among different units within tourism entities. In developed countries, the private sector typically manages exhibitions. MICE bureaux in these countries call themselves “convention bureaux” and keep to that line of business. In countries where MICE is an emerging priority, MICE bureaux typically have an important role in all four types of MICE gatherings, so it is much more likely that they also will have the word “exhibition” in their names. Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore all call their MICE departments “convention and exhibition bureaux.” Most MICE destinations have only one major exhibition or convention center, and they can be owned or managed publicly, privately, or through a public–private partnership. In situations where a destination has several convention centers, those that are government-owned are generally owned by the same entity, to increase coordination. One thing that is different in the GCC is the need to get a license from the government before staging many types of MICE events. This requirement generally does not exist for MICE events elsewhere. GCC countries also shy away from allowing private membership in their MICE bureaux. By contrast, convention bureaux in London, Madrid, and Orlando, Florida, have already taken this step and let the private sector in.

Countries have to decide how they want to institutionalize their respective MICE bureaux.




MICE events are a highly promising niche within tourism — and should be the core of any business tourism strategy pursued by policymakers. Yet, MICE remains an underdeveloped opportunity in the GCC. Despite the start that some GCC countries have made with their MICE initiatives, they can do more to deepen their involvement in this lucrative tourism subsector. Many of the challenges are amenable to policy changes and may disappear in the face of better practices. What is important is to use a structured approach that will allow the GCC to develop the great potential of its meetings tourism business and win a greater share of the meetings market.



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