Cover Story: Meetings Oasis

"Cover your arms."

"Be sure your neck and face are not showing."

"Don't reveal too much leg."These were some of the cautions I heard from family, friends, and peers as I prepared to visit Dubai for the first time this summer—remarks I took seriously out of fear of suffering verbal harassment from Emirate men as I walked by them. I was traveling to Dubai to attend the Middle East Toy Fair at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibit Centre, where I was to participate in a panel discussion at one of the educational sessions.

Normally, I'm not a nervous traveler, but I have to admit, the well-meant advice and warnings I was receiving from all corners of my life did start to get to me. Usually, the only sage wisdom I have to deal with is my mother's cliche about wearing clean underwear in case I'm in an accident.

But as I packed for the trip, I couldn't help asking myself: Did I really need to cover up in the 100-plus-degree desert heat, or was it myth? Did all the Britons and other expatriates who have made their homes in Dubai really wear the traditional Mideast dress? I couldn't imagine. Well, I've been back home for a few months now, safe, sound, and unmolested. Here is a glimpse of what the country has to offer meetings groups, as well as a few of my experiences as a woman attending a meeting there.

Clothes Call
Well, apparently, an abaya, the black overgarment that falls down to the ankles and may include a veil for the face, is far from the norm in Dubai, whereas in many Middle Eastern countries this is the garment that sheathes most women's bodies.

In fact, in this second-largest city within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), women were very fashionable. Some wore Western attire of jeans or skirts and tank tops, while others, mostly those who were married, wore the traditional garb. I wondered how they could bear wearing these clothes in the sweltering heat, but quickly reminded myself that it is part of their custom. And everything, including clothing, doesn't have to be "Westernized"—or what would become of the experience of seeing something different when traveling to foreign lands? Some women even added sparkling Swarov-ski crystals and other decorative charms and stones to dress up their black abayas.

The temperatures reached at least 102 degrees each day. I needed to wear something other than the suits and long-sleeved shirts I was donning all day while attending to business at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre. I desperately wanted to wear a tank top. I was going to show skin even if it was a risk—well not too much skin, just an arm or two. I ran to the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road and picked up several short-sleeved shirts in the indoor mall, including one tank top. Wearing them, I was not harassed or made to feel uncomfortable.

Of course, everyone's experience is not the same. Women traveling to the Middle East should still be aware of the need to choose appropriate clothing. Dubai is fairly lax in attitudes toward attire, but the same may not be true when traveling around the region, so bring those long-sleeved shirts and pants—just in case!

Meetings Mecca
The expression "world's largest" is not used lightly when describing Dubai. Once a coastal village known only for its trade in fishing and pearling (never largely dependent on oil), today's Dubai has put 25 percent of the world's cranes to work around the clock. Contractors are putting up some of the world's biggest and the best—including the world's tallest building, Burj Dubai, a 160-story skyscraper scheduled for completion by next year, as well as one of the largest shopping centers in the world, Dubai Mall, also set to open in 2008. Along with its prowess in infrastructure, Dubai's "greatness" also comes from population growth. Located on the southern shore of the Arabian Gulf in the UAE, which includes the surrounding cities of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain, Dubai is expected to double in population by 2010, from 1.4 million to a projected 3 million, according to the Dubai Development and Investment Authority.

"Dubai's geographical location is a major asset, especially for global companies that want to draw together their staff from Asia and the West," says Eckhard Pruy, CEO of Messe Frankfurt Middle East, the Frankfurt, Germany-headquartered trade show and congress organizer that runs the Middle East Toy Fair. "It also has plenty of leisure activities, [like] world-class restaurants, golf courses, and shopping venues. And here you can really feel the buzz of a city leading the world in terms of architectural projects, new design, and the harmony of many different people living and working together."

North American businesses are taking note of that advantage, some opening Mideast headquarters in the city. For Dirk Jaffer, general manager of Mississauga, Ontario-based toy maker Wild Republic, which produces plush wildlife toys and action figures (including those based on late Aussie explorer Steve Irwin), Dubai is the next step in the company's international growth—and that is the reason Wild Republic exhibited for the first time at this year's Middle East Toy Fair. "We want to really identify ourselves and introduce ourselves to the people of the region," he says. "We have the UK, Denmark, Italy, Australia, Singapore, Canada, the US, but we don't have the Mideast. It's our foray into the UAE."

Room Boom
The hospitality community is going full tilt to create the infrastructure necessary to host events that can accommodate the networking needs of exhibitors like Jaffer.

"Dubai is completely geared to business travel—thousands of reasonably priced, clean, and comfortable taxis; English as the common language of business; and the hotels and meeting facilities are first-rate," says Pruy.

But Pruy concedes that more hotel room inventory is sorely needed to meet the burgeoning demand of tourists and business travelers to this Arab city, who are projected to number 15 million by 2010. "At present there is greater demand for hotel accommodation during peak periods than can be comfortably catered to," he says. "This will change in the next 18 months or so, with many new hotels coming online, but until then one of our tasks is to ensure that we assist our exhibitors and visitors in getting affordable accommodation booked in advance."

The number of hotel beds and meeting spaces are multiplying, with new hotel and resort openings planned through 2009. The city, which also boasts an indoor full ski resort at its Mall of the Emirates (with meeting space and ski chalets overlooking the slopes in the mall's connected five-star, 393-room Kempinski Hotel), is adding the Fairmont Palm Island Hotel and Resort, scheduled to open in 2008. "Dubai has ambitious plans to continue to develop and grow as one of the premier global MICE destinations. New hotels, resorts, venues, and the world's largest airport will ensure that Dubai is still the place that everybody talks about," says Pruy. "In terms of exhibitions, we fully expect to have more of the world's foremost industry meeting events here in the region within five years, as industries look to more convenient locations for the must-attend events."

One of the linchpins of that strategy is located on The Palm, the 72-mile stretch of artificial island currently under construction in Jumeirah. The beach resort, situated along the Dubai coastline and scheduled for completion by end of 2007, will boast indoor and outdoor meeting space. Hilton Hotels has signed on to open its first residence in Dubai. The 44-story, Arabesque and Mediterranean-designed Hilton Jumeirah Beach Residence, scheduled to open next year, has 371 guest rooms and apartments; the Hilton Jumeirah Beach Club will open in 2008. There's already an Armani Hotel in Dubai, but more Italian haute couture is on the way, as design firm Versace will open 15 luxury resorts around the world, including a 215-suite Palazzo Versace Dubai by 2009, which will also feature 204 villas.

It's no secret that Dubai is trying to be something for everyone. There's even something for families with the development of Dubailand, a three-billion-square-foot project chock-full of theme parks, sporting activities, shopping, entertainment, planetariums, and more for families. Theme park partners like Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures are also expected to attract more families to the region. And that is making the destination more attractive to US meeting groups. "We partnered with the Consumer Electronics Association (producers of CES) to produce Hometech Middle East in 2007, and this partnership will continue to grow and develop. For the first time ever, CEA hosted its Board of Industry Leaders board meeting outside of the U.S. here in Dubai to coincide with our trade exhibition," says Pruy.

According to Pruy, the CES experience was overwhelmingly positive, and perhaps best summed up by the comments of one of the official media delegation. Robin Raskin, senior editor for Yahoo! Tech, opened her report with the lines: "I've been to more than my fair share of industry trade shows, but few renewed my faith in the power of technology the way that Hometech Middle East in Dubai just did."

Female Friendly
I walked through the lobby of my hotel wearing my brand-new tank top, about to enter the stifling heat of downtown Dubai. I couldn't help but feel a little bit anxious as I left the building. Sure, I'd already seen plenty of women walking around town dressed like this, some of them locals, but all those warnings from back home swam in my head in spite of that.

Once I got out on the street, though, walking about town with my arms exposed for all to see felt just like the first time I rode a bicycle. The fear immediately evaporated and was replaced by exhilaration—and then it became no big deal at all. In fact, maybe even a little disappointing. The men didn't bother me much, mostly throwing looks, and nothing offensive was ever said to me. Truth be told, I get more catcalls walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn. And the women who were dressed in the more traditional abaya did not look twice at any woman in a skirt, short sleeves, or a tank top. They are all so accustomed to Europeans and other Western visitors that it is not an issue.

As a woman, being in Dubai was very much like traveling to most other countries, because it is such an international city.

The city is also one of the more welcoming in the Arab region for female business travelers, who might normally have apprehension about traveling to a Muslim region—and with good reason. Some surrounding regions require women to cover most, if not all, of their body and face. Other regional restrictions prevent unmarried women from traveling on their own. Women who are unwed cannot travel into Saudi Arabia for business unless they present a written letter from their invitee stating that their visit is for business purposes. While restrictions are tight throughout most of the Mideast, Dubai still remains one of the most Westernized, and safest, destinations in the world. Of course, women are still advised not to wear anything overly revealing to avoid unwanted attention.

Overall, women should have little concern when traveling to Dubai, surrounding Emirates, or two other Arab countries, Egypt and Morocco. Ramona Pariente, president of the 25-year-old Miami Gardens, FL-based Safari Ltd., manufacturers of nature figurines, had some preconceived notions before traveling to Dubai and turned down the invite for many years, until finally deciding to visit for the first time this year to attend the Middle East Toy Show. By the end of the show, she had sold most of the items in her booth to Mideast retailers—making her trip worthwhile. Pariente wants to expand her business into the Emirates, as well as nearby countries like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, over time. While many regional countries have some restrictions to trade, she believes making a dent in Dubai first will open the market up elsewhere in the Middle East. "It's a growing market," says Pariente. "Honestly, I came here with some preconceptions, but in the end, I found that buyers here are the same as they are anywhere else in the world. This region has a lot of potential."

Originally published November 01, 2007

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