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The impact of COVID-19 on the event industry in Dubai

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Event companies in Dubai: Where do we go from here? (the event industry Post-Covid)


2020 was a remarkable year. Here in Dubai we started out partying away at one function after another and looking forward to huge events like Expo2020.

What started off as a fantastic year for our industry quickly turned into a year of one event cancellation after another. Constant uncertainty, lost revenue, and to put it bluntly, desperation were the main themes of March and April. Expo 2020 & Art Dubai were postponed, Music Bank was canceled along with K-Pop, Fashion Forward, and the list goes on and on and on...

 As we closed ourselves inside our homes and watched the world crumble around us, it seems like things just kept getting worse and worse.

 Incredibly, a whole year has gone by since then. 2020 was a pivotal year, one with a distinct before and a definite after. It feels ridiculously cliche to say ¨nothing will ever be the same again,¨ but, you know, it won’t. 

And it shouldn’t be.  

This last year has proven to be an exceptional learning experience for those of us in the event industry in Dubai. Now that things are starting to feel a little more normal, it is time to ask, where do we go from here?  What will our industry look like post-COVID?


The Dubai Event Industry Pre-Covid

If you look at the big picture, the events industry has been one of the largest sectors of economic movement worldwide for years. Globally, it is estimated that as of 2018 nearly 30 million people were working in the sector, generating well over a trillion dollars in spending annually. 

And those numbers are specific to the business event sector of the industry. They do not include the totals from events such as weddings, social parties, educational gatherings or conferences, consumer shows, political gatherings, concerts, or recreational events. 

Here in Dubai, we in the industry were raking it in.

Since around 2013, the events sector had been growing exponentially at an estimated 25% per year. With hundreds of hotels and conference centers that serve as venues for an endless variety of events, Dubai quickly became one of the top tourist destinations in the world. The Dubai World Trade Center alone received over three and a half million event visitors in 2019.  That same year, we hosted nearly 17 million visitors overall, being ranked the fourth most visited city in the world.

By the end of 2019, the tourism sector made up nearly 12% of the GDP. The government was hopeful for 2020.  A target of 20 million visitors had been set. Events were booked, and things were off to a great start. 

  

The Global Impact of COVID on the Event Industry


Alt tag: Global impact of COVID on the event industry

And then March happened. 

We all remember how every couple of days the news grew more and more worrisome. By the end of the month, there were no flights in or out of the UAE and every event had been canceled or postponed.

You could hear the global event industry stumbling all over itself in a skidding, confused, halt.

 According to the World Tourism Organization, as of May 2020, the world was effectively shut down. Travel restrictions had been imposed on 100% of destinations worldwide and by April, there was a fall of 97% of tourist arrivals internationally.

It is estimated that somewhere around 121 million jobs in the MICE sector were lost globally during this time. The hit to the global GDP is estimated to have been about 3,345 billion USD.

The thing is, it is impossible to know the extent of the damage because it is still happening. Even though 2020 is in the past, analysts are just now starting to understand the global consequences of the Covid pandemic on the event industries.

 

The Impact of Covid on the Dubai MICE Sector


Thankfully, here in Dubai, the efforts to contain the spread of Covid were swift, dramatic, intense, and mostly successful. In only a few months, Dubai was tentatively opening its doors and reopening its economy. By July, the city was allowing concerts and other select events, as long as they followed the strict safety measures that we are all familiar with by now.

But the impact of Covid in the industry was huge. Taking a look at economic statistics for the first quarter of 2020, we can see that the arts and entertainment sectors were down 10% while accommodations and food service were down nearly 15%.

 

 

Needless to say, our workforce took quite a hit.

 

There are at least 2,000 event companies that have been impacted by the measures taken to combat Covid. This number does not include the countless freelancers out there who make a living in the events sector.

 

Considering that a single event can support up to 450 jobs, a lot of people were left without work.

 

The International Live Event Association (ILEA) estimates that between Dhs 2.8 billion to Dhs 5.5 billion was lost in the first three quarters of 2020. It is still too soon to know the extent of the damage despite having lived through it.

 The government has been supportive of our sector overall. They have waived many fees and implemented the National Creative Relief Programme while we wait for momentum to gather once again behind the events industry.


The Impact of Global Covid Measures on the Reopening of Dubai’s Event Sector

It's no secret that events of all shapes and sizes are buoyed by international tourism. 

But despite our best efforts to reopen, the world around us has struggled to get control over the spread of Covid. International travel remains tightly restricted in many parts of the world. 

       Less than 50 countries currently allow for unrestricted air travel.

       Another 50 countries are completely closed.

       120+ countries have a mix of conditions and regulations permitting travel to and from their country.

       In the UK, it is illegal to travel abroad for a holiday.

       Travel to and from India is severely restricted and mostly limited to matters of repatriation.

       Travel between the UAE and Saudia Arabia is extremely limited until at least the end of May 2021.

 Aside from the legal limitations on movement imposed by the different Covid quarantine measures implemented around the world, there are also mental and psychological barriers to international travel. 

 To put it simply, a lot of people are afraid.


The Fear Factor: A Real Obstacle For Event Companies in Dubai

One of the biggest factors on whether or not people attend events or travel right now is how safe they feel in the face of the covid pandemic. 

 Many people are simply anxious and scared of potentially contracting the virus while being on an airplane or by visiting public places. Businesses are scared of sending their employees to conferences or events. Everyone, these days, wants to limit their risk exposure.

 For our industry to recover, we need to take this fear factor seriously and create an environment within each event where our attendees feel safe.

 The government has taken decisive steps to create a safe environment here in Dubai. Covid related measures include:

             Closing businesses that do not comply with covid protocols under a zero-tolerance policy.

       Creating the Dubai Assured stamp to verify a venue’s compliance with covid safety guidelines.

       Implementing a broad vaccination campaign that allows everyone ages 16 and up to be vaccinated for free


Lessons from Covid for the Dubai Event Industry

So what have we learned from all of this? That is a hard question to answer.

Looking at the philosophical side of things, it is safe to say that we have learned that we are not invincible. This whole experience has served as a startling reality check to the industry. 

 We need to find ways to make ourselves more resilient.

 

Looking Forward: The Event Industry of the Future


Becoming more resilient as an industry will require us to evolve and change in ways that may make us uncomfortable. A serious paradigm shift is in store. Even though we may be able to get back to what we once considered normal, we must accept that the event industry will never be the same again. 

Event planners had to do some quick thinking on their feet in this last year. 

One of the major changes that we immediately saw in the industry was a shift to virtual events.

It was almost as if planners were pulling some magical sleight of hand and saving one event after another from outright cancellation by putting it online. So we ask, are virtual events here to stay?

Are Virtual Events the New Normal?

 

 One important aspect of the events industry is that it serves a broad and diverse cross-section of both the public and private realms. Virtual events work well for certain sectors while being terribly ineffective for others.  

Honestly, it's hard (and kind of depressing) to imagine a future without in-person concerts, sporting events, comedy shows, art exhibitions, parties, or leisurely gatherings.

But if you ask a scientist or business professional, they are more than happy to attend conference meetings, presentations, and panel discussions in a virtual format.

Going online is attractive for many reasons.


Advantages of Virtual Events:

       Increased safety in regards to Covid exposure.

       Decreased costs, which is attractive to organizations suffering from limited budgets.

       Can be attended from anywhere in the world.

       Allow for increased attendance overall.

       Have a lower carbon footprint.

       Lowers the costs for attendees.

       Attractive to corporate sponsors.

 Going digital can also present certain challenges.


Disadvantages of Virtual Events


       Issues of conflicting time zones and convenient scheduling.

       Susceptible to technical difficulties and platform failures.


Considering all of that, about 96% of event planners still firmly believe that in-person events will continue to be the norm according to the DWTC.  Interestingly though, only around 50% of those same event planners are currently in the planning phase of new in-person projects.

It is undeniable that in-person events provide certain benefits that are nearly impossible to replicate with a virtual event. There is something magical about bringing people together and fostering that human connection. 

In-person conferences and events can't be beaten when it comes to creating networking opportunities, inspiring and stimulating new ideas and innovations, showcasing infrastructure and products, and building bridges between companies, communities, and even countries. Attendees at events enjoy a captivating and focused experience in a new and stimulating environment. 


Hybrid Events: Incorporating the Virtual Experience into In-Person Events