Dubai is one of seven emirates (states) that make up the United Arab Emirates, a cosmopolitan country actively engaged in MICE biz with the Western world. Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate and political capital. Just 90 minutes away, Dubai is the business capital.
Due to the region’s inclusive politics and citizenry consisting of over 200 nationalities, Dubai is fast becoming the de facto regional hub for corporate group meetings at the crossroads of three continents. National carriers Emirates and Etihad Airways are expanding their routes exponentially, with arrivals at Dubai International Airport in 2010 up 15% over ’09.
For US delegates, there’s a spirit in the UAE that celebrates multiculturalism, the arts and an openness for sharing new ideas. For example, the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi—the first extension of Paris’ famous museum—are scheduled to open on Saadiyat Island in 2013.
“Emiratis are only 17 percent of the population in Dubai,” says Waleed Nabil, spokesperson for the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which provides tours for up to 130 people into the historic Bastakiya neighborhood. “We are used to mixing with foreigners for a long time now. Peace is always the first thing here, then economics, not politics…. [And] Dubai is always changing, every month you see new things.”
How true. When you visit Dubai, you can’t help but be floored by all of the new, screamingly modern construction and variety of over-the-top group venues and experiences.
“Dubai is the only place where you can go snow skiing, water skiing and sand skiing all in the same day,” says Jared Bachar, Director of the Dubai Convention Bureau. “The Mall of the Emirates boasts the largest indoor ski slope in the world with a capacity for 1,500 skiers at once…. We have a lot of cool tourism-related projects going on, projects that will keep Dubai on the tourist map for a long while.”
And all of it is incredibly easy to access. Last year Dubai opened the Dubai Metro, the longest driverless train in the world. It’s an elevated link that connects most of downtown Dubai, including stops at the Dubai World Trade Center (DWTC), the Mall of the Emirates and about 10,000 hotel rooms.
With three decades of experience, the DWTC hosts over 100 major exhibits per year, including dinners for 10,000 pax.
“Everything works well here because we have been doing events for over 30 years,” says Karen Smith, Director of Int’l Sales for DWTC. “We have the whole package here. Dubai has a can-do attitude. The government and the tourist department, we all work together here and we all think, Dubai first. The Middle East is changing and the Middle East is where people want to come and when they get here they say, ‘Wow.’”
The 160-room Armani Hotel Dubai opened last April in the Burj Khalifa building, the tallest freestanding structure in the world. The Armani experience is described as, “minimalist opulence,” which extends throughout the 450-seat ballroom, multiple meeting rooms and outdoor pavilion overlooking The Dubai Fountain, also the world’s largest. The decor is muted and sleek with beige and black tones trimmed with dark brown woods creating an atmosphere of exclusivity and absolute serenity.
“Mr. Armani wanted to create a home within a hotel,” says Maria Johansson, Senior Manager. “This is an extension of his brand. It’s a minimalist concept. We are not trying to be more than you want us to be.”
For dining, the Indian restaurant Amal on the third floor has a commanding patio view of the Lake Burj Khalifa. Ristorante offers modern and classic interpretations of Tuscan cuisine in a more formal setting. When two diners saw our group of writers on a tour, one of the men stopped me to tell me it was the best meal he had ever had, anywhere. Two private dining rooms seating 10 dinner guests each are surrounded by walls of wine.
Popular with US groups, the 1,539-room Atlantis the Palm, Dubai caps Palm Jumeirah, the man-made palm tree peninsula that helped to originally define the anything-is-possible atmosphere that pervades Dubai. Like its Bahamian cousin, Atlantis the Palm seamlessly combines large conference facilities and a beachfront resort hotel. The underground Chambers aquarium is a signature group attraction with floor-to-ceiling windows framing an incredible array of marine life.
“Everyone likes to be associated with iconic things,” says Kathy Mead, VP of Business Development, Groups. “Everyone wants to go to the Palm. We’ve taken the best from all our other hotels around the world and applied it here.”
The 18,300-sf conference center features 3,200 sf of prefunction space looking out over the beach. At dinner, groups can choose between 17 different restaurants, including the Japanese hotspot, Nobu. Groups especially like the casual beachfront restaurant, Nasimi Beach, a popular indoor/outdoor event site seating 2,000 pax.
Open since March last year, the 285-room Meydan (“meeting place” in Arabic) is the world’s first luxury horse racetrack hotel, and a member of the government-owned Jumeirah Hotels collection. It’s also the longest hotel in the world, extending just under a mile along the breadth of the racing oval, home of the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
“The horse racing is a destination and the Meydan is a destination,” says Hamza Elouahli, Business Development Manager. “This is not only a hotel, but it’s where we have combined a hotel with leisure and business.”
The 254 standard rooms are the largest standard rooms in Dubai. The conference center offers 4,700 sf of meeting space, and the elegant steakhouse Prime hosts buyouts for 100 with excellent views of the track. The Boathouse, located on the ground floor closer to the conference center, seats 500.
The 967-room Madinat Jumeirah complex integrates Arabian culture into its three hotels and conference center. The rooms, suites and villas all recreate the look and feel of old Dubai. The 598-room Jumeirah Beach Hotel offers nearly 8,500 sf of meeting space. Located adjacent, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel is Dubai’s most famous landmark.
“We have the whole Arabian experience within one resort— it’s a destination in itself,” says spokesperson Mia Hedman. “This is one place where you wake up in the morning and you really know you are in the Middle East.”
Groups shuttle to the conference center via abras, water taxis that operate in the canals linking the property and 3,770-sf Madinat Arena conference center. With its turrets, wind tunnels and brick exterior, the center feels like an old Arab fort.
There is also a souk with shops and 11 restaurants that make up the overall inventory of 30 onsite restaurants. We checked out the upscale Italian-themed Segreto, where my osso bucco fell off the bone, and others in the group gushed over their grilled prawns. Everyone also raved about PierChic, a breezy upscale seafood restaurant on a pier 200 yards out into the Gulf.
A group adventure out in the desert is mandatory in Dubai. Part of the Emirates group, Arabian Adventures specializes in such events, like our wild 4-wheel drive and dinner starting in the late afternoon. We stopped once for champagne on ice waiting for us next to a large woven carpet covering the hot sand. After more four wheeling over the orange sand hills, we pulled up for dinner at an outdoor barbecue area.
The place is designed like a Bedouin encampment with carpets, tents, lanterns and lamb on the grill. There was even a belly dancing floor show and camel rides, which take on a rather authentic flavor in this setting.
Be sure to also visit the Gold Souk located on Dubai Creek. This is one of the few remaining bits of old Dubai and worth a visit. Gold shops abound and there are some good deals. Nearby, the Local House restaurant is the only place in Dubai to get a camel burger. It’s a small joint that seats about 100 diners, and they will host casual events here. Stop in when you’re in town. The fun crowd is a global mix of people eating good food and enjoying each other’s company—like it should be.