Big interview: Head of the Dubai Convention Bureau, Steen Jakobsen

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Dubai has established a reputation as a vibrant and diverse destination with a quality hospitality offering. The city dominates the Middle East’s business events market with a 50 per cent share.

It aims to deliver its Tourism Vision for 2020 with a target of 20m visitors per year. And Steen Jakobsen is the man brought in last October by the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) to lead the Dubai Convention Bureau (DCB) and its campaign for business events as part of that Vision.

Jakobsen is former Director of the Copenhagen CVB and says he jumped at the opportunity to work in Dubai. “It was an easy decision to make,” he says.

“The emirate is used to large numbers of people resettling here and. I have travelled to Dubai frequently over the past decade both for work and leisure. I got acquainted with the city quickly.

“I have been very well received by industry stakeholders and really enjoy living in such a cosmopolitan city that has a good mix of international flavour and Arabian traditions.

“Despite being in the post a few months only, I have already seen the collective will to achieve the Tourism Vision, not only within DTCM and DCB, but also across all stakeholder groups and the city at large,” he adds.

Jakobsen started his career with the Danish Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs and for seven years led the Copenhagen Convention Bureau.

Among highlights in Denmark, Jakobsen picks out hosting the first ever European Sustainable Events Conference, in 2012. “It provided a platform to share the latest trends in sustainable meeting practice, something no bureau had championed before.”

So, what goals is Jakobsen championing at the DCB?

“We aim to make Dubai the world’s premier destination for business events and maximise opportunities for the economy as a whole in the process.”

Jakobsen has a dedicated core team of 15 and several DCB overseas offices working to attract top international events to the emirate.

What does he envisage doing differently? “Dubai is already the business events and trade hub for the region and we want to leverage this status, improve our business tourism offer, grow existing shows into mega shows, create new shows in identified sector gaps and make Dubai a centre for major conventions.

“We want to unify the approach to leisure and business tourism and we will do this by encouraging visitors to extend their stay and return for future holidays.”

Since arriving in Dubai, Jakobsen has been heavily involved in establishing the Dubai Association Centre, a new place where international associations can establish a presence in Dubai.

“Dubai Association Centre is a partnership between Dubai Chamber of Commerce, Dubai World Trade Centre and Dubai Convention Bureau, and it has already been very well received by international association executives,” says Jakobsen.

And, how do the challenges differ from his previous role in Denmark?

“The expectations are much higher. As a testament to Dubai’s outstanding business proposition, we are repeatedly included in the BestCities Alliance as one of the leaders in the world for meetings, incentives conferences and exhibitions, along with destinations such as Cape Town, Vancouver, Berlin and Singapore.

“One of the challenges, which we are confident of overcoming, is developing Dubai’s position internationally as the place to be; since we are a year-round events destination and a gateway to many emerging markets.

“Within the region, we cannot rest on our laurels. Our challenge is to ensure that we create an even more compelling proposition for corporations and global associations to continue growing our market share.”

In terms of Dubai’s main challenges in the global meetings market, Jakobsen identifies getting the story out globally.

“We are a truly global city comprising 200 nationalities and proud of how safe this society is and how hospitable the people are. We have something for everyone, no matter what your interests. Culture and heritage, or shopping, beaches and nightlife, we have it all.”

Jakobsen says Dubai has a well-established and world-class infrastructure to rely on when competing on the international stage.

“In addition to top notch hotels for every budget and excellent transport infrastructure, both to the emirate and within it, plans are being finalised to build the city’s largest indoor live events arena and extend the existing convention centre to host bigger events.”

Ambassador role

Jakobsen says the Al Safeer Ambassador Programme, which identifies local conference ambassadors from academia, as well as the public and private sectors, has resulted in over two dozen events confirming to come to Dubai.

“We are especially well connected to international societies through our ambassadors in the medical field,” notes Jakobsen, who underlines the fact that the DCB will be attending a large number of events in 2014.

The increase in passengers coming into the emirate has helped build a platform, Jakobsen says, for Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) as a business networking and international trade forum for the whole Middle East. It has hosted some of the most important events in the region, such as GITEX, Arab Health and Arabian Travel Market.

DWTC is set to expand with the re-launch of the 146,000sqm Dubai Trade Centre District.

Dynamic Dubai

Dubai is back on the road to economic development following a recessionary pause and in January 2014 was named among the top three most dynamic cities in the world in the City Momentum Index released by international real estate specialist Jones Lang LaSalle.

The index also clubbed Dubai, which will host World Expo 2020, with Tokyo, which will stage the Olympics the same year, calling them ‘resurgent cities.

Dubai is the seventh most visited city in the world by international travellers and is in the top 20 in terms of visitor expenditure. Dubai International Airport is ranked second in the world in terms of international air traffic and is expected to replace Heathrow as No.1 next year.

Less than a decade ago Dubai had five million visitors annually, a figure that had risen to 10m per year in 2012. The Tourism Vision for 2020 is to welcome 20m tourists per year to Dubai by 2020 and to treble the economic contribution tourism makes to the city’s economy.

Which sectors is the DCB targeting for congress business and what kind of pipeline is there for major events?

“While the city’s potential as a global business events destination was bolstered by winning the World Expo 2020, the city was also successful in winning 16 further bids for international business conferences over the next three years.”

The wins, include a big incentive group from China later this year when Nu Skin brings in 15,000 delegates.

As far as regional competitors go, Jakobsen says the Middle East is a rising business events destination which is good for Dubai. “As competition gets stronger, it forces us to rethink our position and improve our offering,” he says.

World Expo 2020 entrepôt

So, how did Dubai win the World Expo?

Jakobsen says local profesionals’ effort and coordination and “a palpable hunger for success” in the emirate were key.

“The people of this city really know how to work together to achieve their goals. This spirit stems from Dubai’s age-old role as an entrepôt, and a time when it was imperative for people from diverse backgrounds to collaborate to succeed.”      

Jakobsen is certain the Expo bid win means Dubai will see increased demand for business events. “Cities which host major events benefit from an increase in demand because their brand is front of mind for so many travellers and decision-makers.”

And more transport systems and business facilities are in the pipeline, he notes, all designed to help develop Dubai further as a knowledge hub.

“Expo 2020 is the first World Expo to be hosted in this region and will go a long way to encourage economic, cultural, educational and social exchanges that will benefit the wider region,” says Jakobsen.

As far as the creative vision goes, Jakobsen notes the bid was conceived under the theme:

‘Connecting minds, creating the future’. “Dubai has stated that its goal is to build a better future for its youth,” he says..

“As far as the sub-themes underlying the event go, they revolve around sustainability, mobility and opportunity.    

“The event also hopes to celebrate human innovation and creativity as a means of overcoming challenges. Dubai is the perfect venue for addressing such issues, since it has a long history of overcoming obstacles and succeeding in the face of adversity.”

Infrastructural investment will run into billions of dollars and, last October, Dubai opened its second airport, Al Maktoum International. It could eventually become the world’s largest able to handle 160m passengers and 12m tonnes of cargo per year.

Dubai World Central (DWC) area near Jebel Ali, Jakobsen says, has been earmarked to host a lot of infrastructure directly related to Expo 2020.

He adds that although the event’s funding plans have yet to be revealed, “Expo 2020, like everything Dubai does, will be nothing short of world-class”.

This was first published in issue 75 of CMW. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Conference & Meetings World is published for the international conference and meetings industry. It tackles the issues facing organisers of international events. The editorial is independent, fresh and news driven, with a global reach.

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