Over the past 20 months, Eng. Tariq A. Al Essa and the team at the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau has been formulating a battle plan to conquer Saudi Arabia’s expansive and non-uniformed MICE sector, in an effort to position the country at the forefront of the Middle East for the industry. And, according to Al Essa, headway is already being made in the country, though he notes there is still a long way to go before they can showcase the country’s offerings to the world.“We are a new organisation. Before, business events in Saudi Arabia were regulated by the Ministry of Commerce, where the direction was that they didn’t have any priority, they just take these events and give approval for it. They didn’t have the thought and the thinking of developing it and promoting Saudi Arabia as a destination for meetings. Afterwards, the government recognised the importance of that industry and it approved a strategy to develop that industry and it established the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau,” he notes.He explains that the Bureau was set up almost 20 months ago, with a mandate to “develop and organise the MICE sector”.“One thing I would like to note here is the Saudi Bureau is operated differently to other bureaus around the world. Our mandate is not only promotion, it is also development of the sector and industry,” he adds.Last year alone, around 120 new companies entered the Saudi market according to Al Essa. He adds that last year 68 exhibitions were held, and he expects this to reach 80 by the end of this year, a 20% increase.However, despite the positive outlook, he notes that there is still a long way for the country to go.“We are still working on a base. When we started, we didn’t have a base. We didn’t know how many meetings were going on, we didn’t know how many events were going on, we have started developing our systems and having base numbers,” he explains.Outlining the task at hand, Al Essa notes that there are six main objectives that they are working through to achieve the goals, the first being with the development of a regulatory framework. This includes work with visas, customs, licensing processes, laws and regulations, and having an act that governs MICE in the country.“This objective is important in order to make business and events easy to be held in Saudi Arabia, with clear rules for investors. That also includes working with the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority to develop new incentives to encourage foreign investors to enter the Saudi market to operate and organise events in Saudi Arabia,” he says.For Al Essa, this objective formulates the most important aspect of the Bureau and he claims that 45% of this has already been achieved, with the remaining set to be completed within the next three years.Talking more specifically about the progress with visa facilitation, he says: “We have started with the Ministry of Affairs and we have a team to develop that area, which is why we do not want to heavily promote Saudi Arabia for two years until we fix the visa issue. This is one of the critical issues. We believe the success of exhibitions and conferences in Saudi Arabia is linked to the accessibility. If it is not accessible to people, how can you make it successful?”The development of key venues was an additional interest to the Bureau, and while it was not directly involved in the investment and building of such facilities, it was working with other government agencies and the private sector to stimulate this growth.He notes that this was progressing with a new convention centre opening recently in Al Qassim, and was looking to encourage projects in Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province. The third objective, and something that Al Essa believes will be a highlight in its achievements, is to provide information, statistics and to measure the economic impact of MICE in Saudi Arabia.“Since we are doing licensing, we have a big opportunity to have data about the stats of the industry and their behaviour and demand of the supply side of MICE in Saudi Arabia,” he notes. Part of its efforts will be to launch an electronic gateway on November 8, which Al Essa explains will feature all information on the industry within the country.“If you are a company, or a hotel, and you want to do your plans for next year and you want to know the status or demand for meetings or conferences, you can find all of the information on the electronic gate,” he says.As part of this, the Bureau will also measure the economic impact that MICE is having in KSA: “We are working on this data, this means we can provide real numbers about the contribution of MICE to the GDP and how MICE influences and affects economic sectors in Saudi Arabia.”The system itself cost around SAR12 million ($4mn) of investment according to Al Essa, who adds that they are already holding workshops for developing the requirements for the electronic gate.The fourth objective is developing human competencies, which Al Essa notes includes speaking with universities to create event management courses, working with investors to create institutes and academies.“Right now there is an academy called the Saudi Event Management Academy that is to be launched in September. This is part of our initiative to move the private sector together to invest in that academy.“This area is very critical because we believe in Saudi Arabia we have a lack of human resources to organise events,” he adds. The penultimate objective is developing industry standards that will be rolled out across all events, outlining expectations and guidelines that must be followed, as well as classifying those actually organising said events.“We are working right now on classifying companies who do events. That is very critical to classify companies because we realise there about 1600 business licences for events management in Saudi Arabia, and it is not classified. We need to set standards and classify companies,” he notes.Al Essa explains that once these five objectives are in place, the promotion of the industry, will be fully established ready for promotion. He explains that he has been conscious to limit its efforts to attract external events until the sector was regulated and had to date been focusing on a local plan. Next year, he aims to be ready to extend the promotion into GCC countries and wider, before pushing this internationally in 2018 and beyond.“The last objective is to promote Saudi Arabia as a destination and go out to tell people to do events in Saudi Arabia. That will have many initiatives, including branding, developing marketing strategies and having the ambassadors programme which will have ambassadors in associations who are trained and qualified to talk to international associations to have meetings in Saudi Arabia,”he explains.
Interview at Arabia Industry