Following the Arab Spring, the region's meeting and event industry continues healing and explores its future.
In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi became the first martyr of a revolution to become known as the Arab Spring, shaking the region into uprisings against authoritarian regimes that had over years consolidated their dominion by promising reforms and a better future for their people—promises that were never to be honored.
The popular will for change that rapidly escalated sparked widespread and unprecedented riots, leading to the overthrow of the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and causing ongoing chaos in the region. The political progressiveness of the Arab Spring had a price, one of a business realm fully unprepared for how to sustain itself or develop a new direction under shifting political parameters. The lingering political turmoil having nurtured a climate of uncertainty for investors and visitors alike, who were, understandably, less willing to visit the region for business or pleasure, a consequence that may yet prove to be one of the most damaging of the Arab Spring.
Egypt’s Spring Window Dressing
While the meeting industry was also a victim of the political instability of these countries, numerous scheduled events were forced into canceling. However, INTERGAS-VI, the 6th International Conference & Exhibition for Oil & Gas, managed to tackle the challenges and take place as the first international exhibition held in Cairo after the Egyptian riots, May 10-12, 2011, at the Cairo International Conference Center (CICC).
“Clearly the main challenge this year was the Arab Spring and to know firstly whether the industry was ready to hold the event,” explained Mohammed Shiha, event organizer and meeting planner at Egypt International Fairs. “But as we have continuous relationships with all players throughout the industry, we were sure that they would continue to benefit from the event being held on time. One thing is for sure, every year there are challenges to overcome, whether local or of a global nature, but business must go on.”
With the need to reinvigorate the business landscape also driving the event, ensuring security was in place at every stage was a critical issue for organizers, who acknowledged that there was a small impact from companies reluctant to travel to the region.
Given the security-focused context of hosting the event, a knock-on consequence of new operational conditions was that organizers did not feel that getting the event back on track could also allow for much experimentation with new information or show innovation. This did not, however, detract from the show meeting its exhibitor targets and attracting new companies to Egypt alongside staple exhibitors, a benefit of the show being co-organized and promoted by the CWC Group, offering an outsider’s view and stronger reassurance of conditions in Egypt.
“We were successful in achieving our aims of around 50 percent of international exhibitors and 50 percent domestic,” Shiha said.
The event as potential shop window to the world was clearly demonstrated in hosting for the first time Thailand’s PTT Exploration & Production Public Co., there to investigate possible investment opportunities. The balance between re-establishing the event post-turmoil and generating new business, however, was more accurately reflected in the modest numbers of partnerships and agreements arising. Organizers consider the circumstances under which the exhibition was held as a factor in this.
“Most companies were a little uncertain, however, uniformly the feedback was extremely positive in terms of contacts that the companies made, the quality of the companies at the exhibition and the numbers of meaningful conversations that were had with visitors,” Shiha said.
The challenges for the coming years on how to overcome this sense of uncertainty and to re-attract exhibitors and visitors to a secure event in light of all that has passed in Egypt’s Arab Spring is something the organizers embrace, Shiha declared.
“The major challenge is to bring the event to the position where it will be rightly regarded as the leading oil and gas conference and exhibition on the continent, and then to keep that position by continuously challenging ourselves with dynamic and informative conference programs that reflect current conditions, whilst trying to provide a crystal ball for the future, with new methods of bringing people together and interactive ways for people to network,” Shiha said.
A Westerly Spring Breeze
To the west of Egypt and directly northwest of Libya lies Tunisia, a country whose event organizers, venues and chambers of commerce might like to borrow INTERGAS’ crystal ball for their own future. While the political situation there has settled down, the Arab Spring badly affected tourism, with many hotels remaining closed today. The instability that came about as a result of the revolution combined with a lack of significant foreign investment has had a direct influence on their meeting and event industry.
“The effect of this situation was the decision by the great majority of foreign exhibitors and visitors to decline participation in the most important events planned in Tunisia during that critical period,” said Mounir Mouakhar, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of Tunis, further adding that “consequently, the impact was very depressing for our economy, considering that the enterprises which were supposed to visit Tunisia at this time were potentially future investors, and the result was also the postponing of all future events.”
From the event organizer perspective, Achraf Bejaoui considers the Arab Spring to be something of a double-edged sword for business.
“Firstly, negative, because some permanent southern-European companies left the Tunisian market over their fear of political instability and strikes, but on the other hand it may be positive, because we no longer depend on the southern-European market,” said Bejaoui, international sales manager of Tunis-based Sogefoires International. “From now on, Tunisia can become a destination for investors from all over the world.”
With a history of close association with France and southern Europe, Tunisian meeting professionals clearly view international collaboration as the main supporting column of their events’ framework, the one most severely afflicted by the political upheaval and in urgent need of repair. The challenge is how to reconstruct this and in which form.
“The big deal [for us] is to find the foreign partner, and that depends on the strategy followed by the convention center in order to attract participants and exhibitors,” Mouakhar said. “In my opinion, this depends on the power of persuasion of the centers.”
The domestic collaboration already in place between the CCI and Tunisian exhibition centers helped minimize overall damage and, to a degree, stabilize confidence.
Consequently, despite the political instability and the challenges it had to confront, the Tunis CCI chose 2011 as the first year for the Tunis-Medindustrie exhibition, an international event that managed to attract more than 170 companies.
According to Mouakhar, organizers for Tunis-Medindustrie and others made tremendous efforts to overcome any potential difficulties that might occur under the socio-economic adversities facing Tunisia at this politically unstable time. A key factor also helping the industry through this critical period has been the decision of exhibition centers in Tunisia to keep their doors open, believing there to be enterprises still keen on participating in the scheduled events.
“Amazingly, the events organized were as successful as previous ones, even though we had some difficulties actually making them happen,” Bejaoui said. “Fortunately, security, which could be the primary factor to hinder the exhibition, regained its stability very fast.”
Having managed to keep the industry buoyant throughout 2011, 2012 finds the region’s travel and tourism professionals optimistic that there will be a proper recovery, boosted by reducing hotel prices to attract and enlarge the visitor base and encouraging tourism in Tunisia by widely promoting security and enhancing domestic and foreign tourism.
In the Eye of the Storm
This is an image that might take some convincing for potential visitors to neighboring Libya, wedged between Tunisia and Egypt and where the few scheduled professional events were written off as a consequence of an intense civil war, which reduced the nation’s pivotal oil industry to a state of paralysis. LIBYA OIL & GAS, one of the few representative events held in the country, was forced to cancel its 2011 event at the Tripoli International Fairground.
“Our Libya event has been running for five years now—except last year because of the revolution,” said Will Martin, consultant at event organizer Montgomery Libya Ltd. “It was scheduled for October 2011, but come February it was the start of the revolution and by the end of April we knew there was no way we could put it together within the timeframe. It had to be canceled.”
Yet, organizers consider that this may prove to be a turning point for both Libya and the region. No time was wasted to prepare for the next exhibition, set for April 2012, and overcome the challenges and difficulties arising from the Arab Spring to earn the trust of 120 predominantly domestic exhibiting companies—an uptick of 50 percent from the previous event.
“Undoubtedly, the potential for growth is much greater now,” Martin said. “The Tripoli industrial fair ground is very basic, with no more than 2,000 square meters under any single roof. It has the additional constraints of being old and decrepit and situated in the middle of town, which suffers from bad traffic.
“The facilities at present are very underdeveloped and we have to bring our own facilities and equipment,” he continued. “Basic expectations, such as Wi-Fi, are not in place, and the spaces are difficult to use. There is talk in government circles about it, however, and there is an understanding of how important this is for economic growth.”
The talk in government circles that Martin refers to is about creating a modern exhibition center to attract new visitors and form part of the strategy for developing tourism in Libya, which, Martin believes, can help properly establish business tourism, get the country back to stability and help find its economic rhythm.
“Libya is not an easy market to work in for many reasons, and a pragmatic, longer-term approach is necessary for a plan that will pay off,” Martin said. “Selling to the Arab world is a slow process—good contacts are something that may take time, but you can build on that and many people want to do business in Libya.
Securing the Region’s Success
North Africa and the Middle East have seen both good and bad times in recent years, and the latest political upheaval has yet to run its course. The future success for the region will be built on a secure meetings framework, not only for human traffic to destinations, but also for information traffic. Websites for international events across the region have been hacked to threaten potential visitors and advertise insurgent activity; phone numbers have also been cut off.
Meeting professionals are working to strengthen the sense of security and regain the confidence of exhibitors and visitors, something that will only be possible with the stability and involvement of each country’s state authorities. As a result, event organizers are currently adjusting to the new demands of the region and addressing the challenges set by the new political conditions.
“The Arab Spring has certainly created some uncertainty in the marketplace, and my recommendation to potential exhibitors and visitors would be to travel and attend those events that are truly established or that have the proper support of the relevant government ministry or authority,” Shiha said.
For his part, Mouakhar stresses that it is now imperative that Tunisia works in order to secure visitors and exhibitors and that all actions must be carried out in conjunction with the appropriate public authorities as well as the private sector.
The political turbulence and operational challenges, despite their scale, have not in any way dampened optimism in some parts of the region, however. What will unfold in Syria and Bahrain remains an unknown. From Egypt to Tunisia, however, business professionals are optimistic about the future, recognizing the growth potential and the challenges they need to face—they are setting new goals, whilst bearing in mind that the Arab Spring may yet have a long way to go. One+
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One+ April 2012