Firms that continue to promote themselves through targeted trade exhibitions will survive difficult times and may even prosper at the expense of their competitors, according to leading event industry organizers representing some of the Middle East’s biggest trade shows. “In times of financial constraint, for companies big and small, taking part in a trade-related exhibition or event remains the best way of using tighter resources to stay directly in front of customers,” said Jessica Sutherland, general manager of IIR Middle East headquartered in Dubai. IIR stages the Arab Health and Cityscape events.

Venue operator, also an events organizer in its own right, Dubai World Trade Center, recently reported a 10 percent increase in visitor numbers for exhibitions, conventions and conferences in 2008.

The Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Center and Airport Expo Dubai received a total of approximately 1.1 million visitors across all exhibitions, meetings and conferences last year, following in the steps of the strategic development of Dubai. The venue hosted health care and construction, to travel and technology fairs.

A recent survey by industry research company Exhibit Surveys Inc. revealed that up to 66 percent of trade show visitors plan to purchase one or more products as a result of attending an exhibition. In addition, according to UFI, the global association for the exhibition industry, nearly 30 percent of exhibition visitors only ever meet sales representatives at shows that are their only form of interaction with potential new suppliers.

Two other things that boost the conference business in Dubai are today’s low hotel occupancy and cheaper flights. “They are boosting numbers to Dubai’s mega events,” said the CEO of the World Trade Center, Helal Saeed Al Marri. He added that the Gulfoods conference was entirely sold out this year and an extra venue is being sought at the Dubai Expo Airport to handle the 3,300 companies that participate. Gulfoods is vital to the GCC market, which imports over 90 percent of its food requirements. The GCC food market is now worth more than Dh44 billion.

“In the past, perhaps only one person out of 10 who wanted to come to the conference could make it because hotels were fully booked and flights were too expensive,” he said. “This was having a huge impact on our exhibitions. “Now, if six or seven people want to come, they can all make it because there is room at hotels and flights are cheaper.” Occupancy at Dubai’s luxury hotels have fallen by 15.2 per cent since January last year, according to a report by US hotel consultancy STR Global. Occupancy in the mid-market segment has fallen by 10.8 per cent, the report said. In January, Emirates Airline (EK) announced it had slashed fares on certain routes by up to 30 percent and at the beginning of February rival airline Etihad also announced similar discounts.

“Statistics strongly reflected in the events we stage which have become industry rallying points,” said Sutherland. “Both Cityscape and Arab Health were completely sold out. Trade shows are time and cost efficient for all concerned. They place exhibitors face-to-face with more customers in a day than a sales team could individually call in a year. That is going to be critical for many companies in the months ahead.”

Executive vice president for dmg world media Ian Stokes said, “The sell out success of Big Five indicates that companies see the intrinsic value of keeping a strong presence in the market place,” he said. “No other medium offers the opportunity to meet with present and future customers in an open forum allowing the opportunity to discuss how best to work together during this difficult economic climate.”

To suggest the Middle East is immune from the global downturn would be folly. But as Christopher Hayman, chairman of Seatrade which maintains offices and staff in Dubai and organizes a range of maritime industry events said: “Business-to-business events will continue to attract companies who must market their products and services not only to survive but to consolidate their market position ready to capitalize on the first signs of an economic recovery.”

Ensuring Dubai remains a hub for exhibitions and trade events despite prevailing global economic conditions is a long-term government strategy. “We are working to sustain our target of 1-1.5 percent contribution to Dubai’s gross domestic product, on par with global benchmarks such as Singapore and Hong Kong in the events and exhibitions sector,” said Almarri.

“We expect the events sector to play a critical role during 2009 as the catalyst to stimulating the investment climate and boosting economic growth, while playing a major role in driving up visitor traffic to the region,” he added.