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Meet at AHIC

Preparing myself to get back on the horse - the Arabian and African Hospitality Investment Conference

Author: Matthew Weihs, Bench
14 September 2021

To be very honest, for the past 19 months, I’ve actually been over cautious with any sort of travel plans. Apart from a couple of visits to Cornwall even the weekly shop has been done online. I’ve embraced digital – and digital has run my life for past 20 months - being sat in front of my computer has kept business ticking. I can also (proudly) claim that, since the start of the first lockdown, I have been wearing shorts (not the same pair) whatever the weather – around 570 days and counting. The very thought that I will be traveling to Dubai in a week, feels foreign and, dare I admit it, a little scary. I’ve forgotten how to pack a full week’s worth of clothes into hand luggage; how long do I leave to get through the airport; and do we now clap when the plane lands?

The hospitality industry thrives on connectivity – to serve and bring people closer is its heart beat – and the past two years have shown just how important the industry events are for the annual sharing of ideas, discussion on deals, new friends and handshakes (fist bumps, elbow taps or whatever is envogue at the time). This year’s event will undoubtably feel different – face masks will be worn, social distancing will be adopted and there is bound to be some awkward greetings. However, the real success of AHIC this year is that the hospitality industry will be leading the way on recovery– showcasing what can be done in conferences and events. Showing the owners and investors that MICE is back and is led by those invested into it.

It reminds me of September 2013 when Bench were all set to go to Nairobi Kenya for the Africa Hotel Investment Forum. The event was due to start on the Monday and on the Saturday afternoon before we started we got news that the Westgate Centre attack had begun. At this very moment all our clients, sat at home and preparing to go, would have had the choice to stay at home and not to come to the event. It was at this time that David Scowsill, who was President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council at the time, stepped up and asked if he could communicate to the attendees. His message was simple that, as bastions of travel and tourism, it was our duty to go – to support the Kenyan and African markets and, should we give into terrorism by not going – then they have won. Over 95% of our audience turned up and the conference was a huge success.

Today’s situation is different, of course, but the message from our industry should be very similar. The hospitality industry need to lead the way through this period and I’ve been delighted to see other investment conferences taking place across America and Europe recently. Before I land in Dubai my colleagues will also be hosting the Adria Hotel Forum (AHF) in Croatia – another great success for the industry to show it is open up and ready to connect. Followed by the Middle East and Africa’s turn. Certainly, Dubai has been leading the way in coping with the pandemic and, through an intensive vaccination programme, has set itself well to welcome more travellers. As a destination it is leading the way to reviving travel with the airline at its heart.

During this period of isolation the increase of digital events/teleconferencing solutions have certainly increased efficiencies in some areas. Without industry events and physical meetings there have been glaring holes in many of our leaders diaries and it has shown how important face-to-face connection is to fuel the trust and friendship needed to drive the industry forward. Certainly the absence of industry events have underlined how critical these annual meeting places are for the hotel investment community to meet and form the framework for future partnerships and deals. No doubt these conferences will kick start many of those connections and, once again, fuel important developments across MEA. However, we must not forget, for those who are attending, your presence is more than that – it is performing our duty at the coal face of our work.

Many corporations have clearly demonstrated they can function at a digital level – and potentially continue to cut business travel activities. The Global Business Travel Association predict corporate travel will not recover until the end of 2024 and McKinsey, in a report released in July 2021, talk of an “uneven trajectory” of recovery when it comes to corporate travel. Interesting McKinsey talks of a profile mix of traveller – from the “never left” with travel as an essential part of their role, through to the “never returning” segments where corporate travel budget will be permanently cut. Interestingly though, the bulk (and 60% of business travel) will be fuelled by FOMO or the “Fear of Missing Out!”…. And, with the green shoots of events like AHF and AHIC appearing (as well as other friends in the conference industry) the support of these events is, no doubt, the key to a quicker recovery for our industry. It is, indeed, a time for a call to arms – for us all to do our bit as attendees. Our industry is long suffering during this pandemic and, as the figure heads, we need to use these opportunities to promote, make noise and create the FOMO for the future….

I look forward to seeing many of you in Dubai between 20-22nd for the Arabian and African Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC) – let’s celebrate getting back together and doing deals.