Arabian Travel Market Swears by Live Events, But Won’t Give Up on Virtual Yet

Skift Take

Arabian Travel Market Virtual starts online today following a successful 29th edition of the in-person show that attracted more than 23,000 visitors to the Dubai World Trade Centre. EventMB spoke with Danielle Curtis, exhibition director Middle East for Arabian Travel Market.

The Arabian Travel Market (ATM) that concluded in Dubai on May 12 is testament to the fact that live events are irreplaceable and no virtual extravaganza can replace the human element of in-person events. During the course of the four days (from May 9-12), the event witnessed participation from 1500 exhibitors, representatives from 156 global destinations, and more than 20,000 attendees.

The online format of the largest travel fair in the Middle East, scheduled from May 17-18, also signifies that hybrid events are here to stay, at least for some time. This show has opted for an asynchronous approach, thus running the in-person and then online components at different times.

This year also witnessed the debut of the ATM Draper-Aladdin Start-up Competition, which saw 15 travel, tourism, and hospitality innovators pitch for up to $500,000 of funding. The winner will also get an opportunity to compete for an additional $500,000 of investment as part of the television show — Meet the Drapers. Welcome To The World, a platform that enables tourism businesses and travel influencers to drive direct bookings commission-free by sharing videos, was adjudged the winner this year.

In conversation with EventMB, Danielle Curtis, exhibition director Middle East for Arabian Travel Market, talks about hosting a live event for the second year during a pandemic. The comments have been edited for length and clarity.

EventMB: Hosting a live event during a pandemic is not completely new for you. Arabian Travel Market 2021 was one of the very first travel trade shows to take place in Dubai last year. What has changed between last year and this year?

Danielle Curtis: Last year, we were the first international travel trade show to operate globally and it was no mean feat. There were strict travel measures at that point in time and we had density restrictions. The world was at varying stages of lockdown and yet we managed attendees from around 110 countries. This year, the number has gone up to 156 countries and we are almost back to pre-pandemic levels. This year’s event is more than 85 percent larger than last year in terms of floor space. The attendance at the live event is a testament to how the region has evolved and, how countries are all opening up. Last year there was a sheer lack of technology companies present on the show floor, there’s been a 400 percent increase in that particular sector this year, hotels have witnessed a 71 percent increase in visibility on the show floor. And many of the destinations, including Saudi Arabia and Dubai, have a larger participation. So, you can see recovery at its different stages and levels of investment with the participation at ATM.

EventMB: Would you agree that the Dubai Expo held from October 2021-March 2022 has provided a blueprint of sorts for Arabian Travel Market in particular and future events in Dubai in general?

Curtis: With 23 million people coming to Dubai over the course of the six months, Dubai Expo demonstrated that live events can operate safely on a huge scale, without marring the customer experience. While we’re still in Covid, we’ve reached an endemic stage. Even at ATM, we still have health and safety measures across the venue, we adhere to the rules of the government. The globe is in varying stages of recovery and United Arab Emirates and the wider GCC is leading the way in its recovery. It’s very clear by the buzz on the show floor that the connectivity, in and through Dubai, hasn’t stopped. The city has been working really hard to ensure that the connectivity and alliances continue.

EventMB: ATM is also delivering a hybrid event from May 17-18 similar to the one last year. Does this mean that the hybrid format will continue for some time, especially since the China and Russia markets are still missing?

Curtis: We have decided to carry on with a hybrid format again this year because we do acknowledge the fact that not all destinations are at the same recovery level. Whether we plan on continuing this is something that we’ll assess after this year. Having the virtual element has helped exhibition organizers like us, to allow conversations to continue. But there’s nothing more important or more valuable in our hospitality, travel and tourism industry than meeting face to face shaking hands and conducting business in person. The industry wants it that way and we can see the difference between last year and this year. Organizers need to continue to assess what role virtual will play in our platforms. I believe that virtual will not go away, but it will complement our face-to-face events and bring elements to our event as opposed to replacing the face-to-face platform.

EventMB: Does the Arabian Travel Market look to move away from the Dubai World Trade Center to the venue of the Dubai Expo?

Curtis: While there has been a discussion on this for the last three years, however, the build of the new expo center is not quite big enough to accommodate Arabian Travel Market at the moment. ATM will remain at Dubai World Trade Center until such a time that we look to find other venues.

EventMB: How are you positioning the inaugural edition of the ATM Draper-Aladdin Startup Competition to act as a springboard for innovative travel and tourism companies?

Curtis: Dubai acts as an entrepreneurial start-up hub. There’s a real focus on innovation and moving towards that growth trajectory. In line with Dubai being an innovation hub, and nurturing and becoming an incubator for entrepreneurs and start-up companies, we launched the ATM Draper-Aladdin Startup Competition, which gives hospitality travel and tourism start-up companies, a chance to win up to $500,000. The winner will now have the opportunity to compete for a further $500,000 of investment as part of the TV show — Meet the Drapers. Various sectors have emerged over the 29 years that the Arabian Travel Market has been in existence. Technology is clearly key to that and the start-up community is tomorrow’s exhibitor and the future. We want to nurture those companies as well as nurture the innovation that comes with the travel and tourism industry.