Ajay Bhojwani | MCI UAE | EN

Managing Director - United Arab Emirates

With a vision to explore untapped potential for congresses and conferences, MCI Middle East continues to expand and is also building new business that is having a positive knock on effect on the development of knowledge hubs in the region. Ajay Bhojwani, Managing Director, Dubai & Abu Dhabi, MCI Middle East shared the story so far.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2016, MCI Middle East is taking time to reflect on how the meetings and event industry has evolved and the way the company has developed alongside.

“When we first entered the region we were knocking on doors to hunt down business,” said Ajay Bhojwani, Managing Director, Dubai & Abu Dhabi, MCI Middle East. “This worked but it didn’t set us apart in the market. We wanted to differentiate ourselves so we invested a lot of time analysing how we could add value to our customers by developing our own events, or assets, as we refer to them. Our first port of call was the healthcare sector, in which we have always been very strong globally. We felt there was a lot of scope for developing related meetings in this region and set about researching areas that were becoming more prominent that would benefit from having a conference or congress as a platform for knowledge sharing.”

MCI’s research arm, based in China, investigates what diseases are most prevalent in regions around the world together with new drugs being released to help pinpoint areas that may be most suitable.

“We hit upon a statistic that showed the number of people diagnosed with cancer in the UAE is doubling each year, which is why we felt there was a need for a related forum,” said Bhojwani. “We started contacting the relevant associations and government entities, as well as prominent pharmaceutical companies, to more traditional flow of corporate business.”

Today, MCI Middle East organises up to 200 events annually, which comprises of association conventions, corporate meetings & incentives and government events – 30% percent of which are its own assets – and up to 30 - 40 % of its business take place between September and December. One of the most prominent examples of the asset strategy bearing fruit is the UAE Cancer Congress, which MCI Middle East has grown over six years.

Formerly the UAE Breast Cancer Summit, the first edition was held in 2009 and attended by 109 delegates. Looking at the success and the seeing the burden of cancer continue to rise drastically in the region MCI worked with the medical experts to expand the meeting and helped rebrand the event as the UAE Cancer Congress with a revamped scientific programme that helped to increase revenues by 20 percent year-on-year with an 872 percent hike in delegate attendance, attracting 1,283 delegates by 2014. The latest edition (in 2014) also saw an increase in international participants, with 37 percent of delegates coming from outside of the Middle East and Africa region, including over 40 delegates from China.

“Today, the UAE Cancer Congress is regarded as a ‘must-attend’ oncology scientific meeting for healthcare professionals from all over the Middle East and South Asia and is successfully growing its international reputation,” said Bhojwani. “We are striving to welcome around 3,000 participants by 2020.”

The UAE Cancer Congress has two spin off events – one of which is a biennial breast cancer congress that tours Asia Pacific, for which MCI has just signed a six-year deal to host the next three editions in Singapore (in 2016, 2018 and 2020).

It’s a significant achievement for the company and a key milestone in its history. Over the past 10 years, we have several events that started off small and today are flagship meetings for the particular industry sector and that is our focus.

MCI began its journey in the Middle East in 2006 with a flagship office in Dubai. One year later, the company launched in Abu Dhabi then branched out to Saudi Arabia with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah in 2013. In 2015, MCI Middle East announced a joint venture with Qatar-based events and entertainment company Elan Events, a precursor to a fully fledged office in the destination and, our plans for the next 5 years are all focussed on deeper penetration into these existing markets as well as looking at a couple of more markets in the region to have a footprint.

“As the industry evolves, so do requirements,” said Bhojwani. “A decade ago, people simply wanted a stand out event that leaves great memories for participants. Today, although our clients obviously still want their events to be successful and memorable, you don’t see a lot of those big, flashy meetings taking place anymore. The most important element now is the content and the messages that come out of it. Measuring Return On Investment (ROI) is also critical and, for the majority of our clients, this is based on levels of participation as opposed to size.” Especially for association meeting and corporate meetings, ROI is critical and we measure the success of these meetings based on the pre-defined business objectives, which could be linked to content, lead generation and sales as well as more penetration through larger audiences with more and more engagement.

A factor linked to this is finding effective ways to facilitate sponsorship and companies are moving away from the trend for brash signage and branded bags in favour of more subtle ways to convey important messages and connect with their audiences.

“We sometimes choose to remove the traditional tiered sponsorship packages and create a pick and mix menu so sponsors can pick and choose how they want to spend their money,” said Bhojwani. “For medical meetings, sponsored content is key. As all those involved in the sponsoring and organising want to generate leads, we look for clever ways to put them in touch with their potential customers or end audiences who influence the sales of their products. If a company sponsors an education session, for instance, they would expect to be put in direct contact with around 20 percent of people in the room. While we cannot guarantee that, we do strive for it and look for ways to incentivise delegates to take part in surveys, for instance. We also implement ideas for keeping delegates grouped in one area for networking, instead of wandering off, so it creates a longer dwell time for a captive audience. When we started out we had one person looking after sponsorship and now we have 10 so it’s easy to see how this has become increasingly important.” As we continue to work with more and more associations locally, regionally and internationally the demand for revenue generation through sponsorship & exhibition sales as well as delegate revenues has grown from being important to a key decision making factor. If you are involved in the association meeting business, this is the a key area to cover to be successful.

When it comes to corporate events, MCI Middle East works mostly with clients from the banking, pharmaceutical and Information Technology and Communications (IT&C) sectors. In addition to these, we have worked on several events across automobile, sports and government sectors.

“Each event is bespoke,” said Bhojwani. “Recently, we handled a meeting for 70 C-level managers of a company who wanted to find an innovative way to inspire and motivate the group. The client wanted an event that took thinking to new heights so we came up with a unique concept of starting the meeting in the basement of a hotel and, after a day of workshops and incentives, they ended up on the observation deck at Burj Khalifa. Ultimately, no groups want to sit in a boardroom all day looking at graphs. Creative thinking is fast becoming the norm.”

As we speak today, we are getting ready to deliver a boxing event in the coming few days, which will attract 4,000 attendees with a live streaming in over 8 countries in Asia and Latin America. We started working on this last year with a sports network channel and since the success in 2014, this has become an annual feature and continues to grow year on year.

Technology as we all know play a very important role in today’s life. Whatever business you are in, both as an individual and an organisation, the need for sound technology and effective use of it is of utmost importance.

“We feel there is huge untapped potential for technology to be incorporated in meetings,” said Bhojwani. “While its role will grow, however, it will never overshadow the power of face to face meetings in this region. That said, I do think the number of hybrid events will rise, as busy schedules increase demand for this.” Whilst a lot of meetings today have digital platforms for content, app’s to provide updated information, way to connect participants and get feedback, this is only the beginning and there is much more to come in this industry. The need of innovation in this segment will continue to grow rapidly.

Association management is also part of MCI’s remit, with services including everything from helping to set up local chapters and increasing membership to finding solutions to operational challenges as well as push and grow the sales of products and educations programs produced by associations. There are a number of associations based out of the MCI Middle East office at Dubai World Trade Centre, which include local, regional and international associations from various sectors like healthcare, engineering and hospitality which aspire for more engagement with their audiences, bring content to the region and develop the standards and quality of service in their respective areas.

“It’s like running an organisation within the organisation,” said Bhojwani. “MCI has 62 offices in more than 31 different countries and a 1,900+ strong workforce. Our association teams are constantly identifying, developing and sharing solutions, which puts us in a strong position.”

Of course, across the board, there are challenges – especially when it comes to working in healthcare with the regulations and policies getting tighter and each country developing their own frameworks.

For example, when it comes to medical meetings - “In the US, Europe with a few countries now in Asia too, you can’t sponsor doctors to attend a healthcare congress and a lot of companies from the industry are making this as a standard practice, which means trends like these will only continue to strengthen and become the norm ahead,” said Bhojwani. “Also, you can’t have a healthcare event at a hotel on the beach or at a luxury resort – it is important to show the event to be a completely professional gathering that is mindful of the wider issues surrounding the congress. As healthcare meetings and events provide such a large slice of the meetings industry, this is affecting the way the region’s infrastructure develops with rising demand for more three- and four-star hotels. Added to this, there is a requirement to show that there is a strong community of healthcare professionals in the relevant field. That is exactly where we step in, as we strive to build and grow these local events, ensuring they have enough support from locally-based association chapters to bring in the international business.” It is all capacity building and bringing the community together and this is where it all begins to build a long term success.

One of the most exciting projects MCI is working on now – another asset – is the International Showbiz Expo (ISBE), which took place in Abu Dhabi for the first time in 2014 around the same time as Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

“With the growing prominence of cinema here in the UAE, we saw an opportunity to create a forum for all that goes on behind the scenes. ISBE is all about the business of cinema, such as how tickets are being sold, what equipment is used – cinema seats, Audio Visuals, concessions at the cinema stores and how film locations are chosen – far from glamourous side of it! It has been a steep learning curve as it’s an industry we don’t work in. We launched the show at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 with celebrities like Edward Pressman, Hollywood independent producer and now we are getting Bollywood involved as we expand the show in addition to Hollywood. In the last edition we even managed to bring Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of AMPAS popularly known as OSCARS for the very first time to the region and UAE. The next edition is due to take place in December 2015 in Dubai we are excited to see how it will grow as we have already commenced on the journey of bringing in more players from the region and Bollywood like Yash Raj Studios and many more.”

Looking forward, shifting dynamics is providing food for thought.

“The number of meetings and events taking place in Dubai and the region as a whole is increasing and we are seeing a higher number of smaller players and a few international companies entering the market as everyone wants a piece of the pie,” said Bhojwani. “Most of the smaller players are focusing on corporate events but when it comes to managing association business, a greater level of expertise is required.

“Further to this, some sectors, such as oil and gas, have reduced spend on meetings while some companies have even taken events in house. Whatever the case, content is king and if you can bring suppliers and buyers together successfully then you have hit upon the right formula.

He summarised: “Dubai is such a strong brand that business will only continue to grow. Clients are going to be more conservative about what they spend and those seeking a direct ROI will no doubt put pressure on event agencies but this will also bring out the best in us to produce successful meetings in a cost effective manner. This is a positive development we can all look forward to.”

Some of the key trends looking forward for the industry will be:

Content is King as mentioned above and you need to have the right and most latest content to attract audiences
It is not about who attends but who engages – engagement with your audience pre-event and onsite will become critical and new formats will continue to be introduced
Technology, which is ever evolving will just get more and more integrated and making the best optimum use is what the event companies will aim for
Sustainability is going to be a must have than nice to have ingredient. Events need to start becoming more sustainable in terms of materials being used, digital content and a whole new dimension of cost effective formats of running events
Continuity will be key to keep events on the face. What happens before and after the event will be important to keep the audiences engaged and ensure they feel the need to be at the event year on year
Social Media is not anymore just a marketing tool, it is the way to communicate and engage
Customisation is one of the success formulas. We all know about one size does not fit all and that is the same for meetings. Whether it is how you engage, it is content or even the onsite experience – planners need to pay attention to this and ensure they are pressing the right buttons for their audiences
Cost effectiveness is on the rise. Every penny counts and organisations want the best at the lowest price. So destinations, meeting planners and suppliers need to ensure they don’t end up with increased costs which will directly impact on the size and number of meetings