Observations from a conference trip to Abu Dhabi
Observations from a conference trip to Abu Dhabi
05 FEBRUARY 2018 8:30 AM

Abu Dhabi is growing at a tremendous rate, but among all those cranes, hotels and dreams is traditional Emirati and Bedouin culture—that is, if the visitor looks carefully enough. 

Last week, I was at the third edition of the Gulf & Indian Ocean Hotel Investors’ Summit, which is quickly becoming a must on the conference calendar.

Combative is the word—a result perhaps of most attendees being owners, many of whom feel embittered and embattled at being on the wrong side of the revenue curve, having to pay for brand whims and online travel agency whams.

Simon Allison, chairman and CEO of hotel owner association Hoftel and the founder and host of GIOHIS, announced that half of the 200 or so conference attendees would at some point grace the stage or its breakout rooms as speakers.

It is that all-inclusiveness, I feel, that really loosens tongues and opinions. And they had targets to aim for, because in attendance and on stage were representatives from two major OTAs.

In the spotlight were Carmen Hui, global commercial director of owner partnerships at Booking.com—but previously and for almost 13 years SVP of investments, Europe, for owner Host Hotels & Resorts—and Christopher Michau, VP of global partner group at Expedia.

Kudos to them both for accepting the invitation to foster conversation, rather than hide in what I am sure are their superb offices with unlimited coffee and fussball table games.

Both faced hard questions, including from Norbert Vas, VP of business development at Archipelago International Hotels, Resorts & Residences, who asked Michau: “So, you said OTA commission levels were brought down to a level that is fair; are you acknowledging that before they were not fair?”

This is not what Michau answered, but the joke soon went around that what possible OTA commission level is not fair when presumably OTAs need to recoup vast marketing spends?

Cranes everywhere
It was my third time to Abu Dhabi, and there are more cranes in evidence every time I go.

Peering out the window of the plane, as it descends near the city’s airport, dozens and dozens of newly created islands come into view—Dutch-style engineering projects where the sea is pegged back and developers awaited.

Behind GIOHIS’ host hotel, the Yas Viceroy, is Yas Bay—a long strength of dusty land, measuring some 14 million square feet, for new residential and mixed-use development—and by the airport is another one called Masdar City, which appears just as large.

The taxi ride from downtown Abu Dhabi and the Corniche to Yas Island is essentially a desert drive. There is oodles of empty land, and while empty does not mean wasted, presumably developers will be looking at some of these hectares.

One big question at GIOHIS was whether the build-it-and-they-will-come hunch is sufficient and sustainable. There is no idea yet how many hotels will be part of these projects, but demand generators are continuing to pop up.

I personally am not sure if I want to see borrowed European impressionism at any newly build art gallery in the Arabian Desert, but there is no denying the buzz surrounding the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first satellite of the famous Paris museum and which opened on 8 November 2017.

The building supposedly is incredible. Design elements of the building—at least those I can see on its website—remind me of the wonderful Skyline bar at the top of the Yas Viceroy, which is built over and around the city’s Formula 1 race track.

There is much Middle Eastern art here, too, so maybe next year—if GIOHIS is staged; if I am lucky enough to be an attendee—I’ll go.

More traditional Emirati culture I found at the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival, on its last day of its two-month existence.

In honor of the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who would have turned 100 this year, the festival had some funfair rides and unhealthy snacks but mostly was a rich tapestry of authentic dance, song, food and culture from the UAE, Middle East and Muslim countries around the world.

My bag was made heavier with Bosnian-Herzegovinian woollen ware and Yemeni honey full of pollen and royal jelly.

Razafat is an Emirati and Bedouin style of music and dance featuring repetitive phrases sung in turn by two rows of men. (Photo: Terence Baker)

I adore an Emirati style of dancing and singing called razafat, which comprises two rows of men repeating the same sing-song phrase in turn while swaying in synchronization and holding thin bamboo camel sticks. A small group of musicians move between the two rows, and one man seems to be making sure everything is done in a traditional manner. Each song lasts 20 or so minutes, and it is the repetition that draws one in.

Yes, there are cranes and modernity everywhere—something Abu Dhabi shares with many global destinations—but if looked for, culture and tradition is evident and fulfilling.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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