Dubai #ReadyWhenYouAre

Back in December, before Tier 4 was even invented, I and a few other industry colleagues were treated to a Dubai visit, intended to show us that the destination was open for business. Dubai would soon prove that it did indeed live up to its latest marketing tag line #ReadyWhenYouAre even if Europe and the UK were sadly, far from it.

At the moment, even though it is allowed, the UK is not encouraging nor in any way set up for business travel. Our airports have not adapted well, and are starved of necessary staff and resources.

Emirates has been temporarily relocated to Heathrow Terminal 2; a terminal woefully unprepared for long haul traffic. On arrival at T2 we joined a long and unstructured snaking queue outside the terminal building, with no clue as to why or what we were queueing for. It took an hour to get into the building.  Once inside it became clear that no-one wanted Emirates to be in T2 (including Emirates’ staff, who were all very grumpy to say the least) as their check in desks had been buried in the farthest corner of the hall, with no directional signage and no staff briefed on their presence. T2 had closed their fast-track lane, and many of the airline lounges.  There was no Emirates lounge, but Thai Air kindly shared their rather basic interpretation of a lounge…

So far, the airport experience hadn’t been good, and certainly not suitable for a high-end corporate group.  The experience was more like that of a Thomson package holiday to Benidorm. But once on board the Emirates A380 things were looking up. Emirates Business is a well-designed cabin, with a large TV, excellent multimedia, a very comfortable seat / flatbed, and everything in easy reach.

On arrival at Dubai International Airport, thanks to our wonderful ground partner, Arabian Adventures, we were greeted with name boards and helpful hosts who whisked us through the airport in record speed. We were required to present a negative Covid-19 test on arrival, and I went with the BA discounted offering at just £80. It’s worth noting that many of Dubai’s hotels will give you a credit equal to the cost of your test on check in.

Our home in Dubai for the next 4 days was to be the truly amazing Atlantis Palm. The hotel is a symbol of the imagination and wealth of Dubai and built on the tip of the man-made Palm island. It offers a magical and mythical presence that wouldn’t look out of place in Disneyland. The hotel is built around a giant Aquarian that brings its watery inhabitants into the hotel lobby, restaurants and even some bedrooms.  The aquarium views are hypnotic and never get old. Even after 3 days I couldn’t walk past without standing for a few moments to marvel at the views offered through the 3-story high aquarium window.

The objective of our hosts, Dubai Business, was to present Dubai as a destination open for business, and one able to offer a variety of delights to suit any kind of group and budget. They would certainly succeed, and although our trip covered much more than I am able to write about here, I will share some of the highlights that make Dubai a great choice for an international conference or incentive, especially for 2021.

Dubai has hotels to suit any group or budget, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The one thing that Dubai hotels have in common is that they are all either new or newly refurbished, nothing is old, and nothing gets old in Dubai.

Our host hotel, the Atlantis Palm is capable of welcoming an incentive event without a real need to leave the hotel. It has many and varied restaurants (Nobu being my favourite), many pools and beaches, a waterpark and the aquarium which delivers many water-based adventures. We experienced the dolphins up-close and a helmet dive, both of which are real once-in-a-lifetime experiences worthy of an incentive programme. White’s is a Nikki-Beach style day-club, with everything you need for a VIP day at the beach, and the waterpark is a fun-packed adventure about to double in size for 2021. Each part of the hotel has easy upgrade options to satisfy any incentive group, including VIP areas that can be privatised within the waterpark.

Here are some other hotels worthy of note because they offer something different or special.

The Alseef Heritage Hotel, a Hilton Curio, can be found in a brand-new waterfront man-made district created to look like old Dubai. The area is very quaint, and unlike much of Dubai, is suited to strolling around, complete with open-air dining, traditional water taxis, market stalls and cobbled pathways. The hotel itself is modelled on traditional Dubai living and each cluster of rooms has its own communal area, which would suit a small incentive group beautifully.

Jumeirah has many hotels in Dubai, the jewel in their crown being the world-famous Burj Al Arab. With 7 stars and butler service to all rooms, it would blow anyone’s budget, but this landmark hotel is overlooked by 5 other Jumeirah hotels, all different but more reasonably priced, so you really can just choose your favourite. I’d suggest a 90-minute site survey, by golf buggy, (which we enjoyed) and I guarantee, at least one of these will suit your group. My favourite with an incentive group in mind, is Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf. This hotel offers ‘summer houses’ arranged in small clusters, each with a pool, meaning that you can offer a privatised VIP experience for a group of 10 to 80 guests.

The JW Marriott Marquis is the tallest 5-star hotel in the world, with a stunning pool deck surrounded by skyscrapers and a very classy top-floor bar. The view from this bar beats that from the top of the Burj Kaleef, because Burj Kaleef is in your view, (and a cocktail is in your hand).  The hotel has many restaurants serving world-class food, my favourite being Isakaya, which serves the best sushi I have ever tasted. The JW also has terrific ballroom space for large events and conferences.

We visited Burj Kaleef; with fast-track tickets and a 10am entry time, we moved freely to the breath-taking viewing deck on floor 150, but without these and at any other time, this experience can easily take half a day, with most of the time spent waiting in line.

Better than being at the top of the Burj Kaleef is to be around its feet, where you’d find the Armani Hotel, a great place for a pre-dinner cocktail, with a quiet elegance and a perfect martini. Many restaurants line Burj Kaleef lake with Bellagio-styled fountains (bigger than those in Vegas of course). I’d suggest checking out the smaller independent offerings opposite the familiar chains. These will all offer buyouts and present the best views of the Burj Kaleef light show and the fountains.

Opposite the Atlantis hotel is another new district, also created with strolling in mind, called The Pointe. This has many new restaurants, all with views of the Atlantis, the Royal Atlantis (due to open late 2021) and the new Royal Fountains. The best restaurant here is the Meshico, which is at the end of the east walkway, making it perfect for a group buy-out. The food is amazing, the welcome genuine, and the entertainment truly unique, with home-grown dancing and comedy.

Other things worthy of considering when planning a group event to Dubai include a visit to Dubai Expo which promises to be live from October 2021, a boat trip around the Dubai canals and a dinner in the desert, with dune bashing en route.

For groups with bigger budgets, then a hot air balloon flight presents the best selfie opportunities and a truly memorable experience for all.

In Dubai, everyone wears a mask, inside and out, with the only reprieve being when eating, drinking, exercising or sunbathing. Your temperature is taken on entry to all venues or shared vehicles and safe distancing is practised as normal. Dubai venues are filled with discrete thermal imaging cameras to spot guests with a fever. What makes all this quick to accept is that it is handled with ease, compliance and respect. This extended health and safety has quickly become a new normal in Dubai, and having seen hotels preparing for actual events, it has proved successful – life CAN go on, even with Coronavirus.

All-in-all, Dubai has it all, and as the marketing suggests, it is ready when you are. Although Europe isn’t ready for in-person events, and won’t be for some months yet, we can at least begin to plan them. It seems reasonable to expect business and group travel to be freely encouraged from mid 2021 onwards, so that gives us 6-months’ minimum lead time to plan our next event. We would normally plan much further out than this, so let’s get busy.

Dubai isn’t everyone’s cup of mint tea because it can be considered fake and manufactured, but as we emerge from this terrible global pandemic, that kind of deliberate and planned manufacturing is likely to make Dubai one of the safest and most prepared destinations available to meeting planners.

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