Abu Dhabi offers more every dayThe Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) invited ITCM to take a group of MICE buyers on a whirlwind trip to discover what the destination has to offer. ITCM’s Natasha Blair reports
Abu Dhabi is both the name of one of the United Arab Emirates and the name of its main city. Abu Dhabi is by far the largest of the seven emirates and, to the surprise of many people, it is the richest. Even Dubai is a poor relation!
The city of Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and it is more and more making an impact not only on the region of the Gulf but also globally.
The ‘Empty Quarter’ is what the vast desert hinterland of the UAE is called and it is rapidly being filled as the emirates expand their facilities for tourism and industry. But, even with thousands of square kilometres of unused land, Abu Dhabi is extending not inland but out to sea. It is enlarging offshore islands and even creating new ones. Obviously, the focus of attention, the place where the world wishes to invest, is immediately alongside the booming cities of Abu Dhabi and its neighbour, Dubai. It is therefore worth the effort and the expense to create new territory alongside the existing success stories.
At one point in our brief visit, we stood on the shoreline at the Beach Hotel Rotana and looked on to what some people thought was the biggest construction site they had ever seen. What last year had been mainly a view of the turquoise waters of the Gulf now consisted of two islands with mushrooming tower blocks. The first island bore what was already forming the shape of the new American Hospital and, beyond, the second island was being prepared to accommodate not only a brand new Formula One racing track but also a Ferrari theme park.
It is impossible to appreciate the extent of the modern development of Abu Dhabi without a personal visit. But one thing is sure – any organiser who holds a meeting there or chooses Abu Dhabi as an incentive destination will not find it difficult to keep its delegates and guests wide-eyed with wonder. They will all have tales to tell when they return home and to their offices.
Abu Dhabi downtown is a forest of skyscrapers, but the emirate has intentionally preserved much of the ancient Arab way of life.
Some of the most interesting visitor attractions are museums and markets where visitors can get in touch with Arab life and handicrafts.
Alcohol tends to only be available in hotels and so a lot of hotels have night clubs. The weekend in the UAE is now Friday and Saturday and Sunday is a working day.
Hotels we visited
Hotels are of a high standard. Virtually all the hotels we visited were 5-star luxury. The ADTA is currently working on a standard hotel star rating system so that there are no misunderstandings. Smoking is still permitted in hotels in both the pubic areas and bedrooms. In some properties, however, smoking has been partially banned in public areas with non-smoking floors or designated rooms.
Marble is used extensively in the decoration particularly for the flooring and reception areas. This was in evidence at our first stop, the 16-floor, 325-bedroom Millennium which opened on the Corniche in 2002. Apart from marble, a lot of gold has been used. The spacious bedrooms are decorated in classical style. The Royal Suite has two bedrooms and a dining room that can seat twelve. The pillared ballroom, which subdivides into three, takes up to 220 theatre-style. There are also two boardrooms each taking 24. The Italian restaurant, Sevilo’s, has an outside terrace with its own entrance which is ideal for cocktail parties of 70 to 100.
Also on the Corniche is the distinctive terra-cotta-coloured Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort. Renovated in 2003, all the 272 stylish bedrooms, including two for the disabled, have a desk. The bedrooms are all of similar size. Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel. The ballroom, which has its own private entrance and foyer, splits into two, taking up to 700 in a theatre setting. On the other side of the ballroom foyer is the Oasis room with its own foyer. The room can take up to 100 or be split into two. Two boardrooms can take 50 and 40 respectively. A high-tech gym, Sheraton Fitness, opened in August. The hotel has its own private lagoon, and as with all the beaches in Abu Dhabi, has lovely, white coloured sand.
The only hotel we visited not facing the sea was the 20-storey, 215-bedroom Novotel Centre. The property has recently been renovated with low ceiling bedrooms decorated in a contemporary manner. The ballroom, splits into three and takes 150.
Fifteen minutes from the main hub, the terra-cotta Shangri-La Hotel looks across the Arabian Gulf to the imposing white marbled Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, known as the Grand Mosque. The majority of the 214 bedrooms have balconies. There are also two palatial Presidential suites. A private garden, which can only be used by guests of the suites, takes up to 150 for a reception. The ballroom with its own private entrance can seat 300 theatre-style. Two meetings rooms accommodate 50 and 45 respectively with another two smaller boardrooms. Adjacent to the hotel are six private villas, each with four bedrooms. Three are decorated conservatively and three, known as party villas, are elaborate.
Range of f&b
All the hotels we visited have a range of f&b outlets, with the main one always offering buffet food. At the Shangri-la the choice was very impressive, with numerous stations offering cooking from around the world.
Of the four Rotana group hotels in Abu Dhabi, the Beach Hotel Rotana is the flagship and a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. The hotel has the Beach Wing built in 1993 and refurbished in 2005, and the Tower, which was added in 2003. The 413 guest rooms are all sea facing and will eventually overlook the Abu Dhabi stock exchange which is being built. The hotel has numerous meeting rooms in both wings.
Each wing has a ballroom that divides into three. The Beach can take up to 400 in theatre format, breaking into two sections of 90 and 100. Two boardrooms take 12 and 16 respectively. The wood-panelled Liwan takes 50 while three Beach Garden areas hold anywhere from 150 to 450 people for a banquet. The newer Tower Ballroom takes 1,200 in a similar configuration. The latter also has a pre-function area. A bonus is the multi-storey Abu Dhabi Shopping Mall, composed of both local and international boutiques, that can be reached from inside the hotel.
The group has a further three new properties due to open by the end of 2009. The first, the Park Rotana Hotel & Suites, is expected to be opened by April 2009. The complex will have 550 rooms and suites and 150 apartments. Due to open later in the year is The Khalidiya Palace Rotana Resort. This will have 400 rooms, suites and serviced apartments together with six meeting rooms. The Rotana Resort Saadiyat Beach is projected to have 400 to 450 rooms as well as conference and meeting facilities.
Located on the Western coast, 250 km from the city and a three hour plus drive, is the tropical paradise of Danat Resort, Jebel Dhanna. Fortunately, sea planes are being introduced that will link the area in a 50-minute flight with Abu Dhabi International Airport.
All the 109 spacious rooms have a sea view. Their main function room takes 250 with a further area for 60, and a room for 24. Their restaurant Zaitoun also has a private dining room with a hand-painted fresco along one wall, taking 16. The floodlit garden with palm trees and discreetly sited gazebos is stunning, and can accommodate up to 1,000 guests for a reception.
The new owner of London’s ExCel, ADNEC (Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company), has just completed its 55,000 sqm exhibition centre just out of town. The building includes two conference rooms holding up to 1,000 as well as break-out rooms, the largest taking up to 100 theatre-style. The Centre is sited next to Capital Centre, a micro-city of 23 towers currently under construction that will include several new hotels.
Worth investigating if you are planning a hotel-based conference is whether the topic conflicts in any way with anything being held at ADNEC. Currently there is a system in place which makes sure that no competitive events are held at the same time. ‘The emphasis here’, says the ADNEC UK representative, ‘is really on time lines, ensuring similar events avoid competing for participants at the same time. Staging at different times of the year can avoid that.
Accessed via a bridge, Saadiyat Island, translated as the Island of Happiness, is a site to be dedicated to cultural activities. Already planned are buildings of world status, including the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim, the Louvre and a performing arts centre. The first of these is due to open in 2012 and they have all been designed by world-famous architects from different countries. Lord Foster of the UK is the architect for the Sheikh Zayed building.
Opening towards the end of 2009 is The St. Regis Hotel & Residences Saadiyat Island. The hotel will be sited next to the 72-par championship Saadiyat Beach Golf Course.
A twenty-minute boat ride took us to Sir Bani Yas Island. As well as being The President’s royal retreat, part of the island, which covers 87 sq km has recently been turned into a wildlife park. The majority of the animals are native, but there are also some imported from Africa.
Newly opened, the 64 bedroom luxury boutique Desert Islands Resort and Spa is managed by the Anantara Group. The reception area has been designed like a game lodge to create a laid-back atmosphere. Spacious bedrooms look out to the sea with 16 having beach access. The two Royal Villas each have two bedrooms, a dining table that can seat 18 and a lounge area with terrace and private pool, ideal for cocktail receptions up to 30. In the main hotel, four meeting rooms can hold from 12 to 20 people each. The à la carte seafood grill restaurant has an outside dining area by the pool.
We were taken in a coach with a trained guide to explore the island and view the animals. In the future, guests will be driven in one of the hotel’s six jeeps. Mountain biking, kayaking and snorkelling are also available from the hotel.
Although a lot of the island is still quite barren, as part of the ‘Greening of the Desert’ programme nearly 2.5m plants and trees have been introduced.
A great finale – Emirates Palace
If, as the saying goes, you leave the best to last, our itinerary did just that. The 1-km long Emirates Palace set in 100 hectares of land (250 acres) is spectacular. The main archway, lit up at night in changing colours, is only opened for visiting Heads of State and Royalty, who can then drive straight to their suites at the top of the hotel.
The 394-bedroom hotel has two wings, each having identical facilities. All the rooms are of similar size and décor each with a butler. The 48 Palace Suites all have their own foyer with three further suites within. This is luxury personified. The marble floored entrance hall, with its own private lift, has silk wallpaper and chandeliers.
The Emirates Palace conference facilities include an auditorium with seating for 1,100, a ballroom that can accommodate up to 2,400 and an additional 48 meeting rooms that offer an extensive range of configurations. There are also countless outdoor areas for receptions and dinners.
Our group enjoyed our last dinner, before leaving the country, in the private dining room adjoining the Pacific Rim seafood restaurant. From here we were able to look out over the lawns to where an outside area had been set up for dinner for guests attending the Middle East International Film Festival. The event was taking place at Emirates Palace whilst we were there.
Our overnight return flight with Etihad got us into Heathrow at 7.30am. A 15-minute ride on the Heathrow Express into Paddington allowed those of us going into the office to embark on a full day’s work.
Abu Dhabi has year round sunshine and temperatures can zoom into the 40 degrees C. Even in October this year air temperatures reached 45degC (109degF) and the sea was an inviting 28degC (82degF). All the hotels, restaurants and shops are air-conditioned and with a profusion of taxis you can whizz from one air-conditioned environment to another. Although many of the taxi drivers speak English, it is worth asking the concierge to double check that they understand where you want to go. Prices for the same trip can vary considerably, so it is advisable to confirm the cost before setting off. Naturally hotel limousines cost more than taxis from the street ranks, but they are to be recommended.
Millennium Hotel - www.millenniumhotels.com/
Novotel Centre Hotel - www.novotel.com/gb/home/index.shtml
Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort - www.sheraton.com/abudhabi
Jabel Dhana Hotel - www.ncth.com/
Desert Islands & Resort - desertislands.anantara.com/
Shangri-La - www.shangri-la.com/
Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi - www.crowneplaza.com/abudhabiuab
Beach Rotana - www.rotana.com/
Emirates Palace - www.emiratespalace.com/en/home/index.htm
How the buyers saw it
One comment summed up the whole group’s impression. ‘I do hope to use one or two of the Abu Dhabi venues for future events. It will be very interesting to see how the Emirate develops over the next three to five years with the build up to 2013. There are some very interesting projects under development’.
The buyer for an international firm of lawyers comments:
‘The trip really opened my eyes to the possibilities that Abu Dhabi can offer. The standard of hotels was extremely high and the service excellent and it was great to see what was on offer further afield as well. I think the Shangri-la or the Rotana Beach offered the best options for my delegates. I can advise my Partners of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the main hotels.’
A specialist conference organiser said after the trip:
‘Abu Dhabi has lots to offer the business traveller and is fast becoming a feasible option for conferences in the Middle East. The quality of the hotels is great with many offering large, flexible meeting space. The development of Abu Dhabi’s eco island and cultural quarter on Saadiyat Island will cement Abu Dhabi firmly on the tourist and business travel map.’
For further information contact Angela Bates, Trade / MICE promotion Senior Executive, Abu Dhabi Tourism, on 0207 201 6400