According to Albert Aoun, Chairman, IFP Group, business in the Middle East presents many of the same challenges faced elsewhere around the globe. Aoun’s career started in aviation and he drew an interesting parallel with exhibitions. “In the airline industry, you need to fill the seats and make sure the planes take off on time. In the exhibition industry, you need to fill the square meters before the show opens. In both of these global industries, you need to manage your costs effectively, service a large number of clients, ensure and maintain customer satisfaction long-term and face increasing competition. You also need to be able to adapt to a constantly evolving environment, whether it is political or technological.”
Albert Aoun’s interview was conducted by Barry Siskind, UFILive Community Manager and was first published on the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry’s website (www.ufi.org) under UFI’s initiative called “Spotlight on Leaders and Trends”.
We sat at a table located in the networking section of UFI’s 79th congress in Abu Dhabi, says Barry Siskind. There were people milling about, there were conversations all around us but once Albert Aoun, chairman, IFP Group, began to speak, all the distractions seemed to have disappeared.
I had been wanting to learn more about the exhibition world in the Middle East and within two minutes I knew that I had contacted the right man, adds Siskind. Here are the highlights of Siskind’s conversation.
Barry: Let’s start at the beginning. What did you study at University?
Albert: After graduating from Brummana High School in 1969, I earned my Bachelor of Business Administration Degree in 1972 from the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Barry: Before you started the Riyadh Exhibition Company your career began with Middle East Airlines. What motivated you to change to the exhibition industry?
Albert: I was working at Middle East Airlines when the civil war broke up in Lebanon and I had to leave country in 1976. After working for 3 years for a Saudi contracting company, my brother and I decided to start an exhibition company.
After organizing a few fairs on our own, we joined forces with Montgomery of the UK. There we put together a program of international trade fairs aiming to serve the needs of the Saudi economy. At the time, the Saudi Government had its third five-year plan approved and the market was in strong need of technology and goods and services in all sectors. The opportunity was there and we immediately seized it. I must confess that we owe a lot of our success to what we learned from the late Brian Montgomery, who was one of the most important mentors in my career.
Barry: Are there aspects of your work in the airline or investment fields that are relevant to exhibitions?
Albert: We can draw many parallels between the airline and the exhibition industries. Both are deadline and high-pressure businesses: in the airline industry, you need to fill the seats and make sure the planes take off on time. In the exhibition industry, you need to fill the square meters before the show opens. In both of these global industries, you need to manage your costs effectively, service a large number of clients, ensure and maintain customer satisfaction long-term and face increasing competition. You also need to be able to adapt to a constantly evolving environment, whether it is political or technological.
Barry: You started a family run business in Riyadh with offices throughout the Middle East. What challenges did you face as your business interest grew and how did you handle them?
Albert: One of the major challenges we faced was entering new markets where there were no exhibition venues. As an example, we had to build a large facility in the midst of Beirut under 20,000 square meters of tents, and we had to add all the amenities including power generation and sanitary facilities. Also, at the end of the second Gulf war, we announced the launch of a Rebuild Iraq exhibition in Kuwait, and from there we moved the show to Jordan for 4 editions where we had to again build our own venue with temporary tents. We were compelled to do the same in other markets we pioneered.
Another challenge as the company expanded was to find experienced staff in the region, as well as generating the time to train them. We found that having employees from the region that spoke Arabic and understood the culture was a major advantage. Some of our competitors have difficulties expanding into markets in the region due to language and cultural barriers.
Another obvious challenge for a company operating in the Middle East is dealing with political unrest. We have had to be flexible and resilient, sometimes even postponing events. Even through difficult times, IFP has continued to operate and deliver to the best of its abilities.
Barry: What were the most important lessons you learned during those years that still guide your day-to-day business activities?
Albert: Even though technology has become an increasingly important factor in the exhibition industry, I still believe that the human element of networking and hands on socializing remains absolutely essential.
Maintaining a good and personalized service with your customers long-term should also be a priority with every single employee of the firm, from the receptionist to top management. It is also important to have the right team and to keep them motivated to do the best job they can.
Barry: In 1986 you established the Circle Group which is a supplier to exhibition organizers. Were you concerned about a potential conflict when wearing both hats? If yes, what were they and how did you handle this?
Albert: Circle Group is a member of IFP Group but is an independent entity with separate offices, its own management and terms of reference. Circle Group was initially established in Dubai before the IFP Group had any organized events in that market. Circle Group has been instrumental in helping IFP start up its businesses in Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar and more recently in Erbil Iraq, where temporary venues had to be set up from scratch including generating power, setting up air conditioning and providing all other amenities needed in an exhibition center. Today, Circle Group is considered the Middle East’s leading solutions provider for event contracting services.
Barry: Most of your exhibitions are UFI approved. How important is it for you to have this endorsement?
Albert: Our first UFI approved show was in 1983. We always considered a UFI recognition as proof of high quality, excellence and consistency that we are proud to be part of. No other organizer in the Arab World has achieved as many UFI certifications for their leading shows.
Barry: What are the biggest challenges the Middle East faces that effect the exhibition industry? Are you seeing any development toward mitigating these challenges?
Albert: Political unrest leading to economic stagnation is the biggest challenge the exhibition industry faces in the Middle East today. Luckily, our major operations are in stable and flourishing countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the northern region of Iraq. Despite all the turmoil in the region, we expect to achieve additional growth in 2013.
We are facing increased competition from global organizers coming to the market looking to expand. I see this as an indicator of more potential as well as proof that we are delivering good work and providing value. I believe competition is healthy. We would be open to partnering with other companies if there are potential synergies and if it can lead to further success.
Barry: What advice would you give to an organizer interested in establishing themselves in the Middle East?
Albert: I would advise them to partner with an established organizer with local experience in the region who can supply the right contacts and an Arabic speaking staff.
Barry: Are there some industries that are better suited for exhibitions in the Middle East than others?
Albert: Definitely. The exhibition industry serves the needs of the markets it operates in. Accordingly, the industries better suited for exhibitions in the region are: Construction, Infrastructure, Power and Energy including renewable and sustainable energy, Agriculture, IT and Communications, Food, Health, Petrochemicals, Automotive and Education.
Barry: What do you see as the greatest opportunities in the Middle East for the exhibition industry?
Albert: I believe that the “Arab Spring” and the resulting economic reforms will undoubtedly see new opportunities arising in the Middle East. The creation of more SME’s and entrepreneurial initiatives should have a positive effect on the growth of exhibitions in the region.
Barry: How important is the issue of culture when doing business in the Middle East?
Albert: Very important. One of the main reasons IFP has been successful in the region is because of its understanding of the different cultures it operates in. This is one of the most important factors that have helped us keep an edge over our competition throughout the years.
Barry: You are also the founder of the Arab Sustainability Association. There have been many practices adopted by the exhibition industry in the area of sustainability, yet there seems much that is still left to do. What do you see as stumbling blocks to a complete adoption by the exhibition industry of sustainable standards?
Albert: There is definitely a need for the exhibition industry to join collective efforts and use best industry practices to ensure that our exhibition business sets an example for exhibitors and buyers in promoting sustainable measures. Rather than talking about the stumbling blocks, it might be more positive to talk about what could be done to work in environmentally sustainable ways.
We need to continue highlighting the significant economic and human benefits to be gained from a sustainable approach to exhibitions, and channeling that message loud and clear to our partners and all involved parties. We can’t argue the fact that there is a need and opportunity today, and thus a flourishing market for green and sustainable solutions.
What we have been doing on our part is working closely with our partners in the region to produce green products (events) and attract both domestic and international MICE attendees to experience them; aiming at a certain level to position our events in the green league in as much as we can.
Barry: Are there initiatives that you have started in the Arab Sustainability Association that would be applicable to the exhibition industry?
Albert: The Arab Sustainability Association is a new initiative that we recently launched. Our initial aim is to focus on raising awareness and encouraging others to consider sustainability issues while conducting their daily activities. One of the association’s first initiatives was supporting green awards in the region as a way of promoting best practices, thereby setting the example for others to follow.
Barry: In ten years from now what is your prediction for the importance of the Middle East as an exhibition destination?
Albert: I think that the current interest in the Middle East has been fueled by the economic slowdown of some Western markets, with companies looking for opportunities in high growth and emerging markets. I believe that the Middle East will continue to be an important exhibition destination in the future due to several factors such as growing demographics and continued accumulation of wealth and the surge of democratic movements in the region. All of this should result in the creation of more businesses and more opportunities.