Instability takes toll on conferences

Some organizers say the exhibition and conference business in Beirut fell by more than 50 percent last year due to tension in country.

BEIRUT: Organizers are canceling or delaying conferences in Lebanon, including a major international oil and gas exhibition, because of political and security instability in the country, undercutting vital revenues for the tourism sector.“We at Arabcom group have come to the decision of delaying our event ... for the sake of preserving the safety of all foreign and local representatives and delegates,” reads the website of the the Lebanon Oil, Gas and Energy conference and exhibition.

The conference, previously planned for Apr. 9-10, will now be rescheduled to a yet undecided date, Events Manager at organizer Arabcom Rabih Merhi told The Daily Star.

“We are not even able to assign a new final date for the event. Everything has become too unpredictable in the country,” he said.

“It became hard to assure executives and representatives from international oil and gas companies that they are safe coming here. What can you tell participants who cancel their participation out of concern about clashes happening in Tripoli?”

Merhi said his company suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses with over one year of preparations now in vain because of the delay.

“We moved our business from Beirut to Dubai years ago, and we were hopeful that the high prospects of the oil and gas industry would allow for a strong return [to Beirut],” he added.

Instead, the company was faced with bureaucratic red tape and a lack of cooperation, Merhi added.

Bahige Abi Ghanem, assistant director-general at Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal estimated that the sector saw a more than 50 percent decline since the security situation in Lebanon started to worsen last year:

“Even if there was not a very noticeable decline in the number of events, the decline in participation, particularly foreign, was obvious. The whole business was down to less than half of what it used to be during the past few years.”

The regional significance of Beirut’s conferences has also suffered given the lack of participation from Gulf Cooperation Council and foreign businessmen, Abi Ghanem added.

While Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal, a leading organizer of business and economic conferences, can avoid hefty losses thanks to conferences organized in other cities, local organizers, in addition to hotels and other tourism-related businesses, are among the biggest losers, he said.

For Albert Aoun, chairman of exhibitor IFP Group, the most affected exhibitions in 2012, and likely in 2013, will be those related to leisure, tourism and luxury.

However, the annual HORECA hospitality convention, scheduled for April 9-12 at Biel, is going forward, with organizers saying they have over 350 exhibitors participating attendance expected to exceed 14,000.

Aoun highlighted that Lebanon’s outdated infrastructure, not only its instability, has affected the sector’s overall attractiveness.

Aoun said that exhibitors could make it in spite of the situation in the country and the region.

“Last week the Beirut Conference [Towards an Economy Serving Mankind] unexpectedly saw the participation of 390 experts, including 130 foreigners,” he said.

“The picture is not all gloomy,” he said, adding that he expects the sector to benefit from the oil and gas industry.

On the other hand, Abi Ghanem believes political stability is a key for the industry to rebound:

“We built a business that thrived over the past few years and became a gateway for investment, partnerships, business and networking opportunities and now it is being endangered by politics,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 02, 2013, on page 5.




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