Let's get back to the game... after months of COVID-19 related distractions, sporting mega-events are providing more than a fair share of relief. And UAE's hotel sector is reaping the dividends. Image Credit: Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: A mix of cricket, mixed martial arts and high-decibel action on the race track is giving UAE’s hotels a much needed fourth quarter boost. Any guest who shows up at the reception at any hotel in the country because of a sporting event will be a net positive for an industry that has had little of the good vibes in the last six months.

Hosting this year’s IPL (Indian Premier League) T20 games – as opposed to having it in India – was itself a triumph, and the buzz will continue well into early November. The matches are hosted by Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, with the final set for November 8. The venue will be announced later.

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It’s getting better action-wise

Abu Dhabi gets to host two other sporting attractions, in the form of the winner takes all Ultimate Fighting Championship, and then the F1 race at the Yas Island in December.

“All these people need places to stay,” said Saeed Al Saeed, Marketing Director, Department of Culture and Tourism. “That means hotels get some movement in their occupancy rates and their operational expenditures will be covered somewhat.”

Even a ‘somewhat’ represents a win this year. It also says something of much more importance - “It's a message we're sending out to the world - Abu Dhabi is ready,” Al Saeed added.

Abu Dhabi will take a decision shortly on allowing limited spectator involvement at the sporting venues. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Filling the seats?

Abu Dhabi has again started issuing tourist visas for the first time since March. There is even initial talk about spectators being allowed into stadiums, starting with the UFC event. Al Saeed said that a decision regarding the same may be reached in weeks.

“We work very closely with the Department of Health, NCEMA (National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority) - and with the UFC of course,” said Al Saeed. “Once we are all happy with a plan that does not compromise the integrity of the COVID-19 free zone, we will go ahead and submit that for approval to the higher authorities.”

Strong draw

“Sporting events are historically key demand drivers for the industry,” said Philip Wooller, Area Director for the Middle East & Africa at STR, a hospitality consultancy. “While the impact is at a much lower level during the pandemic, any event that brings groups of guests to the marketplace will be a positive.

Despite the pandemic, Abu Dhabi’s hotels have fared better than their peers in Dubai. “In comparison with a market like Dubai, Abu Dhabi has less hotel rooms to fill and is more reliant on domestic demand,” said Wooller. “This has been vital because of the drop in international travel.

“That coupled with a relatively high percentage of demand attributable to long-stay guests, Abu Dhabi has been consistently above the 50 per cent occupancy mark throughout the pandemic.”

UAE is leading in putting sports back on the map through UFC, IPL and Team Emirates winning the Tour de France. Abu Dhabi and Dubai opened new arenas in the last year, which is further evidence that the sporting industry will be important for the region

- Philip Wooller at STR

August spike

Preliminary data for August show that Abu Dhabi hotel occupancy rates fell only by 6.4 per cent year-on-year to 62.9 per cent, while average daily rate (ADR) for a room was at Dh307. 2, down 3.4 per cent. This, according to STR, are up from June’s total, while occupancy levels are the highest for any month since February.

A repeat performance?

Abu Dhabi will likely use the same winning mix to feed its hospitality sector next year as well. Aim for the high-profile events, preferably one of a sporting nature, and fill up as many hotel rooms as possible, And then put that strategy into a continuous loop.

“There will be events, there will be massive undertakings that we feel will promote the city's reputation,” said Al Saeed. “There will be spectators - but social distancing, masks, (and) other procedures will be in place to mitigate risks.

“But I think you will see a lot more happening in 2021 because everyone is just hungry for some sort of normalcy in their life.”

Come December, it will be time to get a glimpse of the mean machines on the Yas race tracks. The F1 will be another sporting event that will give Abu Dhabi's hotel sector a strong fourth quarter finish. Image Credit: AP