Hospitality expo head claims record exhibitor numbers defy impact of Maldives “unrest”

The 2012 Hotel Asia Exhibition and International Culinary Challenge is said to be at maximum capacity in terms of exhibitors this year – a trend organisers have claimed defies the negative impact to the industry of unrest in the Maldives during the last six months.

Husnie Rauf, Senior Manager of Maldives Exhibition and Conference Services (MECS), said the company had been “surprised” by the interest shown from exhibitors taking part in the show, which attempts to link the country’s secluded resort industry and local hotel trade with “world class” suppliers. Over the last decade, the exhibition has also held a culinary challenge that sees representatives from the resorts of the Maldives and neighbouring Sri Lanka competing in cuisine challenges, Rauf added.

“With all the political uncertainty this year, we have been surprised that we have a full house, we have even had to reject some applications from exhibitors and contestants for the culinary challenge,” he said.

“We have grown this year to be the country’s biggest ever exhibition with over 150 companies exhibiting at present.  These companies represent groups some 40 to 50 different countries. Right, now we are at capacity and cannot handle any more attendees.”

The three day-exhibition, which concludes today at Male’s Dharubaaruge conference centre,  aims to provide a diverse range of good and services; from fine foods and drink, to boating supplies and renewable energy technology.

Amongst the attendees was Desmond James, Director of Indonesia-based Hospitality Essentials, a supplier of hotel accessories such as soap dishes, dispensers and waste bins that he says presently works with between 30 to 40 of the country’s resorts.

James, who has attended the exhibition in the Maldives for several years, told Minivan News the expo remained a good opportunity for doing business in the country, as well establishing new contacts in the market.

However, he questioned whether claims from the event organisers about record exhibitor numbers reflected actual growth in the number of individual participants.

“I would say claims about a record number of exhibitors here could be a bit misleading, I think what you have are a number of larger booths, which perhaps take up the space that would be used by several exhibitors,” he said. “It is a good show, one of two that we participate in the Maldives along with the MHTE [Maldives Hotel and Trade Exhibition] event,” he said.

Having built a network of contacts in the country over the last five years, James said the expo, in reflection of the continued growth of the Maldives island resort model, did provide real opportunities to expand business.

“Our operations here are based on a combination of established contacts and meeting new companies. There are always new projects happening here and it is also a good way to catch up with familiar faces,” he added.

James claimed that for this year’ show, heavy rain in the Male’ area during the event’s first day negatively impacted the number of visitors, but added that improved weather conditions yesterday helped a much better turnout.

However, he stressed that the event itself continued to retain a strong focus on food products and services rather than the wider supply chain. James believed that such a focus limited some of the potential value for resort operators and key local industry players in attending the show.

Elsewhere on the convention centre’s first floor, alongside Sri Lankan real estate specialists, beverage groups and major multi-nationals like ingredients manufacturer Barry Callebaut, was a stand specialising in renewable energy technologies.

Over the last few years, successive governments in the Maldives have pledged to try and develop a more sustainable economy for the Maldives – commitments that have also been adopted by some resort groups to play up their eco-credentials.

Guy Sizer, who represents a group called South West Windpower at the show, concurred that the expo was something of an “unusual” event for a specialised energy-focused tech company to be taking part in considering the seemingly large focus on food and beverages.

However, Sizer added that for local partners based in and around the Maldives, the show over the last few years had remained “pretty useful” in order to build contacts with the local resort industry and discuss adoption of renewable technologies.

“There is certainly interest it seems in the local population regarding renewable energy, particularly as fears grow over the cost and reliance on diesel here,” he said.

Sizer said that from a Maldives perspective, there had been a great deal of interest in alternative energy supply from local people, however he added these ambitions had not always been backed up with investment.

“There is a strong correlation with what is going on in the Maldives in terms of renewable energy developments and what is going on in nearby massive economies like India, which has been experiencing energy shortages,” he said. “There is interest here even in the local population for renewable energy schemes, and we have some work ongoing here to that end. But as far as direct results go, we think that there stills needs to be a practical reference site here in the Maldives to show the applications of renewable energy technologies.”

In terms of business at the expo, Sizer said that several resort groups had been in contact over the last few days to discuss the possibilities of adopting renewable energy services such as off-grid wind technology.

As well as a potential hub for renewable energy development, the Maldives has continued to push its reputation as a high-end luxury destination.  As a result, the sourcing of goods like European cheeses, meats and other delicatessen specialities were well represented at the event.

One such supplier of these products is Deli United, which has combined a stand providing guests with fresh fruits from across the wider South Asian region, with matured Swiss cheeses and fine slices of meats usually experienced at the country’s resort properties rather than exhibit halls.

Whilst providing guests and exhibitors with combinations of fine cuts of deer with varieties of European cheeses, a company representative explained that the Maldives provided a unique market for high-quality foodstuffs.

“The market we are aiming for here in mainly the resorts, we have interest from local people, but in general they do not have the traditions of enjoying these sort of cheeses,” the representative said. “This is a very strong market, visitors spend a lot of money on food. With the products I have, I like to think of myself as something of a food missionary when it comes to my produce.”

Despite targeting the country’s resort industry, which was not subject to the same restrictions the country’s inhabited islands were in terms of banning the sale of alcohol and pork products, the company representative said he had tried to select a wide number of products like beef ham and duck pates for guests to sample at the event.

Beyond specialist products like cheeses, pate’s and meats, Kapila De Silva, Marketing Manager for Sri Lanka-based Sadaharitha Agri Farms and Exporters, said the Maldives also presented a strong market for more everyday items like fresh fruits and vegetables, considering the country’s limited food production output.

“Obviously you have a very luxury-focused market here, so of course, resorts will be expected to provide very high-quality fruits and vegetables to guests,” he said. “They expect the best-quality goods.”

Having attended the Hotel Asia Exhibition for the last few years, Kapila claimed that his company now worked with a growing number of resorts to provide a range of produce from more standards fruits and vegetables to specially developed products like square melons, which he added could also be embossed for individual properties.

“Our plantations in Sri Lanka allow us to provide a large amount of fresh produce,” he said. “Being so close to the Maldives,the country represents a very important market for us, with our low, medium range and higher altitude plantations, we really can supply a very large number of products.”

While Kapila claimed that recent political uncertainty had not seemed to dampen demand from the Maldives for fresh produce, he claimed that the company still faced challenges in supplying goods to the country.

“There are still some barriers here in the Maldives in terms of logistics. Basically we need to clear customs and have our products get out to the resorts as soon as possible.  At times this process can take up to seven or eight hours to have them processed.  This threatens the quality of our goods,” he said. “We would like to see more work conducted here in terms of logistical support as a number of resorts are not close by to the airport. Guests expect the highest quality products here in the Maldives, this includes fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Culinary challenge

The exhibition’s organisers added that beyond business relationships, equally important to the development of the Hotel Asia expo during the last ten years had been the culinary challenge, which is held alongside the trade show in the Male’ convention centre.

An estimated 35 chefs are taking place in this year’s event, which is divided into a number of categories to contest three main awards including ‘Best Culinary establishment’, ‘Top Maldivian Chef’ and ‘Most Outstanding Chef’.

Bruce Woolner, Operations Manager for Chef Middle East, a supplier working with a number of the country’s resorts, contended that the strong focus on food at the show -particularly through the culinary competition – was important for the ongoing development of the industry locally.

“It’s a very good way of engaging companies to take part, but also it’s way to positively talk up the industry in this country and that is something that is not done enough,” he said.

Husnie Rauf agreed that the competition was an important part of attracting the local and multinational resort operators to the event, with many locally-based chefs travelling to Male’ specifically for the event.

From the perspective of MECS, Rauf claimed that Hotel Asia continued to be the largest event of its kind for business in the Maldives.

But what prospects are there in the future for other major events?

Rauf added that after launching the Hotel Asia show back in 2000, a number of additional exhibitions targeting the local business community had been started up in the country.  These included a boat show that had been run by MECS up until 2008.

“We got to a point where there wasn’t a lot of investment in boats at the time due to a global economic downturn. We also used to run a construction-themed event in the country, but this hasn’t been held since 2009 again because of the economic climate,” he said.

“Right now we continue to manage the Hotel Asia exhibition and our education fairs. There continues to be strong interest for these services in the Maldives, particularly among Maldivians looking to study abroad.”