Sun sea and seminars

Why host your annual corporate event in a boring business centre in a nondescript industrial city, when you could go to the shores of the Red Sea? (Egypt's state-of-the-art International Conference Centre at Port Ghalib).

Think of Egypt and you'll probably conjure up images of sweltering days traipsing around pyramids in Cairo, queuing up in the Valley of the Kings for a glimpse of the tomb of Tutankhamen, or the blistering drive through the Libyan Desert to Abu Simbel. You might even think of cruises up the Nile, balloon rides over Luxor, or drifting in a felucca to Elephantine Island. It's not likely, however, that you'll be thinking of the land of the pharaohs as the location for your next annual conference or corporate event.

"When we're asked to put on an event for the engineering and technology sector," says Charlotte Bell of a London- based agency specialising in corporate event management, "our clients normally have in mind a typical European venue such as London, Frankfurt, or Paris. They tend to be dictated to by traditional exhibition venues. Not many come to us asking to be flown to anywhere as exotic as the Red Sea."

But this could all be about to change. The launch of Egypt's state-of-the-art International Conference Centre at Port Ghalib is a green field development on the western bank of Egypt's Red Sea, roughly halfway between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sudan border to the south.

'Green field' may be the wrong expression to describe the site that has literally grown out of the desert sands over the past decade into a conurbation of tourism and business resorts. Look in the atlas and you won't see Port Ghalib... yet.

In overall project terms the size of investment at Port Ghalib is huge. And this is what the developers will get for their $1.2bn when it is finished: 23 hotels, an international marina, 18-hole golf course, yacht club, luxury residential properties, retail and commercial outlets, entertainment facilities and services, and one of the most spectacularly situated conference centres on the planet. The development itself (masterminded by the M A Kharafi Group) is some 26 million metres square, stretching along 18km of virgin coast. While this will inevitably cause concern for environmentalists, the broader picture for Egypt's economy requires that the country rely on something other than just the sites of classical antiquity along the Nile in order to achieve sustainable economic growth.

Etienne de Villiers, spokesman for Sun International, a key stakeholder in Port Ghalib, says: "It is important for Egypt to deflect the pressure from the established tourism areas such as Cairo and Sharm-el-sheikh. But it is equally important, for economic development reasons, to relocate this business elsewhere in Egypt." That elsewhere is on the Red Sea, where the rich combination of coral lagoon, pristine desert, mountain scenery and cultural history makes the site perfect for sustainable development. A dynamic level of support from Egypt's Ministry of Tourism coupled with a politically stable investor-friendly business environment makes Port Ghalib a dream for direct foreign investment.

Crucial to the success of the region is the Marsa Alam International Airport. It's reckoned that the airport has resulted in the development to date of 30 hotels giving rise to some 20,000 tourism-related jobs - a figure that is expected to triple in the immediate future. As you drive south along the old road to Sudan the business of turning this part of the Red Sea into a city is in evidence 24/7.

Jeep convention

For the international manager dealing with the meetings, incentives, conferences and events side of marketing this is all good news. Port Ghalib offers an alternative to the usual urban European venues. And as if to prove the point, in February 2008, mere days after the opening of the International Convention Centre, Sun International hosted the Chrysler Jeep Cherokee launch. Bret Hoppe, marketing and sales director of Sun International resorts Middle East says: "The excellent layout of the resort and variety of facilities enabled Chrysler to effectively position their vehicles throughout the resort. There were jeeps in the lagoon, on the marina waterfront, at the entrance to the Palace hotel. Almost everywhere you looked, there was a brand new Jeep Cherokee."

The centre itself can seat 1,500 delegates in a colossal main area called the ballroom. This main area can be sub-divided into three smaller (but still massive) halls, allowing for simultaneous events to take place. Sound-proofed screens can be used in various combinations depending on the requirements of the conference organiser. These acoustically dampened stacking doors are 5.5m in height and convert the area into manageable sizes, each served by translation booths that are concealed behind two-way mirrors. In addition to the main conference area, there is a VIP suite that offers less public areas for board-level meetings, conferences and diplomatic events. This area is fitted out to the highest standards in luxury. "We're not just expecting key business individuals," says de Villiers, "we're expecting royalty."

Whether or not royalty will feel at home in the backstage area of the Conference Centre is up for debate, but no expense has been spared in the hope that they will. Every detail in the design has been meticulously attended to; from the superb interior lighting that pervades every aspect of the Port Ghalib development, to the less obviously important details such as the custom designed door handles. In the cool marble corridors that connect the various components of the centre there are comfortable alcoves for breakout sessions, where interior design, specially commissioned art and a palatial feeling of marble-lined Egyptian splendour make you wonder if you'll ever want a conference in Olympia again.

This is all backed up by a range of business facilities and conference related services that go with the package. The business centre has translation services, audiovisual and office equipment rental, as well as computer, printer and secretarial services available. This in turn is backed up by accommodation and dining facilities in three Sun International hotels, where everything from the golf cart taxis to the huge plasma screen in-room televisions are designed to make doing business in the desert a great experience.

Diving ambition

At the end of the day none of this is much of a surprise. All good conference centres have all this, and in order to compete on the international stage emerging developments such as Port Ghalib cannot afford to contemplate having anything less. But what makes the Port Ghalib International Conference Centre so special above anything else is its location. As Chris van Dam, manager of the centre says: "One of the big benefits of hosting your corporate event at Port Ghalib is that you can snap your laptop shut and within a few moments you can be diving in the Red Sea."

Without doubt it is the quality of the incentive add-ons that make the difference. It's going to read like a brochure, but after the business of the day this Red Sea coastal region is the real reason for going, and Sun International has worked out what the key distractions are to keep you busy. They have to the north of Port Ghalib a private beach (complete with its own shipwreck) where you can organise a corporate barbeque for up to 600 delegates, and there are the incentives of quad biking or camel safaris into the desert and, of course, diving.

The Red Sea has long been a magnet for scuba divers and there are some very good reasons for this. It is one of the few places where you can see pretty much everything from turtles to dolphins all the year round in crystal clear azure blue waters. It's also easy to get to, but as resorts such as Sharm-el-Sheikh become over commercialised, further south at Port Ghalib there is an exclusiveness that will appeal to the corporate mindset.

As organisations become more aware that their corporate functions are set to become 'quality of life' markers for their clients, employees and stakeholders, there will be increased pressure to make these events exercises in memorable brand reinforcement. Sitting on the terrace of the Palace Hotel at Port Ghalib where the cool aquamarine and indigo blue of the Red Sea meet the searing heat of Egypt's Eastern Desert, it is easy to see how this can be achieved. As the sun sets over the salmon pink desert mountains, it's worth reflecting that organising the annual conference can be a tough job. But someone's got to do it. 

For more information about Port Ghalib's International conference Centre, visit www.discoverportghalib.com [new window].

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