Early this month, the United Arab Emirates, home of meeting, convention, and incentive destinations Dubai and Abu Dhabi, announced that it would shut down BlackBerry data service on October 11 if an agreement isn’t reached that allows the country’s regulators to tap into encrypted BlackBerry messages.
A similar threat was averted in Saudi Arabia when officials reached an agreement with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., Waterloo, Ontario. Nevertheless, the news from the UAE has caught the attention of some international meeting organizers. It’s been almost four years since Webster's New World College Dictionary named "crackberry" its New Word of the Year, and since then, BlackBerry devices and other smart phones have become increasingly critical to meeting attendees—not only in allowing them to stay connected to their businesses, but often linking them to a meeting’s social networks, agenda, and other meeting details.
Gregg Talley, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group Inc., Mt. Royal, N.J., believes a BlackBerry shutdown would put any country at a competitive disadvantage as a meeting site. “From the TMG perspective, I think anything that inhibits the flow of information is damaging to a destination. For some of our international clients this would be a deal killer—their members and attendees must keep in touch 24/7.”
However, Lloyd Kenyon, exhibition manager for Reed Exhibitions’ Gulf Incentive, Business Travel, and Meetings Exhibition planned for Abu Dhabi in March 2011, does not see the possible BlackBerry ban as a threat to his show. “March is still a long way in the future,” he says. “We will obviously be monitoring the situation and, as necessary, will provide advice and support to all our stakeholders, from exhibitors to our hosted buyers and trade visitors. Rest assured, it will be business as usual at GIBTM 2011.” However, if a ban were to go through, he adds, “those considering meetings and events in the UAE could avoid the issue by having an alternative device. For example, people can pick up e-mails via Wi-Fi on other devices, and hotels and venues often have free connectivity. Business centers are also there for those who want to tap into their e-mail.”
Karl Kirsch, CAE, vice president, Meeting Expectations Inc., Atlanta, also believes that meeting attendees would quickly find alternatives to the BlackBerry. “We do an annual conference in Dubai and pull about 300 attendees from Europe and the Middle East. I do not see how this ban will affect this meeting. People in Dubai will have to get alternative technology as a matter of course in their daily business anyway, so they will not be affected. I don’t anticipate that international travelers will be overly inconvenienced because if they travel there regularly, they will have already switched phones. If they have not, all they will miss [from the meeting] is the ongoing Twitter traffic, and we have tweet-ups and message boards that show the flow of that anyway.
“Will it affect business in general? I would say, ‘yes, temporarily,’” he continues. “But once you adopt a different technology, you would adjust.”