Just mention that you're traveling to Dubai and eyebrows will rise. It's one of those destinations with incredible incentive appeal—less-traveled (by Americans, anyway) and about as high-end as it gets.
Dubai delivers, starting with its Jumeirah Group hotels, of which I saw four: the Emirates Towers, Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah Resort, and Burj Al Arab. The latter three are ideal incentive properties (Emirates Towers is geared more toward the business traveler), all within a half-hour of the airport, right on the beach, and adjacent to each other. There's a free shuttle service between them and an adjacent water park, Wild Wadi.
The 598-room Jumeirah Beach Hotel is casual and family-oriented. Its décor mirrors the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and it offers stunning views of the Persian Gulf from every room. The 874-room Arabian-style Madinat is a theme resort, reminiscent of what life used to be like along Dubai Creek, the waterway that runs through the city. Guests travel to their rooms on replicas of abras (the traditional wooden boats used to cross the Creek), and there is even a shopping area that's a re-creation of a souk, an old-style open-air marketplace. The Madinat hosts many glittering world-class events and has a 442-seat theater and an arena that can accommodate up to 4,000 people.
The crown jewel of the collection is the Burj Al Arab, known as "the Burj," the iconic hotel considered by many to be the most luxurious in the world.
Its design took my breath away (it resembles a huge sail), and the accommodations are the height of elegance. All 202 rooms are duplex suites, and there is butler service and a concierge desk on each floor. And if that's not posh enough for you, add a fleet of Rolls Royces to get you to and from the airport and private shoppers to help you navigate the city's countless stores (more on the shopping in a minute). It's impossible to stand at the entrance of the hotel, with the Rolls Royces lined up in front of a statue of a camel painted in gold-leaf (everything there, it seems, is gold—86,114 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf, to be exact) and not feel like you've arrived.
Another hotel option for groups is in the Festival City development, where there is a 498-room InterContinental and a 316-room Crowne Plaza, and yes, unbelievable shopping in an attached mall that meanders along for what feels like miles. (And this one isn't even the largest—that honor goes to the Dubai Mall, which also happens to be the largest mall in the world and includes an aquarium and a jaw-dropping 1,200 shops.) Festival City features a marina, golf club, and canal walk with outdoor restaurants. It reminded me of what Cambridge is to Boston, with fabulous views of the skyscrapers and the Creek. The InterContinental has its own conference center with 13 meeting rooms, and the nearby Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre (DICEC) is the city's showpiece for large events, with one million square feet of meeting and exhibition space.
The other side of Dubai
I advise pulling attendees (and you just might have to pull them) away from the glamorous new part of the city to experience the older part of town.
Here, they can take a ride on a real abra to the souks, including the popular gold souk, located on the banks of the Creek. This is an entirely different Dubai, bustling and jam-packed, filled with the sights and sounds of the people who live here every day—rather than visiting businesspeople and jet-setters—and definitely worth seeing for a morning or afternoon.
Another popular activity for groups is a safari in the Desert Conservation Reserve, less than an hour's drive from the city. Guests get to ride the dunes in SUVs (Arabian Adventures uses all new American-made cars), watch the sun set over the barren landscape, and maybe even spot an occasional oryx, the local antelope. Then there's an evening dinner in the middle of the reserve, complete with camel rides, belly dancing, and henna tattoos. The event can be customized for corporate groups to be as elegant as the hotels they're staying at—in Dubai, the sky's the limit.
I found a warm and wonderful hospitality community here—friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to please. Tourism is one of the top industries, and although Dubai might still be relatively unknown to U.S. meeting planners, my hosts from the convention bureau were seasoned at working with corporate and association groups from all over the world.
Most important, as a U.S citizen and a woman, never for a second did I feel anything but comfortable and safe. Dubai is a multicultural, progressive city, and many of its residents are expatriates. The Emeratis, who are just a fraction of the population, have one of the highest standards of living in the world, including free education through college. Islam is the official religion, but the culture is fairly liberal and tolerant. In my view, the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is one of seven states and Abu Dhabi another) could not be more different from the countries that surround it.