By Sabine Lehmann

I attended the IAAPA Middle East Summit 2022 in Dubai in February.

IAAPA, the Global Attractions Association of which AAVEA is a member, hosted 110 delegates from 45 different countries and arranged VIP access, behind-the-scenes visits, and a number of panel discussions with local experts at a wide range of attraction facilities. These included:

  • The Dubai World Expo
  • Ain Dubai, the worlds largest and tallest observation wheel
  • Aquaventure at Atlantis, The Palm an iconic water park
  • A VIP viewing and special pre-public opening of the Museum of the Future

Whilst there I took the opportunity to also visit:

  • The Dubai Frame, a giant 48 floor, 150m frame, built in 2018. Think a super-sized Table Mountain New7Wonders legacy frame!
  • An immersive Van Gogh Exhibition
  • The Louis Vuitton Immersive exhibition on a floating pier

Impressions and learnings

  1. Robots are coming – but currently feel more gimmicky than useful

Sabine Lehmann, AAVEA’s executive director, with Opti, the Dubai Expo visitor services robot.

The world expo had a range of four service robots, named Opti, that roamed the gigantic expo site. The robots’ chief function seemed to be to cover a wide area range (which was very useful, considering that the expo was the size of 600 football fields i.e. an area larger than Monaco!) and to be a great tool for a selfie pose. Everyone loved the look of them!

In terms of functions, the ‘bots’ functions ranged from delivery of goods and packages, to being an info bot that distributed maps. It additionally acted as a mobile info kiosk and as a health ‘bot that randomly tested visitors’ temperatures and, using visual recognition, checked that you were wearing a mask.

It seemed that the most useful function was actually as a selfie post and consequently, a retail opportunity. The Dubai Expo said any retail item with the Opti robot mascot sold well. For the rest of its functions – it seemed more for show than serving any real function.

2. Service and cleanliness a basic to get right – every time.

Unacceptable cleanliness management on arrival at the Cape Town International Airport.

I was super impressed by the spotlessness of every place I visited in Dubai. This was by contrast to arrival at the Cape Town International Airport – it looked like bins had not been emptied for sometime.

Despite the availability of service bots, visitors flocked to the human-managed info stations.

I was equally impressed and surprised by the high number of front-of -house staff seen at all attractions in Dubai. All well informed, well dressed, super friendly and very helpful. Visitors appeared to still prefer assistance from a human helper than the robot version. South African attractions can and should focus on these basics – they go a long way.

3.An over-abundance of tech – but does it serve the visitor experience?

The Dubai Expo and the wide range of visitor attractions we visited had invested a huge amount in the latest high technology immersive visitor experiences. The result? A complete abundance of noise, colour, light and tech such that one could no longer appreciate any of it.

I observed one family walking through the Dubai Expo’s Mobility pavilion – which must have had thousands of dollars of immersive tech onsite – yet the family’s two children in push-prams were immersed in a video playing on their phone. It was a complete failure in visitor engagement.

Despite the state of the art high tech immersion experience, this young visitor was watching a video on their phone. #didntlookup!

By contrast, the water park, by its very nature, requires visitors to put their phone away. Here I observed families talking to each other, laughing and sharing rides and engaging with strangers. Whilst it’s unlikely we can ever get visitors to put their phone away, getting them “to look up” and engage with your experience is the real task at hand.

4.Selfie junkies

A selfie site in a Dubai mall. No marker to indicate where you are and just one of about 10 such sites in the one mall.

Dubai has set itself up as a selfie-state. One literally trips over people taking selfies in front of the myriad of specifically designed selfie sites. Each attraction had not one but multiple selfie opportunities, many which were not relevant to the site and thus acted as visual litter. Yes, this feeds the need to be on Instagram but their power wore off. Create one site, make it wow and then let visitors enjoy the site.

5.Sites that worked…..

Across all visitor attractions and experiences ,the ones that worked were ones that paced their experience ,providing a range and balance of active and passive, fast and slow, immersion and entertainment. Halfway through the Museum of the Future, the visitor walks into “The Heal Institute” a space where the “citizen of 2071 gets to reconnect with their 5 senses”. The pace of the experience slowed down completely, giving the visitor an opportunity to regroup themselves, rest and then continue with the rest of the experience.

Questions posed in the Sustainability Pavilion Dubai Expo

Equally, experiences that included thought provoking questions with no easy answers, simple ideas that made one think, actually got visitors to stop and engage rather than just walk past and look without seeing or understanding. Again, finding ways to get your visitors to engage and look up was the key to a memorable experience.