Notes from Big Ben …
Hard Going in the Land of Sand
By Peter Guest
Like our glorious leader, I went to Abu Dhabi, UAE, in November to attend the inaugural Middle East Parking Symposium. Unlike JVH, I stayed on to speak at the Roadex/Railex conference and exhibition. The outcome was “interesting,” but I am not sure if that was in a good way.
First, the parking seminar. Heavily promoted as the first event in the region specifically dedicated to parking, it also had been supported by the government’s Department of Municipalities and Agriculture (DMA), which had been my client for the two and a half years while we developed the Parking Management Program. Unfortunately, the project seems to be stalled because the new Department of Transport (DOT) has decided that it should have control of the project.
Now these are two departments of the same government, but while they have been battling for control, progress has ground to a halt. The Executive Council (the legislative body) awarded the project to UK contractors NCP more than a year ago. Since then, they have been trying to get started and have already run up a seven-digit bill with no contract and no guarantee that someone won’t decide to start all over from scratch.
Just before the seminar started, the DOT announced that it had control of the project and the doo-doo hit the fan. The opening keynote speaker was from the DMA, and he was ordered to stand down, leaving a pretty big hole in the program. Indeed, there was some pressure to cancel the whole thing, but with a 100-plus delegates already in the air and the booths fully booked, that was not an option.
So, marks out of 10? A pass mark, but only just. The organizers couldn’t do anything about the 11th hour withdrawal of the main sponsor, but a rather large proportion of the remaining papers did seem to be little more than marketing presentations for the various companies that had bought booth space.
A major part of the two-day seminar was taken up with a series of presentations from people selling robotic car parks. This industry seems to see the Middle East as a potentially rich vein that is well worth mining.
I have always thought that there is a place for such products, but they are not suitable for all applications, and it will not be too long before the guys in the Gulf start to ask the question, “If these are so much better than traditional car parks, why are there so few of them out there?”
Some of the robotic-car-park presenters seemed to be inventing some pretty way out statistics to support their case, and doing this in a room of professionals simply makes the speaker look stupid.
There were 17 booths in the exhibition, with a healthy mix of local representatives of companies and a few overseas direct entries. For a first attempt, it was not bad.
So I believe the event could have a future, but the organizers need to try harder and do better – not least of all by stepping up a notch if marketing to the region rather than just the UAE. If not, there are plenty of competitors out there willing to fill the slot.
Event No. 2, the Roadex/Railex conference, is better established and took place in the elegant, new Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Roadex/Railex is similar to the biennial Intertraffic show in Amsterdam in that it covers all aspects of the road and rail industry, with parking being only a small component.
The show lasted three days, and there were seminars on the second and third days. More than 120 booths featured products from all over the world, with strong contingents from the UK and France glaring at each other across the aisle. Parking had fewer than 10 booths, and the products on show were standard fare: pay and display, pay on foot, variable signs and so on. This was not the place to launch a new product.
Six seminar sessions were planned, and a big emphasis of this conference was on road safety. The UAE has just about the poorest road safety in the world. (I think only Lithuania is more dangerous.) Despite various safety initiatives, the figures seemed to be getting worse, particularly among male UAE citizens. This is not so surprising in a country where a 16-year-old can be given a 200 mph Bentley Coupe as a birthday present.
Parking filled one of the six conference sessions, where I was joined by Erik Ferguson, from the American University of Sharjah, UAE, whose paper bore an uncanny resemblance to one he had given at the parking seminar two weeks before. (But let’s not be picky; I was the only person at both events.) I spoke about work I had done in Albania, and tried to draw some parallels and distinctions between there and Abu Dhabi. Nobody threw anything and they clapped at the end, so I guess it went OK.
So two weeks, two events, and I guess that the lesson to take from all this is that parking is now on the map in the Gulf, and if you have a product or a service to offer, get out there and get yourself local representation. You won’t get far without it, and the Europeans and Asians are already there.
And the biggest parking project in the world? It’s still not progressing. The government’s DOT has won the prize, but they are short on resources and short on experience. They need to get the managing consultant team in place ASAP; and while they “haver” (old Scottish, means vacillate), things keep getting worse. The population of Abu Dhabi increased by an astonishing 63% last year, and car ownership rose by about 50% in the three years since we started. If they had gone live in 2007, there was just about room to maneuver; now there isn’t.
Peter Guest, past President of the British Parking Association, is a parking consultant and PT’s reporter on the scene in Europe and the Middle East. He can be reached at
Article Abstract from January, 2009