My first in person event of the year & most likely the last. Here's my first person account of getting from London to Dubai and attending GITEX 2020 (COVID-19 Edition).
TL:DR - Live events can work. Get out there, resume business and be safe!
So what do you do when you’re invited (a.k.a. all expenses paid) to what used to be a 170,000 in-person event in the middle of a pandemic?
And one that is slated to be historic; for the very first time, the largest Israeli investors & United Arab Emirates Tech related ministers are assembled at one single event … ever.
At this point, you’ve probably realised that I’m talking about GITEX - the Dubai based tech event, the largest in the region.
This is undoubtedly an appealing proposition at any point in time ... but these are not usual times.
Just the idea of travelling on a long haul flight (#exitrowposse) and then mingling with and interacting, face-to-face, with real human business beings, well, it seems almost like a novelty after close to a year of on-and-off lockdowns!
In other words, I got on the plane.
I do realise just how fortunate I am to have been offered this opportunity, and undoubtedly more and more of them are going to start rolling your way in the coming weeks and months.
With that said, let me give you a leg up, take you through my experience, and explain how it felt Safe & Damn Good to be back on event grounds.
First of all > getting back to Heathrow!
For someone that was used to flying almost every week for the last 4 years, this should be familiar grounds & almost a non-event! Right?
However, as previously mentioned, not so much airport action in the past 7 months … and it certainly felt different to get to an airport again.
Masks are mandatory at all times, Hydro gel distributors everywhere and entire-face covering masked & gloved onsite personnel made the check-in look like I was walking into a biohazard zone!
At LHR, Terminal 3 & Terminal 4 are currently closed for COVID. What this translates to is: there were huge queues everywhere for check-in. Add to this, there are more personnel than usual, making sure you fill out those "no symptoms" declaration forms before even check-in to check-in.
Yes .. this also means that there was none of your usual "let’s do the 24 hr before check-in online" thing … NOPE. We're ALL at the same queue to check-in. At the desk <GASP>!!
Upon arriving boarding: Again … full document check. Fair enough.
Two white aliens welcoming you aboard the aircraft.
They also welcome you with a red card/box containing 3 ply mask, Blue latex gloves, hand sanitisers, and antibacterial wipes, i.e. your very own personal health Covid prevention kit!
The surprise though was that
the plane was ENTIRELY FULL !!
Not a single space left.
Not so good.
Dubai airport arrival
After a 7 hour, relatively eventless flight, we touched down at DXB and I quickly realised that we had to go through a massive queue in order to get tested.
Needless to say, I wasn't exactly thrilled about being stuck in the middle of 200+ (masked) passengers queue in the middle of a global pandemic.
However, if I didn't want to be put on the next flight back to London, this was my only option. NO ONE is allowed in the country without a full negative test result.
Believe it or not, this was my very first PCR test … not pleasant, but totally necessary!
They do it very quickly and professionally, take all your passport and telephone info and send you the results by Text/SMS within a 24 hour window.
You’re obliged to stay in your hotel room in the meantime while waiting for the green light to resume normal activities without the risk of infecting others.
Et violà .. less than 20 hrs later, I received my SMS.
Time was on my side with this one, as I arrived late in the afternoon and therefore obviously stayed in my room for the night while awaiting the results.
Hotel - Temp. Check. Everywhere
Upon arrival at the hotel, the first thing I noticed were 2 men outside the entrance. Their job? Constantly check the temperatures of guests entering the building.
Again, MASKS ARE MANDATORY. ALL THE TIME. EVERYWHERE.
Now THIS is for me the obvious reason why this is acceptable:
- When the UAE imposes a COUNTRY wide mask policy (with a 5000 UAE fine and immediate imprisonment for repeat offenders), let me put this bluntly: You do not f**k around or play rebel!
I even wanted to go running one morning, as I normally do here in London. I was politely informed that even outdoors, I would need to keep a mask on. In 29° heat. Yeah, not so much. 🙃
As previously mentioned, GITEX is usually a >170K people event.
This year, they reduced it considerably, inviting around only 30K participants. Only.
They also deliberately booked a lot more halls to allow more space between exhibitors. Their tagline:
let’s do business again safely
The entrance was very quiet & fitted out with socially distanced entry systems, spaced out with temperature check & security checkpoints.
Additionally, chairs in all conference rooms were quite well spaced out / socially-distanced to allow for 2 meters between participants.
I have to admit, this was a bit of a weird feeling, but also provided some reassurance.
Even speaker microphones were covered with small disposable hoods, changed between each session.
And of course, hand gel everywhere.
Going the extra mile, GITEX even had 3 different PCR test centers onsite.
Interestingly enough, I noticed a lot of hybrid online/offline sessions with participants logging in from around the globe, all protected on screen via proprietary video systems.
Now that we've all become accustomed to this form of interaction, for better or for worse, and bandwidth allows for a relatively painless experience, it felt quite natural even with some giant, remote faces on-screen!
There was a great deal of respect for the space between participants, and overall it felt good to be back to a normal interaction with others. Even if at times it was hard to hear / understand through masks.
Overall, the experience was relatively simple, well managed and I didn’t hear a single complaint about a lack of health precautions.
Why GITEX worked:
- This type of situation could work in the context of a very policed nation with full imposition of health & safety measures.
- Without a negative test on arrival, you wouldn’t even get in the country (or be sent back home right away after a positive test result). This mandatory step sets the tone right from the beginning.
- The event organisers massively changed the way the event was presented. By reducing the size, they allowed for people to have their space and feel comfortable.
As I write from an imposed quarantine, I remain positive and hopeful. While I believe things will never quite be the same again, my experience has provided a breath of fresh air.
An air that blows more and more progressively towards a more hybrid model where we can still experience that indescribable, that ... Je ne sais quoi, of a live event and bring in an entirely new segment that might not have otherwise been able to join us. In the old world.
A special thank you is due to my friend Omar Hassan - Founder of the UK MENA Hub & Managing Partner at the MENA Technology Fund, for inviting me once more to this year's GITEX edition in such unique context.