Show must go on for Lebanon's struggling event planners

Stephen Kalin
Reuters

By Stephen Kalin

BEIRUT (Reuters) - In unpredictable Lebanon, now caught up in the spillover from Syria's civil war, the business of planning conferences, exhibitions and luxury weddings is not for the faint-hearted.

But Lebanese organizers of such events - money spinners in the tiny country's vital tourism-oriented service sector - say they are determined to keep going, despite the risk of having to postpone or cancel when political turmoil or violence strike.

The last two years, punctuated by Syria-linked bombings, clashes and a huge influx of refugees, have been particularly bad for enterprises so sensitive to the political temperature.

"We're waiting, we're praying for a good season," said Alain Hadife, whose Caractere company plans luxury events.

Extravagant weddings and corporate events in Lebanon are down 45 percent, he said, with Gulf Arab clients who had once contracted for lavish multi-day weddings scared away.

The slump has cost many ancillary jobs.

"The Lebanese caterer isn't working, the Lebanese waiter isn't working, the Lebanese photographer isn't working. No one is working," Hadife told Reuters.

Like others who do not rely solely on Lebanon as a venue, he says international events are sustaining his business - although he still plans local events that are hostage to uncertainty.

"We cannot say we won't do anything, and then next season everything goes well, but we didn't have time to do it."

That attitude is typical of Lebanese entrepreneurs long accustomed to adjusting to the vagaries of a turbulent region.

Lebanon rebuilt after its devastating 15-year civil war and quickly became a regional business centre. But bouts of violence from 2005, including a month-long war with Israel in 2006, have dented hopes the country will escape instability any time soon.

The Syrian war, which began in 2011, has again hit business travel and tourism, helping slow growth in the overall economy to below 2 percent from 8 percent on average from 2007 to 2010.

"BIG POTENTIAL"

Lebanon has long sold itself as a Middle Eastern travel destination by playing up its image as an open, modern place in a region of autocracies and social conservatives, while glossing over its infrastructure deficiencies, dysfunctional sectarian political system, chronic internal conflicts and corruption.

Figures on how much conferences and exhibitions contribute to the economy are hard to come by, but the wider service sector accounts for about 75 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Business travel boosts hotel and restaurant revenues as well as entertainment and transport. The Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture estimates that 24 percent of employment is directly or indirectly related to tourism.

But high-spending Gulf visitors have vanished for now, and scores of conferences, exhibitions and luxury weddings have had to be rescheduled or relocated in the last two years.

Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at the Byblos Bank Group in Beirut, said stability was vital to the industry's success.

"This country has very big potential in that segment, which it has demonstrated in times of stability and proper security," he said, arguing that Lebanon recovers swiftly from adversity.

And when the going gets tough at home, Lebanese event organizers tend to look overseas to turn a profit.

This year the sprawling Beirut International Exhibitions and Leisure Center has postponed or scrapped many events, including the Lebanon Motor Show, which usually attracts 100,000 visitors.

Rami Joueidi, BIEL's managing director, is now focusing on events his company runs in the Gulf, Europe and United States.

"This is the Lebanese way," he said. "You just have to become international."

Last year the opening of the In Shape health and beauty fair in Beirut was cut short by a bomb across town that killed eight people. The show eventually went on, but instability has forced the postponement of this year's event until next spring.

"Knowing how the situation has been in Lebanon for forever, we never just wait," said Sophia Farghal, one of the organizers.

"You never know. It might be calm from now on, then in two months something happens. What we do is always be prepared as if nothing is going on."

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)