BIC opens track to business tourism

Hoteliers need to get their pricing right if they want to stay busy all year round, says Martin Whitaker of the Bahrain International Circuit, which has now established itself on the business tourism map. FRANKIE FERNANDEZ finds out more
The landmark Bahrain International Circuit

BEYOND establishing itself on the Formula One (F1) map, the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) is now known as a premier venue for business tourism and corporate entertainment all year round.

In addition, the Sakhir racing circuit has proved invaluable in promoting Bahrain to the rest of the world while boosting the country’s economic fortunes, says general manager Martin Whitaker.
In total, last year’s Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix generated $394 million in direct income to the kingdom’s businesses and traders, almost three per cent of GDP. To add to that, the race’s position as calendar opener also generated tremendous publicity for the kingdom.
In addition to the FIA F1 weekend in March, the BIC hosted several other successful regional and national events last year, as well as drag racing in both car and bike sections. “We’ve had a significant turnaround in fortunes and reven-ues, in terms of corporate activities like business tourism, client incentives, staff motivation trips, seminars, gala dinners, and product launches. By the end of 2006, we had run just over 500 private and public events at the circuit.”
Outside that, the racetrack attracts some 500 visitors every month, who take what Whitaker calls the ‘open tour’ of the BIC’s lavish facilities, while some 200 other curiosity seekers turn up at the gates each month. To cater to this market, the BIC is now putting the finishing touches to a welcome centre, complete with coffee shop.
Looking ahead to next month’s race, Martin relishes the challenge of matching last year’s achievements. “We are looking to improve upon the success of last year’s celebrity race as well as our entertainment, people enjoy being entertained,” he explains. Indeed, people now associate the circuit with solid entertainment for the entire family.
With the track hosting the opening round of the 2007 GP2 Championship, which is the final step to F1, the circuit effectively offers the two top single-seater championships in the world in the same place at the same time.
The BIC has already started its sales and marketing blitz, and while the corporate lounges get sold out very early in the year, ticket sales reach their high point closer to the race. To match this influx of tourists, Whitaker hopes Bahrain’s hotels will offer more competitive rates this year, to entice visitors back.
“The grand prix always highlights a need for more hotel rooms in Bahrain,” he says. “However, hoteliers should realise the country is now busier as a result of the grand prix and other events at the circuit and venues like the exhibition centre. There are more events being held in Bahrain and it’s fair to say that the grand prix has been the catalyst in this growth. Hoteliers will be a lot busier over the year if they strike the right rate for their rooms. You want to encourage people to come back, you want repeat customers.”
The BIC was built at a cost of $150 million four years ago and a new contract, signed this year, ensures that Bahrain will host the event ‘throughout the rest of this decade and deep into the next’. Whitaker expects business to further develop, with the circuit having firmly established itself as the place for motorsport in the Middle East.
“We attract a lot of visitors from across the GCC for major events but of greater significance is the fact that companies such as Audi, Jaguar, and General Motors are now looking to stage events at BIC, rather than more traditional venues like Dubai,” he says.
Business tourism, he adds, is a growth area that needs to be nurtured. “Business tourism is increasing the world over and we need to make sure that we tap into this potential market because if we don’t, somebody else will,” he says. “Whether it’s the Grand Prix or its new financial institutions, Bahrain is being recognised for many things that are very, very good and I want to make sure that whatever we are doing at the circuit is linked in to the new plans for tourism.”
Along those lines, the BIC has already nosed ahead: a new business and technology park will see German sports car manufacturer RUF begin building its first first manufacturing and assembly plant. This is part of a larger goal to bring more investors into the region, and eventually, tourists.