Senior decision-makers and top suppliers reunite in the UAE to talk the business of dining.

It was with enthusiastic anticipation that senior corporate decision-makers and suppliers from the Middle East and Africa’s hospitality sector gathered at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers this March, eager to explore the wealth of opportunities on offer for the region’s F&B.

The main draw for many of the forum’s 130 delegates was the extensive roster of pre-arranged one-to-one meetings between top suppliers and senior decision-makers from major hospitality groups operating in MEA’s hotel F&B sector, with To The Table staff on hand to ensure everything runs smoothly. Returning companies among the 39 buyers in attendance included hotel groups Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and Jumeirah Group, all of whom were represented by new delegates. On the supplier side, Craster, Pernod Ricard, Steelite and Revol were among familiar returnees, while Nespresso, Bugatti and Rona made their debut.

After the initial buzz of the welcome dinner at the hotel’s Nahaam Terrace, To The Table MEA 2023 kicked off with the first of four seminars tackling topical issues facing the region’s hospitality sector. Chaired by writer, editor and media consultant Devina Divecha, each panel showcased a range of expert viewpoints and invited audience participation for an engaging discussion of the topic at hand. 

Entitled Designing for the Future, Where Luxury & Sustainability Co-Exist, the opening seminar explored the burgeoning relationship between sustainability and design. On stage were Robert Juntke, Vice President of F&B EMEA at Marriott International; Marcos Cain, Principal and founder of Stickman Tribe; and Pinar Calimano, Director of Design and Innovation EMEA at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. The subject of restaurant design for the years to come sparked a lively debate about the role of designers in creating sustainable concepts, with Calimano stating: “As designers, we have a responsibility to create experiences that are kind to both the planet and people. We can design to increase efficiencies and minimise impact. We can design to use sustainable products, source local materials and we can create concepts that support local communities.” 

Hotel development in Saudi Arabia was the topic on everyone’s lips during the conference, particularly during the engaging second talk, Ambitious Saudi Arabia – From Futuristic Cities to World-Class Tourism. Three figures with the inside scoop – Oliver Harnisch, Senior Strategy Advisor for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism and founder of Lunasole Hospitality; Stefan Breg, Managing Director for KEANE; and Abdullah Al Muslemani, CEO of Crown and Company and Sora Saud Trading Company – discussed the growth of hospitality in the region and how the acceleration of cultural and social changes are creating more opportunities for the F&B industry. After a full day of business, delegates were transported to nearby The Abu Dhabi Edition, where they enjoyed a cocktail party and dinner at Alba Terrace. 

Independent restaurants and bars were the topic of conversation at the third seminar, in which Michael Marlay, Chief Operating Officer at Tashas Group; Naim Maadad, Chief Executive and founder of Gates Hospitality; and Yannis Stanisiere, Chief Operating Officer for Coya, offered their thoughts on the rise and success of independent groups in the MEA, highlighting the innovation, creativity, flexibility and risk-taking demonstrated by the sector. The trio also explored the potential for new business opportunities if hotels teamed up with independent F&B groups. “We’re already seeing that the relationship between independents and hotels is becoming stronger as we gain a wider understanding of both parties,” commented Maadad. “I think the main positive impact of this, is that hotel owners are now realising that value that could be added by an independent spa or restaurant. If you combine two powerful businesses that excel at what they do, the future will be bright.”

The fourth and final seminar saw leading F&B experts Sebastian Nohse, Senior Director of Culinary EMEA at Hilton Worldwide and Joseph Chalfoun, Area Restaurants & Bars Director MEA at Radisson Hotels Group, discuss the importance of in-house restaurant concepts that engage with both hotel guests and the local community. The duo also highlighted the impact of the recent introduction of international F&B awards to the region, such as the Michelin Guide and 50 Best. “There are approximately 13,000 restaurants in Dubai – one of the highest per capita restaurant concentrations in the world – but not all of them are quality,” noted Chalfoun. “With the entrance of these schemes into the market, it is going to put the onus back on operators to make sure that they are looking at the standards of the food they’re serving and the concept.”

With the first To The Table event of the year a triumphant success, the itinerary was rounded out with a farewell gathering at Conrad Etihad Tower’s Michelin-starred restaurant Vakava, where friends old and new reminisced about the highlights of their week over cocktails and Latin American fare.

The next To The Table will take place in Kuala Lumpur from 26-28 September 2023.

Richard Pereira Photography