Over the last several months, many of us at Simpleview have been working with the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). I was asked to join this project to assist in setting up CRM, meet customer requirements and provide training/guidance to their staff in Dubai and their sales offices around the world. Monica Valdenegro is the Project Manager for this CRM build while I was selected as the CRM Analyst. During the CRM build process, we were asked to fly to Dubai to meet with the stakeholders of DTCM and gather their requirements for the system. After the build was nearly complete, we were asked to return to the offices to run full training sessions for their entire staff.

The trips to Dubai were an amazing experience. We wanted to share our experience with Dubai, the Middle East and some observations. In Part 1, we describe our first time experiencing this wild and amazing place. Keep an eye out for Part 2 in the coming weeks, where I'll describe our return visit armed with knowledge, and a desire to fit in as many experiences as possible.

Part I

Being asked to travel to the Middle East to help with the implementation of CRM in Dubai was a bit nerve racking. Being out of the country in a new place is difficult and exciting. Having the opportunity to learn a little about culture, history and explore a part of the world we would have otherwise never have been able to see.

The Middle East has always been a bit of a mystery, knowing only what friends have said or what we have read; it was difficult to get a good idea of what we would truly experience once on the ground.

The flight from Tucson to Dubai was a long journey - though we were able to get a direct flight from Los Angeles to Dubai (16 hours in the air) - the time change of 11 hours plus the travel time was intense - leaving on Thursday morning and arriving in Dubai on Friday night, we found ourselves completely emerged in new experiences.

First Impressions

The Dubai airport is an amazing work of art and highly organized. Getting off the plane, passengers were greeted with the option of taking black chauffeured cars to their hotels or final destination. There was no lack of these cars - hundreds of them were lined up just out the door leading out of the airport - all ready for their next customer.

Walking out the door of the air-conditioned airport into the night air was a shock. Though the time was 10 pm, temperatures stood at a sweaty 98 degrees and the humidity could be cut with a knife.

Even without taking a black car, shuttles and taxis hustled through the terminal picking up people with an efficiency I have never seen before. People were emerging with their bags and within seconds were whisked away to their final destination. We had a hotel shuttle - which was running on a schedule. The shuttle, which was more like a mini bus showed up pulling a trailer to accommodate the luggage. A few minutes later we were pulling up to the hotel where we would we would call home for the next two weeks.

The hotel staff was friendly to a fault, all of the staff addressed guests with a title and their first name - they would call me "Mr. Aaron" whenever I needed anything. Though the hotel was similar to anything we would find in the United States, there are subtle differences. Upon check-in, a passport was required - this might be common at other international destinations, however, it was my first time having this experience. Next, they had security posted through the hotel. One night my colleague and I were stopped on the way to our rooms, we were asked where we were headed. We told them my room number. The guard pulled out a list and checked my room number and told me that the room was only set for a single person. We then explained that my colleague also has a room and she was going there. He again looked up the information and allowed us to move on. In many hotels, it is not allowed to have two people of opposite sex in the same room unless those people are married. The last thing we noticed was the staff seemed to be active and cleaning 24-hours a day. Of course flights in and out of Dubai occur mainly during the middle of the night, which might explain this activity.

Acclimating to the City and the Dubai Mall

Our first full day in Dubai was a day to adjust to the new time zone and explore the area. We decided to go to the Dubai Mall to pick up a few supplies and stay out of the heat of the day. Though my first thought was, "We came halfway around the world, and the first thing we do is go to a mall", I can tell you it was completely worth it.

The trip to the Dubai Mall was an experience in itself. The roads are very well maintained and there was no visible graffiti or trash on any of the roadways. The city as a whole is very clean. Heading toward the center of town, you are quickly surrounded by tall buildings that remind you of any major city in the world. These buildings all have unique designs and each one is a work of art. The buildings stretching high into the sky were dwarfed by what we saw next. As we approached the mall, the skyline was dominated by the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world. This building is over 160 stories (2,716.5 feet) and towers over everything. It is so tall I was forced to take panoramic photos just to try to get the whole building in one shot.

The Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world with over 1,200 shops. When we arrived at the Dubai Mall and walked inside, we were awestruck by what we saw. Four stories of shops and beautiful displays everywhere you look. To say this mall is big is really doing a disservice to the mall. Massive might be a better way to describe it. The mall has a supermarket, traditional souk, kids play zone, an ice hockey rink, a world famous aquarium - complete with underwater tunnel - movie theater and a waterfall. Even with all of that, there were still hundreds of shops; many of them were top designers.

The mall also has odd sights like a gold ATM, and sharks floating past deals at clothing shops, but still had several areas that were more traditional. The arcade features the tallest slide in the Middle East, which we had to experience! While in each individual attraction, you almost forget that this is all in an air-conditioned mall.

"At the Top" and Burj Khalifa 

The mall was also the place where people could ride an elevator to take them to "At the Top". This is what they called the observation floors of the tallest building in the world.

Finished in 2012, the Burj Khalifa stands 2,716.5 feet high - which is more than two times as high as the Empire State Building and just shy of three times as high as the Eiffel tower in Paris. Interestingly enough, at least to us, the Burj Khalifa has a foundation that is in the shape of a Simpleview trident. The standard tickets will get guests up to the 125th floor - where you are treated to a view that cannot be beat. From this high vantage point, all of the other mega buildings look small. On the day we went up, there was so much humidity in the air, the haze obstructed the view a bit, but it was still awe inspiring.

Just outside the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, a lake features a light and water show every 30 minutes or so. Similar to the water shows you can see in Vegas, water cannons and lights make the lake seeming dance to different songs all night long. This is particularly spectacular to view while on an observation floor of the Burj Khalifa.

Walking around Dubai, we were concerned about what would be appropriate to wear; however, these concerns melted away over time. The population of Dubai is made up of nearly 90% people from other nations. While walking around, you see people wearing clothing from every region just as you would in any other large city.

CRM Implementation and Ramadan

Joining DTCM for their CRM implementation process was a fun and exciting process. We were half way around the world, yet many of the challenges faced by their organization seemed to be similar to the issues faced by many other bureaus we had worked with. We were able to work with the team to develop solutions that would allow them to be even more effective in their everyday job and share their information worldwide.

Each night after work, we would find some place that was unique to the area to grab a bite to eat before returning to our rooms to work. Due to the time difference, we would be able to get answers to questions from the main Simpleview office during the middle of the night.

The last day in the DTCM office was also the start of Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, people are not allowed to eat or drink from dawn to dusk, this includes water. When the fast is broken each night there is a feast and party. The work day hours were reduced; however, everyone is expected to still work. During this implementation process, Monica and I ran several hours of training sessions each day, usually with access to water to keep hydrated and after talking all day it is nice to have. Once Ramadan started, all the water, snacks and coffee disappeared. Restaurants remained closed during the day and no lunch was served.

Departure and Takeaways 

After a week of working with each department and helping provide a plan to implement CRM, we were ready to explore a bit more of Dubai before taking a 16-hour flight back to the U.S. However, since Ramadan had started, our plans changed slightly since most attractions operate on limited schedules.

We decided to go to the Mall of the Emirates. Yes, another mall! The reason we trekked across the city to see this mall? It is the only mall in the world to have an entire indoor ski resort! Walking into this mall felt like walking into any mall you've ever gone to in the US, but you walk down a corridor to see a glass wall looking onto a winter wonderland. A resort, complete with a lodge, ski lifts, bobsled track and penguins! Keep in mind, it was close to 110 degrees outside and people were hitting fresh powder slopes inside this resort where the air temperature was hovering around 26 degrees! Kids in rented snow gear were building snowmen, sliding down icy paths, or snowboarding.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to do many of the other attractions we had heard so much about - such as a desert safari, going to the world's only 7-star hotel or going to the beach. However, what we did experience was nothing short of mind blowing.

The hospitality of the people we met was off the charts. There was never a time were we felt in danger or had any issues with feeling out of place. We did read a lot and were prepared for Ramadan and other cultural considerations which made this trip not only easier but much more enjoyable.

It might not be the most exciting thing; however, walking through a supermarket was a fascinating experience for both of us. Seeing products from around the world and being able to see the variety of products opens your eyes to all of possible foods and combinations that we might not be exposed to in the US on a daily basis.

There is so much to see in Dubai for people with a variety of interests; we had a hard time fitting in just a few. The experience is something I'll never forget and has changed my view of the Middle East.