A look back into future of the Dubai Shopping Festival
Tracing the incredible journey of the Dubai Shopping Festival from its inception in 1996
Any person, across all nationalities and cultures, who landed in Dubai via an Emirates flight from 1996 to 1999 will never forget the welcome that they received at the Dubai International Airport. Indeed, who can forget the immigration officials and the ever-smiling airport staff with a single red rose and a box of chocolate-coated dates? The little boxes, containing three or four of those delectable chocolates, were printed with motifs of the national colors red, white, green, and black.
The flowers and chocolates were, according to some of the older residents of Dubai, a perfect welcome gift. “You could be a tourist, someone who is trying to make it rich, or someone who is in transit. But all of that didn’t matter. What mattered was that little gesture of hospitality, which can never be forgotten,” says a Dubai resident.
In 1996, Dubai was just an ‘in transit city’. The biggest agent of change for the city, perhaps, was the preparation for the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF).
Credit is due to the extraordinary vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and the tireless hard work of several men and women, who breathed life into an idea. An idea to not just make Dubai the biggest shopping destination on the planet, but to create brand DSF. From a desert city with limited oil reserves, Dubai remarkably made its mark on the world map with non-oil trade.
Like several experts, officials, tourists, and people that Khaleej Times spoke to say, “The story of the steady rise of the DSF is truly remarkable.”
The 1996-97 DSF was spearheaded under the leadership of Mohammed Al Gergawi, the current Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the Federal Government of the UAE and Chairman of Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Executive Office and Foundation; and Mohammed Alabbar, the current Chairman of Emaar Properties, who was in 1996 the Founding Director-General of the Dubai Department of Economic Development. Today, the show is run under the watchful and capable guidance of Laila Suhail, CEO of Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment (DEPE).
The DSF today it attracts millions of visitors, generating billions worth in revenue.
In the words of Avishesha Bhojani, the Group CEO of Bates Pan Gulf, who assisted in the creation of the
DSF, “The credit for spearheading the DSF must go to, like how I like to call it, the 3 M’s — His Highness Shaikh Mohammed, Mohammed Al Gergawi, and Mohammed Alabbar. They made this thing happen.”
The first advertisement announcing the DSF appeared in the local publications in 1995. “If you look at the advertisement, there is a message from Shaikh Mohammed inviting public and corporate investors to invest in the DSF,” says Bhojani.
The DSF logo
The logo was selected by Shaikh Mohammed and since 1996 it has gone through various variants, but fundamentally it still looks the same. “One of the most important reasons that the DSF was launched was to also position Dubai as a family tourist destination. If you look at the logo, it denotes a family of four, a shopping flag with the UAE colors and, the green part of the bag is shaped to look like the alphabet D, which stands for Dubai. When you look back at it now, it seems like such a simple idea,” says Bhojani.
The first print advertisement that appeared in local media in 1996
The first DSF advertisement announcing sponsors.
The Global Village was initially called the International Village
In 1996, electronic retailers made a group sale of Dhs 600 million
In 2001, the tagline of DSF was ‘One World, One Family, One Festival’ and the budget was Dh65 million
Newspaper clippings from March 1997 (Source: Khaleej Times archives) say that in 1997 the Dubai Municipality and the City Decoration Task Force used 450,000 light bulbs for decorative purposes during the DSF.
Indian tabla maestroZakir Hussain first performed for the DSF in 1997; he returned to perform this year as well
The ad quoted Shaikh Mohammed as saying: “Over the last three decades, Dubai has gained international prominence as the City of Merchant Enterprise. This has been made possible largely by the spirit of trade and adventure exhibited by our trading community. The DSF 96’ is a celebration of this spirit.”
The idea for a shopping festival in itself was an inspiration from the Great Singapore Sale, an annual retail event organised by the Singapore Retailers Association.
“Under the directives of Shaikh Mohammed, the Dubai Department of Economic Development, which I was then heading as its founding Director-General, launched the first DSF in 1996. Having earlier worked in Singapore, I found the concept of the week-long Singapore Sale quite interesting. Although the plan was to conduct a city-wide event to boost the retail sector, what we did was to take it to the next level by creating a month-long shopping and entertainment extravaganza,” Mohammed Alabbar tells Khaleej Times.
“Shopping malls had just started sprouting up and by 1997 there were about 10 malls in the city. Prior to the launch of DSF, Dubai lacked a festive atmosphere. Eid is not what you can call a visually festive occasion,” says Bhojani. “The word ‘festival’, translated into ‘mahrajan’ in Arabic, has a very powerful connotation and so when the decision to launch a city-wide shopping festival was launched, it was obviously very well received.”
The story behind the brand
Right from the branding of the festival to the array of activities planned, the focus, from the inception of DSF, was on positioning Dubai as a family destination and in highlighting the cosmopolitan outlook of the city, says Alabbar.
According to newspaper reports from August 9, 1995, the first festival was expected to generate revenue of Dh1 billion in sales. The inaugural DSF attracted 1.6 million visitors with a total spend of Dh2.15 billion. “DSF was not just about shopping and retail, which has traditionally been a strong growth sector of Dubai. Our objective was to create an extravaganza that would capture the interest of the region and the world, and also drive the growth of sectors such as hospitality and tourism, which are key contributors to the city’s economy,” says Alabbar.
Alabbar was recognised as AdAge International’s Marketing Superstar of 1996 for his work in bringing life to the DSF.
After 1996, DSF went global. The then Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board (DCTPB) took the festival on roads shows to countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, and nation-wide advertising campaigns were launched as well.
“We had rolled out an ambitious and well-planned marketing strategy that complemented the tourism growth initiatives of Dubai. In addition to international road shows and tourism promotions, DSF was also carefully planned to attract the maximum number of visitors by aligning it with the holiday season,” says Alabbar.
Sixteen official sponsors, including Emirates Airlines, which continues to play a major role, were listed by 2000. In March 26, 1996, the DSF was confirmed as an annual event.
In 2008, the responsibility of organising the DSF went into the capable hands of Laila Suhail. “I’ve been working on the brand right from day one and when I look back today, there are so many fond memories that I have of the festival,” she tells Khaleej Times. “I started my career with the DSF office. I think the main reason that the brand is so successful is because of the passion and excitement that was there right from the moment Shaikh Mohammed announced it in August 1995.”
Suhail says that one of the main reasons that the festival tasted such phenomenal success is because it is the end result of the combined hard work of the entire city of Dubai. “The foundation of the brand was built on passion and team work. Nineteen years ago, I used to look after the sponsorships and I remember Shaikh Mohammed instructing us that if any private organisation contributes Dh1, they must receive Dh3 in return of value. It was his direction and strategy that drove the brand from day one and continues to do so till now,” she says.
Retail, Raffles and Entertainment
The success of DSF highlighted the unique business model of Dubai, which encourages the private sector to take a dynamic and central role in driving all-round development, says Alabbar. Prior to 1996, Dubai’s gold and jewellery merchants got together to form an association that would sponsor daily gold raffles. “When they were initially approached, they were baffled by the idea because you can’t give discounts in gold. They told us, ‘we are selling parity products, and how can we work together when we are all trying to compete against each other?’ They were shocked by the idea,” recalls Bhojani. “After a few round of meetings, the economic department signed its support towards the association, after which the gold retailers said they would sponsor a daily gold raffle of one kilo.”
A lot of work went into deciding entertainment options during the festival. “In 1996, we flew to India, looked at a 100-odd street performers and handpicked the best one and flew them down to Dubai for the festival,” says Bhojani.
According to Alabbar, the public sector only served as a facilitator for the DSF. “But it was the private sector, through their active participation, that shaped DSF as a spectacular success — highlighting the triumph of public-private partnerships as a development model in Dubai.”
In the coming years, Bhojani says, the festival will continue to gain strength, leveraging Dubai’s central location and enhanced airline connectivity, and the fantastic growth of its shopping mall sector, to be the world’s must-visit family attraction.
The festival itself needs a little bit of a refreshing. “Dubai has moved away from last price to top quality. All the big luxury brands are being sold here. There is Louis Voitton, Cartier, and none of them are ever on sale. Dubai is not offering a discount; it is offering more in term of ‘firstness’. It has the widest choice in terms of luxury. Even visually the brand could do with a little bit of refreshing,” says Bhojani.
Suhail says the DSF has become a pioneer brand. “We’ve set a benchmark for festival organisation world over. When we started DSF, the whole city was different. There were three shopping malls and today we house the world’s biggest shopping mall. The festival has to match the expectations of the city with more attractions coming in and we need to cater to the expansion. It is not about offers, promotions or discounts any more. We are showcasing our uniqueness.”
“In many ways, the relevance of DSF goes beyond its success as a shopping and entertainment event. It underlined for the first time Dubai’s can-do ability to host large-scale events, which is now reiterated with the successful bid to host the World Expo 2020,” says Alabbar.
Attracting hundreds of thousands of family visitors, he says, from across the Middle East region, the Indian Subcontinent and Europe, the inaugural DSF also set the stage for defining Dubai as the ‘beacon of hope’ for the Arab world, a city where positivity triumphs.
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