Festival musings

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Festival musings

As the curtain is about to fall on the latest edition of the DSF, we take a nostalgic trip down memory lane and talk to people who have seen it all. Market exuberance aside, they all long for the return of the original spirit of the festival. Their message: Engage the community more, so that it can 
OWN the festival

By Suresh Pattali

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Published: Mon 28 Jan 2013, 11:45 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 4:21 AM

Remember the winter night when fireworks exploded over the Dubai skyline for the first time and thousands of families milled about on both sides of the Creek to get a glimpse of the dazzling show that heralded the first edition of the Dubai Shopping Festival? People across the globe watched in awe as the first pyrotechnic show in the Gulf, launched from a boat anchored in the middle of the Creek, also announced the arrival of Dubai on the international calendar of events.

PERSONAL TOUCH:Shaikh Mohammed shaking hands with an expat girl at the Global Village in 1998. Such bonding has played a great role in the success of the DSF. — AFP

In 1996 that was. For both the Emiratis who had seen such shows on yonder shores and expats who were used to much bigger fireworks displays back home, these and other spectacles that unfolded in the following days were a premonition — that there is more to Dubai than the souqs, camels and cars. The photos of the fireworks in the desert land evoked the same kind of astonishment that those iconic Hasselblad shots of Neil Armstrong bounding across the moon’s surface produced in the 1960s.

For a people who were only used to the work-sleep-and-work culture, the festival was like a toy shoved into the hands of a kid woken up in the dead of night. In the first days and then in the later years of the festival, the city never slept, with shops staying open till the wee hours and entertainment filling every nook and corner of Dubai. Al Riqqa Street slept in the day and sprang to life in the night with a carnival feel that resembled the greatpasar malamfairs of the Malays and Indonesians.

Such was the sense of belonging and involvement that when the worst-ever thunderstorm in Dubai flattened stalls at the Global village in 1997, a pall of gloom descended over people across all communities. The Global Village those days was not more than a collection of kiosks on the Deira side of the Abra, selling products from different countries.

The shopping festival has since come a long way, proving a great success year after year. Cash tills have not stopped ringing since, with 1.6 million visitors spending about Dh2.15 billion during the 43-day inaugural edition, and the figure skyrocketing to 14.7 billion from 4.36 million visitors in 2012.

A great show, indeed, in financial terms. But was the Dubai Shopping Festival all about money? Even when the concept of a shopping extravaganza was alien to the region, some cities in the First World had already put in place their own version of the event with a hawkish eye on the shopper’s wallet. While the festivals in such countries strictly remained a retail event, Dubai redrew the concept on a much bigger canvas, launching the DSF on February 15, 1996, as an event intended not only to revitalise the Emirate’s economy, but also to redefine the city’s status as a top entertainment destination in the world. Call it true vision.

However, it was the great involvement of the residents and the local media that held key to the event’s huge success. When this reporter settled down in Singapore, it took a couple of years to find out there was an event called the Great Singapore Sale because of mediocre media coverage and the lack of a wholesome experience.

There is this joke — no malice intended: What does a Singaporean do when he is not working? He eats. And what does he do when he is not working and eating? He shops. And most of the Singaporeans go outside destinations like Malaysia and Thailand to shop. So in 1994 Singapore came out with this idea of a shopping festival to cash in on its domestic shoppers by anchoring them on its own soil.

While the Great Singapore Sale was chiefly confined to shopping and food, the DSF, realising that consumers are no longer lured by discount offers, established itself as a total shopping-cum-entertainment experience. From fireworks to fashion shows, raffles to discounts, and children’s events to musical shows, the DSF offered something for everyone. People went to chill out and ended up shopping at all entertainment venues.

The concept worked, with a single programme in Dubai’s round-the-year calendar of events contributing over five per cent to the emirate’s economic nervous system. But the question at the back of everyone’s mind at the moment is — how long will it work? Forget the Shakespearean concept “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”. There is this creeping feeling among residents as well as tourists that their most favourite event might lose its charm as time catches up.

Since 1996, the format of the DSF has not changed much apart from a permanent home for the Global Village. Isn’t it time to breathe a fresh lease of life into Dubai’s most talked-about extravaganza? Isn’t time to start on a fresh slate in order to reinvigorate the product?

Though traders want the present format retained, Emiratis and expats call for a renewed effort to keep it like a family affair with a personal touch. Some old timers say their reminiscences of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, taking a stroll at the Global Village and shaking hands with an expat girl are hard to forget even after 15 years.

Ahmad M, a harbour master in Dubai, feels something must be done before it is too late. “I cannot feel the excitement in the air anymore,” he says. Even though he does not have much of a problem with the old format, Ahmad says the present DSF campaign lacks a touch of magic to generate excitement.

“Remember the good old days when the entire city used to be awash with lights and decorations? They were like magnets that pulled families out of their homes to event venues and malls. The paraphernalia has disappeared. Is it budget constraints? Is it poor planning? I’m not sure. My family used to buy truckloads from the Global Village though we really didn’t need any of them.

“Sustaining that kind of involvement involves lots of challenges. Strategising should not be relegated to a routine job. We need to have another round of unique advertising blitz to keep the DSF a family affair rather than just a retail-tourist event,” says Ahmad.

“Though there are world-class events happening at various venues right now, there isn’t much awareness among families about them,” says the Emirati.

“It is definitely important to keep on changing. Change is the most inevitable part of life,” says Ram Buxani, president, Cosmos ITL Group.

“It’s true that the DSF brought change to Dubai. Now it’s Dubai’s turn to bring change to the DSF,” says Buxani.

“The DSF those days witnessed a shopping boom as hotels were told to cut down tariffs substantially and participating outlets were supposed to reduce prices to designated levels to make Dubai a shopping paradise,” remembers the Cosmos ITL chief. “That is no more there. On the contrary, hotels now hike prices because of demand. People don’t come here to avail of shopping discounts, but to enjoy the carnival ambience. It would be a better idea to rename the DSF as the Great Dubai Festival to give it a wider meaning, instead of restricting it to just shopping,” argues Buxani.

Shoukath Ali, managing director of well-known Dubai production house Lensman, says there was so much excitement when it all began in 1996. “Over the years all of us got tired of seeing the same things over and over again. Nothing has been done to improve or excite the event. It’s more of a discount sale than a festival now.”

“If this festival has to hold on to its innovative inception, fresh ideas and concepts should be introduced. Otherwise, the Dubai Shopping Festival will slowly lose its charm,” says Shoukath, who had been associated with the production of DSF-related films for various companies.

However, Kamal Vachani, group director, Al Maya Group, says the DSF should be run the way it is held currently.

“The DSF is one of the finest and eagerly awaited festivals. The retailers also look forward to this one month to attract customers with various discounts. It attracts a lot of tourists from around the world who come to enjoy and to grab the fantastic offers. I feel it should be run as the way it is being held. We welcome the DSF with open arms,” Vachani adds.

Jose De Souza, a veteran in the PR industry, feels Dubai has so much more to offer than shopping. “I think the DSF does a great job in positioning the city as an attractive shopping destination. Perhaps the best indication of its success is the noticeably larger number of shoppers you see at the malls these days.”

“That said, I do believe that the festival could use a change in positioning. Dubai has so much more to offer than shopping, but the other aspects tend to get lost in a cloud of consumerism,” De Souza says, echoing the opinion of a cross section of society.

“Rather than being retail-led, perhaps the festival can evolve to truly become an effective showcase of Dubai — of its diversity, its culture and also the vision behind its success. And the only way to achieve that is by engaging the community to participate and OWN the festival.

“Not only would this add depth to the way the festival and Dubai are perceived, it would also present a well-rounded picture to visitors that would go beyond the retail therapy,” adds De Souza.

Ashish Punjabi, chief operating officer of Jacky’s Group of Companies, says the feel of mass involvement is missing due mainly to the city’s enormous growth. “As the city developed, we’ve seen changes in terms of where and how events happen. For example, a lot of the attractions during the DSF used to be on the high street but as the mall culture enveloped Dubai, most activities moved into malls as this is where ultimately the customer traffic was. Most malls have been fairly active in having their own activities and promotions during the month. On the traditional high street, we’ve also seen that with the congestion on the roads and construction activity, it doesn’t make as much sense to have events there anymore,” Punjabi says very matter-of-factly.

He says the event organiser, DEPE, has been working strategically to bring in customers from different parts of the world based on their own respective calendars. “There has been a realisation that an event like the Dubai Shopping Festival should ideally target as many nationalities as possible and from what I’ve seen with the DEPE, they’ve set up their target segment every year and focused specially on them.”

“Dubai has also evolved from where it had only one Dubai Shopping Festival once a year, to adopting various events throughout the year that cater to different customers in different segments. So apart from the Dubai Shopping Festival, we also plan for Dubai Summer Surprises, Ramadan and Eid in Dubai. In addition to this, we have Gitex Shopper in the autumn and starting from this year, a second edition of the Gitex Shopper that will happen during the spring time. That means, we’ve got six major government-backed events for us as an electronics retailer in addition to the other promotions or event-based offers we run through the year,” says the retailer.

“Moreover, these days, you’ve got something happening in Dubai throughout the year and there is rarely a weekend when you don’t hear about a music concert happening or a children’s entertainment show coming to town.

“Don’t forget that the focus of the DSF is clearly on bringing in tourists and having some great sales that will attract residents and tourists alike, adds the Jacky’s COO.

“The DSF theme and nature of celebrations need to be redesigned. The festival still revolves around its 1996 blueprint. We must have a new-gen festival with the wow factor,” says Nissar Syed, managing director, Asia Vision Advertising.

“Excitement cannot be measured in terms of discounts and raffles alone. We failed to carry forward the energy created in the pre-2000 period. The DSF needs to reinvent its reward programmes, for example, with a free villa or apartment offer as in the case of reality shows in India. Entertainment events need to be exempted from government formalities and artistes granted free visas and stays,” says Syed.

He also suggests a DSF night market modelled on Bangkok’s Patpong Bazaar, and rescheduling of school timings to make it a family-friendly event.

R. Haridas, manager, advertising & promotions at ITL Group, Dubai, says the best way to energise the scene is to pull in airlines with special travel packages, including easier visa formalities, to attend the DSF. Additional baggage allowances during the period will be the icing on the cake, he says.

Madhu Kuttat, managing director, Watermelon Communications, agrees that from a UAE resident’s point of view, the whole affair seems to be the same year after year.

“However, I would want to believe that has not been the case for the visiting tourists. The very fact that there is an increasing number of tourists during the DSF year after year stands testimony to that. If there was no value in what is being offered, the tourist arrival figures would not have increased,” says the ad guru. “That said, I think there is a need for more efforts to involve the residents in a big way in the event. Dubai is home to people from over 160 countries, we are told. Imagine them being ambassadors of the event, and promoting the DSF in their respective countries,” wonders Kuttat.

When the ecstasy dies down after February 3, it won’t be a bad idea to do some soul-searching. People — the Emiratis and expats alike — might want a change in the script and a bigger role for the community and culture so that people who love this land could OWN the festival.


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