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Sun 7 May 2017 08:27 AM

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Dubai's Global Village is ready to go global

CEO Ahmad Hussain Bin Essa has plans to spread the family entertainment brand around the world

Dubai's Global Village is ready to go global
“The pavilion should be a landmark or representing an element of the country,” Ahmad Hussain says.

While Global Village’s season ended recently for its 10,000 workforce, the team behind the popular Dubai venue have already started planning for next season.

Part of Dubai Holding’s Arab Media Group, which also includes Arabian Radio Network and Done Events, Global Village is a multi-cultural festival park that provides entertainment and retail as well as food and beverage outlets from around the world.

Over the course of its 21 seasons, it has become an institution in Dubai.

And now Ahmad Hussain Bin Essa, the CEO, wants to spread the family entertainment brand to other locations in the region and beyond.

The UAE’s extreme summer heat curtails the outdoor venue to operations of a little more than five months every year, but it still commands impressive revenue and footfall figures.

From its initial venue at Creek side, Global Village moved to Oud Metha then  to Dubai Festival City, before establishing its home on Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road in 2005, at a cost of $435,000 (AED1.6m).

Footfall in the first year was 500,000 when the venue had 18 kiosks. In the most recent season that closed on April 8, 2017, 5.6 million guests — an increase of 5 percent on the previous year ­— visited Global Village during its 159 days of operation.

A total of 75 countries were represented in the 18 pavilions erected for the season. The live shows that operated throughout the season (at no extra cost beyond the AED15 entry fee) have been a large part of Global Village’s success, with more than half of those who visit during the season attracted by stars from the region.

Ahmad Hussain says that Global Village has four components: the funfair; the entertainment and shows; the retail — authentic products representing each country; and food and beverage (F&B) outlets from different parts of the world.

During the season, there were business transactions worth $626m (AED2.3bn), and more than 200 investors (meaning people who leased pavilions, retail or F&B outlets).

The workforce is also drawn from around the globe, with 92 nationalities among those who worked during the most recent season. Logistically, it’s demanding, Ahmad Hussain admits.

“Currently we have a full-time staff of 50 people, but during the season we go up to 10,000 people. The guests don't see the logistics of operating this place,” he says.

Of the 10,000, about 7,000 people fly from outside the UAE to work at Global Village, and the remaining 3,000 are from the local market, with full visa facilities provided for every employee.

When the season closes, all of the pavilion facades are torn down.

The country pavilions are operated by Global Village partners. Each year, tenders are issued and each partner has to fulfil certain criteria, including a submission of what that country facade will look like.

“The pavilion should be a landmark or representing an element of the country,” Ahmad Hussain says.

“We look at what cultural shows they’re going to produce; what is the authenticity of the product that’s going to be there. We ask that a minimum of six products be in the pavilion; if there is more diversity, it’s better for us.”

Based on the application, a committee selects who the partner is and who will organise and manage the pavilion.

“When it comes to the operation, we do control those criteria and make sure it has been delivered in accordance with our agreement with the partner,” he says.

Ahmad Hussain cites the contribution of government authorities and partners for the Global Village’s success.

The demand for participation from F&B operators and retailers remains strong, with applications oversubscribed at 350 percent last year.

“I think this year it will grow again,” Ahmad Hussain says.

He adds that new countries could also be admitted in the next season, with Japan a distinct possibility, but discussions are ongoing.

Global Village is in the final year of a four-year development strategy, which looked at the facilities and how it might be improved for visitors. Ahmad Hussain says customer satisfaction is placed higher than any footfall statistics.

Regular visitors will have noticed changes throughout the venue. The project involved reworking the entire masterplan, which was done in conjunction with a California firm. Changes included moving anchor elements, such as the funfair and main stage; making better use of empty land; closing some gates; and relocating pavilions.

At the heart of the changes was a plan to rearrange and improve the flow into the park. The changes, Ahmad Hussain says, were met with some resistance.

“Everyone was challenging us, from media to partners, and the guests, but this season when they saw the full picture they came to understand that it was a very successful masterplan,” he says.

“We’ve tried to create a loop, so even those people who enter from that [cultural] gate will enter the loop and not miss out on the full experience.”

“We’re not positioning ourselves as a theme park, so we’re not bringing a rollercoaster. There are a lot of parks in the region now, with the fastest and the highest rides,” Ahmad Hussain says.

“What we’re positioning ourselves is as a funfair ground. We will give the experience of Coney Island or Oktoberfest in Germany. We need to have that full energy of lights, sound, music, rides experience.”

The funfair is currently operated by a partner, but from next season Global Village will operate it.

“We’re creating a new brand. We believe that we should have a unique product. We’re bringing new rides. It will be a totally new experience.

“We have invested around AED250m [$68m] in building the brand and buying those rights,” Ahmad Hussain says.

The idea of building the funfair is that it will be become a fully fledged, marketable brand, and herein lies the bigger picture. Bin Essa plans to bring the Global Village brand to markets abroad.

“We see there’s huge growth and opportunities,” he says. “The brand we are developing, we are positioning it as a two- to three-hour midway attraction and destination.”

Musical performances from around the world are among the most popular attractions at the venue.

The plan is being studied carefully, as to how everything will work in different markets. Despite the idea being in its infancy, there has been interest from two locations — Saudi Arabia and India.

“Saudi Arabia has a strong vision [for the future], focussing on a diversified economy. I think they’re very serious about the entertainment element,” he says.

“We have been approached by different partners and investors from Saudi Arabia, who are seeing opportunity, but we are still at a very early stage of discussions with them.”

He says there have been investors in “several other countries in the region” who have held talks, including India.

Included in the Global Village brand to be exported is its production house that creates its own bespoke shows, including its own stunt shows, Broadway-style musicals, street entertainment and kids-centric stage performances.

“When it comes to our identity, we are a multi-cultural festival park. A total of 55 percent of our visitors come to Global Village to see the shows and entertainment. We spend around AED20m ($5.4m) a season in creating the shows,” he says.

“We already started exporting our shows into the local market. We are participating with the shopping centres and producing shows,” he says, making it a year-round business for Global Village.

Ahmad Hussain admits there have been discussions about extending the season, but the decision was made to stick with its business model as an outdoor-event destination.

It could be argued that Global Village is handing an advantage to the newer parks that are opening in Dubai, particularly the adjacent IMG World, which is fully indoors so as to sustain year-round operations. Ahmad Hussain, however, argues that such venues as IMG are complementary to Global Village.

“We are a local brand, and, in fact, one of the oldest and biggest local brands, and we have our own experience and our own celebration of different cultures,” he says.

“Having all these brands and destinations will help us and will help all parks because it creates a destination in Dubai by providing a variety of options to the tourists.”

Ahmad Hussain has no fears about the competition affecting demand, as Dubai makes significant strides towards its target to attract 20 million tourists by 2020.

He points to a recent report by Alpen Capital, which said the UAE’s tourist numbers are growing at a rate of 12 percent in the past ten years, compared to 5 percent internationally.

Family entertainment has always been at the forefront of the Global Village experience.

“I feel there is a huge demand for entertainment,” he says. “There are four enablers for attracting and creating Dubai as a destination for tourists. Three of them are currently sustainable — a variety of hotels, from three to five stars; a huge range of F&B brands; a strong transportation network.

“The fourth element, which is entertainment and leisure, with the number of parks and attractions that are coming in the market. It will create a destination, and there is still demand.”

In the short-term, Ahmad Hussain says the company is focussed on finalising the various elements for its new funfair, with the help of Australia-based consultants Sanderson, who are working with Global Village to develop the whole concept. The rides, he says, will be capable of being transported by trailer, which will open up possibilities as to future use at other sites.

Expo 2020 is also on the agenda for Global Village, as Ahmad Hussain says they are keen to lend their expertise to help the event organisers.

“We’re in discussion to see how we can support them and how we can provide our experience into making Expo a successful event.”

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