The wintery clouds rolled overhead, preparing to unleash another unapologetic downpour on the roaring Irish Sea below, while the waves crashed unceasingly against the age-old coastal rocks.
Two Emirati brothers – Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi – looked out at the uninviting waters of Dublin Bay, their tanned legs shivering against the biting wind, and wondered if this crowd-sourced idea to dive into the freezing February waters of Forty Foot was such a good one after all.
With no time left for contemplation, the pair found themselves following their guide, clambering down the slippery seaweed steps and swimming frantically out into water no warmer than 4°C. This age-old custom is one that many a Dubliner has done before, and the brothers were not going to let the Emirati side down.
“We’ll show you tough Irish exactly what folk from the desert are made of,” braved Peyman, before racing back to shore faster than a Ferrari down Shaikh Zayed Road.
Such is the bravery and zest for life of the Peeta Planet protagonists that they’re breaking the boundaries of traditional TV and paving the way for the travel shows of tomorrow.
Their series, which recently picked up Outstanding Social Media Project of 2013 at the Broadcast Pro Awards in Dubai, sees the likeable pair directed via an online community voting system, travelling the world, meeting innovators in culture, entrepreneurship and food.
A new way to travel
“The concept we’re trying to drive is social travel,” explains younger brother Peyman, 37. “In the past, people have always copied what others do when travelling, but now more and more people want custom-made trips based on their own passions. Peeta Planet is about connecting with people around the world so when they travel to a destination, they can see it through the eyes of someone just like them.”
The social travel and television programme concept is something the pair has been working on since 2009, when having recently opened their gourmet shawarma restaurant Wild Peeta in Dubai (Peeta being Mohamed and Peyman’s unique spelling of ‘pitta’, the bread traditionally used to make the sandwich) a venture that took them seven tiring years to execute, the pair decided to ask their Facebook and Twitter followers for advice when planning a deserved holiday.
“It is so normal to do that today,” says Mohamed, 40. “But back then it was almost revolutionary. We used the hashtag #PeetaPlanet on Twitter to unify our options and then our followers planned the whole trip for us. They told us where to go [Sri Lanka], where to stay, what to do and we tweeted our way through the whole process. After, people got in touch to say they felt like they’d travelled vicariously through us, which was when the initial idea for our show Peeta Planet was born.”
Now into its second series, the show sees the brothers travel to different global destinations, meeting entrepreneurs along the way, sharing cultural experiences in music, clothes, art and sport, participating in local customs and discovering unique cuisines – virtually all proposed by and voted on by their social media followers.
Today the brothers have around 600,000 followers on Google+, more than 5,500 on Twitter and over 21,000 Facebook friends, many of whom are actively engaging in the production of the programme.
Peeta Planet is the third most viewed locally produced show on the DMI network and the sixth most viewed show within its target audience of 25- to 45-year-olds in UAE, GCC and Middle East.
“We didn’t expect it,” says Mohamed. “It’s still sinking in but it means so much when we get messages from all over the world, and people reach out to tell us they’re in a hotel in Paris on their way to Australia and they’re going to visit somewhere they saw on the show. Or seeing an Instagram shot of someone in the same place we were and they’ve then tagged us saying they saw it on Peeta Planet.”
Such a brave foray into technology was never going to be easy, but the brothers were used to taking on challenges, after they battled to get their restaurant off the ground.
“It took us two years just to find someone to invest in the restaurant business,” says Peyman. “We walked into banks and they all said no. They saw two Emiratis starting a brand new concept and thought it couldn’t possibly work.” But the brothers were determined to prove them wrong.
Perhaps the doubt was born from the preconception that the pair would simply act as silent partners in their business, but little did the bank managers know how hands-on these determined brothers would be.
They worked from the bottom, helping out in their father Younes’ clothes and toy stores as children.
“I remember I was eight or nine and we worked in his clothing store, folding shirts and jeans,” says Mohamed. “He exposed us to that world and that responsibility from a young age, and although he would pay us, it wasn’t a lot! We learnt a lot at that time and we’re thankful that he taught us that work ethic.”
And that work ethic was tested when, despite available funding from Dubai SME for the Wild Peeta restaurant, the pair were forced to find a way around a shortage in funds for a traditional marketing campaign.
Not ones to surrender easily, they turned their attention outside of the box to find ways of reaching out to customers.
“There was no such thing as social media marketing yet,” says Mohamed. “At that time brands were afraid of it, they didn’t want to expose themselves. We didn’t have money to spend on radio or TV, so we looked at social media and thought, ‘wow there are people on here, so let’s find a way to connect with them and see if we can make them our customers’.”
So from the very beginning, the brothers engaged with potential customers via social media – most notably Twitter – getting their followers involved with all concepts of their business – from restaurant’s interior design to menu ideas.
Mohamed says, “We were given advice by thousands of people who followed us. It allowed us perspectives that would have otherwise been limited to two people – my brother and I. It gave us a great foundation to make business decisions.
“We realised that if you could connect with these people and establish really terrific relationships and if they cared about you, then they could help you, they could get involved in your business and direct you. So we started calling them our virtual board members and we would ask them about anything.”
Realising the power and potential of engaging followers not only from the successful launch of their restaurant but the response to their #PeetaPlanet holiday in Sri Lanka, the pair began to focus their attention on garnering ideas for a crowd-sourced travel show.
Engagement was abundant from the online community, however getting investors to be as enthusiastic would not be quite so simple.
In 2010 the brothers approached TwoFour54, Abu Dhabi’s media and entertainment free zone, with their unique travel show idea, describing the mechanics of a series that took viewer participation well beyond traditional viewer voting.
They explained that they wanted to put the whole idea out on social media channels, allowing fans from across the globe to choose the destinations, activities, experiences and future local acquaintances.
“We told them we wanted to take it another step forward,” says Peyman. “We wanted our followers to drive the content – the people would be the directors and we would produce it.”
Despite initial investor doubt, the brothers held firm, travelling weekly to TwoFour54, until eventually, in 2012, they got the green light.
With the backing of loyal partners Google, Intercontinental Hotels and Dubai One, as well as TwoFour54, the pair began filming their pilot show. Series one premiered in April 2013 and picked up a broadcast award just six months later.
All 12 episodes of the first series were filmed in 72 days and showed the brothers as they embarked on a tour across 12 countries including Australia, Lebanon, Singapore, Kenya and South Korea.
During filming, prior to arriving at each destination, Mohamed and Peyman reached out to their social media followers and asked for recommendations about where to go, what to do, what to eat and who to meet, especially when it came to finding as yet undiscovered talent.
“A lot of people celebrate success,” says Peyman. “We’re trying to find those on the cusp, who are still underground. We have to dig, but through social media, we’re trying to find the six degrees of separation.”
And it’s not just daredevil challenges that fill this colourful series – the brothers also find people really making a difference in communities across the globe, something they agree is inspiring and motivational. “We did a segment in Buenos Aires where we featured the National Homeless World Cup Team,” says Mohamed.
“Basically the guy who organises it is an accountant by day and he schedules a game for homeless people once a week. He gives them food, gives them something to look forward to and tries to transfer skills. They end up travelling to places like France to play in the Homeless World Cup.”
Such global acts of kindness are intrinsically weaved into the show, and the brothers consistently meet people making a difference.
“It puts everything in your life into perspective,” says Mohamed. “I don’t think we are accustomed to experiencing that level of adversity outside of a video screen, but as we found out first-hand, you can’t switch over the channel in reality when something makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re forced to be vulnerable and reconcile with how it makes you feel. It’s a core principle of social travelling.
“One of the defining moments was when we visited the Kibera slum in Nairobi. It’s the largest urban slum in Africa, and it was unreal. Dubai is so new, even the oldest buildings are only from the 70s, and to then be suddenly immersed in that environment and see what these people are going through and to see they still have hope!”
Peyman adds, “We are so lucky in the UAE because the government does so much. Then you go to other places in the world and you ask them [the local people] what their government is doing and they don’t know what you’re talking about – it makes you realise.”
Globetrotting adventure, culture, gastronomy and changing the world for the better aside, the two are also focused on addressing stereotypes and embracing their position as cultural ambassadors for the UAE. It was with this role in mind that they decided to wear Emirati traditional dress, the kandura and ghutra, throughout filming.
“We have received emails from Middle Easterners saying for the first time they feel confident about travelling and wearing their national dress,” says Mohamed.
“At first I thought it was awesome, then I thought it was sad. Why shouldn’t we feel proud to wear our national dress? We’re one of the few countries in the world who still do. If you look around the world, everyone is wearing trainers and jeans and we’re still wearing this, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Peyman adds, “At first when people see us in locations, they’re very reserved and people will look at us out of the corners of their eyes, but as we get into conversations, people realise we are just like them – we like the same music and the same food.”
And it’s not just bridging the gap between the UAE and the rest of the world, but importantly, the brothers believe they are taking small steps in bringing a golden age of Middle Eastern creativity back to the region.
“We’re one bridge,” says Mohamed. “And a small one, but it starts on our home turf. There was an era when the region was creating amazing music, art and poetry, and it died because importing became so easy… But I see that changing now, in all aspects of culture, we’re being creative again.”
Younger brother Peyman agrees. “People have heard of the UAE because of all the global projects, but they haven’t come into contact with the people behind it, and this is an opportunity. Visitors to the UAE often say they don’t get a chance to engage with Emirati people because we’re very small in number, and I think our projects allow Emiratis and different nationalities to mix.”
Notably the brothers recognise that the life they are living is a fortunate one, but as they rightly point out, it hasn’t come without a lot of hard work.
“We can count on our hands the number of people in the world who are living this experience,” says Mohamed. “We feel very privileged, but we’ve worked very hard for this – nothing was given to us for free. There were days when we honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen, so we don’t take any of it for granted.”
The hundreds of thousands of social media followers gearing up to steer them through the second series of Peeta Planet probably couldn’t agree more that such doubts were unjustified, but it is this humility that perhaps makes them so popular.
“Right now, we’re just taking it one season at a time and improving ourselves every time,” says Mohamed.
Series two filming begins mid-January 2014. You can get involved on the show’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as on Twitter and Google+.