The Dubai Shopping Festival first started in 1996 Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: Who would have thought that the multi-billion-dirham Dubai Shopping Festival first started out on a zero budget? Twenty editions later, the festival has become a popular destination, occupying pride of place in the list of most looked forward to events across the world.

Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) has come a long way in opening up the city to shoppers, thrill-seekers, and holidaymakers from the rest of the world since its first edition in 1996.

Just like any Dubai-born initiative, DSF started from a single idea but, armed with a promise from no less than His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“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 Dubai Shopping Festival 1996 is a celebration of this event,” Shaikh Mohammad said when he launched his brainchild on August 8, 1995. “The city will do everything that is required to make the festival an international event.”

Nearly two decades and 19 editions later, Dubai has attracted at least 56 million visitors throughout all the DSF events, who have collectively contributed at least Dh145 billion to Dubai’s economy.

Gulf News speaks to Avi Bhojani, Group CEO of Bates PanGulf Group, and one of the architects of DSF, to take us back on the journey of this 20-year celebration that he has helped realise and seen flourish right before his eyes.

1) The beginnings

Long before big shopping malls rose from the sand and big brands landed in the city, the emirate’s trading industry was already bustling. It was a haven for traders, mostly men, who would come to Dubai to do business, leave, and then come back to do business again. But one essential thing was lacking.

“In the past, Dubai was a trader’s destination, a businessman’s destination. Families didn’t consider coming to Dubai because there was nothing for families,” Bhojani recounted.

The idea to launch DSF to attract tourists, mainly families from the world over, came shortly on the heels of the Dubai Quality Awards in 1994 that aimed to improve business operating standards in Dubai.

The shopping festival was the brainchild of Shaikh Mohammad after assuming the title of Crown Prince in 1995.

Shaikh Mohammad wanted the Economic Department to be much more active, Bhojani said. So Shaikh Mohammad, together with Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who was the founding Chairman of the Supreme Committee that governed DSF since its inception and currently President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group, Mohammad Al Gergawi, now the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, then Festival Coordinator-General, and Mohammad Al Abbar, now the chairman of Emaar Properties, who was then the founding director-general of the Dubai Department of Economic Development and member of the DSF Supreme Committee, decided to do something that would stimulate the retail sector. “And that’s how the Dubai Shopping Festival happened,” Bhojani said.

2) The model and strategy

In those days before DSF, the four-letter-word “sale” was very powerful in Dubai because of its rarity.

“A retailer could only do two sales a year of no more than two weeks each time,” Bhojani said. “And every time there is a sale, they had to establish one of the following two things: either that their mark-up was no more than 25 per cent of the landed cost of goods, or that they give them the 25 per cent discount over the normal selling price.”

The Great Singapore Sale, launched a year before in 1994, served as the initial model of DSF, Bhojani said.

But there was a stark difference: the inaugural DSF operated on a zero-based budget.

“So, it was a very very significant challenge. You didn’t know how it would work. You were making this promise [to retailers] based on a zero-budget. You just had to have that attitude that, “Yes, we can do it.”

And they did. The trading community and retailers jumped on the bandwagon into a journey into the unknown, that, 20 editions later, proved worth their while.

But all of that didn’t come easy, Bhojani said. Only fashion could afford to go on sale. Gold and electronics could not offer a 25 per cent discount as their margins were not close to that, but just between two and five per cent, depending on several factors.

Since no Dubai shopping experience can be complete without buying gold, Bhojani said they courted gold merchants to take part in the festival as well.

The idea of a gold sale was initially unimaginable for the merchants. That’s when they came up with the strategy of creating a gold merchants group, supported by the Dubai government, that did their own gold promotions that were “larger than life”.

3) How the team made it happen

Tasked with something completely new to them then, the committee – Shaikh Ahmad, Al Gergawi, Al Abbar, a few other young Emiratis, and Bhojani – were inseparable. Most of them were working roughly 18 to 20-hour shifts daily, seven days a week, three months before the festival.

“I never felt challenged actually. I think it’s very exciting. Stress was there because of physical exhaustion as we were doing 18-20-hour days,” Bhojani said, adding, “I felt fortunate and privileged that I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.”

Bhojani in 1995, thought DSF would run for a good 10 years. It surpassed his expectations, he admitted.

“Initially, it was envisaged as a marketing programme. Normally, tactical marketing programmes need to be refreshed every few years. So, in my personal expectation, I was hoping that we’d go beyond 10 years. I hadn’t thought 20 years. It’s all credit to the current organisers for taking it to 20 years.”

Bhojani said the same principles and work ethic that propelled them 20 years ago can be seen with the current DSF organisers, the Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment.

“A lot of DSF is collective thinking. It is not a one-man thinking.”

4) Patrons and pay-offs

The first patrons of DSF were thought to be just the family members of expatriates already living here and visitors from the GCC. But it went beyond that.

“So, the first year what was done was expatriates, irrespective of their income, were allowed to sponsor their family and friends on one month special Shopping Festival visas. Immediately, the capacity increased based on how many people would come in. That created an overnight expansion of, if I may say, the market size,” Bhojani said.

“When Shaikh Mohammad launched it in 1995, the target-measured sales in retail and service sectors was Dh1 billion. But it closed with Dh2.15 billion and a visitor number of 1.6 million on March 28, 1996.

“Currently, DSF boasts an average of 4.4 million visitors with a total spending of Dh15 billion. If we do the maths, this means they are injecting roughly Dh325,520 per minute into Dubai’s economy for 32 days.

“In a study focusing on DSF published in the International Journal of Trade in December, it was observed that retail shopping is the dominant factor among others to influence tourist to visit Dubai again. Prices and discounts were of great value to tourists, but brand presence and variety are the key factors in the retail shopping that urge them to come back for DSF the following year.”

5) Economic effect

When DSF started in 1996, there were just around 10 malls operating in the city. Some 2,600 participating outlets offered DSF discounts although shopping wasn’t the top crowd-puller for Dubai.

Fast-forward to 2015, the city now has 70 shopping malls with 6,000 participating outlets as a direct and indirect effect of DSF.

Celebrations are no longer just centred near the Dubai Creek, Riqqa Street, and old Dubai areas.

“When we started the Dubai Shopping Festival the first year, there was only Al Ghurair Centre, BurJuman Centre, and there were a couple of other smaller malls. Deira City Centre just opened with the festival’s first year. Today, look at where the retail sector has gone. A lot of the credit goes to the Dubai Shopping Festival, positioning Dubai as the family destination, positioning Dubai as the one of the world’s best places for retail, as well as travel and tourism.”

From just 8,000 starred hotel rooms in 1996, Dubai now has more than 88,000 rooms with occupancy rates reaching as much as 90 per cent annually during DSF.

DSF has also indirectly influenced Dubai’s calendar that gave birth to more festivals, whether it be on food, music, or leisure, and themed sales promotions that also inject billions of dirhams into the Dubai economy throughout the year.

But, most importantly, DSF’s biggest contribution to Dubai, Bhojani said, is the growth of its people.

“We’re fortunate because the Dubai Shopping Festival office became an incubator for leaders. People grew to exceptional heights. People felt motivated. Shaikh Mohammad, as always, has been so supportive and generous.”