Hot in the city

Tamara Walid talks to the CEO of Al Ahil Group about his plans for the region’s burgeoning leisure industry.

  • E-Mail
By  Tamara Walid Published  May 28, 2006

|~|32-DSC_00320-200.jpg|~|DEBUT: Dubai is set to witness the first ever ballooning festival in the region in December this year. What’s more, punters will be offered rides for free.|~|Tamara Walid talks to the CEO of Al Ahil Group about his plans for the region’s burgeoning leisure industry. Mohammed Nasser Khammas is a busy man. The CEO of Al Ahli Group may already run more than 15 diverse companies, but it seems that things are only just starting to hot up. Khammas not only has the Dubai Balloon Festival and Dubai Outlet City on his agenda, but also a ‘lifestyle-altering’ project and a Dubai version of ‘Disney’s Imagineering’. “Entertainment and tourism projects are going to be the new wave of development and part of the economic fabric of this country. We have to be involved in that,” Khammas says. He can say that again. The most colourful of these involvements is the Dubai Balloon Festival – an event that will be launched on 20th December along with Dubai Shopping Festival and Summer Surprises. Dubai Balloon Festival, Khammas explains, is a family-oriented event that will be free for all. The needs of single people, working in Dubai, are widely catered for starting from clubs to bar scenes to theatre, from Khammas’s point of view; however, when it comes to families this is not the case. “Everything is available to expatriates, locals, and people from different backgrounds and religions. It’s a true melting pot and everything, but we have not focused on families per se. We have not focused on outdoor venues enough. Everything is very enclosed and indoors,” he says. Khammas believes that activities for families and specifically for children ought to be created in Dubai. He says the government has contributed immensely on its part. “The government has been promoting many happenings like the Snow City and the events in the Dubai Shopping Festival Summer Surprises. They’re doing it in the exhibition centre and the park in the creek area. They do a lot of events but they can only do so much as a government entity then it’s up to the private sector to go ahead and develop,” he says. The idea of a balloon festival is not new; it’s been implemented in different parts of the world time after time. Khammas has witnessed such festivals, – although not to the size being promoted in Dubai – in Albuquerque New Mexico, Europe, and the Far East. What makes the event so special, however, is that no one event is the same. This is due to the geographic location of the site. “It’s a balloon, but if you were to fly it in Shanghai, in California or in Dubai it’s a whole different experience,” Khammas says. Khammas is convinced that people, living in the city, need a change of view – ‘an outsider looking in rather than an insider trying to just look at his immediate surroundings’, he says. The event will last for a period of a fortnight, three days per week. There will be a day event in which 100 balloons will fill the skyline; people will be able to enjoy free rides in the balloons, while also giving exposure to the brands that sponsor the event. The night event will see the balloons fired up, but stationed on the ground exhibiting their illuminated colors. A sight that will be visible from miles and miles away, says Khammas. “Not your usual commercial atmosphere. It’s a fiesta at the end of the day,” explains Khammas . There will be musical venues as well as a lot of merchandising and barbequing - a family-oriented scenario. So far, the event has had a lot of coverage in printed media, and Khammas adds that local TV stations like Dubai TV and Sama Dubai are prepping up to cover the festival in a way that hasn’t been done before – both aerial and ground views. Khammas wants to ensure that this will be a risk-free event, especially with it being the first time. Local authorities, according to Khammas, have also been very supportive in accommodating safety-related matters, policing the event, and logistics. “We’re going to have the best people running this show. Technical know-how is the most important thing. We’re bringing professionals from around the world to assist us as well as a lot of balloonists. The management team from Albuquerque, New Mexico has been doing this, as the largest event in the world, for 34 years so we had to bring people who knew what they were doing. We used the Albuquerque Fiesta and they were with us when we launched the project. They are not partners but are co-managing the event for us,” he says. The deal is to bring the hundred pilots to Dubai with their own balloons. “The balloons are just tools, but it’s the pilots that are really important,” Khammas says. And since the event coincides with Christmas and New Year, they will be arriving to Dubai with their families and will be coming year after year for the event. Ballooning is a ‘beautiful’ experience to Khammas, which he has personally enjoyed numerous times in different parts of the world. He describes it as a fresh three-dimensional perception of the place one’s flying over. People ballooning over Dubai will be able to see the mountains of Hatta on one end, the desert, the new city being developed and the sea right behind it. “There’s a whole new collection of geographical images seen in Dubai at the same time. Whereas usually you’re either in the desert, on the beach, or stuck in one of those high rises. To be able to see what makes the UAE what it is today is just beautiful and that’s the gift of the Dubai Balloon Festival to the public,” he says. Along with the inaugural launch of the DSF and the Dubai Balloon Festival, Al Ahli Group will be launching the first phase of Dubai Outlet City (DOC): Dubai Outlet Mall - the first project to open up in Dubailand. The DOC is a US$1 billion, value retail oriented development – which will play host to the first factory outlet in the Middle East and North Africa region. In a factory outlet, owners and master franchisers of brands bring their products directly from the manufacturers instead from regular retailers. The products are the same quality, the same Versace, Armani or any other brand, but sold at a 70-80% less than the usual retail price. “We promise people a lot of savings when they come to Dubai, but unfortunately that’s not realised all the time. We promise them that. They will achieve it every time they walk in and out of the mall,” Khammas says. “Rich, poor, somewhere in the middle, they all seek value,” Khammas says. The factory outlet concept is at least 100 years old, but still has not been brought to the MENA region. The group plans to start with a base in Dubai and then branch out into neighboring countries with the concept. “We wanted to have a big bang, to create something that everybody recognises and we had to build it in Dubai. In the beginning it was not very well perceived because it was never done here before. With the economic department there was a lot of education given to all the investors, to all the brand owners.” he says. Khammas says that people will be able to find their favorite brands starting from prestigious names like Armani and Versace all the way to casual and sporting goods like Nike and Puma. Many other products will also be available from household products to winter coats. However, the idea, he says, is not only to bring in brands that are well known, but to also make available trendier hip names that would appeal to people’s different tastes. The mall will be 1.2 million square feet of development - slightly less than half a kilometre stretch in terms of walking distance - with two floors. In DOC there will be 10 to 11 boutique hotels and two resorts. There will also be a promenade on both the right and left hand side of an artificial beach stretching over 1.5 kilometres. An entirely different atmosphere is what Khammas is aiming for through this project. “Even here in the middle of the desert, people will be able to enjoy the cool water. We’re bringing in a South Miami Beach atmosphere. You’ll see that in other developments developed throughout Dubai or the region – there will be the same feel. We’re in love with our palm trees but I think we have to start diversifying the feel and nature of the developments. You don’t want to go to ten different developments and they all look the same. We want to bring that Caribbean feeling to Dubai and the region,” says Khammas. The two resorts within the development will have five-star hotels while the boutique hotels will be budget hotels. The target, Khammas explains, will be people who want to come to Dubai, spend some quality time, but still afford it, given that Dubai is not as cheap as many might assume. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and the government of Dubai have been recently promoting investing in budget and package tourism projects in order to bring in a wider range of tourists to Dubai. Since th DOC project is a lifestyle development, its resorts and boutique hotels will cater to specific tastes. “The 11 boutique hotels will each cater to a whole different mood and personality. We had to create a complete venue to cater for people who are in the calibre of liking Armani, and there’s a hotel that’s themed in that manner. And for people who want to have that serenity feeling, and there’s a hotel that’s also themed in that manner. We have floating huts. It’s a combination of things that concern different lifestyles,” Khammas says. As for why a group such as Al Ahli, mainly known for its manufacturing divisions and as an industrial group, has decided to invest in such a project as DOC, Khammas says it’s simply going with the ‘new wave’. “The industry is definitely the backbone of every economy, we have to participate in that field and we have done so for over 25 years. Now entertainment and tourism projects are going to be the new wave of development,” he says. The group has a number of developments in the pipeline that will cater to the tourism industry. About seven to eight new initiatives, aside from the balloon festival, are on the way. Khammas promises they will not only be innovative, but also supported by a team that’s been involved in entertainment and themed resorts and parks for over 30 years from Disney to Universal Studios. “We’re bringing experiences to Dubai that will literally blow everybody’s expectations away because of the new intellectual properties that have never been attempted in this area before,” says Khammas. “It’s going to be educational, institutional, entertaining, family-oriented and will bring a lot of tourists into the country.” One of these initiatives is what he calls a ‘lifestyle-altering project’. It’s basically a venue, you go in and say: “I’m not happy with x, y, z.” Your life is then reprogrammed so that you achieve that self-image you’ve always wanted. Khammas says this is the first project of its kind in the world because it will not only be about dieting and exercise but also about how people dress and perceive themselves. Usually one can either go to a gym, a nutritionist, or a stylist but, Khammas assures, they do not exist in one venue to cater to all these needs together. “Every person has a mental image of who they want to be. Part of their discomfort is not realizing that mental image and most depressions come from not realising that dream. We want to create a solution for people like that and set them on a path that takes them there within a specific period of time,” he says. The centre will utilise one of the largest providers of sporting and fitness goods – Brunswick. Discussions with the company have already been made as on how to implement a gym of the right calibre that caters to different needs. Khammas claims that Brunswick is the world’s number one fitness program managers and machine producers that had to be brought in to set a certain standard. The project’s been studied and worked on for the past three years and is expected for completion after a similar time frame. “You walk in and they tell you head on what to do. They do a blood test that will show your tolerance or lack of to certain food types. For some reason emotional distress is associated with your physical being and we try to enforce the physical being which then again reinforces the emotional. That’s how we do it,” Khammas says. The name has not been decided on yet, but Khammas promises it will be unique. He also plans to take the idea to other countries, not necessarily only the MENA area, but the Far East and hopefully Europe and the United States as well. The program is designed for the average person who could afford a US$55-80 monthly membership fee. There will be an initial test to pay for, but the remainder is maintenance fee for trainers and so on. Khammas assures that all the costs combined will still be much less than what people pay for any regular gym in Dubai. “The benefits you will get from that will be addictive. We’re basing most of our investments around the human rather than using the human. It’s a lifestyle and when you have a lifestyle you associate with it and you stick to it,” he says. The other initiative, still to be announced and what Khammas promises will be mind-blowing, is a Disney Land and Disney’s Imagineering in Dubai. He explains that Disney’s Imagineering is basically an ‘imagination think tank’ - the imagination and the engineering. It is where Disney’s characters are created after a process of studying history, fiction and non-fiction stories, the animal world, the human world and then combining them all together and mixing them into a cartoon character. “We are creating an Imagineering team here in the Arab World because we have so much talent in that sector that no one even knows where to look. We want to bring all those talents together and create an entertainment sector and business development that spurs out of this world rather than being imported from the outside,” Khammas says. He mentions that the United States is barely over 300 years old, but it still has a lot of history, simply because they took every small event and blew it out of proportion. However, in this region, there are thousands of years of stories, fiction, and non-fiction, Aladdin, Sinbad, and the like. There are stories, he says, that can, not only help create characters, but complete ever continuous scenarios. “Why does Disney have to do Aladdin and not an entity here? It’s an Arab theme, so why not do it ourselves? This is what we’re doing in a nutshell and will elaborate when it’s time,” he says. All these projects, according to Khammas, are part of the social and regional requirements to develop the arts, entertainment and tourism. He reckons it will take him almost three years to finish the lifestyle-altering project, another two years to barely enjoy it, and he will spend the rest of the time making sure Al Ahli Group is one of the top names in the entertainment and tourism industry. So far, he is on track to achieve all that.||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code