Talk from the Top - shopping fest boss looks back at two decades in retail
Laila Suhail spends her life trying to get people to visit Dubai’s malls - and trying to keep herself out of them.
“I’m a shopaholic, I have to admit that,” the boss of the firm behind the Dubai Shopping Festival, and upcoming Dubai Summer Surprises, tells 7DAYS.
“That’s why I sometimes avoid going to the malls. Whenever I go to the mall I don’t take my credit card.”
It seems the chief executive of the Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment (DEPE) is all too aware of the emirate’s allure as a shopping hub.
It’s an attraction she herself has done much to create, working to promote Dubai’s retail over a span of 18 years, from junior positions in what used to be known as the Dubai Shopping Festival Office, before taking the top job at what is now DEPE four years ago.
During that time Dubai has evolved into a retail powerhouse, thanks in no small part to the annual shopping festival and its sister event Summer Surprises.
Global real estate consultant CB Richard Ellis last month published a report that Dubai was second only to London for the number of top international brands it can boast - and ahead of New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo.
It’s a far cry from the humble beginnings of the shopping festival that would eventually put the emirate on the retail map.
“Dubai was totally different then to what you see right now. It had only around 10 malls, maybe,” she says of Dubai in 1995.
“Today it has more than 50 malls.” Conceived as a way of getting families to visit Dubai, the DEPE boss remembers the early efforts to get the event up and running. Having secured the backing of the operators of Deira City Centre and Burjuman malls - the biggest malls in town in a pre-Dubai Mall universe - Suhail knew the emirate was onto a winner.
“Everyone was so excited, so passionate about it,” she says. An early festival saw the giving away of a
Rolls-Royce a day to shoppers, triggering the successful formula of sales and giveaways that has served the event well to the present day. By 2011, shoppers were spending Dhs15 billion ($4.1 billion) during the annual festival.
But the DEPE boss has a lot more to occupy her than the month-long extravaganza that traditionally kicks off Dubai’s retail year.
Preparations are well under way for the start of Summer Surprises on June 14, which is more focused towards shoppers visiting from other Gulf countries. DEPE’s responsibilities now also include events to mark Ramadan in Dubai, kids’ favourite Modhesh World and new venture Dubai Calendar - the latter initiative designed as “an official and accurate reference to events happening in Dubai,” Suhail says.
Her powers include the regulation of the events and retail sectors in Dubai - it’s partly her job to make sure sales are as retailers promise. However, as the ambitions of Dubai’s retail sector have grown, her role has a global dimension, as she tries to entice foreign visitors. Europeans may baulk at Dubai’s summer heat, but are keen for a break over their Christmas and New Year holidays.
May is holiday season for many Asian nations, and Chinese shoppers are increasingly a year-round fixture at Dubai’s malls - to the extent that Suhail has been advising retailers to hire Chinese-speaking staff.
She dismisses claims that deals on offer during Dubai’s showcase retail events fail to match other hubs, though admits that London and New York are formidable competition in the emirate’s bid to be top of the shops. But the fact it is competing against such rivals, shows how far Dubai has come.
LIVE AND LEARN
Name: LAILA SUHAIL
Firm: DUBAI EVENTS AND PROMOTIONS ESTABLISHMENT
Q WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON YOUR CAREER?
A I think the city itself has been a great influence on me, with all of its growth. The city of Dubai is the product that people like us at DEPE are really promoting.
Q WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST DAY OF YOUR CAREER?
A There are many proud moments. For some years Eid used to fall during the Dubai Shopping Festival and we used to do an Eid carnival on Al Seef Street opposite the British embassy. We used to be there preparing for the carnival, and sometimes when the carnival finished we would get people stopping us and saying thank you very much, my mother really enjoyed it, and so on. The feeling of the people and the way they reacted to that really makes you feel proud.
Q HOW DO YOU RELAX?
A I am a shopaholic. For me shopping is therapy. I think for all of us. Otherwise, I enjoy cooking, I like travelling and when I travel I like experiencing the way other people live in other parts of the world.
Q WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE STARTING OUT IN YOUR INDUSTRY?
A You have to build your life around events - it is not just a job you do from 8 to 3 and then you leave. I think there are two key factors behind success - one of them is passion and the other is teamwork.