Global Village in Dubai, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, is a multicultural festival park – a destination for culture, shopping, eating and entertainment, showcasing pavilions and cultures from all over the world.
Bader Anwahi, Chief Executive Officer at Global Village, Dubai, spoke to blooloop about the groundbreaking vision that underpins it.
Joining Global Village
Outlining his background, Anwahi says:
“I studied business information technology and graduated from Coventry University in the UK. Then, I joined the Tecom Group as a Telecom infrastructure engineer before I joined the Telecom company DU from 2005 to 2017, in different roles and departments, from engineering to quality to project management and head of PMO with almost $1 billion dirhams of portfolio.
“I decided that was enough – I would stop doing things with systems, and move towards dealing with people. I joined Dubai Holdings and Global Village as a COO, and within seven months I was promoted to CEO.”
This move, in 2017, is where his journey in the entertainment sector began.
“Entertainment was always a special thing, and I would say in a region or a country like the UAE, it wasn’t very mature at that point of time overall. Until now, we have been on a journey to transform this industry to a whole next level.
“I thought there were lots of opportunities to do this, and, coming to it with an IT background, I have, with the team, managed to accelerate the digital transformation of Global Village, and come up with new ideas, as well as using technology and digital services to improve the guest experience and implement the ‘wow’ factor using technology.”
Building on trends
Detailing some of those new developments and ideas, he adds:
“The transformation of Global Village has been built on observation and best practices and copying from different places. We invest a lot in data gathering and data analytics. Global Village is officially declared as a data-savvy organization, where decision-making is based on facts.
“We have built highly advanced business intelligence platforms which take lots of information from the operational day-to-day facts and data while remaining in compliance with data privacy and respecting guests’ privacy.”
Having created a pool of data, and the data governing part, he explains, he went on to build on trends and observations:
“This resulted in a series of day-to-day changes; we have the strategic ones, we have the operational ones, and we have the commercial ones.
“If you look at the operational ones and commercial ones, we have created our state-of-the-art mobile app, which has a highly advanced navigation system. We hired one of the well-known companies in app development; they developed the NASA app, and are well-known in the market
“We began by merging different services together. We merged the e-commerce service where you can buy your tickets, with the capacity to top-up the Wonder passes, which are our playing card, and the valet services. And we made it like a one-stop-shop in an app.”
Technology for a seamless experience
The next step, he says, was to look at different places and industries.
“I like to describe Global Village as the sweet spot between three different areas. If you take the malls and retail industry, and you take theme parks, and you take museums, the common area is Global Village. When we developed the app, and, in fact, any technologies, we cater to the need to serve all three; the Global Village concept together.”
“From an operation point of view, we have invested a lot in heat maps, sensors and facial recognition, just for the sake of having smooth operations. We are talking about thousands of people that are coming to a single park. Our average visitation is 42,000 in a normal year, and we can go up to 120,000 guests.
“We have a world-class facility, and I’m passionate about achieving this number. So, we need to use technology and less manpower to make it a seamless experience.”
Data gathered is used to personalise experiences and advertising.
“Targeted marketing is something that we always try to elevate through our channels, as well as our partners,” says Anwahi. “One thing that we do, to start with, is the app itself. It has a different interface, depending on who accesses it, based on demand, trends, and where you like to visit and spend most of your time within the park.
“If you are someone who likes to go inside the pavilion, that means you are more into the shopping part. If I spend most of my time in the carnival area, that shows that I come here to enjoy the entertainment side. Then we start integrating the Wonder Pass, when the guests top it up and which rides they are choosing. “
“This gives overall visibility of the portfolio – whether you are a family ride seeker or a thrill ride seeker, and how you design your journey. We can then send the right communications accordingly to target the guest’s areas of interest, and can send the right communications to target the guests, in terms of upselling and cross-selling.”
The start of Global Village
Anwahi takes a step back to describe Global Village’s evolution from its inception forwards:
“It’s a nice story to tell. Global Village was launched in 1997, with a small project on Dubai Creek; around 18 kiosks. Today, we are a 1.6 million square metre destination with 3,500 retail outlets, 40,000 shows in a season, more than 300 F&B outlets, and more than 160 rides, skill games and arcades.”
Our mission is to bring the people and cultures of the world together in a unique destination. This sits in everything that we do
“We really looked at our mission and vision, and then positioned ourselves. Our mission is to bring the people and cultures of the world together in a unique destination. This sits in everything that we do. If we are planning a new project or activation, we ask what the cultural element of it is.”
A world-class facility
“From a positioning point of view, concerning who we are catering to, I consider Global Villages as a premium economy. We don’t want to be a five-star destination, because that’s not the target that we want. There are other destinations in Dubai, the UAE, and the region that are battling for that.
“We are more interested in acquiring the mass market, though we have visitors ranging from Royal families to the lower income brackets in this society. We welcome them all. There are segmented choices based on the packages – the VIP packs, for example, and the packages that we do.”
“We are very much a world-class facility, despite being for the masses.
“We have state-of-the-art facilities; even the toilet blocks that we built recently are as high in quality as those in a five-star hotel. When I talk about premium and economy, the setup is 80% is three stars and 20% high-end products.
“We don’t compromise on the guest experience when it comes to hygiene, quite apart from COVID. Even before COVID, we have always taken care of the smallest details when it comes to the experience we deliver. Dubai is a high-end city in terms of look and feel, and we don’t want to be less than anyone else in the region. So, despite being for the mass market, we are maintaining certain guidelines and quality in terms of our deliverables.”
The wow factor at Global Village
“It’s very important that we have different guest journeys based on the portfolio that we have,” he continues:
“We try to use our resources to deliver a better experience, and to create the ‘wow’ factor for guests. ‘Wow factor’ is a very generic phrase. We do a lot of research and studies to understand what the guests really want. Global Village is, proudly, a park that caters for all family members, which is a difficult thing to do; normally, parks tend to target certain segments.”
“There is something in it for every family member. Whether it’s a kid, the nanny, the mother or father, even for elderly people. In fact, in view of the older visitors who come here, we demolished the bridges. For us, they were fine, but we realised there were people struggling to cross them, so we demolished them, and replaced them with eight crossings across the water canal.”
Breaking the mould
As far as the bigger picture is concerned:
“I had a dream, basically – about theme parks and parks,” says Anwahi. “In terms of entertainment here, for many years there were theme parks, then, after a few years, water parks appeared. We were working with our international friends and partners, and with IAAPA on the fact that it’s time to create the third park category officially: a multicultural park.”
The concept is, he says, by design the opposite of everything that exists in the market today.
“Take theme parks. They are typically 80% a fantasy and 20% reality. When you talk about fantasy, it is basically an IP; a cartoon or a movie that was converted to a theme park. There are guidelines. There are pathways designed in a certain way in the park, and there are shops in the Ikea style, where you have to buy from each one of them.
“We broke every norm there, deliberately by design. We put the equation on the opposite way, where the park is 80% of reality; you experience people from different countries, different accents, learning their culture.”
Showcasing culture at Global Village
“People confuse culture and heritage. Heritage is when you go to museums, but culture is the way you live today.”
We are humanity. We are all so different, so diverse. And there is nothing better than experiencing other cultures for yourself.
“When you talk about UAE culture, it doesn’t mean a falcon and a tent and a coffee. UAE culture is about today; how we live and do things. We are the same people who will send the probe to Mars. We are the same people who have a clear vision of how new modern cities should look.
“So, to showcase our culture to the visitors who come to Global Village, we need to learn about other countries, other cultures. It’s good to know what they are doing. We are humanity. We are all so different, so diverse. And there is nothing better than experiencing other cultures for yourself.”
“We give the guest freedom,” says Anwahi. “This is a fundamental point. We don’t want you to walk in streets where the kids will be pulling you towards the balloon shop or the toy shop. So we empower the guests. We have an open green area. If you walk into Global Village, you can just sit there. You can do whatever you want.
“Nobody’s forcing you to go inside the pavilion, or to a show. Nobody is forcing you to go to the carnival, or FunFair, nobody’s pushing you to do anything. The guest has the power. They can do whatever they want. So the multicultural park stands for reality. And for the 20%, there are IPs that we have – Dangermouse, Ben and Hollie, Peter Rabbit.”
“Global Village also has Carnival, which has state-of-the-art Funfair-type of rides. We also position it as a premium economy.
“We are talking about the latest rides; rides that we have purchased with our own qualities, and that we have passed in terms of health and safety. We are talking about rides that are integrated systems, and you don’t need to do anything. You just plug in the cables, and you can download every fact and every log, even remotely. Those rides are equipped with safety measures, so if it’s too windy, they will descend and evacuate smoothly without human interaction.”
Global Village and the experience economy
A chat-bot is a recent introduction:
“We are using WhatsApp services through the chat-bot, and artificial intelligence-type technology in the rides.”
What he describes is describing something transformational and transcendent, that is breaking down the rules of re-imagining a theme park, and getting rid of stereotypes in the process. In the language of Joe Pine, the concept bridges the gap between the experience and transformation economies.
“There are white papers being written, especially in the University of Central Florida. There is one on what the future of entertainment looks like. It was talking about the Global Village model, how it is sustainable today and how we are agile when it comes to any crisis or whatever is happening in the market because we are not dependent on entry tickets.”
The impact of COVID-19
Turning to the inevitable subject of COVID’s impact, he continues:
“Three years ago, when we took over and the whole new team came together with the previous teams, we thought of converting Global Village to be more agile; what makes global village agile, and how to take this business outside the UAE. So we worked on franchising the model. We thought it would be difficult to replicate the model if it remained as it was – I’m talking about three years ago – so we decided to do the transformation project.
“We started making Global Village faster, younger, in terms of how we were dealing and doing our business.”
“When the COVID crisis happened, 90% of the visitation dropped in all theme parks. Some did not even open; some of them opened and closed in a week’s time, and some of them were operating in three days, which wasn’t commercially viable.
“The point is that many organisations had to lose employees. They downsized their organisations. We are proud to say that we kept on and protected all our resources; we did not let go of anyone, and we did not make anyone redundant. This is something, an achievement by itself, which I’m personally proud of and proud of the team who managed to do it by coming up with a smarter way, despite COVID.”
A safe space
“We were also committed to our SME partners, and to support the SME ecosystem. Global Village is part of the UAE; the UAE was the beacon of hope during tough times here, helping everyone.
“We thought, ‘Why not?’ Global Village can support the morale and the feel-good factor in the public eye. It’s very important that we say, yes, there is a problem, but you cannot stand still and do nothing. During the lockdown, we had meetings from 9 am until 10 or 11 at night; until midnight, even. We didn’t know what we were doing, honestly, at that point in time. But we were determined that something was happening. The season would open.”
“We want to ensure that Global Village is seen as a culturally inclusive, safe place to visit. We are known for these things, and we can always provide the ‘wow’ factor for our loyal guests.
“Since we have this reputation of being a place of family happiness and safety, and since we have been getting lots of awards in this area, we thought, ‘Let’s open Global Village, but in a radically different way.’ It would look like Global Village from the outside, but has nothing to do with the old Global Village.”
Fast-tracking transformation at Global Village
They put all the transformation programmes on a fast track.
“We accelerated all the transformation programs that we had for three years down the road. And encapsulated them in one year.
“We partnered with emaratech, the leading Emirati company in payments solutions, and we managed to roll out in six months a project that takes typically three years, to convert from a cash business to a contactless, cashless business.”
We managed to roll out in six months a project that takes typically three years, to convert from a cash business to a contactless, cashless business
“It was a miracle to achieve this – except it wasn’t six months, it was the transformation that we started three years ago.”
It is, he contends, about how agile and fast you are in terms of envisioning the future:
“It’s not about waiting for a consultant. We use data and technology. All these things are embedded in decision making. We are proud that we were awarded the British Safety Council’s ‘Sword of Honour’ in recognition of our excellent health and safety management.”
Health and safety
The previous year, Global Village became the world’s first entertainment destination to be awarded five stars in the British Safety Council’s Five-Star Occupational Health and Safety Audit.
“All these things position us in a way that the world is looking to us to see what to do,” says Anwahi. “I have been reading about theme parks opening, six months after we found ourselves in that position. We were bold enough to take this decision, which was a calculated risk and we took care of everything and tried to work with our partners and international buddies.”
“We really appreciate the learning happening around us. For example, people are typically putting in stickers which help people keeping their distance. We thought to be a bit creative here.”
Instead of the conventional measures to keep children apart, Global Village installed giant teddy bears on the seats of the Kids’ Theatre to ensure social distancing.
A new way of doing events
“Every week we used to have a concept and our main stage,” he continues. “This time, for our 25th season, we held a virtual opening concert, in partnership with Rockin’1000, the largest rock band on earth, featuring almost 2000 artists from 80 countries. It had a big impact on the digital platform.”
The show was streamed live on Global Village’s YouTube channel, as viewers from across the globe and those present at Global Village in Dubai listened.
“There is always another way,” Anwahi contends. “You cannot stop humanity; stop living. We thought we would be the pioneers of driving change, and of going forward in terms of applying these things.”
“To be honest, I have all the KPIs [key performance indicators] that you can imagine. Everything is calculated, but I ignore them all. I look at it that MPS alone is the way forward.”
(MPS is the calculation of a master production schedule based on actual demand and the demand forecast.)
“MPS tells you a lot about your business and will boost repetitive visitation,” he explains.
“We tick all the boxes when it comes to distancing, masks, cleaning, putting in barriers, and managing the crowd overall. When we used the main stage for the first time, for example, we incorporated indicators to help with physical separation. It was Global Village from the outside, but it was quite different on the inside, during COVID.”
Tech trends at Global Village
Anwahi also touches on customer expectation, and immersive and tech-driven trends:
“We are a data-driven organization, and we do a lot of research. Around 7% of our revenue goes into investing in surveys and learning guest behaviours. What do they really do, in terms of what do they really want?
“Over the past two years, VR has been trending big time. I was personally against it. I thought it was wrong for Global Village, where people come from their homes to try something based in reality.”
In addition, he feels:
“In a park with 42,000 people, you will end up with hygiene problems. However, for the sake of the clients, we have this experimental environment. We do something we call a trial and error, though it’s more of a trial and learning. We had a small tent as a walk-in attraction in the Carnival area for VR, to test the market; maybe we’d be proved wrong; maybe the studies weren’t sufficiently conclusive for us to make a decision.
“We tested it, and it failed miserably, which was in line with what the data was telling us. We keep learning, and we keep asking people about what they really want.”
When the decision was made to bring edutainment to the park, Anwahi chose to partner with Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, bringing in their successful Odditorium.
“Ripley’s was the best option for us, answering our guests’ requirements,” he says. “We selected it based on demand, and it proved to be the right decision.”
“We have come up with a new terminology for rides: family thrill.”
Until now the choice has invariably been between a thrill ride, or a family-friendly one.
“This strikes a balance between the two. It’s for those who want to go on a ride with their kids, but to have the adrenaline pushed that little bit higher. These kinds of ride work really well at Global Village.
“This is a result of our research, and of knowing exactly what people want We then put that into effect in a new project.”
The future of Global Village
Looking forward, he says:
“There is nothing better than designing and crafting the future. With Global Village, we are working on this concept, which is becoming accepted by more and more people. We would love to see more of our concept.
“Today, we have Epcot; we have Global Village. I have so much respect for Epcot. The future, therefore, is to go forward; and, and reshape the whole thing, as I said, and set the right guidelines of providing how to build multicultural parks in the region.
“When it comes to this area, we have appointed two well-known companies: Thinkwell, on the creative side, and Atkins as an infrastructure consultant, to look into what the park expansion should look like. They will do a comprehensive study to drive the next year five years plan, in terms of what we want to change inside the park itself.
“We want to create more areas for new programmes, the likes of Ripley’s, for example. Global Village has reached the point where we can create our own content and programmes rather than just importing them. Ripley’s is a very well-known brand, but Global Village today is capable of building something similar.”
The Global Village Stunt Show is an example of this:
“The artists came from Vegas, but the rest was done in-house; made in or provided by Global Village. We do the theming, the scripts, the storylines, the lighting, the props, the PA systems, the direction.
The 2021 Stunt Show claimed two new Guinness World Records titles. ‘Most consecutive donuts in a car on a wet surface’ and ‘Most donuts around a car driving on two wheels in one minute’ were achieved in front of excited onlookers at the stunt show arena.
“So this is something we’re aiming for,” he says. “We need to work more with our international friends and parks to endorse the concept of the multicultural park. We managed to bring around 200 executives from theme parks and destinations and amusement across the world to Global Village two years ago, and they were impressed with the idea.
“The future, then, is to set the guidelines; to create the manual of how to build more of these kinds of concept. It’s more sustainable, in my opinion, than the theme park where your model is the entry ticket.
“Our vision is to redefine the entertainment industry in the UAE itself.”
Redefining the entertainment industry
With this aim in view, he explains:
“We are preparing and engaging the community in Dubai to participate in new ideas and global budgets. For example, we have a program to target university students who are doing engineering or architecture. We reward those who are creating statues or landmarks or icons, for example.
“In the five years’ plan, we need to create a more seamless experience, more immersive; when everything starts from the gate, the parking, the ticketing system.”
“We challenged our partners, who are a top international consultancy. According to them, there are six ways of building any theme park gate. We came up with a seventh way, and we challenged them. We said, ‘Okay, let’s simulate that. Let’s see how the system would work on that.’
“We wanted to create something like an immigration system, basically. You don’t have to wait. There are those who have pre-sold tickets already in a different experience; people who are purchasing on-site should have a seamless experience, and not have to wait twice. They don’t need to queue up again to scan their tickets.
“Everything should be seamless. And we create more wonders. That is the word we like to use – wonders. Disney loves the ‘magical’ word; our word is ‘wonders’.”
Repositioning Global Village
Rebranding is another branch of the strategy, says Anwahi.
“We are in the process of the rebranding exercise. We don’t know if it will go through or not, but we are working on this exercise of giving a different look and feel to the logo, and repositioning Global Village in the way that it really deserves, as a premium economy destination.”
Global Village ended its 25th season with a record-breaking firework display.