THE CITY OF GOLD
Written by Melinda Sheckells
On a blistering hot night in late 2019, Australian alternative- dance music group Rüfüs Du Sol played a beachside set to several thousand festival goers at the newly opened W Dubai – The Palm. As part of the hospitality brand's fifth iteration of its Wake Up Call festival, which has traversed the globe before landing in UAE in 2019, the lineup included Rita Ora, Disclosure, and other electronic acts such as Bob Moses and Nightmares on Wax.
But this isn't a festival like Las Vegas' Life is Beautiful, San Francisco's Outside Lands or Chicago's Lollapalooza. It's an experiential marketing event created by the hotelier to deepen brand loyalty with one of its core demographics, music lovers, in an exciting locale with a wide range of cultural presence.
When it comes to live events in Dubai, anything goes. It is a highly commercialized entertainment market where all the major bands and brands come to play, and out-of-the-box artist experiences thrive fluidly alongside traditional hard-ticket events.
Over the last two decades, the music festival market in Dubai has caught fire, and large-scale live events have helped position the destination to an international audience as well as the 200- plus nationalities who live in the city. Around five festivals happen in the area yearly, not to mention the robust entertainment market in neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi.
"With such an eclectic variety of musical genres and headliners, the music scene offers something for all ages and demographics," says Ahmed Al Khaja, CEO, Dubai Festivals & Retail Establishment (DFRE).
These festivals include Dubai Jazz, launched 16 years ago, Red Fest DXB, Groove on the Grass, WASLA, and Party in The Park. Each has its own identity. And the acts that have played them include everyone from Amy Winehouse and John Legend to Sting and Jamiroquai. "The Dubai Jazz Festival is the oldest and longest-running, taking place over three nights," Al Khaja says. "Red Fest DXB has been going for five years and runs over two nights. WASLA was introduced three years ago and offers alternative Arabic music. Party in the Park and Groove on the Grass offer a more niche repertoire, catering to the number of British expat residents, as they are familiar with the festivals from the U.K."
According to visitation numbers, the festivals attract 15 to 20 percent international attendees. The season starts in October and runs until May, so it's the opposite of festivals in the west. Artist bookings are also the tipping point for those considering the trip.
"Renowned international artists draw huge crowds. People look forward to them each year and travel to the emirate to not miss out on their favorite musical performances," Al Khaja says.
On the flipside, Wake Up Call strives for a more intimate experience, with around 1,000 to 2,000 attendees and a mix of established and new/next acts. Since the event launched in 2016 in Scottsdale, it has featured performers such as Phantogram, Charli XCX, Martin Solveig, Chromeo, Bebe Rexha, Matoma, Mike Posner, Black Coffee, and Tove Lo, among many others.
"There are many events that happen in Dubai with big acts and big money for spectacular performances. Dubai is kind of like Vegas; it's bigger, better, bolder," says Anthony Ingham, global brand leader for W Hotels. "Our goal here is to create something more sophisticated and luxury leaning to give people access to get closer to the music. We're not trying to compete with the other music festivals in Dubai. Ticket sales are not the objective here. The objective is creating an experience that is truly unique and aspirational, and then creating content that we can market with."
W Dubai is tuned into its guests' style and offers an electrifying vibe with a stunning modern design perfect for bespoke events. The hotel features 349 guest rooms and suites with panoramic views. Curved walls are tiled to glisten like the lights and colors of the sea, bringing the shoreline into each room. Modern graffiti adorns the walls of every room, featuring lyrics in Arabic from Lebanese singer Fairouz.
Downstairs, find restaurants from chefs such as Massimo Bottura and Akira Back for culinarians. Torno Sobito is chef Massimo Bottura's first restaurant outside of Italy, where his Osteria Francescana has been touted as the "World's Best Restaurant." At his namesake restaurant, Akira Back brings meals with a modern taste of Japanese cuisine and Korean essence to the Middle East. The design is inspired by "Wabi-Sabi," the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and acceptance of the natural progression of growth, life, and death.
At the SoBe rooftop bar, watch the sun sink into the Arabian Sea with 360-degree views as the Dubai skyline lights up each night, while a live D.J. performs, and imaginative cocktails are served. For those seeking a relaxing journey, the design of the AWAY spa is inspired by the underwater perspective of a pearl diver, where iridescent shells reflect the sunlight that peeks through the ocean above.
In terms of booking strategy, W went with more commercial artists because that's what the market responds to. "There's a lot of competition, and if we went with edgy and underground, I think we wouldn't get the traction that we wanted," Ingham says.
Pablo Henderson, the former global brand marketing director for W Hotels who worked with Endeavor to book the talent for Wake Up Call 2019, says the primary criteria they look at for booking an artist is whether they will add value to the city's music landscape. "Are we delivering on our promise of new and next and introducing people to something that they might be familiar with but also something that they might not be familiar with?" Henderson says.
However, there are some special experiences that go along with Wake Up Call that only come with brand loyalty. The day after the Rüfüs Du Sol performance on the beach, a dozen or so fans gathered on the SoBe rooftop bar of the W Dubai to play ping pong with band members Tyrone Lindqvist, Jon George, and James Hunt. These fans bid on and won an opportunity for a "moment" with the band. In this case, the bidding did not happen with actual currency but with points from the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program—under which the W Hotels brand lives—an experiential platform where members can win money-can't-buy experiences.
These types of offerings go hand-in-hand with a place like Dubai, where over the top is the norm. Other elite moments that could only be accessed through points included yoga with Rita Ora and a private party where Disclosure played foosball. Marriott Bonvoy Moments packages for W Hotels Wake Up Call Dubai Festival started at 90,000 points. Twenty-one packages were offered to members, with a total of over 3.5 million points redeemed. The value of these experiences is constantly fluctuating, and they are set on market conditions.
Members bid for experiences at Moments.MarriottBonvoy.com, and the auctions usually last 3 to 4 weeks, starting as low as 5,000 points with bidding in increments of 2,500 until the close. When the auction ends, the member with the highest points bid wins. Points are earned by staying at one of 7,000 properties across 30 brands, using the Marriott Bonvoy co-brand credit card, or purchasing Marriott Bonvoy Tours & Activities. Members earn 10 Marriott Bonvoy points for each $1 spent on property. Members earn five Marriott Bonvoy points for each $1 spent at extended-stay properties. Points can also be purchased via Points.com. Members can buy up to 100,000 points annually.
"Dubai's mix of modernity, opulence, and history is not one travelers forget and is the ideal setting for a money-can't-buy experience only Marriott Bonvoy can provide," says David Flueck, SVP global loyalty, Marriott International."
While at the W for the festival, Marriott Bonvoy members could take part in hundreds of experiences, including a bakhour- making workshop—scented bricks, mainly wood chips soaked in fragrant oils and mixed with other natural ingredients—at Villa 515 Perfume Lab, a boutique specializing in the creation of local perfumes and scents. Also on offer, a tour of Old Dubai's spice markets, a trip to the Ritz-Carlton Ras al Khaimah, the Al Wadi Desert for a falconry show, camel petting and dinner under the stars, and a yacht cruise around Dubai Marina and Palm Jumeirah, among many other adventures.
Marriott Bonvoy Moments have also been featured at Coachella, MSG in New York City, Staples Center in L.A., the O2, London, the Mercedes Benz Arena, Berlin and the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai and with artists such as Zedd, Imagine Dragons, Gwen Stefani, Billie Eilish, Ringo Starr, Keith Urban and Maroon 5.
Cameron Arnold, 22, and Michael LaDriere, 24, traveled from Pittsburgh to Dubai for their ping pong moment with Rüfüs Du Sol. Both are considered Marriott ambassadors, meaning they stay over 100 nights every year or spend around $20,000 annually, and they have traveled to other festivals in the past, including Fngrs Crssd in San Diego, Ultra Europe and EDC, Lollapalooza and Amsterdam Music Festival.
"The whole thing was planned only a month ago," Arnold says. "The package included a three-night stay at W Dubai, free tickets to the music festival and ping pong with Rüfüs. The three nights at the W would have been the same amount as the points that we spent for the entire experience. It was a really good deal."
Bonvoy members also received VIP seating with drinks on the elevated platform for the Wake Up Call festival, access to a hotel hospitality suite with food, drinks, and a view of the action and an elaborate pool-side brunch.
For Rüfüs Du Sol, the Wake Up Call was their first time in the Middle East, an amazing opportunity to interact with and hear fan stories as well as indulge one of their favorite pastimes. "When we were recording our second record, there was a ping pong table. So anytime we'd get stuck in the studio, we'd just let off some steam and have very serious competitions between the three of us," George says.
"When you are playing, you can't think about much else other than the ball, right? That's why we liked it so much because when we came out of the studio, all you could do was think about the game for the next 30 minutes. Then you'd have a full refresh of your brain. It really puts you in the moment," Hunt says. "Ping pong is life.".
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