Pop culture: pop-up amenities

21 May 2015



Upscale exclusivity has long been synonymous with Dubai’s hospitality scene, but the
rise of pop-up culture in the emirate and beyond is creating something quite different. Chris Godfrey speaks with hotel operators and concept pioneers to see whether hotels should see this growing trend as a threat or an opportunity for traditional business models.


That pop-ups would appeal to Dubai seems inevitable; having gone from sand-swept fishing village to one of the world's premier tourist destinations in less than half a century, the entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism of the concept plays directly into the emirate's DNA. For hotels, the gains to be made from nurturing this culture could extend far beyond a little extra revenue.

As operators seek ways to differentiate themselves from competitors, aligning their properties with the vanguard of street food, fashion and music festival pop-ups could serve as a valuable strategy. For the entrepreneurs behind the ventures, securing the support and economies of scale that global hotel brands bring into play potentially fuels further success. As far as Aziz Mulay-Shah is concerned, it's a win-win scenario.

"I think there's going to be a snow-ball effect; as more people see that the conditions are in place, there's going to be a lot more sectors of the marketplace trying to get on board with this," says the founder of POP!, which aims to bring cultures and communities together through creative cuisine, with art and design pop-ups.

"This region is really starting to embrace the phenomenon that's been going for quite some time in other parts of the world. People are beginning to see pop-ups here as something that's cool and hip, and they want their brand to be affiliated with that. In general, it's starting to shift away from this labelling of luxury that has been ingrained in the psyche."

Snap and crackle

Many hotels already recognise the scene's value and are starting to engage with pop-up pioneers, especially in the F&B space, offering them semi-permanent sites. While the concept owners benefit from more security, better presence and more customers, hotels can offer their guests unique, fast-changing culinary experiences beyond their traditional fare. Leasing space to more established retail outlets might generate more revenue, but, in terms of marketing, it can be something of a missed opportunity. Many hotel directors recognise the opportunity to help distinguish their brand, tap into the lucrative millennial market and create an all important buzz.

"We've got a number of home-grown enterprises that have actually set up in hotels, particularly business-oriented hotels with high lunch-time traffic," says Debra Greenwood, director of the Dubai Food Festival. "The Media One Hotel has partnered up with a Pakistani restaurant [Moti Roti] as a semi-permanent food offering in the lobby of its tower. I've been there a couple of times and they are always busy. They primarily operate for the business trade and then on the weekends for the leisure trade, and generally these are great places for them."

The Dubai Food Festival is a testament to the rapidly evolving nature of the pop-up scene. Organised by the Department of Tourism, the now annual month-long event sees restaurants and chefs from all corners of the globe descend on the city's streets. Its Beach Canteen event saw empty cargo containers transformed into food venues that played host to internationally acclaimed chefs such as Jason Atherton, Sanjeev Kapoor and Yousef Khumayes. That hotels would become involved seems a natural extension.

"Hotel directors are increasingly innovative and looking for ways to promote their restaurants outside of people that are just visiting their hotel for a stay," says Greenwood. "Pop-ups are becoming a huge part of their marketing and PR considerations. One of the ways we integrated the hospitality sector into the beach canteen was to offer them the chance to bring their chef down to cook out of the pop-ups for a media lunch. We partnered with three hotels that did that and they had amazing coverage in terms of what they got from the media."

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

While many hotels are collaborating with start-up entrepreneurs, inside and outside the hotels, other brands in the region are already reaping the benefits from launching their own pop-up ventures. The Jumeirah Zabell Saray has hosted numerous events, including its participation in the Jumeirah Restaurant Week, which sees more than 40 different restaurants in Dubai showcase their menus, and its MusicHall concerts allow guests to experience anything from the sounds of French pop to gipsy fusion.

"We've been actively taking part in this rising trend for some time," says Nanada Wirasinha, the hotel's executive assistant manager of food and beverage. "Most of the pop-up events that take place are held to promote Dubai as a destination, such as jazz concerts and the different food festivals that are very popular."

A far cry from the street-food vendors and festivals, the Jumeirah Zabell Saray regularly works with big name, international chefs to create luxury pop-up events that are designed to raise the profile of the hotel as much as entertain the guests. Previous high-profile culinary figures such as Vivek Singh and star chef-restaurateurs the Galvin Brothers, have set up temporary home in the property. While hotels are able to avoid some of the logistical challenges, smaller pop-ups face, such undertakings are not without their difficulties.

"We need to ensure that we are attracting the right profiles that would create interest in addition to raising the profile of a restaurant, commercial success factors and PR coverage," says Wirasinha. "In addition, if you want to associate with celebrity chefs, then the ground work has to be done at least a year in advance to ensure that the chef has availability to travel."

Supply and demand

As well as the logistics of scheduling, hotels need to be mindful of the contracts and preferences of those they're going into business with. Many opt to only work with certain products that often need to be imported, and, as this is another regulatory minefield, careful planning is required to find a registered food supplier that is willing to source the ingredients.

"People are beginning to see pop-ups here as something that’s cool and hip, and they want their brand to be affiliated with that." 

"Careful budgeting and planning for contingencies are also extremely important," says Wirasinha. "We try to ensure as much as possible to avoid making a loss on doing such promotions. Clear communication about the promotion well in advance to the team also helps, as the best form of marketing always tends to be the colleagues promoting the event to regular customers.

"In addition, we draw out a marketing plan in advance that would cover advertising, including magazines and radio. When you consider the PR and reputational value of doing such promotions, we actually gain [something] despite these events not making large fiscal gains."

Those reputation benefits do create a series of intangibles that transcend the bottom line and it is a message that an increasing number of hoteliers are buying into.

"I see this as a growing trend and more hotels will do such events to remain different in the market," says Wirasinha. "I think events like this benefit the individual hotels as well as uplifting the destination too. It is important for us to attract more of these big names to our city to ensure that Dubai remains a leading gourmet destination."

But the speed of change has caught authorities on the hop. With the pop-up phenomenon making an impact at all levels, from budget to upscale, the emphasis has been on legislators needing to catch up fast.

"The government, in the past 18 months, has been slow to respond to the phenomenon," says POP!'s Mulay-Shah. "It didn't know how to address the food trucks, and with the heat here, health and safety is a big issue. But how do you embrace something that's mobile, [something] that is harder to check? They were slow to get around to it, but they've finally put in the regulatory framework and that has really opened the flood gates."

Dubai has a history of catering for businesses, ensuring the environment is right for them to thrive. If the authorities want this trend to continue, then ensuring regulations are up to date is essential.

"They provide another view to the culture of the city," says Greenwood. "Traditionally, you go to the hotel and you see the sites, but you're not necessarily going to have a chance to go into those more underground food districts. This is where pop-ups enhance the overall experience of the city; offering unique flavours they wouldn't necessarily be able to taste."

Hoteliers, guests, superstar chefs and budding entrepreneurs all certainly appear to be displaying a growing appetite for the model. However temporary their life cycle, it seems as though the pop-up model is here to stay.

Big name chefs such have been drawn to pop-ups in the burgeoning Middle East market.
A great opportunity: the Galvin brothers created a pop-up in Dubai.
MotiRoti: part of the pop-up revolution.


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