There is a scent for every occasion.
That’s the message from The Perfume Expo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Running until Sunday and spread across 40,000 square metres at the Riyadh Front, the annual event brings together more than 200 local and regional brands where new lines are showcased and old favourites are available, often at discounted prices.
In addition to established Saudi brands such as Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Almajed For Oud, the expo has a section for burgeoning boutique brands and workshops for those with a nose for the heady business.
Running as part of the city-wide festival Riyadh Season, the expo is packed with customers young and old, men and women, couples and families.
It also provides an insight into the role fragrance plays in everyday life in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region.
“We are not just talking about fashion here,” says Suleiman Al Bar, manager of Almajed For Oud’s lavish stand strategically placed near the main entry gates.
He points to the 67-year-old brand’s large range of perfumes and ouds as examples of its enduring role in all aspects of Saudi culture.
“Fragrance is very important because it is more than an individual pleasure of smelling good, which is always a nice thing. In some cases, it is also a sign of respect or deference to others,” Al Bar says.
To make his point, he hands me a strip sprayed with one Almajed for Oud’s best-sellers. I take a whiff of the scent, named Wood Gray, and luxuriate in its crisp notes of the ocean, caramel, and sandalwood.
It feels fresh and would work when going to a low-key social event.
“That’s it,“ Al Bar beams. “This is a scent that we would call ‘khafeef’ [meaning light]. It is not overpowering and it’s the kind you keep in the car with you in case you need to go somewhere.”
When it comes to making a real impression in the workplace, he says customers tend to favour "stronger" smells that include oud, red berries and cedar wood.
A sensory journey
As well as complementing the social occasion, some customers also want their scents to take them on a journey far away.
This is the pitch behind popular Saudi boutique brand Greenwich, which names its respective lines after different cities.
Featuring a stand made of distressed wood emblazoned with slick images of timepieces, young people flock to the booth with queries such as “I am looking for London” or “do you still have that Havana?”
One customer, Aamer Asiri, 28, went with the citric and sandalwood notes of Lisbon. A self-confessed fan of perfume with a “strong collection” at home, he puts his knowledge down to his own travels.
“Saudi youth, I would say, have good knowledge and strong opinions when it comes to perfume ... we know what we are looking for,” he says.
“We grew up with it, using different kinds of ouds for different occasions, like Eid celebrations and weddings. Also, we love to travel, we go to these cities like Paris and London and we know what perfumes are working over there.”
Asiri says the local perfume industry will only grow bigger and expects Saudi brands to make an international impression sooner than later.
A process of elimination
Also hoping for a similar impact is Al Rawnaq Perfume, an Omani brand specialising in frankincense.
Sourced locally within the sultanate and featuring an all-Omani staff, the company’s appearance at The Perfume Expo is part of its ongoing regional outreach strategy.
In addition to having permanent stores in the UAE, Oman and Qatar, Al Rawnaq Perfume also has a pop-up presence in Qatar Souq Al Waqif and Dubai’s Global Village.
“London is the next target,” says Mohsin Al Hafidh, executive director. “We plan to open our first European store there so we need you to wish us success.”
Those hopes and prayers are also backed by some hard customer data.
“The visibility at events such as The Perfume Expo is important because we get to know what customers want,” he says.
“For example during the World Cup, a lot of British tourists brought our stock at Souq Waqif. This further pushed us in making the decision to open up in London.”
After nearly a decade working in the industry, Al Hafidh describes the perfume industry as a deeply personal business.
Every day brings new and different kinds of customers, some of which require guidance when making their decisions.
In such cases Al Rawnaq Perfume staff follow a loose set of open ended questions.
“The first one is what you want to feel from your scent,” Al Hafidh.
“From then we begin a process of elimination and ask for their preference between khafeef or a stronger smell. We then narrow it down further and ask if they want it sweet or dry.”
Emerging from The Perfume Expo, I realise there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to finding your scent.
Some may have such an attachment to a brand that it becomes their signature smell, while others — like me — prefer life experiences and emotional disposition to inform their choices.
One thing is for sure though, the process of discovery can be fun and insightful.
“I learn a lot about my customers by what they look for,” Al Bar says.
“You can tell a lot about a person by what perfume they use for that particular setting.”
More information about Riyadh Season is available on riyadhseason.sa