Lighting the way ahead in the UAE

Some entrepreneurs are capitalising on the country's love of illuminations and becoming shining examples of business success.

A familiy light up their backyard in Dubai. Mike Young / The National
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Drive around the UAE at this time of the year and it's hard to miss the coloured fairy lights illuminating everything from houses to offices and hotels.

Whether it's National Day lights yet to be taken down, Christmas lights going up or even those preparing for the New Year festivities, the nation is festooned with dazzling decorations.

And with so many celebrations taking place in such a short window, for the lighting companies who supply the fixtures and fittings this is a very busy time.

"The increase in demand starts around October when the outdoor events season kicks off and then it gets really packed in November to January when there is a lot going on with Diwali, National Day, Christmas and New Year," says Ricky Warang, the owner of Al Sahm Group, an events company that also rents out lighting to homes and businesses.

Mr Warang's staff typically take one day to decorate a villa with fairy lights, with prices starting from Dh2,500 for a week's rental.

At Dubai UAE Events, that can supply 3 metre by 2 metre LED UAE flags for National Day, LED tables for parties, moon- and star-shaped lights, net lights and coloured fairy lights to suit every festive occasion, prices start from Dh5,000.

"From the end of November, up to New Year there is a huge demand for different kinds of light decorations," says the company's marketing manager, Asad.

"We supply lighting to Abu Dhabi as well and, although we are a new company only launching two years ago, there is more and more demand all the time. We're having to take on extra staff to cope."

Prices may start at a reasonable level, but the sky is the limit on how much you want to spend, with big- budget orders back in fashion once more.

"We did an installation for one of Abu Dhabi's government buildings for Dh80,000," says Mr Warang, who launched his company in 2005.

"When we started out, people had huge budgets. Then the economic crunch came and the most affected sector was hospitality and events. However things have bounced back and business is really picking up, particularly in Abu Dhabi. That is a good market to tap into."

In fact the nation's obsession with illumination has seen one company, new to the lighting business, run out of stock.

Carine Le Garrec, from France, launched The Fairy Light Company in April this year after spotting a similar concept in Paris.

She imports cotton baubles from Thailand and string lights from China and transforms them into stylish fairy lights that can be used to decorate Christmas trees or festive parties.

Customers choose from 50 different colours, creating their own design that Ms Le Garrec then puts together herself, with a 35-ball string light costing Dh160.

Launching her company in April with 40,000 baubles, she has since ordered another 40,000 and has now run out completely.

"I never expected it, so I will be out of lights until the next shipment comes in January," says Dubai-based Ms Le Garrac, from France, who sells her products at festive fairs across the UAE.

"Last month was crazy - people were fighting to get hold of one of these and National Day was very popular. It's a great way to decorate the home for a party. And at night in a garden it's so joyful to see all the lights together because it's very colourful."

Huda Serhan is the owner of Glowskies, one of a new breed of companies offering alternative lighting solutions, supplying biodegradable flying and floating paper lanterns made from bamboo and cotton to private parties and corporate events.

Her first big orders come in October for Halloween, with customers snapping up cream-coloured flying lanterns featuring cut-out scary faces, with demand running through to the New Year.

"My candle lanterns were particularly popular for Diwali. People ordered up to 50 at a time to decorate their gardens.

"And we had a lot of people launching lanterns to celebrate National Day. Now we're making sure our retailers have enough Christmas lanterns in stock," says Ms Serhan, who also supplies hanging paper stars and candle lanterns to decorate gardens.

The Jordanian launched her business in the recession and says this year has seen her sales double from last year.

"The point of flying lanterns is that it's something you can do at home with people you love, sharing a special moment. It's a very interactive thing and can be romantic because one person holds the lantern and the other lights it," adds Ms Serhan, who finalises the designs for her 40 or so products in the summer, ready for the festive shipment in September.

One of her customers, Mariana Azar, from Lebanon, has spent Dh1,500 on 30 candles, 10 hanging star lights, 40 floor candle lanterns and four sets of string lights to decorate her home in Dubai's Springs community this Christmas, which she will celebrate with her husband and 14-month-old daughter, Chiara.

"The candle lanterns decorate the patio, the house entrance and the garden area. Some of the star lanterns are hung on the trees and we have ordered a couple of green and red flying lanterns to share with the family and let them fly after our Christmas dinner," says Ms Azar, who has lived in the UAE for 10 years and keeps her decorations up for New Year's Eve as well.

The marketing manager also places candle lanterns at the entrance of her home during Halloween and uses candles and lanterns to light up special dinners and barbecues at other times of the year.

So why is light so important?

"Light symbolises new beginnings, hope, happiness and wishes. When we light a lantern, we also make a wish. We like to feel that this brings positivity and prosperity with it," she explains.

It's not news that light has been used as a way to enhance festivals and celebrations for centuries but the lighting companies agree that the UAE's outdoor season has a lot to do with the high demand here.

"It's the festive season but it's also the outdoor season so sometimes it can just be a barbecue or a dinner party and a lot of parties happen in the garden," says Glowskies' Ms Serhan.

"There is a lot or warmth that comes with light and a romantic, sentimental feeling - it really affects people's mood.

"Light represents hope and celebration. An event with candlelight, for example, represents something new and lighting a lantern marks a moment."

It is for this reason that most lighting suppliers say New Year's Eve is their busiest day of the year.

No matter what culture or religion, the start of a new year is a time to reflect on the past 12 months as well as the coming year.

Ms Serhan expects to deliver over 2,000 lanterns for New Year, partly because many associate her products with the occasion.

"Flying lanterns are originally an Asian tradition. They were used in war to send signals and later symbolised a release of sins and starting anew," says Ms Serhan, who ties up with Desert Drums for its New Year's event in the desert supplying up to 700 lanterns to revellers.

"A lot of people write their New Year's resolution on the lanterns and release them at midnight."

Claudia Van Der Werf, the owner of Desert River, a lifestyle brand and event rentals company, is also bracing for a busy New Year's Eve.

The company rents out illuminated objects such as battery-operated globes, cubes for seating or decoration and illuminated bars and Christmas trees - a high-end alternative to the strings of fairy lights commonly used to decorate parties.

While 80 per cent of her business is corporate, she also receives requests for private parties and has 20 bookings for New Year's Eve already, with more expected.

"It will be all hands on deck," says Ms Van Der Werf, who launched the Dubai-based company in 2004.

"Our illuminated objects add a very nice ambience to an event and our clients want something stylish, unique and modern that makes their event stand out.

"In the busy months of November and December we do up to 10 events a day so we make sure we have a lot more staff on board."

But meeting client expectations is not always easy for the lighting companies.

Some struggle to keep up with last- minute orders. Others find it hard to meet the creative demands of clients who want overly elaborate designs, and then there is the weather to contend with.

"There has been a lot of rain recently. The clients don't want to turn the lights off when it rains and it becomes difficult when we have to explain that they must for safety reasons," says Mr Warang. "Rain has been a problem this month."