‘We’re liv­ing the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity TV travel show’

For­get pre­dictable travel pro­grammes – Emi­rati brothers Mo­hamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi are jet­ting off to film their award-win­ning travel show where their so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers de­cide their ev­ery move. Anthea Ay­ache meets them

Friday - - Society -

T he win­tery clouds rolled over­head, pre­par­ing to un­leash another unapolo­getic down­pour on the roar­ing Ir­ish Sea be­low, while the waves crashed un­ceas­ingly against the age-old coastal rocks.

Two Emi­rati brothers – Mo­hamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi – looked out at the un­invit­ing waters of Dublin Bay, their tanned legs shiv­er­ing against the bit­ing wind, and won­dered if this crowd­sourced idea to dive into the freez­ing Fe­bru­ary waters of Forty Foot was such a good one af­ter all.

With no time left for con­tem­pla­tion, the pair found them­selves fol­low­ing their guide, clam­ber­ing down the slip­pery sea­weed steps and swim­ming fran­ti­cally out into wa­ter no warmer than 4°C. This age-old cus­tom is one that many a Dubliner has done be­fore, and the brothers were not go­ing to let the Emi­rati side down.

“We’ll show you tough Ir­ish ex­actly what folk from the desert are made of,” braved Peyman, be­fore rac­ing back to shore faster than a Fer­rari down Shaikh Zayed Road.

Such is the brav­ery and zest for life of the Peeta Planet pro­tag­o­nists that they’re break­ing the bound­aries of tra­di­tional TV and paving the way for the travel shows of tomorrow.

Their se­ries, which re­cently picked up Out­stand­ing So­cial Me­dia Project of 2013 at the Broad­cast Pro Awards in Dubai, sees the like­able pair di­rected via an online com­mu­nity vot­ing sys­tem, trav­el­ling the world, meet­ing in­no­va­tors in cul­ture, en­trepreneur­ship and food.

A newway to travel

“The con­cept we’re try­ing to drive is so­cial travel,” ex­plains younger brother Peyman, 37. “In the past, peo­ple have al­ways copied what oth­ers do when trav­el­ling, but now more and more peo­ple want cus­tom-made trips based on their own pas­sions. Peeta Planet is about con­nect­ing with peo­ple around the world so when they travel to a desti­na­tion, they can see it through the eyes of some­one just like them.”

The so­cial travel and tele­vi­sion pro­gramme con­cept is some­thing the pair has been work­ing on since 2009, when hav­ing re­cently opened their gourmet shawarma restau­rant Wild Peeta in Dubai (Peeta be­ing Mo­hamed and Peyman’s unique spelling of ‘pitta’, the bread tra­di­tion­ally used to make the sand­wich) a ven­ture that took them seven tir­ing years to ex­e­cute, the pair de­cided to ask their Face­book and Twit­ter fol­low­ers for ad­vice when plan­ning a de­served hol­i­day.

“It is so nor­mal to do that to­day,” says Mo­hamed, 40. “But back then it was al­most rev­o­lu­tion­ary. We used the hash­tag #Pee­taPlanet on Twit­ter to unify our op­tions and then our fol­low­ers planned the whole trip for us. They told us where to go [Sri Lanka], where to stay, what to do and we tweeted our way through the whole process. Af­ter, peo­ple got in touch to say they felt like they’d trav­elled vi­car­i­ously through us, which was when the ini­tial idea for our show Peeta Planet was born.”

Now into its sec­ond se­ries, the show sees the brothers travel to dif­fer­ent global des­ti­na­tions, meet­ing en­trepreneurs along the way, shar­ing cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences in mu­sic, clothes, art and sport, par­tic­i­pat­ing in lo­cal cus­toms and dis­cov­er­ing unique cuisines – vir­tu­ally all pro­posed by and voted on by their so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers.

To­day the brothers have around 600,000 fol­low­ers on Google+, more than 5,500 on Twit­ter and over 21,000 Face­book friends, many of

whom are ac­tively en­gag­ing in the pro­duc­tion of the pro­gramme.

Peeta Planet is the third most viewed lo­cally pro­duced show on the DMI net­work and the sixth most viewed show within its tar­get au­di­ence of 25- to 45-year-olds in UAE, GCC and Mid­dle East.

“We didn’t ex­pect it,” says Mo­hamed. “It’s still sink­ing in but it means so much when we get mes­sages from all over the world, and peo­ple reach out to tell us they’re in a ho­tel in Paris on their way to Aus­tralia and they’re go­ing to visit some­where they saw on the show. Or see­ing an In­sta­gram shot of some­one in the same place we were their busi­ness, but lit­tle did the bank man­agers know how hands-on th­ese de­ter­mined brothers would be.

They worked from the bot­tom, help­ing out in their fa­ther Younes’ clothes and toy stores as chil­dren.

“I re­mem­ber I was eight or nine and we worked in his cloth­ing store, fold­ing shirts and jeans,” says Mo­hamed. “He ex­posed us to that world and that re­spon­si­bil­ity from a young age, and al­though he would pay us, it wasn’t a lot! We learnt a lot at that time and we’re thank­ful that he taught us that work ethic.”

And that work ethic was tested when, de­spite avail­able fund­ing from Dubai SME for the Wild Peeta restau­rant, the pair were forced to find a way around a short­age in funds for a tra­di­tional mar­ket­ing cam­paign.

Not ones to sur­ren­der eas­ily, they turned their at­ten­tion out­side of the box to find ways of reach­ing out to cus­tomers.

“There was no such thing as so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing yet,” says Mo­hamed. “At that time brands were afraid of it, they didn’t want to ex­pose them­selves. We didn’t have money to spend on ra­dio or TV, so we looked at so­cial me­dia and thought, ‘wow there are peo­ple on here, so let’s find a way to con­nect with them and see if we can make them our cus­tomers’.”

So from the very be­gin­ning, the brothers en­gaged with po­ten­tial cus­tomers via so­cial me­dia – most no­tably Twit­ter – get­ting their fol­low­ers in­volved with all con­cepts

From the be­gin­ning, the brothers en­gaged with po­ten­tial cus­tomers via so­cial me­dia

and they’ve then tagged us say­ing they saw it on Peeta Planet.”

Such a brave foray into tech­nol­ogy was never go­ing to be easy, but the brothers were used to tak­ing on chal­lenges, af­ter they bat­tled to get their restau­rant off the ground.

“It took us two years just to find some­one to in­vest in the restau­rant busi­ness,” says Peyman. “We walked into banks and they all said no. They saw two Emi­ratis start­ing a brand new con­cept and thought it couldn’t pos­si­bly work.” But the brothers were de­ter­mined to prove them wrong.

Per­haps the doubt was born from the pre­con­cep­tion that the pair would sim­ply act as silent part­ners in of their busi­ness – from restau­rant’s in­te­rior de­sign to menu ideas.

Mo­hamed says, “We were given ad­vice by thou­sands of peo­ple who fol­lowed us. It al­lowed us per­spec­tives that would have oth­er­wise been lim­ited to two peo­ple – my brother and I. It gave us a great foun­da­tion to make busi­ness de­ci­sions.

“We re­alised that if you could con­nect with th­ese peo­ple and es­tab­lish re­ally ter­rific re­la­tion­ships and if they cared about you, then they could help you, they could get in­volved in your busi­ness and di­rect you. So we started call­ing them our vir­tual board mem­bers and we would ask them about any­thing.”

Re­al­is­ing the power and po­ten­tial of en­gag­ing fol­low­ers not only from the suc­cess­ful launch of their restau­rant but the re­sponse to their #Pee­taPlanet hol­i­day in Sri Lanka, the pair be­gan to fo­cus their at­ten­tion on gar­ner­ing ideas for a crowd-sourced travel show.

En­gage­ment was abun­dant from the online com­mu­nity, how­ever get­ting in­vestors to be as en­thu­si­as­tic would not be quite so sim­ple.

In 2010 the brothers ap­proached TwoFour54, Abu Dhabi’s me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment free zone, with their unique travel show idea, de­scrib­ing the me­chan­ics of a se­ries that took viewer par­tic­i­pa­tion well be­yond tra­di­tional viewer vot­ing.

They ex­plained that they wanted to put the whole idea out on so­cial me­dia chan­nels, al­low­ing fans from across the globe to choose the des­ti­na­tions, ac­tiv­i­ties, ex­pe­ri­ences and fu­ture lo­cal ac­quain­tances.

“We told them we wanted to take it another step for­ward,” says

Peyman. “We wanted our fol­low­ers to drive the con­tent – the peo­ple would be the di­rec­tors and we would pro­duce it.”

De­spite ini­tial in­vestor doubt, the brothers held firm, trav­el­ling weekly to TwoFour54, un­til even­tu­ally, in 2012, they got the green light.

With the back­ing of loyal part­ners Google, In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tels and Dubai One, as well as TwoFour54, the pair be­gan film­ing their pi­lot show. Se­ries one pre­miered in April 2013 and picked up a broad­cast award just six months later.

All 12 episodes of the first se­ries were filmed in 72 days and showed the brothers as they em­barked on a tour across 12 coun­tries in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, Le­banon, Sin­ga­pore, Kenya and South Korea.

Dur­ing film­ing, prior to ar­riv­ing at each desti­na­tion, Mo­hamed and Peyman reached out to their in Buenos Aires where we fea­tured the Na­tional Home­less World Cup Team,” says Mo­hamed.

“Ba­si­cally the guy who or­gan­ises it is an ac­coun­tant by day and he sched­ules a game for home­less peo­ple once a week. He gives them food, gives them some­thing to look for­ward to and tries to trans­fer skills. They end up trav­el­ling to places like France to play in the Home­less World Cup.”

Global kind­ness

Such global acts of kind­ness are in­trin­si­cally weaved into the show, and the brothers con­sis­tently meet peo­ple mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

“It puts ev­ery­thing in your life into per­spec­tive,” says Mo­hamed. “I don’t think we are ac­cus­tomed to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing that level of ad­ver­sity out­side of a video screen, but as we found out first-hand, you can’t switch over the chan­nel in re­al­ity when some­thing makes you feel un­com­fort­able. You’re forced to be vul­ner­a­ble and rec­on­cile with how it makes you feel. It’s a core prin­ci­ple of so­cial trav­el­ling.

“One of the defin­ing mo­ments was when we vis­ited the Kib­era slum in Nairobi. It’s the largest ur­ban slum in Africa, and it was un­real. Dubai is so new, even the old­est build­ings are only from the 70s, and to then be sud­denly im­mersed in that en­vi­ron­ment and see what th­ese peo­ple are go­ing through and to see they still have hope!”

Peyman adds, “We are so lucky in the UAE be­cause the gov­ern­ment does so much. Then you go to other places in the world and you ask them [the lo­cal peo­ple] what their gov­ern­ment is do­ing and they don’t know what you’re talk­ing about – it makes you re­alise.”

Glo­be­trot­ting ad­ven­ture, cul­ture, gas­tron­omy and chang­ing the world for the bet­ter aside, the two are also fo­cused on ad­dress­ing stereo­types and em­brac­ing their po­si­tion as cul­tural am­bas­sadors for the UAE. It was with this role in mind that they de­cided to wear Emi­rati tra­di­tional dress, the kan­dura and ghutra, through­out film­ing.

“We have re­ceived emails from Mid­dle Eastern­ers say­ing for the first time they feel con­fi­dent about

‘I think our projects al­low Emi­ratis and dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties to mix’

so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers and asked for rec­om­men­da­tions about where to go, what to do, what to eat and who to meet, es­pe­cially when it came to find­ing as yet undis­cov­ered tal­ent.

“A lot of peo­ple cel­e­brate suc­cess,” says Peyman. “We’re try­ing to find those on the cusp, who are still un­der­ground. We have to dig, but through so­cial me­dia, we’re try­ing to find the six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion.”

And it’s not just dare­devil chal­lenges that fill this colour­ful se­ries – the brothers also find peo­ple re­ally mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in com­mu­ni­ties across the globe, some­thing they agree is in­spir­ing and mo­ti­va­tional. “We did a seg­ment trav­el­ling and wear­ing their na­tional dress,” says Mo­hamed.

“At first I thought it was awe­some, then I thought it was sad. Why shouldn’t we feel proud to wear our na­tional dress? We’re one of the few coun­tries in the world who still do. If you look around the world, ev­ery­one is wear­ing train­ers and jeans and we’re still wear­ing this, and that’s a beau­ti­ful thing.”

Peyman adds, “At first when peo­ple see us in lo­ca­tions, they’re very re­served and peo­ple will look at us out of the cor­ners of their eyes, but as we get into con­ver­sa­tions, peo­ple re­alise we are just like them – we like the same mu­sic and the same food.”

And it’s not just bridg­ing the gap be­tween the UAE and the rest of the world, but im­por­tantly, the brothers be­lieve they are tak­ing small steps in bring­ing a golden age of Mid­dle East­ern cre­ativ­ity back to the re­gion.

“We’re one bridge,” says Mo­hamed. “And a small one, but it starts on our home turf. There was an era when the re­gion was cre­at­ing amaz­ing mu­sic, art and poetry, and it died be­cause im­port­ing be­came so easy… But I see that chang­ing now, in all as­pects of cul­ture, we’re be­ing cre­ative again.”

Younger brother Peyman agrees. “Peo­ple have heard of the UAE be­cause of all the global projects, but they haven’t come into con­tact with the peo­ple be­hind it, and this is an op­por­tu­nity. Visi­tors to the UAE of­ten say they don’t get a chance to en­gage with Emi­rati peo­ple be­cause we’re very small in num­ber, and I think our projects al­low Emi­ratis and dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties to mix.”

No­tably the brothers recog­nise that the life they are liv­ing is a for­tu­nate one, but as they rightly point out, it hasn’t come with­out a lot of hard work.

“We can count on our hands the num­ber of peo­ple in the world who are liv­ing this ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Mo­hamed. “We feel very priv­i­leged, but we’ve worked very hard for this – noth­ing was given to us for free. There were days when we hon­estly thought it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen, so we don’t take any of it for granted.”

The hun­dreds of thou­sands of so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers gear­ing up to steer them through the sec­ond se­ries of Peeta Planet prob­a­bly couldn’t agree more that such doubts were un­jus­ti­fied, but it is this hu­mil­ity that per­haps makes them so pop­u­lar.

“Right now, we’re just tak­ing it one sea­son at a time and im­prov­ing our­selves ev­ery time,” says Mo­hamed.

Se­ries two film­ing be­gins mid-Jan­uary 2014. You can get in­volved on the show’s YouTube, Face­book and In­sta­gram pages, as well as on Twit­ter and Google+.

The brothers wear kan­duras to break stereo­types

In Kenya The brothers pre­pare for a shoot at a slum

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