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How 'Sensation' changed the Live Entertainment industry in India

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

5th March, 2016 has to be one of the most memorable days in my life. It was the day we rewrote the rules of the Live Entertainment industry in India. It was the day we premiered the internationally acclaimed “Sensation- The World's Leading Dance Event" in India. When Andre Timmins, the head honcho of Wizcraft, the largest entertainment company in India came up to me and said “Bro, I’ve never experienced something like this in my life!”, I knew we had achieved something special. Watching the Sensation India after movie below still gives me goose flesh.

Before I come to Sensation, a short back story. Most aren’t aware that I was involved in the Live Entertainment business for a brief time after I turned an Entrepreneur in 2014. Voilà Events was formed along with a few buddies in the advent of the formation of the new Telangana State. Readers would recall that the city of Hyderabad was practically dead between 2009 and 2014 and it was only after Statehood was granted in 2013 and a new Government was formed in 2014 that things started to move forward. Voilà Events’ stated objective was to bring world class Live Entertainment properties to Hyderabad and position the city as a magnet for large format Live Events. Internationally many cities are closely associated with the large format events they host, and these annual events become an intrinsic part of a city’s, sometimes even a country’s ecosystem like Tomorrowland is for Belgium.

The first partnership we struck was with Sunburn, the leading Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival in India. The Sunburn team invited us to Mumbai to watch a Martin Garrix gig and we were literally blown away. EDM was the music of Gen Z and international DJ’s were their idols, we just knew this was the right format to build on. And so, we penciled in our first show for November, 2014 with one of the biggest names in Dance Music – Afrojack.

Afrojack at Hyderabad's first EDM gig in November 2014. Pic credit: Sunburn

Hyderabad went berserk. The show was sold out, the clamor for tickets was unbelievable. I had not witnessed so many young, fashionable people together at one place in the city. Afrojack drove the nearly 10,000 strong crowd crazy and the P/L recorded a surplus. Very early we understood and strongly resisted one of the biggest traps event managers fall into; give away free passes - we didn’t give out even a single one. This was largely due to the support from the local city administration, including the then Police Commissioner who himself purchased tickets. Now, this doesn’t happen often in India, but we lived in interesting times. While the gig was a huge success, we somehow didn't feel satiated, as the show was completely run by the Sunburn team. We were passive bystanders and we instantly knew we had to change that.

Miami, Ibiza and Amsterdam, here we come! To be the best, we decided to learn from the very best and so the first half of 2015 was largely committed to travel, see first hand for ourselves and learn the nuances of how the biggest Dance Music Festivals in the world are run and managed. First up was the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, then Ushuaïa in Ibiza, culminating with Sensation's global event in Amsterdam. It doesn’t get bigger than this, we had a ringside view of the greatest gigs on earth, but it wasn’t all fun. While we were soaking in the atmosphere, we were also taking notes on what we could implement back home. Now, you’d be green with envy with the kind of work I was doing, but for me it was like a breath of fresh air after 18 years in the drab corporate world. 😊

Ultra Music Festival, Miami in 2015 was akin to a United Nations for Dance Music fans. Pic credit: Ultra Music Festival

Sensation Amsterdam 2015 - Angels & Demons show brought out the beauty along with the beast amongst revelers. Pic credit: Sensation

Ready for Sensation India! At this time, ID&T, the Amsterdam headquartered global live entertainment company and the owners of Sensation were looking to enter into India and were evaluating various cities for the same. Mumbai was the front runner, followed by Bangalore, but we had a compelling pitch. Hyderabad had already proven to be a good market for EDM gigs as we had already hosted biggies like Armin Van Buuren, DJ Snake and Tiesto in the 2015 season, we got the Hyderabad City administration to guarantee a smooth conduct of the event and we also came out as a strong team for them to partner with. We pitched the City as much as ourselves and eventually Voilà Events signed a 5-year partnership with ID&T for Sensation in India.

Sensation owns multiple show formats that travel around the world and we chose the largest, also their most expensive – 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome'. It was our first show, and we wanted to start with a bang. Unlike other shows, 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome' has a center stage, rather than a usual concert setup giving 360 degree access to fans. The stage is a big carousel with flying horses that rotates 3 times per minute. The rotating top by itself weighs 9 tons and turns separately from the DJ booth, they can turn in opposite directions. The carousel contains 12 winches driven by computers; in these winches 8 dancers were suspended and 4 others were placed in the arches. 130 speakers and subs give the crowd a best possible sound experience throughout the venue and over 96 moving heads are installed in between the decoration. The inflatable girls are made of over 3000 m2 of fabric.

The pyrotechnics design included more than 70 positions from where the pyro could be shot. 800 LED lights were specially designed for the show. The DJ's lineup for a single day event was stellar – Afrojack, Axwell, Laidback Luke, Lost Frequencies and Mr White. Sensation traveled with 13 containers from Amsterdam to India by road and water. Other sensitive and high value equipment came by air. A crew of 30 flew from Amsterdam to set it up in one week flat, professionalism and workmanship of the highest order. It's was an international scale production that India hasn't seen before.

After and before pics of the massive set being erected for "Sensation - Welcome to the Pleasuredome" show at Gachibowli Stadium, Hyderabad.

Meanwhile we got ourselves busy with the commercial aspects of the project. Now, Live Entertainment has a strange business model in India – it is dependent on sponsorship as the ticketing revenue only is not enough to compensate for production costs. If you price tickets too high, you don't sell enough. This links back to my earlier blog where I wrote about the limitations of consumption class in India. If you don’t cover at least 50% of your budget through sponsorship, large events usually end up losing money in India. While Budweiser the principal sponsor was tied in by ID&T as they had an international partnership, raising local sponsorship was seeming quite a task. We did manage to raise associate sponsors in the end, but that was well below the budgeted number. The problem was that while Sensation was well known in Europe, many weren’t aware of it in India and more importantly we didn’t have enough time to educate potential sponsors.

Marketing was another challenge. We choose a local ticketing partner (a ticketing partner provides an advance on ticket revenue) over a well-established national player as they had committed a larger upfront advance, only to realise later that their penetration and reach was seemingly limited. We therefore bumped up on our media spends, ran a national print campaign and roped in VH1 as our TV partner. Local media was deployed widely, a huge outdoor campaign was designed and a digital campaign was launched. But ticket sales were flat and just didn’t move, which left us perplexed. Early bird sales is an important revenue stream for an event manager and not selling enough tickets in advance creates huge cash flow problems. Something had to be done quickly.

Inverting the Pyramid. If the bottom of the pyramid wasn't responding, we decided to attack the top and got down to doing what works best in Hyderabad – hype! My bestie, let's just call him 'V', would head out to a different social gathering every evening, deploy his immense story telling skills and hype the hell out of the event. And on cue the Hyderabad glitterati fell for it, VIP tables started selling and soon it created a dynamo effect. Every celebrity, industrialist, movie star and socialite wanted to be seen at Sensation, even if most didn’t understand what the show was about. They just wanted to dress in white (Sensation dress code) and be seen. The younger generation of Tollywood stars willingly cheered for us, they wanted us to win, they wanted their city Hyderabad to win. In the end VIP table sales contributed nearly 40% of total non sponsorship revenue, which was one of the highest for an event in this genre. The above inspirational move helped us effectively overcome the tricky cash flow situation.

Tollywood stars Rakul Preet Singh, Regina Cassandra and Akhil Akkineni at the Sensation Hyderabad media launch. Pic credit: webindia123

Nawabs of Hyderabad. Yet, 48 hours before showtime we had sold less than 2000 tickets. The mood was somber to say the least, everyone was seemingly talking about Sensation, social media was abuzz, white clothes in every retail outlet were sold out, most even had their salon appointments made, but tickets weren’t purchased. And then suddenly true to Hyderabad’s laid back nature the counters started buzzing. Every time I would hit refresh on my Mac Book, it seemed like hitting jackpot on a slot machine and it wouldn't stop until showtime. We hosted around 18,000 fans on March 5th 2016 and everybody who was somebody in the city attended. They were treated to 7 hours of true world class entertainment, something India hadn’t witnessed before.

Sensation India recorded one of its best ever visitor experience scores worldwide with an 8.3 out of 10 on overall satisfaction. A whopping 88% said they will come back for the next edition. 27% of the audience came from outside Hyderabad, 3% were international and the average age of the visitor was just 26. Sensation set new production benchmarks for Live Events in India, most national media carried rave reviews. Sponsors were thrilled and committed additional spends for the next edition. The Sensation leadership team from Amsterdam popped champagne. Sensation India went on to win the ‘Concert of the Year’ award at WOW Awards Asia. All the hard work and learnings from attending gigs in Miami, Ibiza and Amsterdam hadn't gone to waste after all 😉

The first edition of Sensation was a hit at the box office as well. Usually events of this magnitude break even in Year 2, show profits in Year 3 and return super profits in Year 4 and 5. It takes time to build and establish a new entertainment property in a country. But more importantly the kudos we received from wide ranging sections of the industry and the satisfaction derived from staging something of this magnitude on our own strength was extremely fulfilling. With so many learnings from the first edition, we were convinced we could build this into a long term property for Hyderabad. Voilà Events had come a long way since hosting our first Sunburn gig in November 2014, we were now the industry benchmark!

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