Cash for carnival
Carnival isn’t just the region’s biggest party – it’s the region’s biggest business opportunity. As Trinidad’s fabulous fete beckons, Kimberly Wallace tracked down three entrepreneurs who’ve made money from mas
Dean Ackin has been listed among the top ten movers and shakers of T&T Carnival by Forbes magazine but the CEO of the Ultimate Group and MD of Carnival band Tribe will always be known as the man who revolutionised Trinidad & Tobago Carnival.
That’s no mean feat. For all the glitz that comes with Carnival, it’s a tough industry; many bands emerge with fanfare only to fizzle and fade a couple of years later. However, Ackin wrote his own narrative. Together with his wife Monique Nobrega and his team, he was the first to introduce the all-inclusive band concept. As part of this experience, Ackin brought on board the bar trailer, and introduced the first electronic smart card tickets and the first online registration system for masqueraders. He also included trucks that pump cooling mist into the air.
Ackin has always had a passion for Carnival; as a child he played with Rosalind Gabriel’s Kiddies Carnival band. Much later, he recognised the need for improvements in the Carnival product, to bring it in line with international offerings. He left his job as a banker with Republic Bank and, in 2005, launched the first all-inclusive band, Tribe.
Ackin knew he was taking a risk. But he had a vision for the Carnival experience and what it would do for the Carnival landscape. Getting started was difficult; not all sponsors were willing to take the chance with a new concept. But with help from family, Tribe was born.
Today, Tribe is one of the most successful Carnival bands. Ackin now also oversees Bliss, Tribe’s sister band, and Ultimate Events, an event management company; they form part of Ackin’s ‘Ultimate Group’, the Carnival industry’s first conglomerate. “We like changing the game, it challenges us mentally and spiritually,” says Ackin.
While they’ve been the first to bring about many innovations that have been met with enthusiasm from masqueraders, they’ve gotten some push back from traditionalists. “The biggest challenge is getting some of the stakeholders to understand that change to the Carnival product is necessary,” Ackin explains.
Carnival is a year-round business for Ackin and his team; getting design prototypes ready takes months of hard work. By focusing on the product, Ackin’s immediate goal is to stay current and relevant.
Carnival may be all sequins on the outside but running a Carnival band operation is stressful and challenging. “The Carnival and entertainment industry has a high failure rate so any budding entrepreneurs must properly assess the market and do a comprehensive due diligence exercise before jumping in head first,” advises Ackin.
The day he started in the Carnival business was the day Ackin gave up being a masquerader. “I still have fun, but the fun is in working and making my customers happy rather than playing mas. Someone has to sacrifice.”
‘Opportunities are endless’
Who? Founder & CEO
What? Online digital resource that provides access to premier carnival bands and accessories
From Notting Hill to Miami, Barbados to Brazil, Carnival is international. So entrepreneur and software developer Angél Stewart came up with the idea of creating a digital platform that could service all the needs of the industry, across the world. Anyone anywhere can log on to www.mycarnivalbands.com to register with bands and purchase products from costumes to stockings.
Stewart is no stranger to the Carnival scene. In 2005 he developed the first end-to-end band and costume registration systems for one of the largest bands in Trinidad. It was the first time a band could track their costume and customer information online via a database and accept online payments. Still, he felt he could do something bigger that could benefit the industry as a whole; in 2013 www.mycarnivalbands.com was launched. In the years since, he has licensed the software so that Carnival bands and vendors on other islands can use the technology and tailor it for their audiences.
Because the entertainment industry is such a fickle one, satisfying the needs of his clients without compromising the site’s creativity has been a challenge. “Having a long-term vision helps me stay focused,” says Stewart. The website will eventually be a hub for accessing all Carnival-related services including the best makeup artists and hair stylists. Stewart also plans to roll out more value-added services that will assist band leaders, the public, tourism sectors and banking systems.
When it comes to Carnival, the opportunities are endless, says Stewart. “The music, the fetes, the costumes… Carnival lends itself to unique experiences and opportunities, therefore savvy entrepreneurs have the ability to tap into these markets in ways they may not be able to with other festivals.”
Stewart hasn’t played mas in years, but he’s still a regular at Carnival fetes. When he’s at band launches looking at the costumes, his mind is in overdrive, thinking of ways to improve the quality of his business.
“If getting into the business of Carnival appeals to you, don’t do it for the money, or else your business will be short lived,” Stewart cautions. He also encourages those new in the game to have a broader goal and understanding of their place as West Indians in the world. “Think about these tiny islands in the Caribbean: what do they need? What can I do to benefit my community? It’s a tough industry – if you decide that you can make a difference in Carnival, you have to be ready to give it your all.”
Who? Founder, Carnival Faces
What? A marketleader in Carnival makeup artistry in the Caribbean, specialising in sophisticated makeup techniques
Year founded: 2004
It’s Carnival time? Then expect to see Trudy Young at the centre of the action. Mas is her passion – this Trinidad-born, Florida-based makeup artist and former beauty queen is a Carnival connoisseur. “I’ve always been a fan. I was 16 the first time I played mas and I’ve been playing mas every year since then, even when I was pregnant with my son,” says Young.
But it’s her company Carnival Faces that now makes waves at the T&T, Antigua and Miami Carnivals. Young and her team enhance the experience for hundreds of players who want to look the part from head to heel.
Several years ago, trained makeup artist Young began looking into turning her love for makeup into a business opportunity, seeing massive potential during Carnival season. After some research, she decided her business wouldn’t provide run-of-the-mill makeup but the more theatrical type that was also water resistant and would last for hours without melting under the hot sun.
Given the early hours at which masqueraders start getting ready, Young was determined to give her business a competitive advantage by providing her services in a comfortable, safe environment where clients can sit and have breakfast (with champagne!) while getting their makeup done at affordable prices. She put together a team. Carnival Faces was born.
Masqueraders can go for the dramatic look, with bejewelled tattoos and body paint, or a more subtle diva look. Even men have got in on the action.
When Young transformed her passion into a business, she could not have imagined how it would grow. She believes Carnival provides enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs. “Every culture has a festival that allows people freedom of expression; people are willing to spend money every year to experience that,” says Young. “I would encourage others to get on board – there aren’t enough makeup artists to do makeup for 20,000 masqueraders!”
Mas occupies most of Young’s time. She’s either preparing for T&T or Antigua Carnival or back in Miami putting the finishing touches on their Carnival players. Carnival Faces now includes costumes, and Young is involved in the design, concept and production processes.
Mas and makeup – there’s nothing Young would rather do. And her advice for other would-be entrepreneurs? “Do lots of research and include excellent customer service. Otherwise, be brave – if you can think it, you can do it!”