Meet The Entrepreneurs Behind Hong Kong’s Largest Wellness Festival

Leadership

September 18, 2018 | BY Lee Williamson

The Iris: Your Escape festival is unlike any other in Hong Kong. Its founders tell Generation T why they turned their backs on the club scene to build an event with purpose at its core

In some ways, this weekend will be like any other on Central Harbourfront. Thousands of Hongkongers, most in their 20s, will descend on the waterside location for a weekend-long festival. They’ll cut loose and try to forget about the stresses of work.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Iris: Your Escape is a festival unlike any other in the city.

While the majority of the outdoor venue’s weekend tenants celebrate indulgence in one form or another—be it food, alcohol, or even sex—Iris focuses on health, enriching yourself; finding balance. To put it in one, much overused, word: wellness.

“Iris is a community-based festival,” explains Charlz Ng, one of three co-founders of Iris and CEO of Hybrid Group, the festival’s parent organisation. “It’s a weekend to connect like-minded people through different activities around health and wellness,” he tells Generation T, sat on the grass under the shade of a tree in Tamar Park, adjacent to the festival’s location.

The pre-typhoon sun is blazing, and Ng and his fellow co-founders, Generation T listers Gianni Melwani and Gary Wan, are in good spirits during the photoshoot, gently ribbing one another when it’s time for solo shots, before sitting down and getting serious. The first thing one notices about the trio is that despite being young, athletic and successful, they are far removed from the toxic masculinity of “bro culture” that so often pervades the above combination. They talk eloquently and insightfully about the rise of the wellness trend, and its potential to have a positive impact on us all.

 “We wanted to offer a platform where people could experience a variety of activities that might help them develop,” says Melwani. “Anything that will help them become a better person physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Origins 

The three entrepreneurs didn’t always have such high-minded ambitions. They forged their bond while working together in the nightlife industry. “Gianni and I met four years ago. We started off doing music-related events,” says Ng. “We met Gary a year later, and he had a lot of experience in that field as well,” says Melwani, taking over the story. “We came together, sat down and said: ‘Why don’t we put our strengths together and do something as one unit?’” 

For a while, they pooled their talents to put together some of the biggest parties and club nights in the city. Then something suddenly changed. “One night, we were working in the club until three or four in the morning when we realised something,” says Wan. “We asked ourselves: ‘Do we want to keep doing this for the next five or ten years?’ The answer was no. That’s how we changed course immediately.”

The rise of Iris

And so, in 2015 Iris was born. “We were tired of working in a [nightlife] environment, so we got together and looked at what was happening in the market as well as other things we were passionate about,” says Ng. Seeing an increasing demand for wellness-related experiences, the trio decided to organise a small yoga event on Discovery Bay Beach to test the water. 

“We had around 50 attendees, two or three [yoga] classes and maybe two stalls,” says Melwani. “But the feedback was so positive we were like: Okay, we have something special here.”

Over the following three years, Iris expanded beyond its origins as a yoga festival, incorporating all aspects of health, fitness and mindfulness into the programme. This weekend’s event will offer a smorgasbord of wellness experiences. The founders’ vision is that an attendee will try something for the first time, discover a passion they never knew they had, and use it to develop themselves positively long after the two-day festival is over.

The broad approach reflects the founders’ multi-faceted passions. Melwani is a semi-pro footballer, playing in the Hong Kong First Division League, but his lithe frame, zen-like demeanour and softly spoken delivery give him away as the yogi of the group. Ng is a charismatic and engaging speaker; a former dancer, he is also Director of Ceremonies for the Gay Games 2022, when Hong Kong will host the competition. Despite his quiet, almost self-effacing manner, Wan’s large frame and densely packed muscle identify him as the gym beast of the group. His love of strength conditioning has seen him take the lead on Hybrid Group’s other big event series: the Spartan Race obstacle course.

“We’ve learned a lot since the first Iris,” says Wan. “In terms of logistics, production, even staffing. I think we’ve made thousands of mistakes and spent so much money that could have been saved!”

Iris Insider 

This weekend, the seventh incarnation of Iris, which is held biannually, will see over 80 instructors, 70 vendors and an expected attendance of 6,000—impressive numbers compared to only three years ago. There will also be a new addition to the programme: the Iris Insider stage. “It will be similar to a Ted Talk atmosphere, with key industry leaders in various wellness fields sharing their knowledge and expertise,” says Melwani. The stage will host talks and panel discussions, covering everything from addiction to digital balance.

Generation T is also hosting a panel at Iris Insider. “Making Wellness Your Business” will feature three Generation T listers who have put wellness at the forefront of their professional lives. MMA fighter Ramona Pascual, Prenetics founder Danny Yeung and Nosh’s Max von Poelnitz will talk about their personal journeys as well as trends in the wellness industry as a whole.

The Iris Insider stage feels like a natural extension of the founders’ philosophy—that this new, more holistic definition of wellness is much more than a fleeting trend. And in today’s world of expanding waistlines and shrinking leisure time, it’s more important than ever.

“For me, wellness is something that comes from within,” says Ng. “It’s part of the reason we created Iris Insider. ‘Wellness’ isn’t something that you do every day—it’s not the gym, the yoga, or the salad that you eat. It’s how you think, how you react to situations.”

The rise of this all-encompassing approach to health and self-development has led to a deluge of op-eds espousing wellness as “the new luxury.” The essence of the argument is that only those with the money and time to spare can afford to look after their mind, body and spirit. Given that the co-founders are selling their brand on the strength of the appeal of wellness, you’d think they would be on board with this definition. Quite the opposite. 

“Seeing wellness as a luxury means that its scarce,” says Melwani. “Iris is actually working to fight that concept,” adds Ng. “We want people to know that wellness isn’t just for those who can pay HK$300 for an hour-long class. It should be accessible to everyone.”

Despite the purpose-driven business model that makes Iris stand out from its contemporaries, there is one key commonality that links the festival to every other at Central Harbourfront.

“Change is key to what we do; we want to help people change and become a better version of themselves,” says Ng. “But we also don’t want people to forget one thing: Iris is an amazingly entertaining weekend. We’re also all about the fun.”

Iris: Your Escape is at Central Harbourfont this weekend, September 22 and 23. Tickets are HK$205 for a day and HK$255 for a weekend pass. The Generation T panel is 4.40-5.40pm on Saturday 22 at the Iris Insider stage. Visit us at the Generation T booth and enter our competition to win a DNA testing kit from Circle DNA, powered by Prenetics.

 

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