Q’s With John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment: ‘We Can Do Pretty Much Everything’

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John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment

Flash Entertainment CEO John Lickrish didn’t anticipate that the return of live entertainment in the Middle East would take this long. For a while, right at the turn of last year, it had seemed like high vaccination rates in UAE, U.S., U.K. and Israel would lead decision makers to open a travel corridor between those countries. But for various reasons that never happened, meaning his team had to be patient.

That patience finally got rewarded towards the end of last year, when Flash got the go-ahead for some of the major events the company handles annually, like the Formula One and Expo entertainment programs, the region’s leading tennis tournament and many more. Omicron slowed things down again temporarily, but once it became clear that it wasn’t a particularly dangerous variant of coronavirus, the UAE Government, like its counterparts around the world, lifted all restrictions on events. At press time, shows in the UAE and the. wider region had no capacity limits imposed on them anymore. The perfect time to catch up with Lickrish about the state of play at Flash Entertainment.

‘The Dawn Of A New Era’ – The Middle East Is Open For Business

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Flash Entertainment handles the Yasalam After-Race Concert Series taking place around the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Pollstar: What’s your state of mind at the start of 2022?
John Lickrish: I am feeling very positive, I think that society is going to be deciding the risks for themselves going forward. Governments don’t want to keep putting in these regulations. There’s protection if you want it. It’s about people being safe and protected. People are willing to take small risks because people under 60, when contracting COVID, if vaccinated, and without underlying conditions, won’t be in the hospital and recover quickly. We have great outdoor venues. We had a FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE at the beginning of this year, all matches had great attendance, and no mass breakouts at any of them, which is good.

Of course, we’d like to see more tours going because it just makes our business a lot easier. The demand is there, especially with the younger people, who are ready to go for anything that comes out. And because we have very methodical and strict operating conditions for what we do anyway, we can provide a very safe environment – as safe as it possibly can be. Our consumers and partners, content providers and artists are the most important thing, their safety is number one. I will be looking forward to that big uptake, we are going to be very aggressive in the second, third and fourth quarter of this year.

Did you focus on other areas of your business while you weren’t allowed to produce shows?
We worked a lot on our internal processes. We did a lot of work on cost cutting without furloughing or laying people off. We’re more than 60 full-time staff in our company, and we kept everyone on board, which is a good thing. We had everyone working on IPs, looking at efficiencies, discussing with our suppliers about volume deals and where we could expect to see some savings. We’re obviously getting pressured on margins, so, of course, we’re pressuring everyone else. But we need a functioning ecosystem in the events business, we don’t want to push people so far that they’re not making money. Everyone’s pocket was going to get hurt a bit.

And it was a very productive downtime, especially when it came to planning out what we wanted to do for the next 10 years. We have a board approved strategy for the next three years, including detailed budgeting, we adapted our business plan, and just went through the formula. We worked on our two new entities that are opening up, one in Dubai and one in Saudi, reworked our partnership/sponsorship plans and made a lot of contacts in that area. All to become a better platform for our brand partners, so they can reach out to their customers, new and existing ones.

Building A Circuit: How The Middle East Is Becoming a Full-Fledged Touring Region

Sounds like there was a silver lining to the whole pandemic.
It was nice to be able to do that, to be honest, because we weren’t running from event to event to event. I think we’ve gone out once in 12 years to celebrate after one of them. Now, FIFA invited us to this event, and the team finally got to go. Usually events are just overlapping each other. And when you’re finished doing that, it’s all the administration and budgeting and reviews and all of that kind of stuff. So, removing events for a while, I think it was good for my team. Unfortunately, our mental health might have suffered, but we are all crazy anyway.

How did you personally experience the lockdowns?
I thrived in this situation. I gave up alcohol because I didn’t want to deplete my immune system. I started playing golf every morning at 5.30, I started cooking again, which I haven’t done in a long time. I began baking treats for the arena team, they were like, ‘what the hell?’ They found it strange that the CEO was baking cookies for everybody, I thought it was very sweet. I got to catch up with a lot of people I haven’t spoken to on a regular basis.

It did get harder near the end, especially when I saw both of my sons were suffering. We didn’t get see my parents in almost two years. To finally get back together was nice.

And to get the kids back in school was important, as was getting my team out on the field again. The adjustment to doing events back-to-back was a little bit hairy at first. We had two months to prepare the Expo, which we usually spend eight to 12 months on. The Formula One [in December] went right into tennis. I was mentally exhausted. but what can you do? You try to make the best you can out of a bad situation. Regardless, it wasn’t a total loss for me personally. And it definitely wasn’t a total loss for the company and the people within it, because we got to do a lot of things we’ve been holding off for a long time. So, hopefully, we’ll come out of this with a lot of energy.

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Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi.

Many companies are struggling to find professionals these days, many of them left in these past couple of years? Did you factor that in when keeping your team on board?
I started this company in 2008, handpicked a lot of the people. I review everyone’s resume that comes in and I like to think I know them pretty well. The worst thing of a CEO’s job is getting rid of people, especially when they don’t deserve it, that’s even worse. Just hate it. And when you have to downsize or you’re overstaffed or you lose a massive piece of work or something doesn’t go to business plan, it’s a horrible day at work. So, my main goal was to keep them.

They’re very skilled, they’re been loyal to the company, they work crazy hours, they do what they got to do to get the events off the ground. I thought it was very important that we kept everything is normal as possible. It also gave people time to think, or get more involved in the company’s growth doing something new and different.

I obviously think my team is awesome. They’re best team in the region. They work with the UFC, the NBA, FIFA. They know they’re going to get the best quality at the highest standard every time they come to Abu Dhabi. Why would you want to break that up? My board were very conscientious of that fact and wanted to keep the team whole.

Flash Entertainment’s extensive sporting portfolio includes the illustrious Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

Can you talk about the progress regarding the offices in Dubai and Saudi Arabia?
We think there’s a lot of opportunity. I’ve had lots of meetings with government agencies, media, sponsors, as well as some of the partners we’ve worked with in the past. We think there’s a lot of events that that might not work in Abu Dhabi that we definitely could do in Dubai. As far as the Saudi office is concerned, we were doing events there back in 2015 or 2016. With WWE we did two events in Jeddah, and two in Riyadh. And x

Can you explain why an event might not work in Abu Dhabi, but in Dubai?
There’s a lot more transient people coming in and out of Dubai than there is in Abu Dhabi. Especially if you’re doing things a little bit later in the schedule, and you don’t have as much time to promote, I think you have a great opportunity there. With Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we reach all of the media giants and multi-national brands. You have a lot more options for reduction in costs or ancillary revenues being raised.

We’re very diverse, we can do pretty much everything, from cultural shows to big ceremonies to sports, anything. It also feels like we’ve reached our limit here. We need to expand, and the Abu Dhabi government is very invested in Dubai as well, so it’s not really much of a stretch for us. Ultimately, we want to set up a whole network of suppliers across the region, a network of media partners, corporate partners, and, obviously, clients, so that we can start bringing down some of our costs.

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Abu Dhabi-born rapper Freek performing at the Yasalam After-Race Concert Series in 2021 (Picture courtesy of Flash Entertainment)

Can you elaborate?
“Our overheads are quite high, more so than anywhere else, it’s just the nature of the business. Every promoter from here will tell you the same. That’s a big piece of the puzzle, we’ve got to bring that down, so we can make the ecosystem much more commercially friendly. We have a lot of big sponsor support that helps support us. We don’t want to do everything, we just want to build a space where that can happen. You see a lot of innovation coming from some of the smaller players and the younger people, new ideas. Building the ecosystem is even one of our government mandates, because it’s changing the perception of how the Middle East is seen. I think events can help a lot with that.

We want to be recognized as best in class internationally, just like we are here, and I think there’s room for that. There are other territories, I won’t pick out any cities, that could be adding value to people’s lives, creating environments where they can socialize. This will in turn diversify the economy for these territories, keeping disposable incomes in the region, as opposed to some of them being dispersed around the globe. People do look for experiences, but a lot of them still take off in the summer for as long as possible to find those experiences, because there hasn’t been much around for a long time. Being able to create content that comes from the region, that’s reflective of the population here, that’s an important piece of what we do.

How much work you reckon still needs to be done on the way the Middle East is perceived?
People coming over for the first time still ask me, ‘does she have to cover up?’ or ‘Can I bring you a bottle Scotch or will they arrest me?’ They don’t yet see the beaches, the nightlife and everything that goes on here.

In a situation where travel is restricted, is it possible to focus on local and regional events and as well as local artists and performers? Could you create enough business to offset lost international business?
Yeah, it is possible. Our RAS Sessions, part of our Regional Artist Spotlight platform, is giving some of the talent that’s here more exposure, opportunities to perfect their craft and live performance. We’ve started a battle of the bands thing way back in 2009, where we get demos in, and then there’s a judging contest of live performances. And we put the bands up as opening artists for some of the big international people if they’re open to that. And if they’re not open to that, we have a smaller stage in our Etihad Park facility where they can perform. A lot of the sessions we do are broadcast. Any successful music scene has to have not only a domestic and local audience, but talent as well, and we’re doing anything we can to support its development. Eventually having enough breakthrough artists internationally to mirror what’s happened with Spanish music and Kpop is the ultimate goal there.

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