Maximizing Business & Fan Experience In The Middle East

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 BLACKPINK lit up Etihad Park when they performed in Abu Dhabi Jan 28.

The economy in the Middle East is doing well. People have money to spend. However, from a promoter’s point of view, there’s no incentive to increase ticket prices for the time being. The focus, according to Thomas Ovesen, CEO of All Things Live’s newly launched Middle East office, was to enable people to attend more shows and on a more regular basis. It’s proving successful: “You’re seeing a much higher occupancy of ticketed events in the arenas this year compared to last year,” he said, adding, “our communities haven’t grown up in a market where you have a theatre on every street corner, they are only just becoming ticket buyers, and a lot of it is down to family entertainment. The kids in those families become the concertgoers of the future. We need to be cautious not to get ahead of ourselves and overcharge on tickets, because that would potentially backfire. But there’s room to put on more content, there’s room to grow.”

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50 Cent performed his endless catalogue of hits at Coca-Cola Arena Dubai, Sept. 30, 2022. (Picture courtesy of All Things Live Middle East)

Ovesen believes “we have to develop the fan experience at events. Arenas are still a relatively new thing in our market, and I want to maximize the business potential in the arenas we already have.” As opposed to established and growing touring markets, where arenas are built to meet a demand that’s already there, the first state-of-the-art entertainment arenas in the Middle East, Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai (opened in 2019), and Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi (2021), probably opened before the business warranted it, according to Ovesen. What did warrant it, however, are the extremely hot summers, which puts all outdoor activity on hold. “Indoor air-conditioned buildings could extend the season by up to 50%, which was a major incentive to open arenas,” Ovesen explained. “We don’t have the same volume and frequency of events yet that some cities in the rest of the world have to justify an arena. I want to better utilize the buildings. But I’ve always said that once we get the purpose built venues, our business is going to go to the next level.”

See: Middle East Focus Index Page

Buildings like Coca-Cola Arena and Etihad Arena have made it possible that arena tours can consider touring the UAE without having to adjust the production to an outdoor setting, “maybe not a lesser fan experience, but a different fan experience. We can now offer the fans in Dubai, or in Abu Dhabi and in some of the other markets in the region with indoor buildings, the exact same experience as you’d get [anywhere else in the world].” They also added an entirely new VIP experience for premium clients, and make for a much more relaxed night out. “In the old days, the outdoor venues were located outside of town. We used to open doors at 4 p.m., when the show started at 9 p.m. We used to tell people to arrive early to avoid the traffic or queues. So we had people in the venue for three, four hours, perhaps even more. At Coca-Cola Arena or Etihad Arena, people can walk up half an hour before the show,” Ovesen said.

Many professionals in the region believe Saudi Arabia is next in line to become a live events destination. “They just gotta bring some buildings into play, then it’s a phenomenal market, also from a local and regional promoter perspective,” said Ovesen, and, thinking about other promising developments, he mentioned Egypt, which has seen “massive real estate investments, particularly on the Mediterranean coastline, the northern part of Egypt.” And Ovesen adds, “Bahrain has come tremendously far over the last year with their new Al Dana Amphitheatre, and new flexible indoor venue layouts in the convention center there. So not only have they got a couple of new, fantastic venues, they are also actively booking those venues themselves. And it’s a pretty impressive lineup.”

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Fans enjoying Imagine Dragons at Al Dana Amphitheatre in January. (Picture by Julien Duval)

Carved out of rock in the Sakhir desert, Al Dana Amphitheatre is a sight to behold. It only opened in 2021, but the list of names that took the stage at the 10,000-capacity venue includes Andre Rieu, Kevin Hart, Bruno Mars, Eric Clapton, Post Malone, Backstreet Boys, as well as regional stars such as Abdulmajeed Abdullah, Mohamed Abdo, Mutref Al Mutref and more. “In a very short space of time Al Dana Amphitheatre has enjoyed incredible success and we anticipate that its appeal will continue to grow as we continue to bring in an all-year mix of distinctive acts and eclectic performances that both complement and elevate Bahrain’s and the region’s entertainment industry,” CEO Shane Chalmers told Pollstar. Aside from “facilitating regional tourism and driving Bahrain’s increasingly vibrant cultural scene,” Chalmers is especially pleased with the fact that the venue creates opportunities for the local community. “We provide commercial opportunities with every performance and support the entrepreneurial ecosystem through creating a venue for small businesses to thrive,” he explained.

In the seven months before the June interview with Chalmers, events at Al Dana Amphitheatre sold some 130,000 tickets across 18 shows, the team’s most successful event season so far. Since then Halsey kicked off the summer events calendar on June 16, and Lewis Capaldi has been announced to perform October 6. “We are delighted that we are attracting some of the biggest names in show business to perform at the amphitheatre,” said Chalmers, adding that his team had “very ambitious plans for the future to continue setting benchmarks in quality entertainment. We will keep bringing unique experiences to Bahrain and the region through the very best international and regional performers. From this summer, we will be maintaining a year-long events calendar and we will not be limited to just using the amphitheatre but creating memories by hosting events at different venues across Bahrain such as the new Exhibition World Bahrain, among others.”

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Aerial shot taking during the Abu Dhabi GP at Yas Marina Circuit last Novembe. Etihad Arena features prominently. (Photo by Gareth Harford / Motorsport Images Photographer)

The economic forecasts for the region are positive, Ovesen confirmed. “Tourism has had a massive upsurge, because of the many investments in the region,” he said, which includes entertainment districts like City Walk around Coca-Cola Arena, or Yas Island around Etihad Arena. In charge of the latter is Miral, Abu Dhabi’s main curator of experiences. Over the past 11 years, Miral has been instrumental in showcasing Abu Dhabi “as a leading global tourism destination, partnering, designing, creating, developing, operating and managing immersive destinations and experiences such as CLYMB Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Watan, Yas Waterfront, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, and the world’s first-ever Warner Bros. themed hotel,” as Miral’s events director Leon Marsh said.

Etihad Arena, which opened in January 2021, has been “a game-changer for live events and concerts in the region,” according to Marsh. Events, including concerts, sports and conferences, all find a home inside the state-of-the-art 18,000-capacity arena. Maroon 5 and Red Hot Chili Peppers have performed in the past, 2023 saw Kevin Hart, Blackpink, Sting, Imagine Dragons and Backstreet Boys take the stage. “Working closely with the city’s department of culture and tourism, we also brought high-profile events such as ‘The Lion King’ musical to the region for the first time last year, and will bring the recently announced ‘Hamilton’ musical next,” Marsh continued. Add family shows such as Peppa Pig’s Adventure and Paw Patrol, and it’s clear why “the arena has played a crucial role in promoting Abu Dhabi as a destination for international events, thereby boosting tourism and the local economy.”

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Lion King at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi.

The arena is embedded in the Yas Island entertainment destination, which hosts more than 200 events annually across multiple venues, including Yas Marina Circuit and Yas Links. Etihad Park also hosted the first edition of Live Nation’s Wireless festival March 11, headlined by Travis Scott. Marsh said, the premiere “exceeded all our expectations for a first-year festival, completely selling out [its 25,000 capacity]. Following on from this success, we are exploring options with Live Nation and DCT to see what future direction this festival takes.” And he concluded, “establishing an annual IP on the destination is a central pillar of our event strategy – The Etihad Airways Formula One remains the anchor [event], but Yas Island now hosts other annual events including music festivals such as Club Social to mega sports events such as the NBA and UFC.”

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