An entertainment veteran of 36 years, Lee Charteris cut his production teeth touring with bands for almost three decades. Now the vice president of operations at FLASH Entertainment, Lee offered some sage advice and insight at his seminar at last month’s PALME exhibition. Here were the highlights...
On: The maturity of the industry
When I first came to the UAE, it was very much a seller’s market - and I think it’s turned around in the last five years to become very much a buyer’s market. There are many more events, many more event companies and there are definitely many more suppliers to choose from.
In 2008 we started Flash, our first big concert was George Michael in Zayed Sports City in Dubai. I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I first got here, it was hard work, it seemed to be a bit unruly, a bit Wild West and I can honestly say in the last five years it’s dramatically changed.
Health and Safety is in almost everybody’s mind and I praise all of the suppliers out there for stepping up in that regard. With the maturing of the industry there has been a huge increase in the number of events, there’s a lot more competition and it’s easier to a deal than it ever was five or six years ago.
When I first arrived they were very much about production houses, companies were video, lights, audio – they did absolutely everything. They did staging, they did sound –the lot. There’s been a development in this ‘butcher, baker, candlestick maker’ philosophy in the region, people are now starting to specialise in audio, video, camera and special effects and I see that as a reflection of the evolving industry we’re all part of.
On: Changes in demand
Flash is known for producing a lot of the larger events in the region, and to that end the demands of the artist or performer of the event mean very specific riders, very specific technical equipment and requirements.
This has played its part in the maturing of suppliers too, a lesser known artist will be less rigorous about their demands and what they require to perform, whereas if you produce an event for a band like The Rolling Stones which we did a month or so back, there’s no margin for area or for debate.
I praise all the suppliers again because 85% of the equipment you see at Flash’s shows is sourced from the UAE. We’ve played a big part in trying to promote the use of local equipment in all the contacts we draw up and we categorically state to the artists that we will use local equipment if we can get it, and if not they have to bring it themselves.
But these days there is so much equipment here, often all bands need to turn up with is their guitars and their favourite clothes to wear on stage.
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On: Meeting tour expectations and producing big events
I really think we’ve cracked that one, I think the suppliers particularly in Dubai really are meeting international standards.
FLASH’s YASALAM event for example, is the largest entertainment program around the F1 season and it involves three of the biggest concerts that the UAE hosts every year rolling from Beyonce to Eminem to Aerosmith and it’s seamless now. And that’s praise to all the guys and girls who work for the companies who support FLASH here in the UAE.
The shows quite often here are destination shows – meaning they’re not on tour- when they come to the UAE they arrive to play a one-off event.
This invariably means that they’re not necessarily as together as they’d often like to be and as result the guys at this end have to work doubly hard to produce this event. Thanks to the likes of Atelier, Alchemy, Done Events – many, many people bringing in the big artists to play here is a testament to the development of the industry that we have in the UAE.
One of the challenges with one-off events is the employment of staff, temporary staff, part-time hires and I think that’s one of the greatest challenges – keeping good people working in the UAE can prove difficult.
I say that guardedly because ultimately what was a season that seemed to shut down for three months in the summer, now we will only have probably the 30 days of Ramadan where we don’t produce an event but either side of that we’ll probably be working up to the day before that and
starting again the day after.
This myth that I was sold by suppliers about the three month window where the equipment sits in warehouse not doing anything has –over the last five or so years – proved a fallacy. I think the seasonal nature of staffing in the industry in this particular region will eventually disappear; it’s diminished greatly in just the time I’ve been here.
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On:Expanding who you work with
There are times over the course of the year where you will feel completely flat out. Feeling perhaps like you haven’t got enough people, not enough equipment and so on, but at FLASH we’ve hard on this element, whereby when we do get really busy we’ve worked hard on working with as many suppliers as we can and not putting all our eggs in one basket.
We’ve worked with something like 25 technical suppliers in the UAE. You have to be constantly looking for new suppliers; one of our KPI’s is to work with new people and to promote growth of the business in the UAE.
It can’t be about working with just one or two suppliers or the production house. For the live events, the demands are so specific it’s very hard to shoehorn that into one supplier, you have to cast your net wider and look for other people. And by promoting and using other people we’re playing our part in growing the industry.
I can say hand-on-heart, after 36 years in entertainment – I’m still always learning. I’ll see a trick or something somewhere and it’ll be new to me.
I try to impart that to all the people I work with, it’s just such an organic industry and it’s changed so much – it’s all about shared learning. You constantly need to invigorate your guys and girls in your company by teaching and showing them and allowing them to work on new shows and events.
I think the industry feeds itself in that regard, and that’s a really healthy thing for all of us.
On: The UAE Events scene not being up to international standards...
The perception that the UAE is not up to international standards is absolutely rubbish.
We get tour managers and production managers calling us up about the events they’re coming to do, and we tell them the company’s we’re working with and it’s abundantly clear that we’re not a third world country when it comes to events, it’s a first world country.
You will not get treated this well when you go to play in New York City, you treatment would not be this good if you play in London. I know – I worked there, I was on those tours.
I believe if I arrived in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai or wherever it was over the next six months with a tour I would be happy, happy, happy to be in this territory. We look after everybody well, the demands are met very well and the shows as a result are excellent.
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On: An Indoor v Outdoor Arena
I’ve always said I’m behind the building of an indoor arena - let’s go indoors when we can’t go outdoors, but let’s stay out when it’s nice. The best thing about the UAE is the weather. I was saying to one of the guys at the UFC event Flash did recently, ‘why haven’t you ever thought about doing an event outside in Vegas?
Now I’m not a fight person but if you’ve ever been to a fight or a boxing match outside, there’s something beautiful about that outdoor, amphitheatre under the stars feel. And that’s a great thing to be said for shows outdoors in the UAE.
If you can go to Anthony’s Jazz Festival or Blended at Media City, sitting on the grass watching a performer under the stars, it’s a phenomenal experience.
When it’s 49 degrees outside it’s much nicer to go and sit on the plastic seats of an arena I grant you, but there’s a time and a place. So as for the indoor vs. outdoor question? I think it’s both. I think that’s the way forward for everybody.