As events season well and truly kicks off again across the Middle East, the availability of adequate concert and large-scale event venues is yet again highlighted by — seemingly — the same few familiar locations being turned around at lightning speed in order to accommodate the next occasion. With the outdoor space of Dubai Media City Amphitheatre being one of the most popular locations for concerts and festivals in the emirate, it hasn’t failed to escape our attention on the daily drive into Sound & Stage HQ that the site seems to be in a constant cycle of build-up and take-down during the peak months.
When asked whether he believes that there is a lack of designated venues in the UAE, Lee Charteris, vice president of operations at Flash Entertainment, explains: “The simple answer is yes. We are lucky to have two designated venues in Abu Dhabi in the du Arena and du Forum, with an amount of permanent infrastructure. It is a shame that there aren’t more permanent venues in Dubai, but as we have all been saying it is only a matter of time. The demand grows and I believe we will be working indoor arena shows very soon.”
And the apparent lack of venues is also a sentiment reflected by Bruno Marx, owner of Eventknowhow. When posed with the same question, he told Sound & Stage: “Yes! There’s definitely a lack of high quality concert venues in this region. When I see under what circumstances concerts have to be staged here, I silently shake my head and think we’re missing a real opportunity here. A concert-goer just doesn’t get the whole venue experience they would get in other parts of the world.”
So, while the general consensus seems to be that the region is lacking in designated venue options, it doesn’t seem to have put paid to the long list of big names that have appeared over recent years. However, with many of these concerts being held in venues such as the aforementioned Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, the process is usually not the easiest. Charteris explains: “Bringing in all the temporary infrastructure for hosting concerts takes time to do right and is extremely costly. A permanent facility would mitigate so many of these costs. I so look forward to a day when we can load in, do a show and load out in the same day — a purpose built venue will make this all possible.”
While building up a show from scratch is undoubtedly a logistical and technical challenge, it has to be said that it’s something the big companies in the region have adapted to very well. From weekend-long festivals in the centre of the city to the annual shenanigans that take over the Sevens Stadium, event production teams certainly put in the graft to get the best result they can.
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However, this is not always the case. While there’s no denying the effort, there have been times when — without naming names — Sound & Stage has experienced one of the best orchestras in the world struggling in a tin can of a hall where the caterers could be heard more clearly than the music, and solo stars that could fill Wembley playing to half-full venues thanks to 50 per cent of the seating offering no view of the on-stage action.
And this is something that Marx feels strongly about indeed, He explains: “There’s nothing worse than having to stage an event in a venue that just isn’t built for hosting it. Your costs go through the roof (if there is one) you get one headache after the other because you’re trying to shoehorn a size 14 foot into a size 10 shoe. It hurts! And, worst of all, the concert-goer doesn’t get their money’s worth.”
Marx continues: “Most of the venue issues I experience here in this region are even downright dangerous. I see venue operators not having a clue as to how much can be rigged in their roof, which can result in serious damage. Or I see evacuation plans that are not worth the paper they are printed on. It really scares the living daylights out of me. This is one of the reasons I’m heading up the ILEA Task Force on Event Health & Safety. I just held the first workshop on our new ILEA guidelines, which incidentally can be downloaded for free, and what really got me was the huge level of awareness that the event professionals have in this region. They get it. And I’d really like to see more venue owners and operators — and even the government — joining in on the process.”
On the other side of the debate, however, could it not be argued that, seeing as the region offers perfect conditions for outdoor events, existing open-air venues should be utilised fully? While the height of summer is a no-no, for nine months of the year the UAE boasts the ideal conditions for concerts that have perhaps already enjoyed their summer run throughout the rest of the world.
This is something Charteris agrees with. With Flash Entertainment being behind some of the biggest concerts the region has ever seen, he reveals: “It would obviously make the process of building and controlling events much quicker and easier in a purpose built facility. However, there will always be a desire for outdoor shows — the weather is perfect for so much of the year.”
He continues: “I don’t think that you can beat the experience of a great outdoor show. Some of our best nights have been shows with the likes of Coldplay at Emirates Palace (even in the pouring rain) or the Rolling Stones at the du Arena.”
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Although outdoor venues do fortunately work on most occasions — as proven by the constant shape-shifting of Media City — they are not always the ideal solution. For one, there is the heat of the Middle East. While technology for ‘outdoor cooling’ exists, the simple fact is that without an indoor, air-conditioned arena, big gigs over the summer are never going to happen. And, as with most things in the industry, the main issue when it comes to transforming outdoor sites into event arenas boils down to the same thing that it usually does. Money.
Marx explains: “Outdoor venues are mostly built for sporting events so they have to be converted for concert use. The costs of covering up the pitch or building suitable grandstands and stages is huge. Building a site from scratch is absolutely more costly and time consuming. Plus, you will never really achieve a consistent quality from one event to the next because every time you build the temporary venue, something will be different.”
Having said that, would the creation of more permanent venues be the ultimate answer? Even if specifically-designed stadiums or music venues were built across the region to host large-scale events and concerts, would this stop the ‘summer slowdown’ that occurs each year in the Middle East events industry? Or would it not really help at all, and result in said venues just laying empty for the summer anyway?
Marx believes that this would not be the case. He says: “As we are already seeing more and more international artists attracted to this region, we need to offer more event space that’s readily available and delivers consistent quality at an attractive price. Not only can we have a continuous stream of events, but also large scale TV shows can be produced during summer. It might be a challenge to get foreign artists over here because you have all the outdoor festivals going on in other parts of the world. But I also see a chance for local talent that can’t get a gig because there are not enough suitable venues available during summer.”
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Marx continues: “It’s not only that we need just more venues, we need better designed venues. It’s all about getting a production in and out of the venue as fast as possible, delivering an amazing experience to the visitor, and running a sustainable venue. The profit will probably not come from the venue but definitely from the added value to the hotels, restaurants and whatever else concert goers spend money on while enjoying the event. This region can host huge events that attract visitors from far and wide. I mean, look at where we are located — we’re smack in the middle of most of the world’s population.”
So, ultimately, the introduction of new, year-round venues could perhaps see an entirely different chapter start to emerge in the events industry throughout this part of the world. Maybe it could even signal the start of a new era in which the biggest international artists start to include a ‘Middle East leg’ on their global tours?
Charteris says: “I would hope that is what we as promoters are all working towards. There would appear to be a whole host of new venues on the horizon, what with the Opera house in Dubai and a new indoor arena in Abu Dhabi. As both grow as major cities, it is inevitable that there will be more event venues.”
Marx also believes an increase in venues and scheduled tours will be the case, saying: “It’s already happening. I’m so excited about Bon Jovi coming to Abu Dhabi.”
“If this region can develop enough venues that meet international standards,” he adds, “Then we have a chance to generate more jobs, more revenue and show people how wonderful the Middle East really is.”