The kingdom of Saudi Arabia in February announced it is investing $64 billion into its entertainment sector. Such a move would have been unthinkable even just a year ago in the staunchly conservative oil nation. Under the direction of the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the nation is casting off some of its strict mores in favour of a society that generates diversified investment in an age of weak crude prices.
At a press conference in Riyadh, General Entertainment Authority (GEA) chief Ahmad bin Aqeel al-Khatib told reporters: “We are already building the infrastructure,” he said, adding that ground had been broken for an opera house.
“God willing, you will see a real change by 2020,” Khatib said, adding that more than 5,000 events were planned for the coming year
The historic press conference followed a series of events in the kingdom in recent months including concerts, a Comic-Con festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets for the first time.
Authorities have also announced plans to lift a decades-old ban on cinemas this year, with some 300 expected to open by 2030.
Experts have said the forthcoming entertainment investments in the kingdom will open up vast opportunities for marketers and events managers globally.
“Whenever a destination gets a massive injection of investment, it’s always interesting to see… the investment goes into the infrastructure, the venues and hotels,” says Calum Di Lieto, global events industry expert and editor of the London-based Conference & Incentive Travel magazine. “It will be an interesting destination to explore. Every event planner and marketer is looking for that ‘next new event spot’ – and if Saudi Arabia shows it is putting a lot of investment into its destination, it will attract a lot of attention.”
Di Lieto adds that the move represents a ‘positive’ investment for Saudi Arabia. He says: “The kingdom is centrally placed in the world and it will present a great opportunity for the region. It will be interesting to see how it competes with Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”
As well as being a draw for international tourists and business visitors, the kingdom’s fledgling events industry aims to stimulate investment domestically. The national events industry will open new avenues to reach the population’s young and often wealthy population.
Currently, Saudis splurge billions annually on movies and visits to amusement parks in the neighbouring tourist hubs of Dubai and Bahrain, which is accessible by a land causeway. “I went to Bahrain. The bridge is being reversed,” GEA chief Khatib claims, adding that Bahraini nationals were now coming to Saudi Arabia for events – accounting for 10 per cent of ticket sales in recent months.
Sean Buckley, who is a company director at M-is, a multimillion-dollar marketing and events company based in London, says his firm is keen to expand into Saudi Arabia. The company, which lists the UK government, the Royal Navy and Dubai’s Meydan among its blue-chip clients, hopes to tap into the country’s ‘massive’ branding opportunities, Buckley told Gulf Marketing Review.
Buckley says: “We work with governments and public entities in the UK, so we are attuned to cultural sensitivities and getting the tone right. The branding opportunity is huge but it needs to be done with cultural sensitivity. The creates gateway opportunities for brands into Saudi Arabia.”
The M-is director says live events will allow people from Saudi Arabia to embrace and understand ‘international cultures, international flavours and messages’.
Buckley adds: “Events can also help the world to understand what Saudi life is like. Their history is extraordinary – I would even go so far to say the government has a duty to tell their story.
“From an economic standpoint, from both a tourism and from a commercial perspective, it adds a point of difference for Saudi Arabia. It also makes it a more attractive place to live.”
The director advises that event director and marketers need to carefully consider some key ingredients for success. “What is the level of finance per event, who is your target and what are your underlying objectives?” He adds: “It’s important to clearly identify what the KPIs are for each activity. Have you got the right time to prepare?”
Tamara Mendelsohn, VP and General Manager, Consumer, Eventbrite in San Francisco, agrees that Saudi’s burgeoning events industry is an ‘exciting’ development.
Mendelsohn tells Gulf Marketing Review: “Increased focus on live events and entertainment in the kingdom represents an exciting opportunity not only for people looking to engage more with their community, but also for local event businesses that are yet to be created.”
Eventbrite is the world’s largest ticketing and event technology platform, which has powered millions of events in 180 countries and territories in 2017. The firm says event creators in Saudi Arabia are already using its platform, however, the company does not yet have an office in the kingdom.
Mendelsohn says: “Events help us learn, grow and connect with one another, and the power lives on well past the experience itself. In addition, live events spawn a community of event entrepreneurs who have the opportunity to build businesses and create a whole ecosystem, which we call the experience economy – a multi-billion dollar global industry fuelled by live events.”
Eventbrite recently commissioned various studies across the US, UK, Ireland, Germany and Australia, which Mendelsohn says confirmed that on average ‘three in four millennials’ would rather spend money on experiences than material goods, fuelling the experience economy.
Mendelsohn comments: “While we do not have figures for Saudi Arabian youth, we believe it is not a far stretch to imagine a similar appreciation of live experiences versus material goods among digital natives in the Kingdom.”
Di Lieto says that the real test for Saudi Arabia will come in the execution of major global events. He says: “Events are really powerful in helping to boost a destination economy – sometimes you bring thousands of people to a destination and it’s powerful. Are there enough quality hotels that can hold the numbers? How good is the Internet connection? Can they move large numbers of people? All of these aspects are paramount to a successful events destination.”
Di Lieto adds: “Entertainment puts a destination on the map, it highlights the country’s name and if the destination can handle it, it’s a success.”
This article was written by Alicia Buller and first appeared in AMEinfo’s sister publication GMR