Why live events have a promising future in the UAE
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Why live events have a promising future in the UAE

Why live events have a promising future in the UAE

Abu Dhabi’s live events industry has shown resilience. John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, now wants to replicate the model elsewhere

John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment

On June 9, 2020, weeks after the global live events industry went headfirst into a concrete wall, UFC president Dana White dropped a bombshell. While every other major sporting event – not least the Olympics itself – was either rescheduled or even cancelled, White confirmed that by the following month, UFC would take its first-ever Fight Island Concept to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.

Organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), event organisers Flash Entertainment were brought on as the operations and logistics partner to deliver the entire event.

What followed was an elaborate setup that included an 11-square-kilometre stretch of Yas Island that was created as a safe zone and sealed off from the public to create a bubble wherein only those directly involved with the event were permitted. All 1,678 Abu Dhabi-based events staff involved were subjected to a 14-day hotel quarantine. Repeated Covid-19 tests were conducted on the staff, and in the run-up to the event, over 10,000 tests were administered within the safe zone. “It was a huge undertaking never been done anywhere in the world. We had three different major zones within five levels of quarantine at Yas Island. It was the first time for everyone and we were relying on protocols to establish these safety zones. We had one positive case detected, and that too even before they entered the country at the airport of their departure,” says John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment. Flash had held a 10 per cent stake in UFC which it sold in 2018 for an undisclosed amount.

While Flash, which was set up in 2008, would have in routine times busied itself with pure logistics, to pay additional heed to newfangled and intricate healthcare protocols only meant added pressure. For Abu Dhabi, there was more at stake. “A lot of credit must go to the tourism authority for taking that kind of leap of faith. It’s something that could be a huge risk to the reputation of the city,” adds Lickrish. It proved to be the contrary. With multiple events including UFC 253 and UFC 254 subsequently held in the emirate last year, it led to the big Dustin Poirier vs Conor McGregor UFC 257 held at the Etihad Arena earlier this year.

Lickrish defines Flash as a 360-events-service company with a staff of around 50 full-time personnel, ramped up to around 100 seasonally during the year to cope with managing added events. Across a matter of weeks, it could find itself dealing with UAE National Day celebrations, a Formula 1 after-party concert, an AFC Asian Cup football tournament and the Pope’s visit.

“We’re a full-service events company where we create IPs and also operate them, or we use existing IPs from other third parties or government entities. We also have a facility management side where we operate venues throughout Abu Dhabi,” says Lickrish.

By focusing on facility management as well, Flash has nurtured an infrastructure and ecosystem around the events industry. One of those mega venues is Etihad Park. With a capacity of 40,000, the venue has reportedly hosted over 1.5 million people since it was built back in 2009 and has been the location for Flash Entertainment-managed Yasalam After-Race Concerts that brings in A-level acts from around the world, including Rihanna, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones and Lana Del Ray to perform during the annual Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend.

Etihad Park Flash Entertainment
Etihad Park is the largest outdoor venue in the Middle East and is owned by Flash Entertainment

“When I first came to Abu Dhabi, there was only the core of Ferrari World sitting on Yas Island, with pre-work underway on the Formula 1 track. We saw the drawings at that stage and found that there was nothing occupying that particular area outside Ferrari World. We built and paid for what is now Etihad Park, and that came from Flash’s own cash reserves and the money we’ve made over the years. We’ve been maintaining and operating that venue since then.”

Apart from Yasalam, a high-profile event that was started and is owned by Flash Entertainment is the Mubadala World Tennis Championship with the likes of Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and other star players regularly competing on the court.

Even though events like the UFC and others took place recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Flash, as it has had on the events industry as a whole. “We saw a significant reduction in our revenues of 50 per cent from our projections, and we had to look at efficiencies for 2020. In 2021, we’re hoping that the fourth quarter will be quite strong. But it’s really going to be 2022 before we kind of go back into a normal events cycle,” says Lickrish, refreshingly offering pragmatism instead of hubris.

Sponsorship for events has expectedly dried up too. “We’re looking at 20-30 per cent of our revenues generated through sponsorship, the second-highest revenue stream behind ticket sales,” he says, with Flash having tied up with Ticketmaster for ticket sales within the region. “It’s very hard to convince any partner to come in at this time because they don’t know what kind of live event they’re going to be getting.”

The big question for the events industry is what the future of events will look like – will socially-distanced events be the norm? Lickrish disagrees. “We do have the ability to deal with 30 per cent capacity. However, I don’t think the new normal is going to be socially-distanced events. We [need] to have people be socially responsible instead. The new normal is just a different set of health and safety rules,” he says.

For Lickrish, the new normal – more than revolutionising the nature of events itself – means that it will more likely get involved in a new set of events, not least of them esports. Flash recently partnered with Abu Dhabi Gaming to launch a quartet of esports tournaments in Abu Dhabi. It includes a DOTA2 competition this month, followed by a PUBG tournament in August, a Fortnite challenge in September and a FIFA22 activation in October. “Through our partnership with AD Gaming, these events will lay solid foundations for the gaming and esports community in Abu Dhabi. We also have a partnership with twofour54 and are working on a variety of different programmes with several private sector organisations to get into esports and create opportunities with international content partners in that space. We’re really excited to be working with them to try and drive some of that into live events,” notes Lickrish.

Lickrish and team are also looking beyond Abu Dhabi. They’ve opened a field office in Dubai, and he says that they’ve recently been awarded contracts for Expo 2020, without divulging the nature or scope of work. “Working with Expo gives us a lot of credibility in that emirate. It is a springboard for us into the other emirates.” The plan though is also to seek a larger regional and international footprint. Flash have in the past managed concerts in Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, it also brought WWE to Riyadh and Jeddah.

“We’re looking at all territories for potential branch offices and operations, whether that be in Israel, India, Qatar or Bahrain where we can work with the government, semi-government and private sectors. In some of the new territories, we see there still may be some scepticism about the longevity of the events industry. We’re here for the long term. This is not just a one-off company coming in trying to reap rewards in the short term. We’ve been here for 14 years, we’re stable, and we can bring that stability into other territories and enhance the industry as a whole.” With Flash’s track record, Lickrish is preaching to the converted.

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