Game Change: A Call for Quality in the UAE

Posted by Kile Ozier on Monday, December 29th, 2014

When the gates to Hogsmeade and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Universal became the first to truly meet and surpass the theming standards set by Disney. Disney has followed with New Fantasyland, and the lushness of those experiences have now been completely superseded by Universal’s Diagon Alley. …Next up: Disney Shanghai!

The bar has been irrevocably raised, the gauntlet thrown down, and not just among the Big Boys. Historically, Disney set the standard for immersiveness and Universal led the way in the visceral; over the past few years, however, even the Regional Parks have been upping their game, Cedar Point a leader among them.

Audiences are becoming more sophisticated and more discerning; the more they know, the more they expect. Getting people to part with their hard-earned money, to leave the comfort of home, of entertainment center and keyboard, is calling for more fully fleshed-out experiences of greater immersiveness and a more nuanced, intimate atmosphere than has been delivered in the past.

Nowhere is more money riding on more projects than in the UAE, and nowhere is it more important that these projects meet a higher standard.

The last time the UAE began opening up and announcing themed experiences as destination-augmentation was in the early 2000’s, when our industry press waxed rhapsodic about the “amazingly themed” shopping malls that were supposedly rising from the sands of the desert. Closer inspection revealed collections of repainted and refurbished carnival and FEC attractions; virtual sow’s ears dressed up and positioned as experiential silk purses to an audience with a lot of money and not so much exposure to the rest of the world. The West did itself a disservice at that time in not calling out the carpetbaggers who were taking advantage of the newly-rich spenders in the UAE, surrounding nations and markets. And it made us all look bad.

Later in that decade, just as money was starting to be spent in vast quantities in the UAE for projects of massive vision, the bottom fell out of the market. The money disappeared, and along with it came the vaporization of a plethora of excitingly-envisioned projects, the realization of which we shall never see. It was a disaster, and it served to further undermine the image of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE as The Next Destination Paradise. Huge developments were stopped in their tracks. Some remain as ghost projects, still accessible to wander through and see what magic had been envisioned. When people visit the area, we take them on this “Tour of Broken Dreams” just to see the exciting models and images of extremely creative people, unrealized.

And now, we are coming up on Round Three. Will this be the proverbial charm, or will Dubai strike out? Should this vision not be realized, there will be no Fourth Shot. The world will turn away. Those of us spending time and working here are betting on the vision for Round Three, and we are hopeful: in the time it took San Francisco to build a bridge, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, (Vice President of the UAE and Constitutional Monarch of Dubai) has built an entire country, and his Highness has a breathtaking vision for the future.

There is, though, a very real danger in the potential for shortfall, and that danger is deceptively called “value engineering.” What we are seeing as projects are being taken from plan to platform is the aggressive shaving of the “unnecessary” in favor of carving a prettier budget and getting an ephemeral “more” for the money that is being spent. We call it the “Curse of the MBA,” as elements are eliminated, lessened or replaced by cheaper materials in the name of profit margin and getting a better deal. What is missed is that the 30% shaved from the budget may well cause the remaining 70% to become wasted capital as the finished whole runs a very real risk of not achieving even the sum of its remaining parts.

The examples are here to see and learn from: Ferrari World, a survivor of the 2008 crash, is only now beginning to recover from the budget cuts made during its build-out. Over the past year, the millions of dollars in reparative investment has given way to a more fully populated, energetic experience where something is happening no matter where the eye comes to rest. Nearly five years after opening, the cavernous feeling is dissipating, the two-dimensional experiences are disappearing and the new lushness and depth are creating a welcoming, curiosity-inspiring, even convivial atmosphere. Well-done, Ferrari World!

The Parks that are currently being built in the UAE are not going to have any time after opening to fix or repair the gaps in experience that are being considered as production moves forward. If audiences show up on Opening Day to an experience that is barren, two-dimensional, and reflective of budget cuts, the word will be out, worldwide, by day’s end. Social media can kill these projects in a matter of days before there is time to “repair.” These projects must be done right the first time.

The UAE must overcome its cultural Achilles heel of wanting the Best at a lower price and on a faster schedule. It’s not easy to convey the dangers of cheap and fast production when a culture has thousands of years of the honorable souk and bartering woven into its DNA. Bartering typically does not pose a risk to a product: the seller and buyer square off on either side of the carpet and negotiate a price, and the buyer walks off with the product intact. The quality of the product has not changed at all during the exchange. This does not happen with theme parks or shows. What costs a million dollars costs a million dollars. If forced to sell for less, the seller will make adjustments to the product simply in order to stay in business, to survive after this project. Materials cheapen, warranties lessen, durability is mitigated, and the product is compromised. It doesn’t take much of this to affect that experience and, though one’s audience may not be able to articulate what makes an experience less compelling, that audience will likely not return…and may spread the word that what is being sold as Amazing is really just OK.

It is imperative that quality be paramount as these UAE destinations and shows are built. Even now, the men and women responsible for ensuring quality in many of the projects are daily dismayed at the decisions made that will affect the quality of the experience. There is a very real concern that what was originally envisioned as lushly themed and intimate will devolve into something sparse, raw-edged, and of “painted brick.” Whether it’s a shopping mall or a grand opening show, a close look at detail will often reveal sloppy standards, careless execution, and a seemingly cavalier attention to detail. This level of execution affects the experience either directly or obliquely, and will make success elusive.

It is the responsibility of the industry press to do more than reprint press releases as these installations and developments come to be realized. Hard questions must be asked and we must share the truth about what is being built…or we risk our own credibility.

The photo at the top of this column shows the lushness, intimacy, and completeness of Diagon Alley. The photos below show what are evidently acceptable levels of production in the UAE – projects, openings and shows presented as complete – that are, in fact, unacceptable; the existence of which dilutes what is sold as a finished experience. No names or places have been shared. The purpose is not to point fingers, but to wave flags. There is time and money to do these projects correctly.

IMHO (in my humble opinion)

Show Plaza, during opening night

Staples and screws

Main thoroughfare, Opening Day

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Kile Ozier, Itinerant Creative Guy, is a Master of Spectacle, Experiential & Immersive Storytelling. A member of the founding team of TEA’s annual SATE Conference, he has twice chaired that forum and has served on the International Board of the organization. His blog, IMHO, shares practical, universally-applicable methodologies for creating uniquely Compelling Experience, Inspiring and Managing Creatives and Creativity. His ebook, “IMHO,” is a free download from Apple.

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