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Pushing the boundaries of entertainment design in KSA

Saudi Arabia By Lee French, Partner & Managing Director, MENA – 22 June 2023

A mock-up of the Cundall article from the latest Middle East Construction News magazine.


Lee French in office

Lee French

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In the current development of Saudi Arabia the entertainment sector is playing a critical role, both in terms of its innovation and unprecedented scale. Middle East Consultant recently interviewed Lee French, Partner and Operations Director MENA about the growth of entertainment projects in the Kingdom and what this means from a design perspective. This article was originally published in the June magazine edition.

Are we now seeing a completely new profile and approach in terms of Entertainment projects, whether in terms of their scale and scope, or the role they have for national prestige and PR? How does this impact the way that Cundall interacts with the client and key stakeholders?

We are absolutely seeing a new approach and level of entertainment projects in the region. The ambitions and plans we are seeing in Saudi Arabia are pushing all boundaries in the entertainment space. The sheer scale of the plans, as outlined in Saudi Vision 2030, are even more ambitious when you consider the starting point. Pre-2018 none of these plans existed so the delivery needs a completely different approach.

Demand from the local KSA market has peaked and the pressure to get these attractions out there means the entire supply chain has to adapt to deal with volume the industry has not previously experienced. This then means we need to come up with innovative ways to ensure we can all deliver the right product.

The most significant impact we have seen in dealing with our stakeholders is the level of collaboration and knowledge sharing expected to enable these dreams to become a reality, and this is a style of engagement we always strongly advocate at Cundall. The willingness in the client space to collaborate has also been extremely refreshing as everyone is embarking on this journey together, and the goals can only be fulfilled if we are all willing to learn from each other and be flexible in our approaches.

We are working very closely with Saudi Entertainment Ventures (SEVEN), for example, who are investing over SAR 50 billion on their attraction roll out in 21 entertainment destinations across 14 cities which includes their Discovery and Play-Doh attractions. This is delivery on a huge scale with consultants and vendors all across the globe, that is only possible with a level of collaboration that matches the vision.

In KSA, the development of innovative rides, cultural and historical attractions, mega sporting events and cinemas is driving the growth of the sector. How are these projects changing the face of the kingdom’s entertainment sector?

Firstly, and this is very important to note, it’s not just changing the face of the Kingdom’s entertainment sector but changing the face of the Kingdom full stop.

KSA is now recognised as a genuine world leader in the entertainment space and is already competing on a global stage. The goal is for KSA to be a legitimate premium destination and the committed projects and pipeline, with more than $13 billion in investment by SEVEN alone, is completely transforming the sector. You only need to look at the incredible growth rates and projections to get a true picture of what is evolving in front of our eyes.

Since there is a brewing appetite for leisure and entertainment projects in the kingdom, how have they been approached differently from a design perspective?

As I alluded to earlier, the starting point was something of a blank canvas for the entertainment offering in the Kingdom, and the key to excellence in the design of these projects was to understand this new market. When embarking on the designs of these destinations and attractions, it has been fundamental to understand what the local market wanted (and may want in the future) as there was no real previous experience to draw on.

Of course, with the creation of such destinations as with other leading global entertainment markets there is an expectation of attracting external visitors. Although, here in KSA, the primary driver is to provide these world-class facilities to the local population who have not experienced them before in the local context.

Considering this, the approach could not necessarily be about finding a specific gap in the market. It is about delivering experiences that are groundbreaking while also creating something that is responding directly to the demand that existed in KSA in a very appropriate and authentic way.

Entertainment is all about creating experiences and in Saudi Arabia, creating such experiences is putting the nation on the world tourism map. What kind of challenges tag along when working on such projects in the kingdom?

Entertainment is all about the experience and through design you can never forget that. It is so emotive and personal, and understanding the experience is one of the challenges in KSA but it is also a great creative opportunity to be inventive.

As I mentioned before, it was only since 2018 that we have seen cinemas and the Seasons which really opened the door for what experiences can look like and what the market really wanted. The key is understanding that what works elsewhere in the world does not necessarily translate across to here without needing to be tested for relevance and ensuring it is applicable to social expectations and other factors.

That is where the entertainment developers are making absolute strides in articulating a KSA vision. The blend of world-leading entertainment executives and expertise, that have delivered projects across the globe, coupled with the skill and ambition of the local market is really developing schemes that just work here.

Where ambition is a facilitator, it can also cause challenges with the sheer volume of to market projects and shortages that might come with it.

The challenge of supply and demand or skills shortages is not unique to the entertainment sector in KSA, however they do pose very specific challenges. Since the sector itself is so unique and everything is taking place in the Kingdom for the first time, it is not just a matter of replicating what we’ve seen elsewhere. This sector is evolving so rapidly. Take for example event spaces, arenas, theme parks, water parks and virtual reality (VR) experiences – they are all very specific and happening in huge volumes.

This can cause shortages in creatives, specialists and contractors with the required abilities. An example here is looking at something very specialist such as the theming contractors which require very skilled fabrication and installation.

Another real roadblock is the potential shortages that arise with mass production and delivery, which drives up costs.

But ultimately, the collaboration between global and local experts offers unique perspectives for resolving challenges and means we are able to look at things differently – particularly when considering the impact in the design, standardisation etc. At Cundall, we have experienced complete innovation in the procurement and fabrication space, whereby developers and clients set up hybrid models and create their own fabrication streams.

I believe that the key to tackling all of the nuances and complexities is careful consideration, from the project intent through to the build, and realising that we are all going to be stretched thin, so we must look at how we can tackle things together. True collaboration is what we are seeing and that allows us to view challenges differently.

What have been the most significant factors that are making these projects stand out in a Saudi market that is witnessing an influx of such projects? How can they be differentiated from the huge raft of PR generically surrounding the giga-projects, for example?

As the entertainment industry is all about experiences, if projects hit the right note then the visitors will promote it themselves! We have talked about bringing certain experiences to market for the very first time so there will always be the initial novelty effect, but the big challenge is longevity.

The key to harnessing that longer term interest and driving the attraction is to come to market with concepts that have huge draws and have uniqueness. It’s also key to develop products that are flexible and can adapt over time.

In terms of the draws, we have already seen many integrated into the entertainment landscape in the Kingdom. We have seen it in the boxing events, Formula 1 and the many global partnerships that have been created in the attraction space such as SEVEN’s license agreements with the likes of Warner Bros. Discovery, Hasbro for its Play-Doh and Transformers brands, as well as Clip ‘n Climb. All very topical, but also proven to stand the test of time.

Technology and immersion have a big role to play in staying relevant and being at the cutting edge. When technology is integrated correctly it allows for greater flexibility in being able to adapt or develop fresh attractions and events in future and this is a key consideration in the design and planning of projects, ensuring they are future ready. It’s particularly key in KSA when the roll-out is on such a huge scale, to provide opportunities to alter or move with market demands and sector advancements.

What about sustainability - and how does the client value this? Does it play a key part in the components, overall design and procurement for Entertainment facilities? (Particularly relevant since Cundall just won a Sustainable-category award at the ME Consultant Awards, for The Storm Coaster).

Whatever the sector, sustainability needs to be at the forefront of design and planning. The entertainment sector in KSA makes a major contribution to the overall transformation vision, and so also the sustainability of projects plays a key role in the bigger picture of being net zero by 2060.

Cundall have made our own commitment that by 2030 all of our projects will be zero carbon. As part of that commitment, we are already working with clients and producing pathways for their projects.

In our experience, clients absolutely value sustainability and realise that time is running out to achieve the necessary step-change. The massive scale of projects in KSA provides a tremendous platform to do things right the first time, rather than need to retrofit or upgrade for sustainability at some future date. The entertainment projects share this imperative, although they provide specific challenges including identifying appropriate material choices, locations, renewable energy installation and meeting the technical requirement of delivering stunning experiences while being responsible with water, energy and other resources.