Dirhams and Dollars Down the Drain in Dubai

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The Legacy of the Carpetbaggers from the West continues to wreak havoc in its effect on the way business is done and projects are being managed in the UAE (and elsewhere).

Our position: 

There is no substitute for assiduous attention to the quality and completeness of the Experience being created at any level in Themed Entertainment, Show or Spectacle. It is our responsibility as members of this industry to police ourselves; holding ourselves and our colleagues accountable for Quality of Experience, Integrity of Production and Respect for Clients.

No excuses, no free passes, no looking the other way.

And we are not doing it.

The onslaught of the Unscrupulous, descending on the UAE at the turn of the century, selling second- and third-hand, low-quality equipment and experience with glowing Words of Descriptive Marketing – taking advantage of a newly rich and unsophisticated market, taking the money and running – planted deeply the seeds of suspicion that continue to germinate and affect business relationships, even today.

The crash that followed toward the end of the first decade then undermined even the trust inherently granted to the proverbial Big Boys; the Disney’s, the Paramount’s, the Universals… Despite the explicability of even these behemoths closing up shop and leaving, the subtextual effect of these massively expensive disappointments and departures was to further undermine trust in We Outlanders who come Bearing Themes…

The Client Culture that has evolved can be characterized as nervous, paranoid, skeptical and skittish. At virtually every level, government and private, boards and committees seeking to build want, on the one hand, assurances so comprehensive as to virtually require nearly full design before contracts are let. Primarily at scopes of small to mid-millions, the hoops and hurdles the small shop or vendor must navigate in order to obtain the work run closer to obstruction than to qualification.

Again; this is a result of clients who, from experience, fear being taken advantage of by the integrity-free in a market or industry with which they are largely unfamiliar, but in which they see great potential to showcase this part of the world. Trust is rare; even presentations of credentials citing bodies of successful, exemplary work can be cautiously dismissed as mere marketing…invalid even as presented.

Too, out of all this has come a bidding process that wastes ridiculous amounts of money of both client and vendor in creating projects and presentations in a vacuum of information and concept and competing on a field with no discernible rules…at the end of which is a Procurement Process that favors the lowest bidder irrespective of reputation, quality, experience, concept.

Thank you, 2000’s!

Subjecting Creative to a bidding process is, in and of itself, strong deterrent to quality. It only guarantees the cheapest script. If it’s the cheapest script that is wanted, irrespective of quality, take it to a classroom or ask “the best writer in the office” to write your show. (Um, not a good idea…)

Production can be “bid” to a point; though only with a careful eye to quality of product. Beware, too, the lowest price for structure, infrastructure, hard goods. Quality is not universal. It would seem unnecessary to have to say this; but again and historically right here in the UAE, paying the lowest price for production rarely…rarely…offers acceptable quality and longevity.

Business is Personal


Clients: nurture relationships with creative individuals and agencies whom you can trust, negotiate contracts as you develop relationships. Keep your business relationships close and keep them accountable. Look to your creative resources to help navigate the production pathways to uncover and develop relationships with the production resources best suited to each project.

Seriously: a supplier of creative content or direction, knowing s/he is participating in a relationship expected to last from and through project after project, is going to bond, trust and come to know the wants and needs of the client far better than a one-off vendor who prevails, delivers and departs. The product will reflect this.

Negotiate contracts, evolve relationships, save money while representing your project or brand.


The Insidious Truth of Now and How our Industry is Letting Us All Down

As this decade has unfolded, the purse strings in this part of the world have relaxed (and, in some cases, vaporized!) with vast amounts of money being invested in some of the largest projects on the planet, here in the UAE.

Question: What do you get when you take a corps of one-more-gig-before-I-retire white guys, many (but not all) alumni of and pedigreed at Disney and Universal, and cross them with projects worth billions of dollars; making them responsible only for completing the projects on time…not for the quality, success or longevity of the completed projects?

Do we need to answer that?

Add to that a veritable army of Yes Men, terrified for their jobs, vastly under qualified for the positions they hold and with virtually no experience in the industry to – and I have to say this – a head of design for a HUGE theme park project who continues to boast that he’s “…never been to a theme park.” Who hires these people and expects expert product?

This is what has developed in the UAE. Principals are in place here, at the end of their careers, pushing, pushing, pushing for completion of multi-billion dollar projects by the Announced Date, irrespective of the quality of work being done to get the doors open. Employees who raise questions about quality, completeness, manageability, missing components or technologies are pushed out or sidelined as obstructive when these people are often those most committed to quality of experience delivered.

This is not universal; it is, though, a rampant dynamic.

More than one company responsible for these showcase products are already well-known for being “Carousel gigs,” with people cycling in and out over periods of mere months as they learn they cannot work with integrity in these contexts or for these companies. Too many questions means dismissal. With silence, one’s job may be secure but the work is sub-par. Personal and professional reputations begin to outweigh the paycheck in short order.

A great number of highly-qualified individuals in the midst of building their own careers have left these projects seeking work of higher integrity.

One key principal company in this morass hasn’t regularly paid it’s employees on time for years and is well-known for non-timely-payment of vendors….

Virtually our entire industry knows this; yet our industry press continues to blithely print Opening Announcements and gaudy press releases, schmooze and shake hands over cocktails with the very companies putting these projects and the reputation of this part of the world at risk.

Recently, IAAPA held a “leadership conference” here in the UAE; part of which included tours of properties which, clearly, even the simple laws of Physics stand in the way of completion by the Announced Dates, not to mention actual logistics of time, design and construction. Nothing was said.

Dubai 2020 versus Other Dubai Projects

It will be most interesting to observe the comparison between the quality of production realized in these “permanent” projects and parks being built and that of the experiences offered in the “temporary” installations and experiences that will be a part of Dubai 2020 when that fair opens.

The work done for Dubai 2020, each pavilion being directly representative of individual countries, just may far outshine the envisioned Destinations being built, here.

We’ve been accused of being “angry…” Nah; disgusted, certainly…and deeply disappointed in seeing so much money wasted on a vision that quite possibly could be realized. Were it not for the absence of accountability, were those in control to insist on giving quality top priority and putting Qualified Individuals in positions of Decision…and backing them; this vision could be beautifully realized.

Whither accountability?

We owe our audiences better.

We owe ourselves better.

We owe the vision of Sheikh Mohammed far better.


IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience is a free download for iOS and OS X from iTunes and the iBook Store. Free. 

9 thoughts on “Dirhams and Dollars Down the Drain in Dubai

  1. So much true here. I am one of the guys who took a UAE job as his sunset project — but I was working with Kile, so it was a high-integrity, realistic concept that could actually be done.
    You have to ask yourself why the indiustry leaders are not telling the truth about the sub-par work and unrealistic expectations they see around them. And you have to ask yourself why qualified companies keep delivering unbuildable work. Why does this keep happening? I think the problem is something worse than what’s stated here. I think Kile is too darn decent to bring it up.
    I think the problem is racism.

    The people heading these projects up think they’re dealing with unsophisticated rubes. I know this. I’ve heard it a dozen times from extremely prominent individuals in location-based entertainment. Korean clients, Dubaian clients, Indian clients, wherever they’re from, are regarded as unsophisticated marks with too much money. “Third world foreigners”, they’re seen to be. That comes down to racism, in my humble opinion (to coin a phrase).

    When you look at these projects in the Middle East, China, places like that, the Western companies that are supposed to deliver world-class work — and which are perfectly capable of it — are delivering insulting half-assed rubbish instead. Second-hand rides, incoherent concepts. Pandering storylines. Why? Because the people in charge think they can deliver junk and get away with it. They think the clients don’t have the taste or intelligence to know the difference.

    That has to change. Mankind got along fine without themed entertainment until the 1950s. It can get along without it in the future. This business is a privilege, each project is an honor, and treating non-European clients like morons is a great way to get that privilege and honor retracted forever.

  2. Nifflersghost,

    My inbox was packed, this morning (and by “packed,” I mean nearly 30), with “off-the-record” emails in concert with your own…sent by an impressive list of accomplished and still in the corps individuals. I wish all could and would post those comments, here; and completely understand why they don’t. The same is happening on LinkedIn and FB.

    Why then, I wonder, is it so extremely difficult to get this conversation into the spotlight with TEA and IAAPA? TEA board members and Leadership have been “group-quoted” as saying “we can’t do anything about it…” so don’t want to talk about it. IMHO, we MUST do something about it, talk about it, as “we” are largely the cause of it.

    As organizations, we need to step up. Shine a light on what’s good, shine a light on what’s not…and light the way toward resolution, productivity, integrity of product.

  3. I think part of it is the scary self-examination required to make such a transformation. Themed entertainment relies on a certain kind of nostalgia, like a collective dream of what-was or could-be or if-only… That means an appeal to a commonly held set of values. But selling those values to people who have different nostalgia “triggers” requires a transformative examination of not just their cultural context, but our own (speaking of American designers, here).

    It seems to me people in the business have gotten complacent. Like if you don’t instantly get the basic toolkit of Victoriana = old-timey, Syd Mead = future, etc. etc. you’re not getting the product. The “noble savage” thing is alive and well in the Avatar experience at Disneyworld. The only women in evidence in themed entertainment are either princesses or shopkeepers. If you want to see LGBTQ folks represented in Orlando you have to show up first week of June for the Gay Days event, which is basically a White Party with more nonplussed families wandering through it.

    So the world is changing, but the business is still pitching a vision of the human experience that was getting threadbare in 1980. You can see this not just in the product, but in the attitude. Arabian clients get treated like Beverly Hillbillies. Asian clients get treated like there was only one kind of Asian, what I call the PF Chang effect. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese… what’s the difference?

    But look, we know this can change. We know it must change. In a way, themed entertainment is extremely conservative because it does focus on selling nostalgia to people. It sells an ideal world that never was, maybe never will be, from the standpoint of some particular demographic that has elected itself to be the subject. That happens to be white guys from America at the moment, but this is changing very fast. In ten, twenty years, the people designing parks and attractions will be representative of the whole world. Already when I shuffle my walker through Imagineering or Universal’s design offices, the young folks I see there are far more representative of the world at large than my generation. However, the executives in charge are my age, and they’re not doing the work of looking outside their assumptions to see what new, global audiences want, and how best to serve them. Even the most inclusive projects still tend to be saying “it’s a small world after all”, which might have been a fresh message in 1964, but the rest of the planet gets this already. It’s time to move on.
    The business will move on. The question is whether it will have made so many expensive, self-centered mistakes that the world will have moved on without it.

  4. We get to do this for a living. This absurd and delightful enterprise that beats a day job, you know, for the kids. Yet on some days you arrive home truly puzzled wondering where the magic went.

    There are several reasons.

    This environment can be a liberation after the monotonous drone of the enormous global theme park empires and their delivery dinosaurs collapsing under the Tsunami of a self-imposed bureaucratic sludge. Yet even as we delight at the swift nature of possible performance and dance like dervishes at our freedom from the antiquated mechanisms that still manage to be considered the industry standard we find that our feet trip up and we on occasion are not moving forward.

    I would propose that some local elements and consultants have followed the worst trend in western project management and become so full of entropy that no longer does the light get out. The CYA mechanism and cry of “not in scope” has enveloped some of the basic working function with official denials of change instruction and scope denials being posted from someone sitting in the next job site cubical without even a side long glance or a care to resolve. If no plan is proposed, scope accepted or idea raised it cannot possibly be wrong. Too many entities spend too much time devoting enormous energies to not doing any work and not solving the issues. The concept of customer service is buried under contract scope arguments and deniability. Add that to an upper management from a predominantly civil background, experience thin and who tire easily of the creative infighting and broken design performance, a procurement department who does not fully understand the industry and the addition of a cadre of “specialists consultants” who browbeat western culture delivery mechanisms that do not apply into a client who never asked for those mechanisms and you have the perfect storm for truly cruddy performance.

    The solution. Give good customer service.


    1. Listen to what the client wants and do that. Educate and propose other possible paths and execution strategies but if they insist that they want to proceed a specific way, get on board or get out.
    2. Have a clear detailed project mission statement. Not just a simple, “We are going to build a theme park.” Most companies have gotten so big and political that the people have lost sight of what we are doing here. Be specific and clear.
    3. Every person on the project should have a personal mission statement that ties into a specific role of the project mission statement. On this level it may be flexible as the project develops. The person should have the ability to approach the team with the metamorphosis that is required. Everyone needs to own their mission and use it as their guiding project principle.
    4. Cut all the dead weight. Seriously, if someone is not moving the project forward, is a bad fit for their role, is negative, spends more time avoiding work rather than moving things forward and/or does not participate well with the team (on any level from the highest to the lowest) cut them.
    5. Make everyone responsible AND give them the flexibility and mandate to make decisions autonomously and on the spot. Make sure that everyone can be decisive.
    6. Allow people to make mistakes. The immediate decision model will propel you forward so quickly that you can absorb the small mistakes.
    7. Listen really closely to your vendors, coworkers and managers. They are trying to tell you something.
    8. In every theater know your audience, especially the guest.
    9. Work hard but be happy to do it. If you are not happy, quit immediately and good somewhere else where you can help.
    10. Assess every day with the following questions:
    Did I help the project?
    Did I help the client?
    Did I help the vendors?
    Did I provide the best service I could possible provide and finish my work?
    11. If the answer to any of the above is no then get up the next day and make it yes. If you can’t, move on.
    12. Stop complaining. If you really think it is that bad go away.

    Bonus Round:
    13. Define success. Anyone can succeed if they know what the finish line looks like. No one can succeed when they have no idea what you want.

    In the UAE one saving grace is that any company or entity no mater how large can be removed. Easily it turns out.

    But those are just my thoughts.

  5. In everything you do, Kile, one of your key talents – and it sets you apart from the pack – is your ability to inspire. I’ve seen it first-hand on many, many occasions from the candlelight march in Washington, DC (a memory I will always treasure) to your last event with the SF AIDS Foundation. You know how to meet people where they are and to engage their hearts as well as their minds. For me (and maybe this is because I’m not your target audience) your inspiration and your ability to galvanize people is missing from this piece. The tone feels more like pointing fingers than leading for change (and you are destined to be a leader for change). The article is almost over before I hear any suggestion of solutions and the turnkey way to get there: trust. It feels to me that if you started with trust and recognized some of those who are doing this well before you raised the important and difficult challenges that must be tackled to create the best of the best in Dubai, you could have taken people on a journey with you. You could be the inspiring leader on paper that you are in person.

    • Thank you, Denis; for the acknowledgement and the candor of your response. You are correct, in that I am pointing fingers, a bit. Sometimes, I believe, it is necessary to become a tad strident (is that a contradiction in terms?) in order to get the attention of those at the causal core of a given problem or situation…perhaps shaking them out of corporate ennui and awakening them to the fact that they may actually BE a large part of a problem with which they are dealing.

      I see this as a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, my industries were poorly represented at the beginning of the century in this part of the world; planting seeds of doubt and skepticism in an unsophisticated client base rather than nurturing knowledge and giving the best product. Compounding that is what I see, now, as a fear of addressing the problem and taking responsibility for the solution. And, as we all know; if one is not part of the solution, one is part of the problem.

      The skittishness of addressing and discussing racism and cultural disparities in this part of the world by Westerners only exacerbates what is articulated in this post.

      IMHO, we gotta step up.

      I take your point; I could have opened this post more inspirationally. I don’t know that it would have had the same heft that it has had in that the positive responses are pouring in…though, all “off the record.”

      I shall take a more positive tack as this conversation continues… 😉

      • Thanks a lot Kile for this great and inspiring article on the situation in the UAE. In my opinion, the tone is right and it definitively serves the purpose of bringing awareness to this problem that will continue to grow if we don’t react urgently.

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