Flavio Briatore on opening a new Billionaire venue in Saudi during the pandemic: 'It will be so much larger'

Covid-19 forced the club to adopt a dinner and theatre show concept instead

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Get ready to party “billionaire” style in Saudi Arabia.

Italian entertainment mogul and former Formula One team executive Flavio Briatore is bringing his successful nightclub-turned-theatre restaurant brand Billionaire to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh in January.

The venue, which is currently being constructed, will be the brand’s biggest in terms of size, and will serve as the crown jewel of Briatore’s burgeoning Saudi portfolio, which will also include Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant Twiga, set to open next year.

"It will be so much larger in Saudi Arabia with a keen focus on the food," he tells The National. "For one thing, it will have a 20-metre grill, which is the largest I've ever seen, and there will be live performances in terms of music and acrobatics in the future."

While opening an entertainment venue during the pandemic is risky, Billionaire’s expansion into Saudi Arabia comes off the back of a winning formula hatched in Italy and perfected in the UAE.

With more than two decades of running Billionaire under his belt, expanding it from its original home in Sardinia, Italy, to the Spanish city Marbella, before landing in Dubai in 2016, Briatore immediately realised the unfolding pandemic would be a game changer for the entertainment scene.

"Everyone was put out of work. Theatre companies and clubs closed down,” he says. “I had to sit down and rethink everything. Business is about adaptation and flexibility."

Briatore, 70, may be talking business, but it is a viewpoint honed from another career. One even more risky and highly charged.

Life in the fast lane

As a former manager of Benetton and Renault's Formula One racing teams, and the man largely credited with discovering German driving legend Michael Schumacher, Briatore credits his stints in the paddocks for his ability to both analyse and anticipate.

“At the end of the day, in racing, what you are really selling is not a car but a product,” he says. “So to be successful in the market you have to be quick and make the necessary adjustments when needed.”

In June, Briatore decided to apply the monkey wrench to Billionaire Porto Cervo in Sardinia, parking the nightclub concept indefinitely.

The dance floor, trodden upon by a host of celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton, P Diddy and Jude Law, made way for dinner tables, while the DJ booth was replaced with an opulent stage.

The move to a "dinner show" concept, Briatore explains, was down to mixture of practicality and opportunity. After ensuring he built a safe place for patrons, he recruited a number of acclaimed performers, all of whom were suddenly unemployed because of the pandemic.

"We managed to get people from Cirque du Soleil and other big companies because they were available," he says. "With the right team we managed to do something amazing, a mix of dinner and a circus."

An evening of song and dance

Buoyed by the reception in Italy, Briatore brought the concept to the Dubai venue when it reopened in October.

When The National visited earlier this month, the venue resembled more of a cabaret show, with lush velvet theatre curtains, dim romantic lighting and tables filled with couples and small groups of friends. The four-hour programme is split between nearly a dozen 10-minute performances, ranging from song covers and tango and salsa displays, to an eye-popping acrobatic performance by the duo Destiny.

The time in between is for indulging in a sophisticated sharing menu that fuses Italian with Asian influences.

"Everything from the show to the menu reflects Dubai because it is the centre of everything. You are six hours from Europe and close to Asia," Briatore says. "Everything is easy here, from the travel to the good weather."

'It's always about the people'

That said, Briatore is aware the city can attract unscrupulous operators. The reason many clubs don't last, generally, he says, is the relentless focus on the bottom line.

“At the end of the day you are dealing with people and everybody needs to be on the same page,” he says.

“I don’t believe in someone being a VIP. When you walk into my club, everyone is the same. The most important person in the club, for me, is the waiter. They bring the energy and set the tone of place and it is they who talk to the customers first. Running a club is like having a family, there needs to be respect with each other.”

It’s a responsibility Briatore takes even more seriously today, considering the emotional turmoil caused by Covid-19.

“We are creating a space for people to be happy,” he says. “People want to go out and see each other, so we want to do it in a safe way. My favourite part of my job is seeing people’s eyes light up when the show begins. There is a smile and that feeling of being connected and in the moment.”

Billionaire Dubai is located in the Taj Dubai, Business Bay. Doors open 9pm with shows and dinner beginning 10pm. Bookings can be made at billionairesociety.com