We can all expect more quality, innovative and bespoke entertainment once the UAE emerges out of the pandemic, says one veteran of the regional events industry.
Dan Bolton, who has been involved in the entertainment world for more than two decades, thought he'd seen it all. Until now.
A key part of his gig, he explains, is preparation for unforeseen circumstances. But a global pandemic was never part of that equation.
"You consider everything, depending on where you are in the world, from traffic to terrorism," he tells The National. "But I can honestly say that we never thought about planning for a virus that went on to shut down the entire world. It was not in our list of priorities
“In the events industry, we hustle and adapt to new challenges. We will learn from this, because, ultimately, we are always focusing on solutions.”
And it was in that spirit that Bolton launched an industry survey, available on the website of his Dubai creative and management agency, measuring the impact of Covid-19 on UAE creatives.
More than 150 people from a diverse cross-section of the industry – from talent and back-of-house to promoters and chief executives – were asked 22 questions regarding the state of their business amid the pandemic.
Some of the key takeaways, unsurprisingly, make for sober reading.
For example, 97 per cent of respondents have seen a negative impact on work opportunities, while 85 per cent had all future gigs cancelled.
However, the findings also paint a picture of an industry ready to bounce back.
Eighty-six per cent stated they have already factored health and safety measures into their respective crafts and venues; two-thirds are willing to return to the stage immediately, provided the necessary safety measures are in place; and one-in-five have already put in place procedures in line with government guidelines.
Future events will fully embrace technology
But what does a post-pandemic concert or event even look like?
Bolton, who has worked on various high-profile affairs, such as the 2017 inauguration of Louvre Abu Dhabi and last year’s South East Asia Games in the Philippines, envisions something more dynamic than sparse stages and stringent seating arrangements.
Instead, it’s more about what you do with the space.
“Let's face it, having to stay two metres away from people and limited capacities in itself is very restrictive,” he says.
“So, the challenge will be in being creative enough to work within that framework and turn the event into an experience. It is about making it not feel so clinical and sterile. And this is where everyone involved in entertainment, such as the performers and venues, need to collaborate to turn this into something different.”
That “creative brainstorming” has already begun, with artists, promoters and venues using the summer – a traditional downtime for the industry – to come up with innovate ways forward.
Bolton’s contributions to these discussions include the embracing of technology and keenly curated events.
“Everyone keeps saying digital is the future and, to a certain degree, that is true. But, at some point everyone wants to go back to some level of human connection. So, as event creators, we need to start thinking of how we can bring that digital world to the live environment,” he says.
“The way to do that is to create these smaller, hybrid experiences, which may be a bit more niche, more targeted and controlled, and where people can feel safe and confident that their well-being is looked after.”
That move to technology means more than simply installing a contact-less payment system.
Bolton envisions – “and this me, just thinking on the top of my head” – malls hosting digital-first fashion shows with a majority of the audience online.
“We can have small groups of people doing pop-up fashion experiences,” he says. “And by utilising technology and augmented reality, you have the show streamed online and on various social media channels and with the ability to view the collection also on your telephone.
"So you can literally click through the items, see how much it costs and if you want to buy it, what it's going to look like.”
Intimate concerts will be the norm
When it comes to concerts, forget the arena spectacular. Bolton sees stripped-down performances striking more of a chord with audiences and companies in the future.
Take a look through the gallery below at past events in Coca-Cola Arena:
“I definitely think this kind of speakeasy, niche and bespoke, creative environment will definitely start to thrive, because brands want to have tangible connections with authentic and fun people who are part of the artist’s following,” he says.
“So that's definitely going to be something that will become more prevalent over the next three to six months. Especially given the considerations of capacity issues.”
A new generation of professional creatives
If you are a small-time performer reading this and sensing a future deluge of work opportunities, think again.
Worn down by months of lockdown and social-distancing regulations, Bolton foresees a weary public that is extra-selective when it comes to which events to attend.
Those higher expectations, he says, will result in subpar acts and events not making the cut in the UAE’s events landscape.
“People are more mindful of budgets and restrictions and they are questioning, ‘why are we doing this?' That question of quality will definitely play a big role moving forward,” he says.
“So it's imperative that performers, artists, creators of all calibres, start investing in themselves to become more competitive. They need to start having an edge above the person next to them, because the amount of work and the amount of opportunities will have shrunk.”
With only the cream of the crop surviving, Bolton imagines a bright future for the events industry, which will be brimming with creativity, innovation and newfound respect.
“I hope that once people start to return to live performances again, they will start to really appreciate the contribution the creative industry has made,” he says.
“Look, we are definitely not frontline workers. We're not the medical professionals and the people who stock the supermarket shelves, but we also do an essential service, which is to create and provide happiness.
"We try to take people into a different reality, because the reality that we are in right now is quite challenging.”