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Why Themed Entertainment Is The Magic Formula For Malls In The Middle East

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Many companies give employees unusual job titles but few stick in the mind as much as Mohammad El Etri’s. The Dubai-based executive is vice president of Global Snow for the entertainment division of Middle Eastern retail operator Majid Al Futtaim and the start to 2023 has been one of the busiest times of his career.

Last month he swung open the doors to the largest indoor snow park in the Middle East and he reveals to us that he will soon be doing it all over again as the long-awaited Snow Abu Dhabi will debut in the next four months.

Remarkably, the most astounding aspect of this expansion isn’t that winter-themed entertainment is snowballing in popularity across one of the world’s warmest regions. It’s even more surprising that these snow parks are all found inside shopping malls.

Fierce rivalry between malls is a thing of the past in many markets around the world. The advent of online shopping followed by the pandemic forced shops to shutter and led to a lot of malls closing their doors. Not in the Middle East.

Across the region, malls are thriving and there is good reason for this. Temperatures frequently soar past 100 degrees in the summer making it unbearable outdoors after only a few minutes. So instead of having a typical main street of shops, cities there tend to be built around multiple massive malls.

Countries in the region dealt with Covid so swiftly and decisively that footfall returned to malls only a few months after the onset of the pandemic. Masks were mandatory indoors until as recently as September last year which kept Covid case numbers down and gave customers the confidence to continue shopping indoors.

In turn, the competition between malls increased and so too did the need for each one to have its own selling point. It is common for Middle Eastern malls to try to outdo each other in a bid to tempt customers to shop there rather than at their rivals. This one-upmanship has led to them being home to an increasingly outlandish array of attractions.

Nightly fireworks shows, roller coasters, toboggan rides and aquariums may sound like the line-up for a theme park but they are actually a selection of the attractions offered by shopping malls in the glitzy Emirate of Dubai. One mall is decorated like different countries with hieroglyphics etched into columns in the Egyptian area and a giant junk ship in the Chinese zone. Another is home to a 24 meter long diplodocus skeleton, a full-size ice rink and an indoor waterfall.

These attractions make malls in the Middle East more like entertainment centers than shopping arcades and the industry’s leading light is Majid Al Futtaim. The Dubai-based company owns 29 malls, more than 600 cinema screens and multiple local franchises of western retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and Crate & Barrel. Its gleaming malls are packed with innovative touches designed to make shopping stress-free and pleasurable. No stone seems to have been left unturned.

Parents can wheel kids around the cavernous complexes in miniature supercars, bags can be left with a concierge at no cost so shoppers can browse without carrying them and there are even touch screens where drivers can enter the license plates of their cars so that they can locate them in the parking lot.

The malls’ movie theaters are some of the most lavish in the world with open and airy lobbies filled with high-end snack bars and restaurants run by celebrity chefs. They stand in stark contrast to the dark and dingy lobbies of European cinemas and look more like galleries with posters for upcoming releases instead of artwork. They are places where people go to hang out before catching a movie in the equally extravagant theaters.

In the Middle East, 4D cinemas with moving seats, water and wind effects are flourishing, unlike elsewhere in the world. Investment in the product is the magic touch as the top-tier seats are larger and more luxurious than those in first class airline cabins. Their incline can be adjusted at the touch of a button and they come with waiters delivering complimentary food and beverages.

The jewel in Majid Al Futtaim’s crown is its portfolio of themed entertainment experiences which are scattered across its malls. At the bottom end there are Magic Planet complexes featuring games arcades, bumper cars and bowling lanes. Next up is the Dreamscape VR park and indoor skydiving with iFLY Dubai. Then comes Global Snow.

When people think of an indoor ski park, a chairlift and an icy slope with a few flags scattered on it comes to mind. Not in Dubai. The slope in Majid Al Futtaim’s Ski Dubai complex is just one of the attractions. It is also home to a penguin enclosure, toboggan slides and snowplough bumper cars as well as huge hamster balls and inner tubes which run down the slope.

At the foot of it is a faux-Alpine village with charming wooden chalets, a chairlift soaring above and artificial pine trees. It’s no Mickey Mouse attraction as the temperature inside is an icy 30 degrees so skiers’ breath looks like clouds of smoke.

The World Ski Awards have ranked it the world’s best indoor ski resort for the past seven years running leading Majid Al Futtaim to expand the format. It created the Global Snow division dedicated to designing and managing icy indoor entertainment venues and put seasoned retail specialist El Etri in charge of it. The expansion started with the launch of Ski Egypt in 2017 but the biggest step forward came over the past month with the opening of Snow Oman, the largest indoor snow park in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The 14,830 square meter site looks like it has come from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights thanks to its palm trees, terracotta-colored fort and wooden sailing ship. What makes it unique is that it is all coated in a thick layer of snow. The park tells the story of a freak blizzard which supposedly hit Oman creating ski slopes in its mountains and 20 family-friendly rides around them. There’s also a 430 meter ice rink, a penguin enclosure and even a zip line-like attraction which winds around the park giving guests a birds eye view of it.

The snow has only just settled in the park but El Etri is already preparing for more to fall. In the second quarter of this year nearby Abu Dhabi will add a snow park to its portfolio of attractions which already includes a cutting-edge water park, a Ferrari-themed park, Warner Bros. World and, soon, the first SeaWorld outside the United States. Snow Abu Dhabi will have even more of a fairytale theme than its predecessors as it will have a supposedly enchanted tree in the middle surrounded by slides and attractions.

Promoting ski resorts in the desert doesn’t sound like a walk in the park but it’s actually all in a day’s work as El Etri explains.

What does your job involve?

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to establish and develop the Global Snow business, which is today considered the number one international business for consulting, managing, and operating indoor snow centers.

As vice president of Global Snow, I am responsible for managing the existing operations at our portfolio of snow brands, which includes Ski Dubai, Ski Egypt, Snow Oman, and Snow Abu Dhabi, and creating a center of excellence across the board. I’m also responsible for driving new projects and business opportunities internally and globally with third parties as operational consultants, potential partners, investors or operators.

Why did you choose a job in the theme park industry?

I was working with Majid Al Futtaim Fashion as a general manager in the fashion business when the opportunity at Majid Al Futtaim Entertainment arose. I didn’t fully know what to expect but I was excited to try something new and challenge myself. I instantly fell in love with working in the theme park industry and feel very fortunate for the opportunities that this role has offered me.

I’ve been with Majid Al Futtaim Entertainment for seven years and, in that time, we have expanded our portfolio with the opening of Ski Egypt, Snow Oman, and we will open Snow Abu Dhabi in Q2. We have also been the operational design consultant on two projects, one of which is Wintastar Shanghai, in China, which is slated to be the biggest indoor Ski resort in the world.

What was the career path that you took to get here?

My career has followed a non-linear path, which has been challenging, rewarding, and allowed for a lot of growth and development.

After receiving a Master’s degree in literature and education from the Lebanese University, I pursued a career in high-end fashion and jewelry and held many positions, ranging from country manager to general manager. In 2014, I was identified as a high potential leader by Majid Al Futtaim and earned a scholarship to complete an MBA degree at the prestigious London Business School for two years. The program encouraged me to adopt a truly global perspective, develop my strategic awareness and enhance my business acumen, skills which have stood to me in good stead to this day.

After 10 years working in fashion, I made the transition to working in the theme park industry and have never looked back. I am proof that it is possible to change paths at any stage in your career. The most important thing is to define your purpose, and if you decide to pursue a corporate career, then find an organization that reflects your personal values.

What does a typical day involve?

No two days are the same. It’s a very varied and exciting career. Having said that, I like to start my morning through a chat with the team, and a quick overview of the performance and the priorities as I drive to the office. Once I’m in my office, the first thing I do is check how we are commercially trending and then re-look at my priorities for both the day and week ahead. Most days also involve numerous alignment meetings with different stakeholders and teams.

A large portion of my time is also dedicated to working on strategy and devising new ways to enhance our various businesses within the Global Snow portfolio, which is an area of particular interest to me. I also make it a priority to spend as much time as possible on the ground at our various facilities, overseeing the operations and spending time with the team. To me, it’s critical to make time to create and maintain a strong and open relationships with all team members.

What skills do you need to do your job?

The skillset is quite diverse, as it covers operations, projects and business development, but you definitely need to be passionate and willing to roll up your sleeves. It’s also essential to be customer-centric and listen to your guests and team. At Majid Al Futtaim Entertainment, our customer-obsessed culture and continuous pursuit of excellence has been integral to our success, which spans almost three decades across eight markets in the MENA region. We have a wealth of market expertise, and we continuously seek to understand what our guests want. We also pride ourselves on being agile and are constantly evolving in line with emerging trends and changing customer demands and preferences.

What do you like most about your job?

I love how versatile my day can be, from advising as a consultant to a third-party investor, to overlooking daily operations for the various resorts, driving the design and development of new projects, or reviewing the business plan and marketing strategy.

I love having the ability to innovate and develop new experiences, and we are always experimenting with new ideas and pushing the boundaries, which is something that Majid Al Futtaim highly encourages.

Almost two decades after our late founder Mr Majid brought snow to the desert with Ski Dubai, we have expanded our footprint with the launch of Ski Egypt and most recently Snow Oman. We never rest on our laurels and are constantly evolving and looking at new ways to enrich the lives of our guests through the power of entertainment.

In recent years, Ski Dubai has evolved from being one of the region’s most popular and iconic tourist attractions to a world-class sports destination that hosts international snow sports competitions and has retained the title of Best Indoor Ski Resort in the World for seven years in a row.

What is the highlight of your day?

When I’m working onsite, there is nothing that compares to seeing successful and smooth operations, the team engaged and happy and the smile on guests’ faces as they create lasting memories with friends and family.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

There have been many proud moments, but there are probably two that stand out.

The first is the approval and signing of the UAE Ski Federation by the FIS (International Ski Federation). We had driven this process on behalf of the UAE Federation, with the ambition of creating a UAE national team that could compete on the international stage. After a five-year campaign, we attained the membership in 2019. While the desert may seem like an unlikely destination for snow sports, our athletes are competing internationally with the goal of participating in the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milano Cortina.

The second would be signing the partnership to provide design and development consultancy services in 2018 for Wintastar, the world’s largest indoor ski resort in Shanghai, China. This was a significant deal as it marked our first foray into Eastern Asia, and as a consultant rather than a developer.

What is the biggest challenge in your job?

The biggest challenge in my job is ensuring that we continue to provide a unique and exciting experiences for our guests, while also managing operational costs and staffing levels. It can be a delicate balance to strike and requires careful planning and constant adaptation to changing circumstances.

One of the key ways we approach this challenge is by regularly soliciting feedback from our guests and our team members. We want to make sure that we are meeting their needs and expectations, and we’re always looking for ways to improve the guest experience.

At the same time, we need to be mindful of our budget and staffing levels, and make sure that we are providing a safe and efficient operation. We have also invested in technology and data analytics to help us optimize our operations and make data-driven decisions. This has been a game-changer in terms of our ability to identify areas for improvement and make changes that benefit both our guests and our bottom line.

Overall, the key to success in my role is maintaining a strong focus on both the guest experience and the business side of the operation. It’s a challenging job, but also incredibly rewarding when we’re able to strike that balance and provide a memorable experience for our guests while also running a very successful business.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a job in the theme park industry?

You first need to be passionate about the theme park industry. This means being knowledgeable about the industry, keeping up with the latest trends, and having a genuine interest in the guest experience. I would also advise anyone considering this as a career to gain experience in relevant fields such as hospitality, retail, tourism, entertainment or customer service and make sure you are flexible. Theme parks operate on a 24/7 schedule so employees must be flexible in their availability to accommodate park hours, including weekends, holidays, and evenings.

It’s also crucial to always think customer first and provide a positive customer experience throughout the entire journey – starting from intent to visit right through to post-visit.

If you approach the job with that mindset and are willing to work hard, I believe you can have a long and successful career in this industry.

What is the secret to successfully running a theme park?

Successfully running a theme park involves a lot of moving parts such as the guest experience, which is paramount to a theme park’s success, attention to detail – even minor details – and innovating by constantly creating new and exciting experiences to keep guests coming back. This includes not only new rides but also creative and interactive experiences and activations.

Safety and compliance is also critical, and requires continuous training to ensure our guests have a safe and comfortable experience. A world-class theme park also requires a huge team effort, and every employee plays a vital role in our overall success. Encouraging collaboration, communication and a positive company culture can create a successful and motivated team which has a positive impact on the overall guest experience.

On top of the above, financial management is also important. Theme parks are expensive to build, maintain, and operate and require proper financial management to ensure long-term sustainability. This includes a combination of cost controls, revenue management and investment in new attractions and infrastructure.

In summary, running a successful theme park requires a combination of attention to detail, innovation, teamwork, safety and compliance, and financial management, all while focusing on providing guests with an exceptional experience.

How do you keep your park ahead of the competition?

Maintaining a competitive advantage is an ongoing process and requires a strong focus on innovation, unrivalled guest experience and market positioning.

Since Ski Dubai was established in 2005, we have been investing in new attractions and cutting-edge technology to attract guests and keep them coming back. We also actively solicit ideas and feedback from guests and employees to foster a culture of experimentation and creativity and ensure that we are continuously improving in line with guests’ expectations.

Customer obsession is at the heart of everything we do at our snow parks. Whether you’re at Ski Dubai, Ski Egypt, or Snow Oman, we guarantee the highest level of guest experience and customer satisfaction. By continuously researching and analysing market trends, we’re not only able to meet customer demands but also stay ahead of trends and exceed expectations. It’s also imperative to really understand and engage with the local community in which you operate and find ways to target new demographics and customer profiles.

In an increasingly competitive market, you also need to differentiate your park from others in the industry by finding a unique selling proposition that sets you apart.

What is the biggest development on the horizon for the park?

Snow Oman has only just opened and is a fantastic resort boasting more than 20 rides and attractions for families including an ice rink and a penguinarium, which is home to a colony of penguins. Right now, our attention is focused on opening Snow Abu Dhabi in the coming months and the enhancement plans of Ski Dubai and Ski Egypt. We are constantly working on evolving and redeveloping our guest experience to ensure we stay ahead of the competition and provide great moments for everyone everyday.

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