Last year Julia Charles Event Management provided full event management, design and logistics for Horror festival as part of Riyadh season. This is a mega event run over 3 months and involving 100 different events with the chairman of the general entertainment authority saying “Riyadh Season will bring the world to Saudi Arabia. The theme of the first season is ‘Imagine’.”

 So today we are speaking to Michael, creative director at Julia Charles Event Management all about how they ran this event, what it’s like working in Saudi Arabia and his predictions for the future of events in Saudi Arabia. 

Castle stage set design and large-scale props used to decorate event space for Horror Festival in Saudi Arabia

Tell me how this project started and how you got involved in working in Saudi Arabia?

 Michael: Yer of course, it is a long story so I’ll shorten it as much as I can. Being involved in. projects in Saudi Arabia is something we have wanted to do for quite some time and with the announcement that they would be opening up their country to the world of events and entertainment to showcase what their country is about was really appealing to us.

We’ve always had a lot of enquiries from clients over there wanting to put on events and have worked with people in Saudi before. We got contacted by a global sports brand over there who were also working for Jeddah season. Initially, they contacted us to put together some entertainment schedules and brief creative concepts for a type of event that they wanted to put forward. This was a Halloween event as they felt that it was an event that was potentially missing from their season.

So we were contacted by them to put together some ideas and concepts as to how this event could potentially work and whether or not this was the kind of event that would take traction. It didn’t take long for us to come up with some conceptual art for the venue that had been specifically built for this event and we ended up working with them closely right through from beginning to end on this project.

Entrance into Horror Festival Saudi Arabia featuring parade of walk about performers

What was the brief for horror festival 2019, and what services did you provide?

Michael: The brief was, believe it or not, very brief! More often than not, whether you’re working for private companies, the government or the crown, it’s just a small spark. So it’ll be a conversation such as ‘I wonder if we can do an event for Halloween or scare-fest’ and that’s it. Then they will literally want us to build from there.

Once we’d done our customer research as to what people liked in Saudi Arabia and what trends they were buying into, and what type of events they had done in the past that were successful, it was really quite easy for us to put together concepts that would enhance that.

In summary, the brief was really really small, just that they wanted to do an event around the idea of horror and scare fests and they didn’t have a venue or location in mind. Therefore, the whole event was very much open to our interpretation.

We got to work overall on event management, guest service experience, the design of it and putting together some concepts working with some of our partners. We worked alongside our partners in Canada as well as local suppliers on production. One of our key USP’s was that we were going to get staff in locally and train them to assist with this event, which we did. The Canada guys put together a team who were then able to train up over 400 members of staff to be able to accommodate this event.

We also organised entertainment, coordination and overall design and production. We helped put together all of the production, from the stage show, where we designed a giant castle stage, to walkabout acts. There was a lot of services, which you’ll find with any large-scale event like this, (running over the course of 33 days) that there’s a lot of cross over between services. These projects are always extremely collaborative, and we made some great connections and worked with a lot of really fantastic suppliers.

Day of the dead themed area for Saudi Arabia Horror Festival event featuring giant trees and sugar skulls

There was huge anticipation for this event what extra special elements did you bring to Horror festival to make this event really stand out?

Michael: Once we got to work on the concepts, it was our job, ultimately, to make sure the user experience and the experience that people had, even on their drive into the event had to go above and beyond.

Our event was to be an immersive horror activation, it was an event that people wanted to take part in and be a part of. Everything down to all of the mazes, with scary clowns, to the mummy activation and the stage shows as well as laser quest shooting and axe throwing.

We made sure that each one of these sections had a story or narrative to them and the guest participation made the guests a part of this rather than just using it. We wanted people to be a part of the story, which was one of our main goals to be able to heighten the experience.

The event itself was really successful with people coming back the next day bringing their friends along. Social media also became a really defining factor in this as it worked like a snowball effect.

Clown maze entrance set design for Saudi Arabia's Horror Festival in Riyadh

I can imagine there were a lot of logistical elements to consider with this event, can you talk to me a little bit more about those logistical challenges?

Michael:  Absolutely, so there are obviously a lot of benefits to working with the government. If anyone reading this has worked in the middle east you will know they will give you an outline or brief in some way, shape or form. You sign off and then in the last few days you’ll see a bit of traction take flight and you’ll see the success of the event even before it’s opened by the anticipation and build up.

Then the client will turn around and say ‘Let’s make it bigger!’ It is our job to anticipate this. Therefore, the benefits of working with the government meant that we can request help with logistics.

It would be very difficult to fly things in from all over the world with 48hours notice without the help of the government. We submitted an inventory to the government of stuff needed, as well as the things that we could possibly add further down the line in anticipation for the clients to want to add more.

So logistically, we helped out with the guys from Canada and Europe, working with lots of different nationalities with people who were extremely experienced in this field of work. There were a lot of logistical challenges, however through experience you know that you can mitigate those challenges as long as you prep and prepare as much as possible for every outcome. 

Technical, lighting, staging and AV set up for Saudi Horror Festival event

And what do you feel was the biggest success that came from the Horror Festival?

Michael: From a business point of view, one of the biggest successes was being able to make the client happy and look good. As event creators, we’re never in the spotlight so being able to achieve this is important! So, from a business point of view, it would have to be the success of the event.

However, personally, for me, it was the experience of going over there, spending months there working with the local people and seeing how they embrace different nationalities. Everybody was so excited about all of the seasons and all of the entertainment. So the overall experience and the people were personally a highlight for me.

Close up of giant monster prop used to dress venue space for Horror Festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Finally, what are your predictions for Saudi Arabian events in the future and how do you feel the landscape in Saudi Arabia is changing to encourage and celebrate more events like horror festival?

Michael: As a company what we tend to do is look at trends in all kinds of global markets, to understand where it is that we want to spend time. What countries, for example, are going to start facilitating more for events and that kind of thing.

Saudi Arabia had always been on our radar, but once they broke the news that they were going to open up their country to the world, and the fact that they were heavily investing in travel and tourism it was a chance we couldn’t miss. They had billion-dollar budgets to bring people in and allow people to experience and learn about their culture, for us this was music to our ears.

Doing the seasons and the events there has shown me that they are stepping in the right direction and actually, Saudi is a country that has so much to offer. I think moving forward they’ll push this more. They are really passionate about events, and you get a general sense of excitement as events on this kind of scale are brand new to them. Being an events company with our experience and professionally being able to facilitate this I predict that events in Saudi are only going to get better and better.

Not only that but every brief we get from them focuses on wanting something brand new, never been done before and something that is going to wow people. But they are very serious about it! The sense of excitement is paramount for them and people will see going over there that it’s a fantastic place to visit and a fantastic place to hold events. Therefore, I think the future of Saudi Arabia is that it’s only going to get better and better!

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