Interviewing Julia Charles About JOY Forum – Riyadh
Centred around the evolving entertainment sector in the Kingdom, and empowered by the GEA Sector Development Initiative. JOY ENTERTAINMENT FORUM 2019 aimed to build and develop the Saudi Arabia entertainment industry in line with its Vision for 2030.
Saudi Arabia is a country with one of the largest populations in the Middle East. With around half of the residents under the age of 30 having a considerable appetite for entertainment. The sector makes approximately 9.6 million leisure trips abroad each year. Spending around 80% of their entertainment budget whilst they’re away. Therefore the 2030 Saudi initiative is aimed at bringing those revenue streams back into Saudi Arabia.
Managing director Julia, from Julia Charles Global Event Agency, was invited to attend JOY forum and partake in various talks and panels discussing Entertainment in Saudi Arabia.
Today we’ll be speaking to Julia all about her experience of being one of the first female business leaders to visit Saudi Arabia on the new E-visa. Which was issued for foreign visitors to attend sport, entertainment and business events in the country. We will also discuss her experiences of travelling as a solo female businesswoman around Saudi Arabia, and what her predictions are for the future of Saudi Arabia in the event industry.
Kim: Firstly, I wondered if you could tell me a little more about why you wanted to branch out to Saudi Arabia and how you felt when you heard about the launch of their new visa?
Julia: So Saudi Arabia has always been something on our radar. Purely and simply because it’s up and coming in the sense that the rules and regulations of entertainment out there are changing very quickly. Also, we are aware that they are investing very heavily in the entertainment sector in regard to theme parks, leisure, cinemas and family zones which for us is really important.
We do a lot of business in the middle east and for us, it made perfect sense to look at Saudi Arabia as the next destination that we would like to potentially almost have grassroots in in the future which is why we considered Saudi Arabia.
Kim: I bet it was a really exciting opportunity to hear about the JOY forum event, how did you get involved in this?
Julia: So, JOY forum was put on for all international brands from around the world that had shown an interest in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had basically said ‘this is what we are able to do, so please come, either exhibit or listen to what Saudi Arabia wants to do over the next 10, 20 and 30 years.’ This was for a huge spectrum of things, so from theme parks, to live events, to cinema experiences.
So, I was approached by a company I was already working with within Saudi Arabia- Riyadh, and they asked me whether I was aware of this and whether I’d consider attending. I instantly said yes. I was incredibly excited about JOY Forum. For me it was about an opportunity of getting everybody together, under one roof, to discuss the potential opportunities in Saudi Arabia. But also, how far Saudi Arabia has come in the way of progression in the entertainment sector. It was amazing and it was a fantastic opportunity.
Kim: As a leading player in the entertainment industry, how were you able to take the information and connections you’d built from JOY forum and apply this to your business strategy moving forward?
Julia: It became very apparent to me, when I attend day 1 of JOY Forum, that Saudi Arabia was absolutely going big. They had no intentions of doing little baby steps into the entertainment sector. Their intentions were very clear to me which was ‘We’re here, we’re going to make a world-wide impression, we’re not going to mess around. We don’t have years to develop the entertainment sector, we want it now!’ Everything about the event including the fact that JOY Forum was held at one of the most influential venues in Saudi- The Ritz in Riyadh. This is a phenomenal venue, so upon arrival, you are already wowed.
What they did is they really showcased that they had already built a phenomenal network of connections including real big boy global companies in AV and network. Plus really good international event management companies and again really good international brands.
What we then also very quickly realised, is that Saud Arabia has a very strong 30, 40 and 50-year plan. By listening to discussions about how it’s going to work with the authorities and how it’s going to work with the areas and destinations that they are going to improve. They had also considered how it would work with the perception they are very aware the rest of the world has about them.
They actually openly acknowledged that some people’s perceptions of Saudi Arabia are not always positive. Being a businesswoman myself, attending the show, I did have concerns about how I may possibly be received in that environment and position. However, I was received with open arms and a fantastic warm feeling, very much a feeling of being home.
And honestly, I was really very very humbled and actually a bit shocked, as I had been pre-warned about a lot of things and, therefore, I felt slightly anxious about going. But those feelings were completely disregarded the moment I stepped off the plane. And I really think that this is something that more westerners really do need to start vocalising.
Kim: And as a female solo traveller visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, what did you do to prepare for your trip and what were your experiences once you arrived?
Julia: I absolutely did have a positive experience Kim. But I’m not kidding you, research-wise I absolutely took the time to research. I took the time to look at international travellers’ blogs. However, many of them were people travelling through the country, so their interactions would be completely different from mine. Therefore, I took snippets of everybody’s experiences and kind of moulded them together to make my own little travel-bible of what the do’s and don’ts were.
Additionally, I found women who had visited from our NHS to help set up hospitals over there. I also successfully found a female entrepreneur who had already travelled to Saudi Arabia to do business, and she’d written about her experiences on her blog.
What I tried to do then, was gage everyone else’s opinions from those who had gone there already. I also went to ‘a well-known bookstore’ and purchased a how-to guide on visiting Saudi Arabia and a basic lingo book so that I could speak basic phrases so that they knew that I respected their culture.
What was very important for me was respecting their culture. For example, if I invite someone into my home, I expect them to respect the wishes of my home. I believe that these same principles apply when you travel to other countries.
Therefore, I really didn’t want to go there and wear whatever I wanted to wear, and do what I wanted to do, just because they’d decided to open their doors to us so this is what they’re opening their doors too. As that is completely disrespectful and not the way you go into somebody else’s home.
I felt as well, that it was really important I understood how I was supposed to dress and what not to do. So, I invested money in the full outfit. Making sure that I wore the right items correctly, and I made sure I would not do anything that may offend their culture.
When I went to Heathrow, I made sure I was already partly dressed in some of the clothes. Then just before the boarding gates, I went to the toilets and I put on the full outfit. Because I really wanted to make sure that, from the minute I got there, I was dressed correctly.
When I stepped off the plane, I can honestly say to you that I was blown away. The airport was beautiful. The only way I can describe Saudi Arabia is that it’s like America in the sense that they do everything 10x larger. Everything they do is just so big. However, Saudi Arabia is like America but on acid, everything is huge! I saw all of these international brands and thought to myself that this is not how Saudi Arabia was sold to me. This is not the experience that I was being told I would experience.
I would honestly say to anyone who doesn’t want to travel to Saudi and follow the culture, please don’t do that. One of the best things about my trip and trips since is following the culture.
I would honestly say, and I do want to be honest, I was very concerned about doing business with Saudi Arabian men. Due to the fact that I have had experiences where I have had potential business opportunities from Saudi businessmen meeting me in London and we’ve really not got on very well. They were actually really offensive and genuinely really quite rude. You could tell that he wasn’t interested in doing business with me and would have preferred to speak to my brother- who is my business partner. The minute that happened, sat in London, my hometown, then business with them was a big no-no. Hence why I wanted to make sure I didn’t do what those people had done to me in London.
So, initially, I was anxious about going out there and doing business with Saudi Arabian men. However, I can honestly say to you when I attended JOY Forum the people I met and spoke to were very humble and I now have some fantastic relationships out there with men and women.
I was able to speak to a fantastic woman, who I am actually currently working with. And she spoke to me more about the culture and how women are now being recognised in businesses and getting really great positions within companies.
Kim: Although the current climate has faced a downturn due to the pandemic, what are your predictions on how the Entertainment Industry will progress in Saudi Arabia and what do you believe will be the next big events we will see Saudi Arabia hosting?
Julia: Saudi Arabia is, thankfully, already back open for business. What will happen is Saudi Arabia will not take this pandemic sitting down. They will now invest even more and make sure they move even faster. I can’t see them pushing a lot of their deadlines back. From my experience and the meetings I have had, they are all about getting moving. They’re not going to delay the entertainment sector for very long. Realistically we’re looking at no longer than the time it was closed for the pandemic and that’s it.
Genuinely as well for me, I think it’s really important that the M.I.C.E industry as a whole, starts to look at Saudi Arabia. They’ve got some of the most fantastic deserts and desert experiences and some amazing coastal lines. It’s absolutely stunning. I personally would go back to Saudi Arabia for both business and leisure because it really is quite a magical place to visit.
Personally, for us, we’re working on a big 44-day event in Saudi Arabia at the moment and we are actually at the contract stage with this.
Kim: And is that part of their Season’s events? As in 2019, we saw Saudi Arabia really celebrating their different event seasons
Julia: Yes absolutely, The Seasons out there are incredibly important, similar to how we are with our seasons. Their focus is around family and engagement. We’re hoping to be over there to be exhibiting some exciting products and technology that is exclusive to us that we’ve secured in May next year.
There really is a lot that we are hoping to be a part of. It’s now just a case of making sure we’re doing it right in regard to presenting it correctly. So there really is a lot coming up in Saudi Arabia which we’re excited to be a part of.
We speak to managing director Julia Charles about her experience as a solo female traveller visiting Saudi Arabia for JOY Forum 2019 Conference.