By Tamara Pupic
Samer Hamadeh, founder of Stereo Arcade, the preferred choice of Dubai’s arty, laid-back party crowd
Samer Hamadeh is the founder of Stereo Arcade, a homegrown nightlife brand launched in 2015, where we meet on the morning of our interview. Contrary to the naively expected, the entrepreneur behind one of the most popular nightclubs in Dubai is at the club in time for our meeting, already turning on arcade machines to prepare for the photoshoot.
Utilising different elements made Stereo Arcade an immediate success in Dubai’s nightclub field — the ‘80s and ’90s-inspired bar, hosting live local and international rock bands, is on the right, and a retro-futuristic nightclub is on the left. In the middle, just as you enter the venue at the Double Tree Hilton, JBR, is a fully-fitted arcade featuring retro arcade games.
“I was sitting by my pool, listening to synth music, which kind of inspired me to think where I would hear that music if I walked into a place,” Hamadeh recalls. “All I could think of was an arcade. I’m a very big gamer and I always wanted to own an arcade, so I knew I wanted to build one, but then what would I do around it?
“The reason I named it Stereo Arcade is because a stereo sound has two channels, so here the left channel is the night club, the right channel is the rock bar.
“I started developing the brand from there. It took me 15 minutes to draft exactly what I wanted to do. That is how inspiration works sometimes, you have one small idea and then it becomes a very big idea. I am very proud of what the brand has now become.”
Known for its high-energy, high-end dance parties, Dubai’s vibrant nightlife scene contributed to the city being considered as a popular holiday destination. It attracted 14.9 million overnight visitors in 2016, recording a healthy five percent increase over 2015, according to Dubai Tourism. Furthermore, the city is widely seen as the most tolerant market in the region where expatriate workers vastly outnumber the local population. Alcohol can be served in hotel bars and other licensed establishments, while licensed standalone bars and restaurants are subjected to slightly stricter rules. In 2012, a receipt from the Cavalli Club in Dubai, totalling AED387,988 (US$105,629), spread across social media platforms, proving that the world’s high-spenders opt to party in the city.
How then, can an independent, homegrown concept compete for a share in the city’s booming nightlife industry with numerous top international nightclub brands? “Stereo Arcade, like everything I did in the past and will do in the future, has its own niche,” Hamadeh says.
“For me, my customers, whom I adore, are the people who have their hands in the air until 3:00am, singing and dancing to almost every song.”
Stereo Arcade made a splash from the beginning, packing in a diverse crowd eager not to turn up dressed in sumptuous evening gowns and order the most expensive bottles of Champagne throughout the night. The club recently ranked first among ten most searched nightclubs in Dubai, according to a monthly analytics report by insydo.
“We really carved out a niche for ourselves by being an affordable luxury concept,” he adds. “Obviously, everyone and everything is our competition, but we adapt our strategy based on where we see the market is heading for our brand. I don’t look at what other nightclubs do because they have their own regulars. We treat our regulars very well, which is why they always come back.
“We haven’t changed the music policy since we opened, dramatically. We haven’t suddenly started doing Champagne bottle sparkler shows and we haven’t started demanding girls to wear high heels. We want you to come here to dance and have fun, we don’t want you to pose the whole night.
“That is how, I think, we remained relevant and different. It is a cool brand. We made retro cool.”
Hamadeh moved to Dubai from his native Beirut in 2004 to work as an account executive for Impact BBDO, a pan-Arab advertising company, counting Dubai Holding among his biggest clients. Less than a year later, the then 24-year-old struck a deal with the founders of Chillout Productions, a Dubai-based event management agency best known for creating the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival, to open its corporate events division, Chillout Corporate, giving him a 50 percent stake.
“At the time, there were very few companies doing corporate events and because I was in the creative field for a long time, I added that to my corporate events. They were never boring,” he says.
In the following five years, Hamadeh was part of the team that produced the Dubai International Film Festival and the Dubai Comedy Convention, a three-day comedy festival held in Dubai and Beirut in 2009, among other projects.
However, a much deeper satisfaction came from creating signature nightclubs and making them a personal expression of the life as he sees it, which is how his first nightlife brand - Republique – was born in 2011.
“In 2010, I got out of the events industry because I wanted to get out of the service industry,” he says. “I wanted to get into a cash business. I didn’t care what it was at the time. I was throwing house parties with one of my friends. We would get a couple of hundred people on a Thursday night.
“A lot of my friends said I should do this for a living. Although I don’t like the business side of it, just the music and experience side, Republique was the first nightlife concept I created.”
Located at The Address Dubai Mall, Republique became known for its retro parties, unpretentious crowds, and the similar policy as today’s Stereo Arcade. “That was a big success story because we hadn’t marketed it at all, we had never run an ad for it. It was purely word of mouth. It grew extremely well and extremely organically,” Hamadeh says.
Not willing to continue coping with increasing rents causing thinner margins, he shut down Republique and immediately started working on Stereo Arcade, investing AED9.5 million to turn the 9,000sqm venue at the Double Tree Hilton, JBR, into the three-layered club.
The three co-founders – Ziad Kamel, Tom Verkooijen, and Hamadeh – put personal funds into the business, and later attracted further investments from mainly friends who, Hamadeh explains, had a lot of faith in the project.
“My advice to anyone setting up a business is to get a really good lawyer, and one who has done this several times,” he says. “Don’t get a lawyer who still has to figure it out.
“At the beginning, we made a mistake of dealing with a law firm that did not know what they were doing. They were one of the big law firms here, but they had never set up a small business before we asked them to. I would say that it was money well wasted. We didn’t even feel welcome when we went there. We were working on a US$3 million project and when I walked in in my jeans, they expected us to be in suits.
“A lot of these law firms don’t understand how start-ups work. They are used to big corporates, which is a shame really because smaller companies like us will have a lot of potential in the future. So, we found a local law firm that we really liked, and they treated us extremely well.”
In addition to being a pricey undertaking, opening a nightclub is a lengthy process, the veteran nightlife entrepreneur explains. “To anyone who is getting into the food and beverages sector, I would say to always budget in an extra six to eight months because you have very little control over the approval process,” Hamadeh continues. “However, that does not apply to government agencies here, which were super easy to work with. Nevertheless, it is always good to budget in extra time. People are always optimistic, I was one of them before, about how fast you can open, but actually it is never going to be how you expected.”
The third piece of advice to novice hospitality entrepreneurs eyeing up the Dubai nightlife market relates to employment visas. The Stereo Arcade currently has 70 staff, of whom some are part-timers.
“We have a lot of part-timers because one of the biggest challenges in Dubai is the costs of visas,” he says. “It is so expensive. If I wanted to hire everybody, and we had 100 employees at some point, it would have cost us AED1 million just for visas.
“We also have 35 musicians who play here and we have six DJs who are on our licence. So, I would also advise people to always budget in a little more for acts because you never know when you might have guest musicians in town or might need to change your strategy of having not one but five bands, and so on.“
Franchise requests from Russia and Qatar are another success indicator, but Hamadeh is again unapologetic about the brand’s high standards. “To anyone who has a brand here and is looking to expand regionally, I would say to make sure to pick the right partner wherever they go,” he concludes.
“Choosing the right partner is not an emotional decision, but a very well thought-out and researched decision. You need to go with the people who know what they are doing.
“Most people don’t realise that even when it is difficult, it is still your own mess to clean up.”