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Sat 27 Jul 2019 12:07 AM

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Qiddiya: Meet the CEO making Saudi Arabia's entertainment ambitions a reality

Having cut his teeth at The Walt Disney Company, Mike Reininger is now spearheading Qiddiya, Saudi Arabia's epic entertainment city

Qiddiya: Meet the CEO making Saudi Arabia's entertainment ambitions a reality
According to Reininger, the size is two-and-a-half times bigger than Walt Disney World, to be exact.

Walt Disney famously said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Mike Reininger, CEO of Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), spent 12 years dreaming and doing at Walt Disney World in America, where he started the hotel development program, launched the Disney Vacation Club and at Euro Disney, on the outskirts of Paris, built the resort component and started the Disney Cruiseline.

But, never in his own wildest dreams, did he imagine he would be spearheading Qiddiya, the $8 billion, 334 square kilometre giga-project situated 45km from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and almost 12,000km from his home in Florida.

Backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, this is no Mickey Mouse project.

We don’t have to make this market, we just have to capture the market that’s already there, by giving them something that’s as good as they can get someplace else

“A lot of people in the world have experienced a destination resort like Walt Disney World and one of many things about that, and what impresses you, is just the size (40 square miles) and the scale of it. When you talk about size and scale, by comparison, our starting point, our land, is significantly more than that.”

According to Reininger, the size is two-and-a-half times bigger than Walt Disney World, to be exact.

Benchmarking Disney

“It’s also true that, when people think about the best destination locations for things like entertainment, [Walt Disney] is one of the ones that comes to mind. So, from a quality perspective, certainly we benchmark ourselves against the best and that would be a fair comparison for us.”

Reininger had just stopped to take a breath, having just completed a project to establish a privately funded express rail service in his native US, when QIC – the driving force behind the entire Qiddiya project - came calling with what he describes as “an incredible vision”.

An $8 billion project, Qiddiya is stretched across 334 square kilometres, and 45km away from the capital Riyadh.

Any thoughts of returning to the golf course to work on his handicap were immediately put on hold as he headed to the heart of the Tuwaiq Mountain Range in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

He explains why he decided to take on the challenge: “It’s a transformative idea. It’s connected to a change in an important part of the world and so, while there is a lot of change that came with it, in terms of personal lifestyle and those sorts of things, particularly at this stage of my career and my life, where you try to find things that you can apply yourself to that are interesting and meaningful, that quickly swung the balance towards taking that challenge.”

Qiddiya is a key pillar of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, to ensure the country is a vibrant society, a thriving economy and a progressive nation.

Master planning

And while the excitement around the development has always been there, particularly since the official launch in April last year of this first-of-its-kind in the kingdom, Reininger admits the anticipation was cranked up several notches when the master plan for the first phase of Qiddiya was unveiled last month.

Equally impressive is the four-year timetable for its completion.

We’re targeting as many Saudis as we can physically get into those jobs

Created in collaboration with Denmark-based architecture and design firm Bjarke Ingels Group, there is plenty in the master plan to get excited about, not least the site itself, or two sites as Reininger explains: “There’s a high side of the plateau and a low side and it has these epic landscape vistas, whether you’re on the desert floor with the backdrop of this 200m sheer cliff, or you’re on the top of the plateau looking down to the desert floor below. The natural patterns of this amazing, geologic place also gave inspiration to what became the physical form of the plan as well.”

In Phase One alone in the so-called ‘Kingdom’s capital of entertainment’, there are more than 45 projects, where visitors will have access to over 300 recreational and educational facilities designed around five cornerstones of development that drive the strategy: Parks & Attractions, Sports & Wellness, Motion & Mobility, Nature & Environment and Arts & Culture.

These cornerstones will include a Formula One-standard racing track, a 20,000-seat cliff-top stadium, an 18,000-seat indoor arena, an aquatic centre and a sports hub, as well as a 2,000-seat performing arts theatre and a cinema.

The development will also be home to Six Flags Qiddiya, an extension of the American theme park and with six themed lands, for which designs are due to be revealed next month.

Qiddiya’s golf and residential neighbourhood will feature two 18-hole championship standard courses and offer club house facilities, in addition to residential components throughout.

The project is located in the heart of the Tuwaiq Mountain Range.

Reininger says: “There has always been a palpable excitement about Qiddiya and I think it’s borne out of our basic business premise which is, Saudis share the same desire for the enrichment that comes from sports and entertainment and the arts being part of your everyday life that everybody does, but there has been limited access to those things in the kingdom today, so, in order to fulfil those desires, they’ve had to leave the kingdom to get them, which they did.”

Entertainment drive

The decision by Saudis to seek out entertainment venues  elsewhere is estimated to cost the kingdom $30bn each year, a trend that Reininger is looking to try and reverse.

“Having the ability to have access to those things in their own back yard is the source of a significant amount of excitement about the project. That’s always been there. Now that we’ve made it a little bit clearer exactly what we’re doing, I think people are surprised about how much more is really embedded in the overall projects,” he adds.

QIC was formed as a privately held joint stock company, with the PIF of Saudi Arabia as its main shareholder. Reininger explains the project will be built with a combination of debt and equity, the latter of which is currently being provided by the principle shareholder.

However, he adds: “Clearly that’s not the end game. We will be attracting and bringing others into the fold, both providing equity investment into individual component parts or potentially, the whole. And alongside that we’ll have a number of different sources of debt, regional and international, that will also balance off the capital structure of the company.”

With nearly two thirds of the kingdom’s population under 35, and over seven million people living within 40km of its location, international investors are taking note of this powerful, untapped market.

Qiddiya will feature a golf and residential neighbourhood.

Reininger says: “This is a business proposition that is based on the purest supply and demand imbalance. We don’t have to make this market, we just have to capture the market that’s already there, by giving them something that’s as good as they can get someplace else, that’s easier to access for them and that is really a reflection of them in this authentic way.

“In that regard, this is a tremendous business opportunity that is available for any range of people that can recognise the first-mover opportunity that is here.

“These things don’t exist today. A lot of this is because there’s high barriers to entry into these businesses. Some of these things are big capital investments and they require huge land portfolios and those sort of things that aren’t easy to come by. So, by doing business with us at Qiddiya, an investor is aligning themselves with a company that has sponsorship at the highest level, and that is completely aligned with the strategic direction of the entire marketplace, but also that has the ability to overcome all of those barriers to entry.”

Building bigger

It was the absence of any barriers which was another huge draw for Reininger when he was deciding to be a part of this giga-project. Back to dreaming again, and the thought of the very first meeting with the master planners gives rise to images of a child in a candy store, asking for ‘one of these’ and ‘two of those’. Except these are not sweets - they are grandiose hotels, theme parks, golf courses, racing tracks and stadia.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the launch of Qiddiya’s entertainment city.

And behind them all is the idea that they will be the very best.

“We’re doing things without artificial limits,” Reininger says.

In terms of the motoring aspect of the development, Qiddiya has already been chosen as the final venue for the Dakar Rally in 2020. And Reininger promises a Formula One track that will rival any other across the globe.

“Qiddiya is set to become the premier global motorsport destination and we will be getting ready for more top notch events to help advance motor sports in KSA.

“When we were creating our master plan, it was important to us to create world-class facilities capable of hosting international events, whether that’s motor sports events like Formula One or global sporting competitions,” he says.

He adds that the Six Flags theme park will be “the best” one-of-its-kind that has ever been built, while discussions are ongoing with international hotel brands for the portfolio of five hotels: one will be embedded in the racing part of the resort, one in a water theme park area, another in the heart of the resort core, one in the city centre and a final hotel and associated spa in the golf resort.

The project will boast five international hotel brands.

There will also be a festival ground which can accommodate up to 40,000 revellers.

“You think about the size of audience that would support world class entertainment talent, 40,000 people in a festival ground is on par with the best available anywhere in the world,” Reininger says.

Challenging perceptions

When you talk about barriers in Saudi Arabia, arguably there are none bigger than the more conservative elements of the kingdom, although this is being addressed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is pursuing a liberalisation drive that has led to new cinemas, concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

Reininger doesn’t see that stopping: “We’re in a rapidly evolving and rapidly changing environment. If you think of the transformation that’s happened in the last 12 months alone and you project that four more years into the future, the trajectory is clear. It’s definitely moving in that direction and it’s hard to imagine that it’s suddenly going to stop.”

That’s good news for the expected 17 million annual people expected to visit Qiddiya by 2030. Reininger reveals its audience will be drawn predominantly from Saudi Arabia, followed by visitors from other Gulf countries and, ultimately, international travellers.

Visa-related improvements are expected to drive growth in the kingdom’s tourism sector with the roll-out of 30-day Umrah Plus Visas, eVisas for tourists and specialist visas for events such as the Formula E Championship’s E-Prix.

Qiddiya has been chosen as the final venue for the Dakar Rally in 2020.

Reininger expects that also to continue. He adds: “There’s a direction in place for opening access to tourism into the kingdom. That’s clearly part of the overall strategy and it’s clearly articulated in Vision 2030. We fully expect that that’s going to happen. We think of that as a huge upside, not as a foundation because our core business is first and foremost the domestic Saudi audience.”

And it is not only the country’s tourism industry that is expected to benefit from Qiddiya. As the kingdom moves away from a reliance on oil, the entire country is set to reap the rewards of the development.

Job surge

Four years from now, the first phase of the project is forecast to provide direct employment to around 17,000 people, a number that is expected to grow to 25,000 by 2030.

“Objectively, we’re targeting as many Saudis as we can physically get into those jobs. Initially what we’re doing is we’re scanning the world for the best and brightest talent with the right expertise and depth of experience in the categories of things that are important to us and we’re bringing them on board alongside a Saudi group that we have as well. Over time, what we see happening already is that the balance is moving. It always has been more Saudi-centric than not, but we think that will increase and, ultimately, we think this will predominantly be a local operation top to bottom,” Reininger says.

In a bid to push that along, QIC this month signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Saudi General Entertainment Authority to launch job placement programmes.

This includes providing scholarships for 60 students to study at Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, USA. The programme will begin in the autumn of this year and will last for five years. It will include an English language preparation program and internship training at Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. Following graduation, students will join the Qiddiya project.

Reininger reveals the response to gain one of those 60 spots has been incredible.

Under a week after it was officially announced, he told us: “As I was coming over here (from KSA to Dubai) I see we’ve had over 2,400 applicants for the 60 spots. That gives you some indication of the level of interest that exists from people who want to get themselves educated and get experienced for the kinds of opportunities that we’re going to be delivering. It’s exciting.”

Work has already begun on the implementation of the design of Qiddiya, which will firstly focus on building light infrastructure and anchor attractions that will define the identity of the development.

With that 2022 deadline in mind, Reininger admits time will pass “in the blink of an eye”.

But it’s not something he’s losing sleep over: “If you let that sort of stuff knock you over, you’d never get out of bed in the morning. You just have to take it for what it is, you have to see the bigger picture, you have to focus on the end goal and find a way to overcome the obstacles because the obstacles are going to come at you every second of every day in uncountable numbers, but you can’t let that wash you away.”

Now that the dreaming is almost complete, he just needs to get on and do it. After all, Disney was all started by a mouse.

Top 10 most popular theme park groups by attendance in 2018:

  1. Walt Disney Attractions (USA) - 157,311,000
  2. Merlin Entertainment Group (UK) - 67,000,000
  3. Universal Parks & Resorts (USA) - 50,068,000
  4. Oct Parks (China) - 49,350,000
  5. Fantawild (China) - 42,074,000
  6. Chinelong Group (China) - 34,007,000
  7. Six Flags Inc (USA) - 32,024,000
  8. Cedar Fair Entertainment Company (USA) - 25,912,000
  9. Seaworld Parks & Entertainment (USA) - 22,582,000
  10. Parques Reunidos (Spain) - 20,900,000

Source: Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) 2019

Thrilling statistics:

  • Biggest attraction: Magic Kingdom (Walt Disney World, Florida) with 20,859,000 visitors in 2018.
  • Most popular water park in the world: Chimelong Water Park in China, with 2,740,000 visitors in 2018.
  • Most popular museum: Louvre Paris in France, with 10,200,000 visitors in 2018
  • Most popular theme park in the GCC: Dubai Parks and Resorts in Dubai, with 2.8 million visitors in 2018
  • Most popular water park in the GCC: Aquaventure Water Park, at The Atlantic Palm Hotel, Dubai, with 1,397,000 visitors in 2018
  • Fastest roller coaster: Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, with a top speed of 149.1 miles per hour.
  • Highest roller coaster: Kingda Ka at the Six Flags Great Adventure Park in New Jersey, at 456 feet tall.
  • Longest roller coaster: Steel Dragon 2000 at the Nagashima Spa Land in Japan is 8,133 feet long
  • Most roller coasters: Six Flags Magic Mountain in California has 19 roller coasters
  • Oldest roller coaster: The Leap-The-Dips in Lakemont Park in Pennsylvania was opened in 1902

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