Theme Parks: Interview with Randa Ayoubi, CEO, RGH Entertainment

The announcement of the $1 billion Red Sea Astrarium development heralded a move into theme parks for Rubicon Holdings Group (RGH).  The Jordanian entertainment company followed up swiftly with news that RGH will be working with Inspire WA to create a theme park in Perth.  So are we set to see a new global player in the Theme Park Industry?  Blooloop talks with RGH founder and CEO Randa Ayoubi.

randa ayoubi ceo of rubicon group holdings RGH themed entertainmentHaving started Rubicon as a small venture capital project with an intial investment of $140, 000, Harvard educated CEO Ayoubi has transformed the company into a global business with 5 international branches and more than 300 employees.  Headquartered in Amman, Jordan, RGH creates digital content and immersive entertainment across its four business segments: Productions, Themed Entertainment, Games and Education.

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But RGH is more than just an entertainment provider.  Led by Ayoubi, RGH has an entrenched culture of global corporate social responsibility and has ambitions to help transform Jordan into a high tech nation as well as an aspiration to break down cultural barriers worldwide by exporting animated shows and movies produced in the Middle East.  Ayoubi is quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I want to be a company that is mentioned in books when they talk about the Arab renaissance.” 

Background

How has the business evolved over time and was it what you initially planned? 

Since it was founded in 2004, RGH has been dedicated to the creation of responsible entertainment and we have always remained true to this principle.

At the same time much has changed. The company has grown from 27 employees to more than 300, with four branches in different parts of the world and a net worth of tens of millions of dollars. We now have four divisions, RGH Entertainment, RGH Themed Entertainment, RGH Games and RGH Education. Together, our world class team collaborates to provide a unique perspective into the realization of compelling digital content and immersive entertainment.

Ben and Izzy and tareq wa shireen animated cartoon series rgh

For example, in the last year RGH and Turner Broadcasting entered into a strategic partnership covering a wide array of development, production, broadcasting, and merchandising initiatives.  Headlining the new partnerships was an agreement to broadcast the company’s Ben & Izzy and Tareq wa Shireen (see right) animated series on Cartoon Network in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) beginning in October 2010, followed by future airings in Europe, Asia and North America. Through the agreement, RGH and Cartoon Network will also collaborate on the development of MENA merchandising programs supporting the launch of the two series.

Another significant partnership was also forged that year.  RGH reached an agreement with Etisalat, one of the largest telecommunication companies in the world and a leading operator in the Middle East and Africa, to provide educational and entertainment (edutainment) services across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Sudan. 

RGH has also signed strategic alliances with global entertainment companies Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and CBS Consumer Products, through which RGH serves as its exclusive licensing agent in the MENA region, representing classic properties ranging from Pink Panther to Star Trek. 

And finally, RGH is leading the development of The Red Sea Astrarium, a 184-acre themed entertainment resort celebrating the heritage of the region’s past civilizations, as well as its future, with the world’s only Star Trek attraction as one part of the wider experience.

So, when you look back and take stock of all that has been achieved, it is only so you can plot a path for further success in the future!

What’s your strategy for the RGH Themed Entertainment division?

Our strategy is to build a division that is globally recognized for our accomplishments in creating experiences that entertain, inspire and amaze visitors, while at the same time contributing to the bottom line with a leisure-destination that withstands the test of time and the rigors of operations. RGH has the team, credentials and know-how to ensure that TRSA becomes a success and we plan to use our success in creating TRSA as a foundation for global expansion of RGH Themed Entertainment.

Brands and IP

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You're developing under license (Star Trek, Pink Panther and Pals) as well as original content (Ben and Izzy).  What’s your strategy in developing your portfolio of characters brands?

Our intellectual properties are core assets which must be managed to maximize their potential over the long term. As such, we are developing our portfolio of characters as global brands that can be exploited by all of our business units in the form of video entertainment, themed entertainment, educational products and games, and across all existing and emerging technology platforms. We think the key to maximizing a brand’s potential is to conceptualize and create characters with both visual and storytelling attributes that can easily translate to different mediums, platforms and environments.
I see Rubicon is also moving into game platforms.  What is your strategy for rolling out your IP? 

RGH established a gaming division in 2011.  Since then, RGH Games has been leveraging its expertise in animated digital content to extend the reach of the studio’s brands and entertainment properties into games, applications, web content, social media and digital distribution – the full range of transmedia.

Currently, RGH Games is rolling out an ambitious array of games and apps targeting kids, tweens and their parents, with a slate of immersive titles that entertain and enlighten to create fun with a purpose.  RGH Games titles are available on the iOS (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch), Android (tablets, smartphones) and Xbox Live platforms. 

animated characters from RGH themed entertainmentEdutainment

You’ve said that “edutainment for kids as a concept is very close to my heart”.  Please can you elaborate on this.

For every $1 spent on education, a further $10 is generated as a result and for one extra year of quality schooling, a country can increase its average GDP growth by nearly 0.5%, and lift earnings by 10%. So, I have always been heavily involved in the pursuit for a better education because it provides the opportunity for anyone of any age to lead a better life and is a critical component in the personal growth and social development of our children. Teaching and communicating effectively, in an environment with many modern distractions, is of the upmost importance when considering the future of our society.

As a consequence, I have matched my passion for educational standards with the technical and creative capabilities within RGH and today RGH eCurricula products are enjoyed by over 1 million students in educational establishments throughout the Middle East.

I was interested to read that Rubicon’s education and training divisions provide content for all ages, not just school children, but professional development and e-awareness for local communities.  Why is that? 

Education is not limited to the classroom and neither is it confined to the pages in a textbook. Education is about shaping minds and teaching people how to navigate through the world as a better person and contribute to society. So we apply the same principles and skill-set from our eCurricula programmes into e-awareness initiatives that teach children about the conservation of nature, the benefits of health and nutrition and the dangers of traffic. Likewise, we help companies develop the competency of staff either by running courses that teach non-technical skills such as customer service skills or more customized solutions that allow staff to encounter simulated experiences in a controlled environment before they may or may not happen for real.

Either way, RGH is teaching people in an entertaining and immersive format so that the experience is memorable for a lifetime.  

Red Sea Astrarium

What is Rubicon’s role in the development of the Red Sea Astrarium? 

As a global entertainment organization devoted to the development and production of entertainment experiences, RGH Themed Entertainment led the conceptualization and now the design and development of the Red Sea Astrarium.  As the project continues to move forwardthe red sea astrarium jordan, RGH will oversee its production and project management ensuring that the resulting experience stays true to the design intent.

Who is the resort aimed at and how many visitors are you expecting?

For profitability, the whole resort requires 480, 000 visitors a year.  Typical theme parks require millions of people to pass through in a year to start breaking even.

I read the theme is going to be “Ancient Middle Eastern History and Culture to Mix with Star Trek”.  Can you tell me a bit more about it please and also what attractions will be included in the resort?

Occupying 184 acres, the themed entertainment resort will be a mixed-use destination hosting an inspiring collection of adventures, attractions and experiences that will celebrate the human accomplishment and understanding as well as explore the culture, geography and rich history of Jordan.

While I can’t share too many details, I can tell you there are some remarkable experiences including a spectacular attraction that travels through time visiting the wonders of the ancient world, from the towering Colossus at Rhodes to the Lighthouse of Alexandria.  Another attraction makes use of a completely unique ride system to send us on an emotional adventure inside a spherical projection environment.  There are almost a dozen attractions at the Astrarium: rides, shows, adventures… each of them unique.

The Astrarium journey culminates with a remarkable perspective on the future as seen through an exciting new Star Trek experience created in partnership with CBS Consumer Products and Paramount Recreation.  We’re still keeping a pretty tight lid on what’s in store for Star Trek fans.

In summation, the Red Sea Astrarium presents a dynamic spectrum of leisure and entertainment experiences. It is closely linked with the region’s rich history and heritage, it offers a relaxing escape with spas and fine dining including farm-to-table cuisine, and has the thrill of exhilarating rides and extreme adventures and sporting activities.

Is this the first of many resorts for you – a Rubicon brand to be rolled out?

We are definitely building an infrastructure for growth in the themed entertainment business. Even at this early stage of design and development of The Red Sea Astrarium, our work on the project is evidence that RGH is capable of turning ambition and vision into reality. RGH is already in discussions with developers in other parts of the world and we will be announcing our next big themed entertainment project very soon.

The Future

I thought this quote from you was really interesting:

“This, I feel, is just the beginning and we still have a long way to go. There is a huge demand for content in the region, especially in children's entertainment. The challenge is to produce more programmes so in the future children in Europe, the US or Asia might grow up watching Arabic shows dubbed in English, rather than the other way round.”

Please can you tell us what your longer term ambitions are for Rubicon?

RGH is a diversified entertainment company devoted to the creation of incomparable entertainment experiences and educational content across all media. And so as new platforms are picked up by consumers we must continue to innovate and provide a unique perspective into the realization of compelling digital content and immersive entertainment. At the same time, we have a team of over 300 employees in five locations: Amman (Jordan), Los Angeles (United States), Manila (Philippines), Dubai (United Arab Emirates). We want to expand our reach and touch all four corners of the globe with Asia next on the radar.