Out-of-home entertainment is big business in EMEA, particularly in the fast-growing markets in the Middle East. While the pandemic may have stalled this growth temporarily, the future looks bright thanks to innovative new technology.
The fact that operators have embraced the trend for contactless and low-touch solutions, combined with the pent-up demand for entertainment, is resulting in something of a boom for the FEC and arcade sector in the region. To find out more, blooloop spoke to Saeed Abdillahi, Sales & Business Development Manager EMEA at Embed, a leading worldwide supplier of point-of-sale and revenue management systems, such as the award-winning Mobile Wallet.
A passion for entertainment
Abdillahi, who has worked for Embed for almost four years, first came across the company while visiting an FEC as a customer:
“I’ve always been someone who enjoys fun. One of the reasons I joined the industry was because I have a little girl and I used to take her to places like Magic Planet and Fun City. I was always curious about these flashing things attached to the games. So, even before I joined the company I was intrigued by Embed!
“It’s an interesting job, working with so many different customers. A lot of them do come to us via the branding that we did on the readers, just like me.”
“It’s great that what we do inspires people across the region. I have customers in Iraq, I have customers in some parts of Africa as well as in the Middle East and beyond. In my role, I oversee the Europe, Middle East, and Africa markets, and it’s just wonderful to go to a venue and see families, adults, and children enjoying themselves and having smiles on their faces, regardless of the political situation or what’s going on in that particular country.
“I love what I do. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to work in entertainment because I knew we could make difference in people’s lives.”
Returning to in-person events
The Embed team will be attending in-person events this year as they restart around the world. This includes the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement (SEA) Expo and IAAPA Europe. Speaking about being able to meet customers and colleagues in person once again, Abdillahi says:
“The entire team has just returned from attending the Amusement Expo in Las Vegas, myself included. We were extremely excited to meet new customers, as well as reuniting with existing customers and partners and friends.”
“When these events did not take place last year, we introduced what we call the COVID-19 Relief Act to support the industry, even though we could not be there in person. And that included giving away our award-winning Mobile Wallet and Portal free to anyone or any customer. That was to help the industry thrive during the pandemic. So, at the height of the pandemic, we released our best product at no cost.
“As the pandemic began last year, we won an award for innovation, for our game-changing Mobile Wallet and Portal. This was back in March 2020 at the same show, the Amusement Expo. Now, returning to the show, knowing that our customers want to see us, and getting the chance to see them face to face was absolutely wonderful.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has been a seismic event for the out-of-home entertainment industry. As the pandemic unfolded we got accustomed to new ways of communicating, but nothing can replace human contact. We’ve been excited to return to those major events.”
The Mobile Wallet
While attending a range of trade shows this year, Embed will be showcasing products that can help the industry thrive in the wake of the pandemic. This includes the Mobile Wallet:
“We are going to be reintroducing the Mobile Wallet and showing its benefits because every so often a game-changer of a product comes along – something that revolutionises the industry and that people should know about. And the Mobile Wallet has been a massive innovation. So, we are going to be reintroducing it at our next show, which is the Saudi show.”
“We also have other products that we will be highlighting. We have SaaS products that we’re going to be showing. All our award-winning products will be on display, too.”
Mobile Wallet helps recovery
The Mobile Wallet will be a useful tool for operators as they rebuild trust with customers, says Abdillahi.
“The Mobile Wallet is a virtual game card that can be added to the Apple Wallet and Google Pay. Today, Embed is the only FEC business solution provider in the industry to gain compliance and approval from both Google and Apple for the Mobile Wallet solution. It is also the only non-finance, non-banking, and sponsorship brand to sit on the consumers’ mobile wallet.
“There is a massive push to what we call the low-touch economy. Operators need to offer the customer safe, contactless payments for a seamless FEC experience. So we’re going to continue to give the Mobile Wallet and the Mobile Portal for free to our customers for the foreseeable future.
“Nobody forgets their mobile phone at home. I forget my keys, my wallet, but the mobile is at the heart of my life. At any given moment it’s there, it’s never far from me.”
“You can’t afford shortcuts when it comes to business software solutions. Especially if your business revenue or profit depends on it,” says Abdillahi. “The consumers drive technology adaptation and they expect operators to follow a certain trend that’s already happening. And a lot of the outdated technology will no longer be required.
“The Embed software platform is a completely integrated solution. It enables business owners to achieve improved operational efficiency while reducing costs and increasing profitability.
“Simply put, our partners want to have an integrated system, from arcade debit card readers to self-service kiosks that can fuel the business of fun. And that’s exactly what we plan to deliver. Our system is designed to provide a superior guest experience across all diverse entertainment centres.”
Many operators have turned to self-service kiosks in recent years, and this trend has been accelerated by the pandemic. Not only does the self-service element allow for safe social distancing measures, but the kiosk also, in effect, acts as another employee. This is a bonus in the current climate when many are struggling to either hire or keep the staff they need.
Industry shows signs of strong recovery
Speaking specifically about the EMEA region, Abdillahi talks about the impact of the pandemic, and how the industry is recovering.
“Some markets opened quicker than others. But overall, we’re seeing a positive projection, despite the threat of subsequent waves, which can potentially impact the market.
“We are elated that we’ve helped many customers get back to almost 100% year-on-year sales from the 2019 figures. This means that a lot of people also prospered during the pandemic. In particular, the Middle East market is resilient. And it was a fast mover – we’ve got high vaccination rates here. There is also less scepticism around vaccination and that’s helped us bounce back much quicker than other regions.”
“We did see the initial shutdowns and lockdowns during the first wave. However, we were very quick out of the blocks in the EMEA region, especially the Middle East.”
Many predicted that the pent-up demand for quality out-of-home entertainment would result in a post-COVID surge of visitors. Abdillahi says this has been borne out:
“There is a demand for safe family fun and people are going out again. Taking my daughter out, considering myself as a customer at many of the wonderful attractions across the region, there is a positive feeling here.
“The social distancing rules are still enforced and there are still some limitations in some venues. But overall it’s back to 2019 levels, in terms of both visitor numbers and revenue generation.”
For operators, rebuilding trust with customers is key as they recover. Advising on this, Abdillahi says:
“The advice is to continue taking precautions, as always, to stay within the government guidelines across the different countries in the region. The Delta variant is now the topic, but we’re managing very well. For example, in Abu Dhabi, they have reintroduced the midnight curfew. Most of the venues in Abu Dhabi are shutting down a lot earlier, around 9 or 10 p.m. I think we’ve seen the worst of it.”
“Plus, our industry has proven to be so resilient. We’re now seeing a wave of new entrepreneurs coming into the entertainment industry for the first time. This means that there are now opportunities in the market for people that otherwise wouldn’t enter the industry.
“So, there are lots of positives. But I think the most important thing is to stay resilient, stay vigilant, and continue to enforce the guidelines for your region.”
Mobile Wallet is the right solution
“Choosing the right solutions will also help operators build trust with visitors too,” says Abdillahi. “Going back to again the Mobile Wallet, I can’t emphasise enough how much of a game-changer it is.
“We help our operators look at the business in three distinctive areas. Firstly, pre visits – what applications we can provide customers before they turn up at the venue. Then what applications can they safely use during the visitation. And finally, what is the operator able to utilise to have a 360-view of the post-customer visitation.
“These reinforce the three golden rules of having a technology like ours, which is to bring customers, to make them stay longer, and to get them to return. So, what Embed does is look at those critical aspects of a business operation and make life easier. The Mobile Wallet is unlike any other product in the market.
“For me, topping up before I arrive, instead of queuing, negates the need to be socially distanced at the point of sale. I can walk straight up to the game with the phone that I already have in my pocket. I don’t have to worry about touching other things – I can play, enjoy myself, and leave. Plus, with the Mobile Wallet, I can do what’s called an in-game top-up. So, I don’t have to leave my session, I can top up instantly because it’s linked to my credit card.”
Attractions can still thrive
Looking at how some attractions have managed to thrive in the region, despite the pandemic, Abdillahi says:
“One of our clients is Winter Wonderland in Saudi Arabia which has been a huge success. Our customers are innovators, like Tekzone in Saudi Arabia, which has an amazing location and is doing really well. We also have the Atlantis Wavehouse at Dubai Atlantis. That’s a prestigious location in an upscale part of the city. Here, the numbers in terms of the volume of customers are higher than ever.”
“And then we have larger clients that are doing tremendously well. Some of the big players that the pandemic initially had an impact on are now fully enjoying the recovery.
“So, we are seeing a V-shaped recovery in the entertainment sector. The way our products are helping that is that we are supporting people with the Mobile Wallet and Portal, and making sure that we are doing safe installations. We are also deploying more systems remotely without the need to travel and to be there physically. That’s another massive advantage that we have.”
Out-of-home entertainment in EMEA
Finally, looking ahead to the future of the sector in EMEA, Abdillahi says:
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major market right now. In general, Saudi Arabia is both the cultural and economic powerhouse of the region.
“Many mega entertainment projects are underway in the kingdom. And what makes us excited is that we are part of the efforts for the country to diversify its economy through His Royal Highness’ Vision 2030. Embed will be a major part of that. So, we are looking forward to a wonderful journey, delivering some transformative initiatives to support the industry there and to empower, enable, and ease the business of fun for our customers.
We are looking forward to a wonderful journey, delivering some transformative initiatives to support the industry [in Saudi Arabia] and to empower, enable, and ease the business of fun for our customers
“So far, we’ve managed to work with some of our partners in the country to deliver some award-winning products, such as the Mobile Wallet. This allows them to enjoy the contactless, low-touch economy. From our side, it also helps us to comply with COVID-19 safety.
“We are a company that has a strong base in the region. We’ve invested in our headquarters in Dubai, at Jumeirah Lakes Towers. Also, we don’t work through distribution. As such, we work with our customers directly, cutting out the middleman, and therefore delivering much higher quality products into the market.
“We also have some exciting plans that, of course, we can’t announce now. But we’ve got some major installations coming up in the region. So stay tuned!”