Sat beneath the pre-show stage lights at Billionaire Dubai, FACT chats with entrepreneur Flavio Briatore about his career, the world of hospitality and why Dubai is the perfect fit for his Billionaire brand.
Did you always see success for yourself and who inspired you to become the man you are today?
I had two people in my life who gave me the possibility to have success. One is Luciano Benetton, who is like family to me, and the second is Bernie Ecclestone. Between America and Formula 1, I spent 20 maybe 25 years with Benetton and then 16 years with Bernie Eccleston. So I learnt that you need to understand when your possibility is coming and make sure you deliver. Nobody gets anything for free, so when someone has given you the opportunity, you need to be strong and recognise the unique opportunity.
I have made my career upon managing people. There is no difference between managing a corporate construction company, a Formula 1 company or a food and beverage company. In the end, you’re managing people and only the product is different. Leadership is natural, you either have it or you don’t.
So why the transition into hospitality?
Hospitality is a very difficult business because you compete with the best brands in the world, especially in places like Dubai, Milan, London and Monte Carlo. In Formula 1, you compete with different teams and the product is winning the race. Food and beverage are the same – you have the kitchen, suppliers and staff as your team – constantly having to adapt to produce excellent entertainment and energy for the ultimate client experience.
Billionaire is a first-of-its-kind concept for the UAE. Do you see it as more of a lifestyle than just a venue?
Because of the name, there is a perception that we are expensive, but now it’s not true. You have to understand the balance between entertainment and price and that the Billionaire experience is no more expensive than a lot of restaurants in Dubai. But the entertainment we have is unique and exhilarating, combining exceptional dining with some of the best artists in the world.
COVID helped us to create this new Billionaire. Before it was more nightlife centric but now it’s restaurant driven. Our staff are growing with the brand. The people here are not doing the job to survive. They are doing it because they love it! The staff help to create the energy in the place and this makes the customers happy. The waiters are more like public relations representatives, making you feel comfortable, welcome and important.
There are no VIPs. From the moment you walk into Billionaire, everyone is treated the same. Billionaire is more of a lifestyle than a brand and our business is entertaining and connecting people.
Billionaire started in 1998 in Porto Cervo in Sardinia. How has the brand changed in the last 23 years?
In the beginning, Billionaire was just a name. Twenty-three years ago, we were talking about millionaires and now we’re talking about billionaires!
I loved Sardinia and spent my holidays there, but there were no normal places, just pizzerias. So for the quality of the people arriving in Sardinia, we needed to do something special. We originally wanted to call the place Millionaire, but that was already the title of a magazine, so we decided to go with Billionaire. That name was immediately associated with me, and from there, it was easy. Under the group, we now have three brands, Billionaire, Crazy Pizza and Twiga, but the core values are the same – people, quality, and making energy.
We were the first to bring entertainment and now we have the best artists in the world. It’s a lot of work and a lot of investment and putting together a show like this is very expensive. We have an art director, choreographer and lighting team, which is important because in the next two years we will open five Billionaire’s, including Sardinia in July and Riyadh which is open already.
Billionaire has seen enormous success in Dubai, Kenya, Saudi Arabia. How do you pick the specific locations for expansion?
Europe is the place. We are now looking at Madrid because it’s a completely new area with seven new hotel brands opening, including W and Bulgari. We need to concentrate where the people are.
In Italy, it was either Milan or Rome, but in Milan, you already have many destinations. In Rome there’s nothing – it’s like New York and Washington. So we are now opening Crazy Pizza in Rome, alongside Twiga on the best terrace in Rome.
We can also move the artists between venues because we have a theatre in Madrid for training. We took many artists from Cirque du Soleil and we’re always looking for the best people.
What do you think it is about Billionaire Dubai that resonates so much with the public
If you don’t know the product, then your brand is finished. You can go to TripAdvisor and see the feeling of the people when it comes to Dubai. So the brand can help you, but the people need to respect the level of the brand. If the waiter is rude or the show is no good, you’ll quickly destroy the brand.
You need to keep the level of the brand high. To do this you need to invest in the customer, staff, kitchen and entertainment. Price is also a factor and we need to be consistent. Billionaire needs to be accessible to a lot of people, like any other brand here in Dubai.
If you have a big brand, you need to go where the big brands are to compete. We respect everybody, and the more good operators we have in Dubai, the better it is for Dubai.
I saw Billionaire Beach Dubai on your Instagram account. Is this something we can talk about?
It’s an ongoing project. In Dubai the beach is not really considered a beach. It’s open sea without a lagoon and for me, this is an opportunity. There will be a stage on the beach which in the afternoon will have entertainment. We want to invest in Dubai because in the end, you can guarantee your investment and the rules are very simple and clear.
How have people taken to the opening of Billionaire in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia?
I believe that Saudi has seen an incredible movement in the last five years. At Billionaire, everyone is mixing and enjoying the experience and I think that Saudi has the potential to be strong, especially in the Red Sea area, which is amazing. The brand is very solid and operating in Saudi Arabia is very easy as well.
We did a pop-up for Riyadh season, which acted as a pre-opening to test the market before launching Billionaire Riyadh. It was fantastic and we have now opened a Billionaire that is double the size of Dubai. We are doing 450 covers for dinner each night and we have the license for entertainment starting in September.
With so many businesses under your belt, how involved do you get on a day to day level?
I know everything. If you lose the feeling of the business, then you are left out. I follow what is going on every day, and I have the information on what is happening at each venue, including who is leaving and who is arriving. I’ll most of the time join the interviews for new managers via Zoom, though I may not say anything. I’m up to date on the construction and the management and I receive the reports every night.
When you started with F1, what business skills did you take into the paddock and quickly realised didn’t work? And what F1 skills have you since brought into the business world?
The same skills. Whatever experience you have, including my twenty years in Formula 1 between Benetton and Renault, it’s always about the people.
When we arrived in Formula 1, our name was a t-shirt maker and we competed with the best technical people in the world. We were a little bit of an outside joke, so it was difficult for us to have a top driver. We didn’t have the salary to pay a top driver such as Senna or Prost, but my idea was to find someone young with the talent and the possibility of becoming a world champion and growing him with us. I was lucky when I found Schumacher, and with him, we won four championships very quickly. After that I moved to Renault.
At the time the Renault reputation was good but they had never won anything. It looked like a government company, so we created a new theme and a new star with Fernando Alonso. It was the same movie with the same director. We just changed the actor.
The skills are the same, and food and beverage is the same. We need to make sure everyone is using in the same direction helping everybody. The difficult part is the first step, but once you feel the success, people will love the success.
As a Brit, I have to ask about Lewis Hamilton. How do you think he ranks in the history of great drivers in F1?
Lewis is one of the top talents in motorsport. Sometimes the guy is controversial, sometimes he’s not, but he always delivers. Lewis is good for Formula 1, much like Senna and Alonso and he is a great ambassador and a great guy. I’ve known him for twenty years and he is a talent and he is very respectful. To be at the top in Formula 1 for so many years is not easy.
What advice would you give to people looking to emulate the same level of success as you’ve had?
Work hard and have a clear vision in your mind of what you want to do. If you feel it’s your future, then never give up and never be arrogant.