To increase visitor numbers, mall owners try to fill the unrented spaces with entertainment, but realise often that this only partially helps to increase footfall. A solution might be to look at other similar industries that are successful in attracting guests; one of these is theme parks. Bart wrote an article about this, which was published at the leading retail and entertainment magazine RLI. Please find a link here: https://www.rli.uk.com/retail-insight-bart-dohmen-tdac/
Developing new attractions requires many difficult decisions and, in boardrooms, these often come together in spreadsheets. But while these spreadsheets are an important part of the mix when developing attractions, there is one factor which might be more important to drive success. And it is this factor which drives many decision-makers crazy: the gut feeling.
The Cambridge dictionary defines gut feeling as: “a strong belief about someone or something that cannot completely be explained and does not have to be decided by reasoning.”
Reading this definition, it is no wonder that the gut feeling scares many decision-makers! This is not something you like to hear when you are deciding about investing millions of euros or dollars. But why is this gut feeling so important in creating successful attractions? Furthermore, is Cambridge’s statement that the “gut feeling cannot completely be explained” really true?
Connecting with the guest
So, if gut feeling is so important in developing a successful attraction, we could assume that the best attractions in the world will be built based on gut feeling, right? Let’s first find the best attractions in the world. Some names feature on most lists, including names like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Tower of Terror (pictured, top).
All these attractions are unique, taking the guests out of their daily life and connecting them with another world. A critical person reading this article immediately will say, yes but most of them are based on well-known IPs. That’s totally true. But don’t forget that there are many other IP-based attractions that will never make this list as they are not making the right connection with the guest.
But what has “making the right connection with your guest” to do with gut feeling? First, let’s look at which other factors make this connection.
At every industry conference, you hear that the best attractions and parks connect with the guests when they have the right theming, the right attraction mix, great staff, surprising elements, personalisation, the right budget and engaging storytelling. Most design studios include those words in their pitches. Yet only a few are able to come up with attractions, areas, experiences, museums or parks that really connect.
So, this is exactly where the gut feeling becomes important in developing attractions. It’s about taking that extra step from the ordinary path to create something unique that guests emotionally connect with. The extra step you cannot define, but you feel it is necessary to take.
Examples of gut-feeling attractions projects
Let’s find some examples.
What if you build a show based on the story from the 17th century, in an indoor theatre, with real horses, many actors, great sound & light and enormous sets? Ok, sounds cool, but guests might have seen this before. But what if, at the moment supreme, the giant stage, in a way the audience will not recognise, slowly begins to take on a small film of water, building up to an episode of a flooded stage where horses dance in the water, creating a dramatic combination of splashing water, lighting, music, horses and actors.
The water effect is not necessary for the story, but this scene, with beautifully lit horses surrounded by mind-blowing theatricals sets, creates a water ballet that might get your guests so emotional, that they get tears in their eyes and will never forget this moment (Yes, I was one of the audience members with tears in my eyes). It was a courageous decision by Puy du Fou to build such a scene in their Mousquetaire de Richelieu show.
It would have been a decision that hugely affected their budget, without anyone’s spreadsheets being able to explain why they had to do it. It’s a gut-feeling decision. A gut feeling that tells you this will emotionally connect to the guests; they will never forget and tell their friends about it. And this is exactly why Puy du Fou is so popular.
“I think it can work, and it will be cool”
A great other example was the decision 20 years ago to build the Spiderman attraction at Universal Islands of Adventure. Imagine the conversation: “Let’s have guests travel in 4D in moving vehicles through movie sets of Spiderman and this is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop. Oh yeah, and we’re not even sure if what we envision is technically feasible, but we think we can make it work.”
The gut feeling said “I think it can work, and it will be cool” and the decision was made to build the attraction. 20 years later, it is still in the top three best attractions in the world.
But using your gut feeling is important on a smaller scale also. Spending more detail on theming or creating a slightly more expensive music score, assuming that this will create a more emotional feeling in your spatial storytelling attraction, is absolutely a gut-feeling decision that you can’t explain. It is not decided by clear reasoning, but if done right, will create this extra emotional connection with the guest.
What do the academics say?
So…now we simply follow our gut feeling, and we will be successful? Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Luckily more people were wondering about the importance of gut feeling and have done some research on it.
This research shows that gut feeling helps us in making difficult decisions where many details come together. In those cases, it appears that decisions based on gut feelings are often more accurate. At the start of this article, I mentioned that when creating a new attraction, many different decisions need to be made. This might explain why using the gut feeling works in developing attractions.
However, another academic study made something else very important clear. People with experience in the subject matter made a more accurate decision based on their gut feeling, compared to people that were not experts. Reflecting this back to the attractions industry we can conclude that when basing your decision on a gut feeling, you better have experience in the attractions industry. Or, at the very least, include some experts in the process.
Gut feeling is important
Attraction development requires many complex decisions. Often, success is defined by how well your attraction connects with the guests on an emotional level. This element is difficult to capture in spreadsheets, so we can see how gut feeling is important when developing attractions.
But of course, don’t base your decisions on gut feeling only! Balance the gut feeling with your business thinking and excel sheets and don’t hesitate to seek advice from experts. As the above dictionary description said: “the gut feeling cannot completely be explained”. Therefore, we must use it carefully in the development of successful attractions.
About half a year ago, I enjoyed a great setting in Ferrari Land in PortAventura during a Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) event. Finally, after such a long time without network events, I attended a nice dinner with my industry friends. I was lucky to share my table with some respectable and long-term attraction producers, discussing topics such as our favourite attractions (Spiderman was still mentioned a few times, more than 10 years after opening!) and our experiences around the world.
The conversation also touched on our experiences in the Middle East and the opportunities in that part of the world. What was interesting was that some of these very experienced attraction producers said that they are now less interested in working on projects again in that part of the world. And the reason for that? The cost controllers.
Cost controllers in themed entertainment
Everyone who has worked on a big project in the Middle East has experience in working with a cost controller. Simply put, a cost controller is responsible for controlling the project costs; this includes planning, developing, controlling, and forecasting the project’s budget. In a typical project, the cost controller sits between the end client and the contractors who are actually building the project.
This all sounds logical; an independent experienced party is controlling the performance of the contractor on behalf of the client. In the construction industry, applying cost controllers is common. But what is the reason that very experienced and respected attraction producers are so averse to these cost controllers?
Since this enjoyable dinner, I have had more conversations about this subject with other industry peers. It kept my mind spinning: why do clients involve cost controllers? And why are the best and world-known attraction designers and producers unhappy with the situation?
The most obvious reason to employ cost controllers in themed entertainment projects, from the client’s perspective, seems to be uncertainty. Often clients have a background in real estate, financing, or a combination of the two. They are familiar with running projects based on parameters created on benchmarks over years; so many Euros for a square meter retail space on a certain quality level, a benchmark investment for a 4-star hotel room and a sqm price for a fine dining restaurant.
These parameters provide them with a comfortable feeling about project costs. Based on this, they can ask a cost controller to keep an eye on these costs on their behalf.
However, in the entertainment world, we don’t have rational parameters for theme park experiences or attractions. We don’t have a qualification system of 3-star, 4-star or 5-star like hotels have. The so often used square meter prices do not necessarily make sense in our business. For instance, we also include media and/or show production into our investment budgets. This will influence the square meter price immediately.
The lack of available benchmarks is one of the key reasons why many investors get nervous when we as a themed entertainment industry present our budgets. We are not able to explain well enough why we need that extra budget in order to succeed. To defend the budget, we use arguments like “touching emotions”, “creating ambassadors”, “WOW factors” and other non-rational arguments.
This doesn’t fit into their Excel model thinking. By this, only the best design and production teams, based primarily on their track record, have a chance to successfully sell and produce a project to an investor for the right budget.
Needing progress insight
The second reason could be the fact that in the construction world, materials arrive on-site from day one. The client sees progress throughout. For all good reasons, we in the themed entertainment industry prefer to build as much as possible off-site. But this makes it much harder for a client to understand why the next check should already be paid, when they have not seen actual goods arriving on site.
This makes the client nervous. So, they are more likely to fall back on the experience of their trusted cost estimators, who have already guided them through many real estate projects.
Compared to construction budgets that are rational, detailed and use clear benchmarks, based on understandable decisions about why certain cost decisions were made for materials or processes, the show budget is based on many non-rational elements. This is why it becomes the perfect target for cost controllers to find savings in themed entertainment projects.
Without an understanding of the importance of making emotional connections with guests, the relatively unclear show budget becomes an easy place for a cost controller to question everything the show producer does. With the customer’s lack of experience in building attractions, the cost controller also easily finds support from the client for these questions.
As a producer, you now find yourself in situations where cost controllers are making themselves look nice to the client, with arguments such as: “This projector can be replaced with the one I found online” and “I know someone who can make media for a fraction of the price”. Before you know it, a question hangs over the entire show budget, and cuts are happening across the board. You can feel the quality of the project slipping away.
This is a situation that occurs around the world. It is particularly prevalent in the Middle East, where real estate development drives entertainment projects. I completely understand the frustration that my fellow experienced industry friends shared at that TEA dinner.
How to handle the issue of cost controllers in themed entertainment
So, can we do something about this? Our clients often come from the real estate and financing world and live with Excel sheets. But there are a few things we can do:
Try to convince a client to hire an experienced client representative and/or cost controller from our industry. Someone reputable, who understands the themed entertainment business. Yes, this may consume some percentage of your original show budget. But if these people do their job well, they will save you as a producer a lot of time convincing the client that the right show budget is critical to success. They will also prevent major cuts to the show budget. This ultimately allows you, the producer, to create the attraction you are proud of!
Be clearer about why you need the money. Use comparable situations. Have your client go with you on a trip to show the differences in these comparable attractions. Make an effort to identify and demonstrate to clients the differences in return on investment between different attraction qualities.
Involve clients more in the design and production process. Show them what you are doing and why and show the progress you are making, especially off site. Yes, I know, you’d prefer to keep them at bay as much as possible. Clients can be disruptive during the process and your budgeted hours are limited. But keeping the client away is almost asking for inexperienced and powerful cost controllers to get involved in your themed entertainment project. By creating an understanding of your process and the reason behind the decisions you make, you can help prevent this from happening.
And my last point: as an industry, we need to collect and share more data on the differences in quality approaches to attraction development in relation to ROI. This data can become a benchmark to advocate for our industry against cost controllers coming from the rational construction industry. Perhaps this is a great task for IAAPAor the TEA?
Emotions are key
Ultimately, the heart and soul of the themed entertainment industry is the creation of emotions. And Excel sheets can never 100% capture this. The famous Joe Rohde captured this perfectly in this quote from one of the episodes of the fantastic The Imagineering Story on Disney+:
“By Imagineering, you have to accept that it will neither be some kind of jungle of creative monkeys, nor it is going to run like some kind of dystopian military facility. It’s not gonna be those. It’s gonna be this thing that’s held in balance between the two.”
There will always be friction between the typical building cost controllers and the themed entertainment industry. But as professionals in this sector, we have a task to make our industry more transparent. It is our task to create more understanding of how certain resources help to create, via the emotions of the guests, a better return on investment.
I am one of the lucky ones who had the opportunity to work at a company where clients allowed us to work with respectable budgets. During my time at BRC Imagination Arts we were focused on creating projects which were more exiting and interesting than the market standard, aiming to get beyond the clients and visitors expectations.
Let’s be honest, it is fantastic to work on those kind of projects and it is important for our industry to raise the bar on quality and experience all the time. Raising the bar in the right way works: Heineken Experience was setting a higher standard when we reopened it 10 years ago and became immensely successful. And most of us recognise the success of Universal Studio’s when they raised the bar in the Theme Park world with the Harry Potter projects.
Since I left BRC and started my own consultancy firm, I had the pleasure to work on projects on the other end of the spectrum: with very low budgets. My first low budget project was a favor to a friend who wanted to enter our industry. We were brainstorming about his dream: a kids play area without using any artificial play structures, where kids play naturally. We tried to remember what we liked when we were young – playing with water and sand or in other words – getting dirty. Even with a limited budget, we wanted to find a way to raise the bar: something we couldn’t do as kids, but always wanted to – a big sand play area, with water, where kids treasure hunt for small pieces of gold in the sand, not limited to a special area, but everywhere. A very simple idea, interactive and low investment – it turned out to be hugely successful.
It made me realize that raising the bar can be done on any budget. Moreover, small budgets are more fun creatively and the rewards are much higher.
My recent visit to Global Village in Dubai made me realize again that raising the bar is not about budgets. For those who have never been to Global Village: this is a six-month event, every year, where guests can experience the world in different pavilions. All facades are rebuilt with temporary structures every year, behind the facades you’ll find more than 100 privately operated food outlets, many shops and a fun fair. You pay as you go. What makes it really unique: for an entrance fee of 15 Dh (Euro 3,60, USD 4,10) visitors enter a fantasy world, with live music, street performers everywhere, fountain shows, amazing free spectacles….an evening outside their ordinary world. During its 6 months opening, Global Village attracts more than 6 million guests every year.
My last visit to Global Village was with a group of more than 200 industry professionals during the IAAPA leadership conference. During the conference we visited capital intensive projects like IMG World of Adventure, Dubai Parks & Resorts and Warner Bros Abu Dhabi. Out of all these parks we visited, Global Village was, by far, the park with the lowest investment.
At the end of the conference most of us concluded that we enjoyed the evening at Global Village the most. Despite the high investments of the other projects we visited, the atmosphere at Global Village made the absolute difference. The right balance of entertainment and F&B offerings in a pleasant themed environment, with the right entrance price, draws an enormous amount of people to Global village. Every evening, creating a unique atmosphere and thus, raising the bar in Dubai…..
That visit to Global Village made me realize more (and enjoy) that raising the bar is not about budgets, but knowing who your audience is, and having the creativity to realize something unique that exceeds your visitor expectations.
With great interest I always read Andreas Andersen’s Blog: Reflections, where he shares his personal perspective on our industry. It always makes me reflect on similar experiences of my own. In his first blog of this year he made a very interesting point: Quantity vs Quality. https://reflections.liseberg.se/quantity-vs-quality/ , including three great examples of what is happening in our industry,
It immediately reminds me of many discussions I had (and have) with operators and investors when I ask them the very basic question: “ Why are you doing this?”. Besides the remarkable fact that many board members don’t have a clear answer to this question, I seldom get an answer in which they say: “I want as many visitors as possible.”
The answer on”why are you doing this?” is sometimes ” I want to have a certain ROI “, but often they answer more idealistic e.g. “I would like to do something back for the community” or “I want to leave a legacy” or “I like the smile on people’s faces when they visit us”. Surprisingly these answers often come from successful investors. In Brand Center projects I mostly get answers like “ We want to create ambassadors for our brand”.
Almost no one invests or is interested in our business because they want to get as many visitors as possible in. But I increasingly get a feeling that our industry is driven by visitor numbers. Maybe because visitor numbers are the main topic in the yearly TEA/AECOM report. Or maybe it is driven by press articles which measure success by the increase of visitor numbers; the higher the numbers the more successful you are. For me the reason for this focus on visitor numbers is simple: our accountants see every extra visitor as extra revenue and therefore every extra visitor counts. Besides that, these numbers are tangible and easy to understand.
But we are not in the hard numbers industry. We are in an industry which is much more complex. In my opinion the goal of our industry should be: creating memories by touching emotions. This sounds very idealistic, but it isn’t just that. There is certainly an economic side to this as well: by touching emotions visitors are willing to spend more money in our attractions and parks. Research has shown this many times.
By focusing on visitor numbers there is a fair chance of jeopardising the goal of our industry. Like Andreas Andersen wrote in his blog: “There is without a doubt a negative correlation between many guests and guest satisfaction.” I strongly believe that in the long term focusing on increasing visitor numbers doesn’t improve your business model and the success of our industry.
Maybe while we are driven by the accountants we have forgotten the wise lessons of Pine and Gilmore in “The Experience Economy”, the book written already 20 years ago. In the book they perfectly explained how to create revenue: not by creating masses, but by creating emotions. And this is especially valid in our industry.
Let’s give all our accountants a copy of this book, and let’s start to value the success of attractions and parks by revenue instead of visitor numbers. Let’s stop with focussing on capacity and get back to what our industry really is about: Creating Emotions. And I am sure that in the long run we will benefit all, including our accountants…..
Thank you for reading my first Observation. With more than 25 years of experience in the local based entertainment industry I started to observe the industry in a certain way and define more and more opinions about our great industry. Some (business) friends asked me to write them down, which made this the first one.
Please let me know your thoughts and your opinion !
To get the attention of potential visitors these destinations spend a lot on marketing, including great slogans. But often, these are so general that they could be used for almost any tourist city.
When we take a closer look at this, the reason becomes clear: many of these tourism-focused towns and cities have lost their identity and their uniqueness, becoming comparable to others.
Spending a lot on marketing is often the chosen way to get out of this situation. But is this the solution, or might it be worthwhile for these destinations to rediscover their DNA?
Where did my identity go?
There is a reason why tourists first begin to visit certain cities: they have something special to offer. These initial tourists then tell their friends about this, causing the city’s popularity to rise. Then, when destinations become popular with tourists, they will start receiving increased requests from shops, attractions and more, interested in creating new businesses in the city.
However, these businesses are not always in line with the main reason why tourists were originally visiting the city. At a certain moment, the city might then reach the point where these new businesses attract a different kind of tourist, visiting purely for entertainment.
For tourist cities, having a unique identity is important
When this happens, these destinations can be in danger of losing their identity. And, for tourist cities, having a unique identity is important. It differentiates them from competitors and creates the opportunity to attract a preferred target audience.
A clear identity helps potential guests choose one city, or its neighbour, or competitor, or indeed instead of any other free time activity they could do that day or weekend. More and more cities recognize that they need an identity in order to successfully attract visitors.
Having an identity and how to deal with it
An interesting insight into developing an identity can be learned from theme parks. The theme park world is highly competitive, especially in Northern Europe. Guests have many choices, which often leads to price erosion. But some of them outperform the rest; they don’t need to join the race for the most attractive ticket price.
There might be several reasons why they perform better, but there is one consistent factor. The better performing parks have a clear understanding of their target audience and how to attract them. To do so, they have created a DNA which fits this target audience.Walt Disney
Walt Disney can be seen as the inventor of DNA based visitor attractions. When Walt Disneystarted planning his first park in Los Angeles, he thought about target audiences and created a central theme for the park, followed by supporting storylines. Everything in the park had to be relevant to the theme.
In his vision, working with a central theme created the right environment for guests to be truly immersed, forgetting about their daily lives and making an emotional connection with the park.
We can still see the results of this vision today, more than 60 years later: Disney parks are by far the most visited parks in the world and also have the highest average spending per guest.
Other extremely successful parks also work along these lines. Efteling and Puy du Fou are two well-known examples.
Theme park lessons for tourist cities
The first lesson we can learn from theme parks is that by having a clear identity, potential guests understand more about a destination and what they might expect when visiting. Secondly, if operators meet this expectation, they will have satisfied guests. If they go beyond this expectation, they create ambassadors.
But how to apply this to a city? A theme park is a private development, which easily can make decisions to go in a certain direction. Compared to a private development, a city has limited power to execute a direction. However, a city can find or create its touristic DNA and use this as a focal point for tourism development and marketing.
Setting the direction
The first challenge these destinations face is to find out who they are, or who they want to be.
Cities with a long tourism history might want to rediscover who they are – the reason why tourists began to visit in the first place. It is worth exploring this tourism history again, focusing back on the destination’s natural DNA.
On the other hand, cities with no or limited tourism history might lean more towards who they want to be. They can develop a DNA which fits the type of audience and tourist that they want to attract. Now, we can look at some example of both these scenarios.
Rediscovering the tourist city of Valkenburg
Recently I had the pleasure to work with a city in The Netherlands which has a very long tourism history; Valkenburg. Tourism is rooted in this destination, as shown by the fact that it is home to the first tourism office in the country, established in 1885.
In the early years, tourists were mainly from the higher class. By becoming popular, Valkenburg attracted new businesses, making the city known in the seventies as the place to party. Because of this, it lost its identity.A building in Valkenburg
Since then, Valkenburg has worked hard to become attractive to a different audience. Throughout the years it positioned itself into five diverse directions, making the average potential guest asking themselves; “What is special in Valkenburg and why should I go there”? The city lacked a clear, focussed identity.
I worked with a selection of the city’s citizens, business owners and historians, going through a process to first find the DNA of Valkenburg and from there move towards a Theme Statement.
Defining future development
Based on this Theme Statement the city now has a defined direction for its future development. New public and private tourism initiatives can be mirrored against the Theme Statement and the statement can set a tone for the marketing campaigns.
By working with the Theme Statement in the future, the city will ensure that visitors will once more know what they can expect in Valkenburg. And, when implemented well, the offering in Valkenburg will meet or exceed the expectations of these tourists when visiting the city.
Another example is the industrial city of Wolfsburg, where I worked on several similar sessions. This is close to the touristic Harz area, however, tourists usually went to Braunschweig and other historical cities.
To address this, the city of Wolfsburg created a theme for their city, invested in related attractions and tourists came. Based on that success of focusing on the theme, other private tourism-related businesses decided to invest in Wolfsburg. Since then, everyone in Europe knows Wolfsburg as the car/technology city.
Wolfsburg lives up to this image by providing mainly automotive and technology-based attractions to millions of tourists every year.
Creating a completely new DNA
Many cities have a historical DNA they can build their tourism on. But some others see possibilities in targeting an audience which does not necessarily fit with their historical DNA.
Bilbao is a good example of this. Bilbao did not build its tourism out of the city’s history. Instead, it created a new DNA as an art city.The Guggenheim, Bilbao
Bilbao was an industrial harbour city in Spain. While it had an old town and an interesting location, not many tourists were interested in visiting. Then, on a former shipyard, the city built the (now famous) Guggenheim museum, designed by Frank Gerry. This was followed by all kinds of investments, based on the city’s new cultural tourism DNA.
Before focusing on this, Bilbao had almost no tourists. Now, the city creates around €150 million in tourism income every year.
Tourist cities: finding the right DNA
Finding a unique DNA is possible for every city that takes tourism seriously. Those destinations with historical DNA are at an advantage as, in general, historical DNAs are unique and not easy to copy.
Meanwhile, some destinations don’t have a historical DNA interesting enough to attract visitors or are seeking a new DNA to attract a particular target audience. If this is the case, these cities can create something new. But in that case, it is important to choose something unique and to implement this touristic DNA in such a way that it is not easy to copy, to avoid becoming just like other cities.
Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right
After a city has discovered its DNA, it can set up future plans in line with this vision. Destinations must, however, make sure they continue to keep this strategic plan and DNA in mind, being bold enough to say no to any future touristic development that is not in line with it.
Walt Disney became successful by creating DNA for his parks that still fits the audience. Many successful tourist cities do the same, succeeding when they follow the famous Walt Disney phrase: “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.”
Shopping malls and retail centres are always looking for ways to increase footfall, and adding attractions is one common method. But operators also need to think about ways that they can use these to make a genuine connection with their guests.
It will not surprise anyone when I say that shopping malls are currently focused on how to become more attractive to visitors. With the trouble in retail, adding entertainment is often seen as the holy grail in solving dwindling footfall. Many shopping malls are adding attractions and the term ‘retailtainment‘ is in common use.
But they are not changing. They are repeating what they did 40 years ago, without learning any lessons.
Entertainment in shopping malls
There is a reason why shopping mall owners are interested in adding entertainment. They perceive it as a key tool in increasing footfall, mainly based on the following two principles:
Compared to malls, attractions tend to have a larger catchment area. This means that people may come from further afield to visit.
Attractions can bring in new visitors, in addition to the traditional mall customers. Not only does this increase footfall, but it might also attract new retailers to cater to the new audience. For example, sports shops around an indoor ski attraction, or toy shops around a LEGO Discovery Center.
Is this new? Absolutely not. This already happened decades ago, when multiplex cinemasand bowling areas were a standard addition to larger malls. The only difference now is that there is more choice when it comes to the types of entertainment on offer. There are new attractions such as LEGO Discovery Centers or KidZania venues.
Over the last few decades, much research has been collected to show that adding these anchor attractions will increase footfall. In a recent article for MAPIC, Leisure Development Partners indicated that adding a major attraction to a mall will create an incremental increase in footfall to the mall of 2 to 4%.
However, it also says the incremental spend on retail is only 2 to 16% on the attraction turnover. Which, on the total ‘retail sales per sqm’, is very limited. The interesting thing is that when it comes to ‘retail sales per sqm’, mall owners can learn a lot from the location-based entertainment industry.
Shopping malls can learn lessons from theme parks
Around 20 years ago, theme park revenue was mainly based on entrance ticket sales. Spending within the park was limited and owners weren’t paying it much attention. But the parks could not keep raising their ticket prices endlessly – they had to start thinking of other business models. Namely, how to get more out of the pockets of visitors, once they had bought a ticket.
After much trial and error, as well as research into the guests’ perspective, the higher end of the theme park industry was able to change to a new business model. This is one where the ticket price is their basic revenue, but the real money is made on ‘in-park spending’.
Park operators discovered that the longer guests stayed in a theme park, the more likely they were to spend more. A great example of this is Efteling. It built a high-end fountain show to serve as a spectacular finish to each day.
Now, instead of leaving the park at 5 pm and eating next door in McDonald’s, families stay to see the show and have their dinner in the park. After the introduction of the show, their F&B sales rose by more than 10%.
Building an emotional connection
Furthermore, theme park operators and investors figured out that by building up a higher emotional connection between the guests and the park, people will spend more.
They started to include extra points of sales at strategic locations. They chose places where guests’ emotional adrenaline tends to get to a very high level – they started to add souvenir shops at the end of their main attractions.
A great attraction is built up in a way that the emotional excitement is at a maximum just before the attraction ends. This means that the guest is leaving really excited about what they just experienced. And now, at that moment, guests end up in a dedicated shop where they can transfer this excitement into buying souvenirs related to the attraction.
Inspired by this success, park operators started to wonder how to trigger the emotions of guests at other moments as well, and how to generate extra sales out of this. They started to increase their live entertainment and improve their theming in the areas in-between the attractions. Parks also changed restaurants into fully themed environments, completed by adding extra themed points of sales.
All this was done to achieve the goal of triggering the guest’s emotional excitement more and more, in order to increase secondary spending inside the park.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
In 2010 the ultimate example of this opened at Universal’s Island of Adventure in Orlando: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was the first time that guests were blown away more by the realistic environment outside the attraction, than by the actual attraction itself.
From the entrance to Hogsmeade, with the Hogwarts Express billowing steam and whistling its arrival, through each shop and attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort is a one-of-a-kind, fully immersive theme park experience and the only place in the world that brings the magic of Harry Potter to life. Guests can explore some of the most significant and familiar locations from the books and films and find themselves in the heart of the excitement.
The high-quality reproduction of Hogsmeade village included live actors and small shows. Original Harry Potter merchandise and unique food & beverage options were also highly appreciated by the guests.
As in an industry professional, I was also blown away. But my emotional setting was a bit different to that of the average guest. I was deeply impressed by how Universal had managed to create a shopping street that didn’t feel like a shopping area, and yet where guests were spending money like water.
With the combination of perfect theming, original offerings and well-trained actors taking care of the sales, they boosted guests’ emotions to an absolute maximum. Almost everyone was buying expensive Harry Potter souvenirs. In 2010 the attendance of the park grew by 20%, and revenue jumped up over 40%! It was setting a new standard.
The success factor that can’t be quantified
Now, look at this from an investor’s point of view. Every investor can understand that at a certain moment you need to add a new ride to a theme park to increase attendance. But spending loads of money on theming the area outside the rides, often on small details, will make every investor feeling nervous. However, this is exactly what made The Wizarding World of Harry Potter successful.
The success is not about the very expensive attraction in the box. It is about the exciting feeling every guest gets when entering the highly themed area. Parks can take you out of the ordinary world and on an emotional journey.
How do you describe this success factor? It has nothing to do with any terms common in the real estate world. But to drive ‘retail sales per sqm’ you need it. It is, in essence, the basis of success in all markets where you need to get people out of their homes and off their cell phone. And the theme park world understands it. That success factor can be captured in one word: soul.
By touching the soul of your guests, footfall and spending patterns will increase. You can only connect with your guests when your project has a clear, well worked out and understandable vision about what the soul of your place should be. And this soul must connect with the soul of your target group.
The real estate world
With more than 25 years of experience in the industry, I have had many meetings, brainstorming sessions and consultancy jobs with real estate owners, shopping mall operators and/or property investors. In all those meetings, the discussions immediately turned back towards retail sales per square meter, costs per square meter, demographics and other quantifiable numbers.
Almost no one in that world wants to speak about emotion or soul. They continue to plug in their numbers, try to minimalize the investment as much as possible. And in the end, they become the same as every other mall. Thinking of creating places with a recognisable message and soul remains difficult in the real estate world.
The funny thing is, the same decision-makers in the world of shopping malls recognize the success of location-based entertainment. But they still transfer this back towards entertainment in a box. As they have done before, with numbers they can grasp. Exactly what they did 40 years ago by adding multiplex cinemas and bowling areas.
Wake up, the world has changed. These days people only will come and spend when they have an emotional connection. Retailers and shopping malls need to design, build and operate a place with a soul, one that connects with their visitors.
I am seeing an increase in clients asking us to help them with updating their business models. But it is interesting to see that most of the existing business plans in the visitor attractions world miss an important factor: a clear statement of why they are on earth, or in other words a Mission or Vision Statement. A classic example is Nike’s original mission: Crush Adidas.
A story from the past
Picture the early sixties with two entrepreneurs starting a shoe company in their garage. They both loved athletics and started to trade relatively inexpensive quality Japanese athletic shoes. Their biggest rival was Adidas, which in the early sixties was already an international brand with huge factories.
For their new company, the entrepreneurs created a very bold goal. In fact, one of the clearest missions ever created: Crush Adidas. The Nike Vision statement was born. This simple Vision Statement enabled Nike to focus and kept the company on track to become successful.
Mission or Vision Statement?
Officially a Mission Statement describes what a company is doing now, and a Vision Statement describes where the company wants to get to in the future. The resemblance of both is that they set a certain direction and are essential to keep the company on track.
But how many visitor attractions and their suppliers work via a clear Mission or Vision Statement? To be honest, not many. In most situations I have been in over the last 25 years, I have only have seen a few that took these statements really seriously.
Maybe this is the reason that many companies in the visitor attractions economy have challenges to continue their businesses in the longer term. Often, throughout the years, they diversified too much or they couldn’t make the difference between their competitors to survive.
A clear Mission or Vision Statement could have made the difference for them.
There might be a few reasons why Mission and Vision Statements are not often used in the attractions business.
Attractions are often hands-on. Having a Mission or Vision statement is often seen as “fluffy”.
Businesses have grown from small to large, and there has never been a necessity for a business plan, much less for some fluffy statements.
Often attractions or their suppliers are founded by creative entrepreneurs with a dream. Or they are started with help of creative consultants, without much interest in strategic long-term business planning.
The importance of Mission and Vision Statements for attractions
But that doesn’t mean that it won’t help. Here are some examples of companies in the attraction industry with a (published) Mission or Vision. Merlin Entertainment‘s vision is: “to create a high growth, high return, family entertainment company based on strong brands and a global portfolio that is naturally balanced against the impact of external factors”.
See also the vision of Efteling: “To become the only European Theme Park resort where every party has gone through a 9+ experience in a natural and fairytale world”.
Or for a company on the supplier side, the Mission Statement of BRC Imagination Arts: “We strive for excellence and create transformative experiences that exceed client expectations and that audiences love, share, and revisit.”
Three statements, which are attractive to stakeholders and provide a clear direction. Most likely having these statements are part of the reason why these companies have long-term success and are respected in the attractions industry.
In tough times
An important actual reason for a clear Mission or Vision Statement is that it will also help you in tough times. It shows the higher level of commitment where your staff, other stakeholders and potential investors are searching for. Especially when this is combined with a coherent business plan, explaining how to get to your Mission or Vision Statements.
It makes clear who you are and what your goals are. It shows professionalism and creates trust. But it also helps you to get out of the tough times quicker. By revising your Vision Statement you make clear what your new goal is, enabling your team to work towards that goal.
A clear Mission or Vision Statement will help you in tough times
Nike went through all of this: After 20 years Nike indeed did crush Adidas. Unfortunately, Nike was not then able to create a new compelling vision and was surpassed by Reebok. This changed situation made the company get back to its original Vision of the sixties, but slightly updated: Crush Reebok.
The clear goal made them the biggest again. With all competitors beaten, the vision of Nike is now more focused towards their customers: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”. And Nike sees everyone with a body as an athlete.
Nike has changed its goal several times. This provides the company with a direction to continue and also allows it to adapt to new situations.
So, it doesn’t matter if you are running an FEC, museum, theme park, experience centre or any other place that guests visit during their leisure time. Or if you are a supplier. You are also a serious business on which many stakeholders depend. A professional structure for serious businesses starts with a Mission or Vision Statement. It will help you like it helped Nike.
Let’s start new businesses with a great Vision Statement before we start to think creatively. And let’s rethink about our existing businesses. Firstly, let’s define what we really should focus on now and what we like to achieve in the future.
What’s your version of Crush Adidas? Think about it! It will help you to create a better business.
Located about 70km apart, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam respectively, the Rotterdam Port Experience and new-look Heineken Experience may share part of their name, but otherwise differ in a number of ways.
By Owen Ralph
Whereas the Heineken attraction is based around a global brand that has a clear set DNA and, one hopes, appreciative audience, the Rotterdam Port Experience must engage its guests with what by definition is a less accessible topic. It also has the disadvantage of being located in a city with far fewer tourists than Amsterdam.
Located underneath the Erasmus Bridge, which links the port (Europe’s largest) to the rest of the city, the Rotterdam Port Experience makes clever use of its space, commandeering part of a car park and using a number of tricks to convince visitors this 1, 800 square metre building is much bigger than it really is.
The illusion begins when guests take an elevator ride, engineered by Lagotronics, to the top of a fictional skyscraper that, were it real, would replace the Euromast as Rotterdam’s tallest building. As they alight onto the observation deck on the “200th floor, ” guests take a dark ride around the top, peering down at the lights of the city down below.
And this is about as far as the storytelling goes, in terms of deliberate narrative. The attraction was created for the Rotterdam Harbour Company by Krandendonk Experience Network, which also designed the original Heineken Experience eight years ago. Rather than devise a single theme to thread the experience together, the team decided to use a more freestyle approach: “We do not take you by the hand – we want the visitors to piece together their own view of harbour life based around what they see inside, ” says project director Reinder Holtkamp.
Over 70 Dutch companies were involved in supplying the technology and equipment inside the Port Experience, but as with many of the best ideas, some of the most effective are also the most simple. In the foyer a huge map made from glass panels allows guests a unique perspective of Rotterdam and a sense of just how big the port is. Elsewhere there is a clever take on the timeline, using small displays with content that changes as users slide them along the line.
The largest, most expensive and hardest to install (they had to take out a wall to get it in) part of the Port Experience is the Harbor Ride, a simulator attraction comprising eight two-seater lifeboats that escape into the harbour for a perilous but action packed journey. The ride was by built to order by four companies, based around a concept from Kranendonk Experience Network.
Guests can also ride a jet ski through the harbour or, if they wish, sing a Dutch sea shanty, in a “blue screen” exhibit that superimposes their image onto a video backdrop. The resultant film can then be e-mailed to the friends, a nice viral marketing opportunity for the attraction’s operators.
Secondary spend opportunities though are few and far between, and while the end of tour gift shop features plenty of maritime-related merchandise, there is little dedicated to the Port Experience itself. Outside the attraction, signage is at a minimum, to the extent that the attraction’s existence may, unfortunately, go unnoticed by many of those passing by.
When it first opened in 2001, the Heineken Experience replaced a brewery tour that had gained a certain reputation amongst beer-thirsty tourists, and the brewer now presides over one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions.
Cleary Heineken wanted to communicate more about its brand, something that made it unique compared to other alcoholic beverages. BRC Imagination Arts, which was responsible for the recent overhaul of the Heineken Experience, defines it succinctly using a three-point outline: “Born in Amsterdam, raised by the world …cheers!”
The facility used to entertain around 350, 000 guests a year, and following the BRC revamp can now cater for closer to half a million. Both sets of figures are respectable for an attraction of this kind, particularly when one learns that the Heineken Experience is located “the wrong side of the canal” from most other Amsterdam tourist outlets.
“For Heineken though, the message communicated inside is more important than attendance, ” says Bart Dohmen, who heads up BRC’s European office in the Netherlands. “If, however, you can educate more people to become brand ambassadors and take your message around the world, then it is a win-win situation. The new-look attraction has only been open a short time, but already the indications are that it is working.”
Built inside what was a fully functioning brewery until 1988, the Heineken Experience takes guests on a tour that exploits the beer’s Dutch heritage but intertwines it seamlessly with the brand’s global ambitions in the 21st Century. Visitors are immersed in every aspect of the brewing process and get to see, smell, touch, and taste everything – the quality raw ingredients, the incomplete brew in progress, and the pleasure of a finished beer in the futuristic Star Bar.
BRC also adapted a motion base (by Rexroth Bosch) from the old Heineken Experience to create a theatre-style effects “ride” called Brew U. Although there’s a lot of technology at work behind the scenes throughout the attraction, it never distracts guests from the experience, or the brand.
At the end of the tour there is the chance for one more Heineken, which guests enjoy surrounded by 360-degree moving images of cities such as Hong Kong, London and Paris, chosen for their aspirational connotations. “Corporations with valuable brands recognise the importance of connecting fans to the values and ideals associated with their company and products, ” notes Dohmen.
Unlike the brewery tour of old, the emphasis now is on success, without excess. They may look bigger, but both beers served at the Heineken Experience are just 250ml each. Try getting drunk off that.