‘Keeping up with prevailing trends, focusing on quality and listening to the customer’ is Roland Kleve’s theme park mantra. Kleve, the MD of Bobbejaanland in Belgium, also admits he ‘likes to drive changes’.
One such change this season is the repurposing of the park’s unique Vekoma Revolution coaster.This is the longest indoor coaster in the world. It will transform into Mount Mara, a VR-enhanced experience themed on a volcanic eruption.
Blooloop spoke to him about his days with Disney, the rise of the well-informed consumer and why fast-evolving technologies are making long-term planning a waste of time.
The Disney Days
Bobbejaanland was founded by Flemish guitarist and singer Bobbejaan Schoepen in 1960. It was a musical theatre on 30 hectares of drained marshland. Since then it has evolved into a forward-looking theme park eager to embrace leading-edge technologies.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, since Kleve is at the helm – “a Dutch guy in Belgium”, as he puts it, and one unafraid to seize an opportunity.
His career in the leisure industry began when, while working for the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce in the United States, he spotted an advertisement from the Walt Disney Company. They were seeking Europeans based in the US with American work experience who would be interested in moving to what was then Eurodisney in France.
Kleve was intrigued, “I flew to New York, and, in 20 minutes time, I had a contract in my pocket.”
Not only was he moving to France, he knew very little about the industry he was jumping into head first.
“My only request during the interview was to shadow someone for a couple of days in one of the parks.”
So he flew to Orlando for what would turn out to be an invaluable insight into the Walt Disney Company and park operations.
Forging a New Frontierland
By the time he started in France as Operations Manager on the building site that would become Frontierland, he had a grasp of what an operational park looked like from the inside.
“So I started on a construction site wearing a hard hat and boots, working on training manuals and doing site reviews on safety issues and getting ready for April 1992. It was a great experience, giving a better understanding of how the park is put together.”
After a year, Kleve moved to the Additional Capacity Programme for Disneyland Paris.
It was clear post-opening that there were adjustments that needed to be made: there were differences between the American and European models. The queue lines, interestingly, were a case in point.
“Europeans stand much closer to one another than the Americans do, so, on the same surface of queue line you would have, instead of as in the United States, 45 minutes, you would have an hour and a half. People’s physical acceptance is closer than in the US. All that type of stuff you learn and you need to adjust in the years after opening.”
Kleve found that as a linguist in an American company in France – he is fluent in French, Dutch, German and English – he was exposed to opportunities in a diverse variety of areas, driving change, manoeuvring between the different nationalities:
“Always putting safety and quality first, but being creative in driving changes.”
Kleve did this for eight years, gaining invaluable in-depth knowledge of the minutiae of theme-park operation. At that point, he was contacted by an agency in England who were developing a new concept, Olympic Spirit, an officially sanctioned programme of the International Olympic Committee.
Working with its instigator Andy Grant, Kleve was GM of ‘Olympic Spirit Muenchen’, working with local investors and the City of Munich.
The idea was to bring the Olympics to a bigger audience, presenting them not simply as a visitor would see them, but also through the eyes of athletes and judges.
Moving from a specific department within Disney to a much smaller company gave Kleve a useful overview of all the other elements that make up a company as whole.
“Like Finance., marketing, Sales. Like HR. You name it.
“So the company was much smaller, but the scope and responsibility was much bigger. I did that for two years, and we opened the park and it was the plan that someone local would take over general management, and I would move on to the next Olympic Spirit in Sydney.”
However, at this point Disney asked him to return to Paris to open the Walt Disney Studios for them. At that time they were working on drawings and concepts, and had begun construction next to the existing park.
“But the structure and organisation in running it wasn’t there yet and I was in charge of that, reporting to the executive committee in Disneyland, Paris, and, with a team, in charge of opening on budget, on time, for 2002.
And we did. Again, a great experience.”
Connecting to Disneyland Paris
But, he observes, “once the park is open, you go through a very peculiar change.”
Initially, everybody is focused on the opening, pulling together to accomplish it flawlessly.
“But as soon as you are open, you need to make sure that all the different divisions within the group are integrated in existing departments.
So that was the second phase, after opening: getting everybody disconnected from the Walt Disney Studios family, and connected to the Disneyland Paris family. As a leisure company you need to make sure that the support divisions are aligned with your execution.”
He continued for another eight years.
At this point he decided, for personal reasons, to move with his family back to the Netherlands. There he would, as he puts it, to step out of his comfort zone – into the leisure industry. He become General Manager of De Boer Structures. This company were suppliers of marquees, tents and temporary structures for events. This covered ocean races, Ascot, Farnborough and so on.
“I did that for two years, responsible for Belgium and the Netherlands. But, to be quite frank, I really missed the leisure business.
“It’s in my DNA.”
Thus, five years ago, he stepped into his current role as MD of Bobbejaanland.
“I really enjoy being back in the industry. Getting people into a completely different environment where they forget about the day-to-day stuff and just enjoy time with their friends and family.”
Kleve has five sons, whose ages range from 12 to 23: a ready-made in-house testing crew.
“If we are opening new rides and new attractions, I have a very wide range (although all boys) of potential customer views on: is it great, is it too wimpy or too dangerous, too scary? It’s nice to see the variety of comments I receive.”
Mobile – Creating A Shared Visit
What does he believe people are looking for in a theme park?
“People are searching for quality time besides the crazy, fast, hard-working environment that we’re all facing.
They’re looking to disconnect.”
He talks about the rise of the ‘trained visitor’. This is the well-informed consumer who makes considered choices about what’s available and understands the evolving technologies.
“The knowledge of your visitor is getting better and better. Besides going to theme parks they go to the movies too. There they see the development of 3D. At the theatre they go to see Cirque du Soleil. They know exactly what is out there.
“That means within the industry you need to watch trends in what is happening, and I think one of the most important elements you see in the industry is in how the phone and internet have been developing.
“I see this with my boys. When we watch movies at home they have their phones in their hands. As we watch, they are communicating with their friends. They are also watching the same movie at home, sharing the experience and information.”
He admits: “In the beginning I wanted them to put the phones away and watch the movie.”
Now, he accepts it as a fact of life. And, theme parks need to accept it, too.
“That trend is something, I believe, that is going to hit us in the industry.
“We need a more shared objective. I think we should look more into how you can use that phone in order to make it somehow a more shared visit. I think this is a trend that will play a part in the development of parks.”
The Forbidden Caves at Bobbejaanland
In 2015, storytelling came to Bobbejaanland with the introduction of The Forbidden Caves, a 3D high-tech media-based ride designed and installed by Holovis, supported by media partners Super 78 Studios – the second ‘Immersion Tunnel’ attraction in the world.
Guests take part in a high-tech underground adventure complete with scary supernatural creatures including statues that come to life and giant insects.
“For Disney, for the leisure business, storytelling is something that is already out there – but for Bobbejaanland it was new, ” says Kleve.
“We had a generic costume for our staff. And now, with the arrival of the Forbidden Caves, we have a dedicated team that has a different costume; they are no longer part of the Bobbejaanland visitor team, but tour guides to The Forbidden Caves.”
Cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) ride, Mount Mara, is the next step in immersive storytelling. Kleve and his team collaborated with Samsung on the creation of an all-new story and movie for the attraction.
“We sat down with them a year ago. We started talking about: what can we do for this specific ride? And so, we created a special story; a movie. Where you would normally do the roller coaster ride, now you do the roller coaster ride with the glasses. And you are in a completely different environment.
“And it’s so exciting – if you see people’s reactions, their faces, it’s just hilarious.
“Their mouths just fall open.”
Kleve’s sharp eye for spotting a trend has put Bobbejaanland in the vanguard of VR/LBE applications. Some people have been sceptical about the benefits of bringing potentially isolating gaming technology into the social arena of theme parks. However, Kleve has seen the writing on the wall.
“I like to make a positive difference, ” he says. “I see which technical developments are prominent within the industry, and, when it comes to Bobbejaanland, look at what is the best opportunity for us to apply those developments within our theme park, and that has worked for The Revolution/Mount Mara.
“For the future, the most important thing is to go on listening to our visitors. Planning 3-5 years ahead is difficult, because that would mean essentially disregarding everything that happens around you.
“To me what is important is that you look at opportunities and trends within the business, listen very carefully to the visitors in your park, and take both into consideration when looking at the opportunities for your specific park.
“The focus remains on quality and on continuing to listen to our guests. Aslo to work in their best interests and to observe the prevailing trends.”