Chris Deere may not have found a pot of gold at Rainbow’s End, but he’s certainly improved the theme park’s fortunes.
Under his leadership, the New Zealand attraction has doubled its turnover since 2009 and seen attendance rocket by 62%.
Assembling what he describes as a jigsaw puzzle of capital investment, team development, marketing and messaging, he has revitalised its offering. In doing so the park has won a raft of awards including the prestigious 2015 IAAPA Top Family Entertainment Centre of the World Award for the under-8s attraction, Kidz Kingdom.
“I’m one of those people that like to make things happen, ” he says.
Blooloop spoke to CEO, Chris Deere (left), about his transformation of Rainbow’s End, the creation of world-beating Kidz Kingdom, the challenges of operating in an isolated location and his plans for the future.
Rainbow’s End – New Zealand’s First Theme Park
Rainbow’s End, located in Manukau, Auckland, opened its doors in 1982. The theme park currently features over 20 attractions on 9.3 hectares with Stratosfear currently its most extreme thrill-ride offering.
According to Deere, it is still the only traditional theme park on this scale in New Zealand.
“There might be a couple of places with a Go-Kart track and a bumper boat pool, ” he says. “But, I think in the true sense of a theme park with roller coasters, log flumes, pirate ships, then yes, we probably are still the only one.”
Rainbow’s End was recently awarded the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence (April 2016). It was also named Auckland’s youth employer of the year in November 2015.
Before joining the park in 2002, Deere was serving as an officer in the New Zealand Police.
“I worked in the police in the South Auckland region for seven years. it was probably one of the more demanding policing areas in the country” he says. “Prior to that, as a student, I had worked part-time at Rainbow’s End.”
A Return to Rainbow’s End
He clearly made an impression because, sometime later, he received a phone call from the park’s General Manager asking if he would consider returning to the park in an Operations Manager role.
“Originally, I passed up the opportunity, but then he contacted me again and said – ‘at least come and talk about it’. So I did and, to cut a long story short, the police agreed to let me go on leave without pay for two years which enabled me to go into that operations manager role on a risk-free basis: if it didn’t work out I had a position to go back to in the police.
“So, I worked those two years and really enjoyed it, I enjoyed management; I’m one of those people that like to make things happen.
“When the two year period came up, the General Manager and the board informed me that they saw me as a succession plan for the GM role. I resigned from the police, knowing I could go back at any point within five years without having to retrain. Then, I worked another three years as Operations Manager before the General Manager decided to move on.
“So, I moved into that position and into the CEO role three or four years later.”
It was when Deere took over as General Manager in 2009 that Rainbow’s End began to achieve significant growth. The following 7 years have seen the company’s turnover double and park attendance grow by 62%.
Listening to Customers
At the point when Deere became Operations Manager, Rainbow’s End was New Zealand’s only theme park, which gave it a unique appeal. And, the prosperous years of the early and mid-2000s were a good time for the park. But, as the decade waned, the economy waned, too.
“The global economic recession hit at the exact time that I stepped into the GM role in 2008-2009 and, at that point like a lot of other industries round the world, we had a couple of tougher, belt-tightening years, ” he says.
Deere could also see that the park was suffering from a lack of significant capital investment and was starting to get run down.
“Rainbow’s End needed a whole lot of things in different areas at that point, ” he says. “We needed to look at the different elements like a big jigsaw puzzle; capital investment was one, but also team development and staff training, our marketing and the way that we represented ourselves, the messages we sent out and the imagery that we used.
“So, over those next years, we developed a strategic plan so that we knew precisely the type of capital investment we needed. We also worked to identify the types of attraction to give us a broad cross-section in the park, and the markets to which we were trying to appeal.
“Much of our strategic thinking was based on research where we were listening to what our market, our customers and our potential customers were saying.”
Turning Detractors into Advocates
What Deere discovered was a very vocal section of the public who were clearly unhappy with Rainbow’s End.
He decided to tackle the problem head-on, realising that vociferous detractors could be converted to equally vociferous advocates for the park.
“After we’d made quite a few improvements, we took a group of those detractors and we brought them into the park. We said, ‘we’ve made a lot of changes: just tell us what you think – don’t sugar-coat it.’
“Every single one of those detractors was transformed into a fan: they’d had no conception of the scale of improvement since that 2009 period.
“That gave us confidence that our product was starting to come right.”
Behind the scenes, a lot of time and thought was going into the revitalisation of Rainbow’s End.
“We had employed a theming team to start looking at the imagery in the park.
“There is a new ride for the teenage market. We also totally transformed our under-eight kids’ area. This was based on our research showing we’d lost relevance with families with younger kids.”
The award-winning Kidz Kingdom opened on Boxing Day 2012. There were three new rides – The Choco Express, Surf n Swing and Magic Bikes. Its indoor area opened in 2013 with interactive activities for smaller children, the Small Talk Café, The Fortress of Fun, and Enzo’s Country Raceway.
“It was a great project to work on, ” says Deere. “We had a kids’ area before. However, Rainbow’s End was never seen as a sought-after destination for parents with younger kids.
“We saw this as a great opportunity, firstly because it’s an ever-changing, never-ending market.”
“But, we also clearly understood that if we could attract kids in that under-eight market, then those kids would become committed advocates of Rainbow’s End a lot sooner than they would have done otherwise. Those kids will be, eventually, our roller coaster riders.”
The decision was made to develop a best-in-class attraction for Rainbow’s End
Deere and his team achieved this by creating an indoor FEC-type environment with play structures, café and seated areas, and then adding a further outside area, albeit under a cover, with the kind of mini theme-park style rides younger children wouldn’t find at a Playland or similar FEC.
Further innovations included a separate entrance and a lower price-point for Kidz Kingdom customers.
“In terms of the marketing perspective, we made sure they could come into Kidz Kingdom at the lower price-point, and could then wander anywhere in Rainbow’s End: they didn’t have to pay anything extra – except, obviously, for rides, ” explains Deere.
“We wanted those four, five, six-year-olds to be taken by Mum and Dad to stand in front of the roller coaster and log flume rides and aspire to ride those when they grew older.”
Over the Rainbow
As part of Rainbow’s End’s revitalised image, Deere redesigned the main entrance. He dispensed with the original iconic – but somewhat dated – rainbow archway that had been in place for three decades.
“The entranceway had needed to be demolished for quite a few years. We’ve known that, but we had to prioritise some other things first.
“And our view was there’s no point having a flash main entranceway if we don’t feel the park has come up to a standard that we’re happy with. For us, it was all about timing.
“So, we got the park to a standard that we’re happy with. It’s still not quite there, but it’s a work in progress. And, late last year we removed the rainbow that had been set over the gate carefully because we wanted to use it as a marketing opportunity.”
Now, a set of ‘Pillars of Colour’ – large, concrete pillars that represent the park’s new logo – welcome guests to the park. The old, traditional, arched rainbow was taken on a road trip around the upper north island of New Zealand.
“We got some great publicity out of it, ” says Deere. “And, it has recently been confirmed that it is going to be relocated to a small town called Waihi. This is about two hours south of Auckland, a traditional old goldmining town. The rainbow, which represents the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is a nice fit with that town.
“We look at everything as an opportunity, and throwing that rainbow on the back of a truck and taking it round was unique. It got some unusual looks.”
(Above: Prime Minister John Key with characters Rai and Bow im front of the Pillars of Colour.)
AA Drivers’ Town at Rainbow’s End
The park’s latest attraction still in progress is AA Drivers’ Town. This is a driving experience for children aged from five to thirteen.
“That’s going to be really exciting, ” Deere enthuses. “We’ve seen a number of driving school type facilities around the world, for example, in the LEGOLAND Park. I’ve been to four of them now, as part of our research. But here, in New Zealand, we don’t have anything like that on a permanent basis.
“So, with this concept, we’ve taken some of the ideas that we’ve seen elsewhere and incorporated them with our own. This driving school is going to be 1200 square metres of roads, traffic lights, and roundabouts. it will have an authentic looking streetscape It will be a fully themed environment, like a town with themed buildings around the side. One thing we’ve done differently is to cover it. It’s not in a building, it’s an open cover, protecting it from the sun and rain.”
Twenty battery-powered cars are about to be shipped from Formula K International, based in Denbighshire, Wales.
Chicken and Sponsors
“We wanted to add another level of credibility to this attraction. So we approached both AA, the New Zealand roadside service, a respected, iconic New Zealand brand, and Suzuki New Zealand. The link was that the little driving school cars around the community that AA use to teach kids to drive are Suzuki Swifts.
“We managed to secure them both as our sponsors. The naming rights sponsor is AA, and the cars have been created by Formula K using a mould created in Italy to look like mini Suzuki Swifts. The branding on the cars is going to be reflective of what you see out in the community. From the perspective of kids, it’s like they’re learning to drive in little cars.
“And for us as a park, we’ve brought in two national sponsors. This gives another layer of credibility to some of our other achievements. We also get access to the AA database of over a million people and, in a country of just over four million, that’s pretty significant.”
There are a number of marketing opportunities between AA, Suzuki and Rainbow’s End that Deere intends to explore.
A further key distinction of the attraction is its educational potential, which in turn unlocks a new market.
“We’ve created a building leading into the driving school that the kids will drive through, and it will be a pre-show where they learn about how the cars work, ” he says.
A Compelling Educational Offering
“We want to use that building as an educational facility. So we’ve employed an educator who is creating a number of modules around road and bicycle safety to suit the different age-groups. She is creating those modules to align with our school curriculum; we’re doing a lot of research with schools to make sure that alignment is there.
“We need the attraction to be sustainable all year round. We hope to attract school groups through a compelling educational offering midweek and those off-peak peak periods. This gives us greater use of the capital we put into the ride, and another market as well.”
As technology evolves so do customer expectations which, in turn, drive change. The move towards the pre-sale of tickets via an informative, user-friendly website benefits both the visitor and the operator.
“From our point of view, if we can procure the sale before the guests come into the park, it takes some uncertainties out of it. Weather patterns, and so on. We’re just developing our technology so when people purchase online they can buy a card they can load with cash. They can then use it as a cashless debit system through the park. Also, if they purchase photos, for instance, through the park, they can have those captured on the card as well.”
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
Deere took the decision to outsource the digital marketing element, employing a digital marketing coordinator to keep at the forefront of rapidly-moving social media feeds and trends.
“Our digital marketing coordinator stays in close contact with us, forming part of our team. It’s just an external part.”
Deere’s team is now looking at ways to incorporate augmented and virtual reality into the park:
“Even a signboard showing where things are could have an augmented reality (AR) component. It could be easily transformed through that process so things jump out and can be more 3-dimensional. And, rather than having twenty sign boards with twenty different languages, you just need one that can use AR to translate into any language needed.
“We’re exploring how we can incorporate that technology into the park as well. In our strategic plan, we have an idea what our next two attractions are going to be. Once the driving school is up and running, the next type of attraction we’re looking to put in is some sort of dark ride. This is something we don’t have in our attraction mix at the moment.”
Adding a Dark Ride to the Attraction Mix
A dark ride is something Deere has been considering for some time.
“I’ve researched this over the years, particularly at IAAPA, ” he says. “The traditional transportation system with animatronics has changed a lot; the use of virtual reality, projection, holograms, and similar technology platforms are where it seems to have gone. So we’re looking carefully at how we can trade a state-of-the-art attraction in here for a budget we can afford. Being a smaller park in a small economy we always have to do things as cleverly as we can.”
This is not the only challenge resulting from the Rainbow’s End’s location. There are hurdles to be overcome Deere concedes. However, he is quick to emphasise that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages:
“I wouldn’t want to live in any other country in the world. But there are a couple of things: firstly, the sheer geographical distance – the isolation, which makes costing particularly challenging.”
Shipping Three Times as Far
“We have to ship everything three times as far as everyone else. It’s not as easy for, say, an Italian ride technician to pop over to Rainbow’s End as it would be if we were in Europe, to have a look at an issue or a problem. With support, a lot of the time, we just have to do it over the phone or internet.
“Probably the second challenge for Rainbow’s End is that because we’re an island nation, we don’t have any bordering countries. Australia is a three hour flight away. it is a country of just under four and a half million. So we have to be creative in how we keep regenerating Rainbow’s End. We do this not just through capital investment, but through different marketing techniques and promotions and pricing initiatives. We have to be vigilant and cost-conscious, dealing creatively and doing quite a few things ourselves.
“it is called a ‘Number 8 Wire Mentality’, where you get a number 8 wire and you make something out of it to solve any problem.”
A Rise in the Number of Tourists from Asia
The international tourism market is booming in New Zealand at the moment. Tto the point where it has outstripped farming and the dairy industry to become the highest export earner. Increasing numbers of international visitors are coming from Asia.
Although the market for Rainbow’s End market is still primarily domestic, Deere is beginning to change his thinking on this:
“Most people come to New Zealand for the nature, landscapes, cultural aspect and clean, green image. Rainbow’s End does fit into that to some degree.
“But, 12% of those people coming from China are families with kids. And, kids want to do things like theme parks.”
A Friendly Industry
“Rainbow’s End would never try and be a Disneyland or a Universal Studios. We could never compete in terms of sheer size, scale and capital investment. But what we can be is authentically Kiwi and unique, with down-to-earth Kiwi hospitality.
“We just need to make sure that we highlight those points of difference, and be the best that we can be.
“It’s a great industry. One thing that has really impressed me is its friendliness. When we’re putting in a new ride at Rainbow’s End, part of the research is finding the nearest park with a similar ride and ringing up to say: this is who I am, do you mind if I come up for a couple of days? The relationships we have with the parks in Australia and a number of parks in the States are great. Everyone’s always so accommodating.
“It’s a fascinating industry, really friendly and I love being part of it.”