Hot on the heels of the second, successful blooloopLIVE in London, everyone's favourite “digital gateway” for the attractions industry headed east for its first conference in Asia.
Staged in Hong Kong on Monday 15 June – two days before the start of IAAPA's Asian Attractions Expo – the event attracted around 150 delegates and speakers from four continents.
By Owen Ralph
The conference was generousy sponsored by Tejix, Premier Rides, Polin Waterparks, Christie Digital, Rhetroactive, UBISOFT, Turner Broadcasting and Taman Safari with Premier Rides, Christie Digital and UBISOFT also having booths. The event was also supported by the UKTI.
Adjoining the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the conveniently situated Renaissance Harbour View was the venue for the inaugural blooloopLIVE Asia and provided spectacular views of the harbour.
The conference programme was intended to be cerebral and stimulating, split into four sections as detailed below. Blooloop MD Charlie Read kicked off proceedings in his usual wry manner, accompanied by co-chair on the day, Hong Kong-based Thibault Paquin from Celebrating Life (who also lent his considerable knowledge of the market in Asia to the event).
“Bwaaah!” – not a wake up call designed to perk up jet lag-weary delegates, but in fact the catchphrase of the Rabbids, the cheeky CGI rabbit figures from the computer game of the same name. Jean de Rivieres (above) from French licence owner Ubisoft Motion Pictures explained the 360º strategy behind the brand, which has seen it move into movies and theme park attractions, notably at Futuroscope, but also now in the form of a 4D experience which conference delegates could get a taste of at the back of the room. By the way, the Rabbids are cited as the inspiration behind the Minions, so they’re influential little lapins.
“You know when you get a load of marketing people to do you a flashy video?” asked Dubai Parks & Resorts (DP&R) chief technical director Matthew Priddy (above). “That’s kind of what we did.” Yet he followed the exclusive preview of the video with footage shot on-site this April, showing that the three key parks that will form the D&PR phase I offering – Legoland, Motiongate and Bollywood Parks – are taking shape nicely. “As you can see, it’s real.”
Matthew noted that the three parks offer complimentary rather than competing experiences: IP/media-based (Motiongate), live entertainment (Bollywood) and play (Legoland), and for this reason he was confident Dubai Parks & Resorts has a profitable model. In Disney-like manner (Matthew used to work for ‘the mouse’), the company will also attempt to “control the experience” by picking up guests at the airport, dropping them off at the on-site Lapita hotel and then taking them back to the airport – a clever strategy perhaps given the other large parks due to open in Dubai around the same time (2016).
Jon Coe (above), a veteran of zoo design, explained how such attractions have evolved in the 108 years since Carl Hagenbeck founded his famous animal park in Hamburg. Immersive exhibits without visible barriers continue to be popular but Jon also highlighted the concept of the “un zoo”, where animals are rotated between different areas, such as at the Philadelphia Zoo in the USA, where tigers can be seen moving around via overhead walkways.
He even dared to imagine a future where climate change may result in fewer animals and more technology (the “virtual zoo” that is Jurassic World being one example). And what if Hong Kong found itself underwater? “Ocean Park will be OK, they're high up.”
IPs in Asia
As BBC Worldwide's vice-president and general manager for Greater China, Pierre Cheung (above) knows a thing or two about working with intellectual property. He explained to conference delegates how the British broadcaster's commercial arm had localised its Top Gear brand for the Chinese market, where there is a greater thirst for prestige cars than in the UK, and an even greater emphasis on celebrity.
With a high profile Cartoon Network waterpark already in operation in Thailand, David Webb (above) from Turner Broadcasting Asia had something tangible to talk about, although his presentation focused on the wider 'New Generations' research carried out by the kids' TV channel, examining the media habits and spending power of children from the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.
Forget the ‘millennials’, today's 4-14 year-olds are the ‘plurals’ reckons David – totally connected kids who consume more TV and online content than ever but are promiscuous in what they choose. Want to get their attention? Offer them games and apps that make them laugh, with characters they can engage with. It seems some things never change, only the methods of delivery.
Going Into Asia
Describing the annual Blooloop party during IAAPA as “the second coolest party in Orlando, ” Charlie Read acknowledged the reason he will never have the ultimate after dark event is because the next speaker, Ripley Entertainment President Jim Pattison Jr. (above) already does.
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! “odditoriums” hold such fascination and money-making potential that several rip-off attractions have appeared in Asia, including China and Cambodia. A useful way the company has found to test the market is via travelling shows, a new venture with Science North looking at the science behind the Ripley artifacts typically lasting for around five months in one location. Key to the firm’s feasibility process is the “hamburger test’ – “How much does a McDonald’s burger cost? That tells us where the middle market is.”
Traditionally public museums have not been part of Chinese culture, noted JRA boss Keith James in his presentation. The country has certainly made up for this in recent years, with an estimated 3, 500 museums now in existence (compared to just 25 in 1949 and 278 in 1978) and an average of 200 new facilities appearing every year. Yet there ought to be a greater focus on quality over quantity, suggested Keith, highlighting those projects that hire a famous architect to design an amazing building then worry about the content later.
Due to looting wars and cultural vandalism, the country has a lack of historical artefacts and so a more creative approach needs to be taken when it comes to exhibits. JRA, for instance, has just opened the country’s first children’s museum in Beijing. Museums devoted to socks and watermelons (they do exist!) may be taking things too far, however with better market research, economic analysis and infrastructure, the future should be bright for China’s museum sector, concluded Keith – highlighting Hong Kong’s ambitious Kowloon Cultural District as one to watch.
Most conferences usually throw up one or two new words from speakers keen to coin the next industry buzz phrase. SantaPark owner Katja Ikäheimo-Länkinen threw her bright red hat into the ring by describing herself and husband Ilkka as “Santapreneurs”. The Finnish couple, who took control of the attraction in Rovaneimi in 2009, have been working hard at it ever since, hosting day trips from around Europe and extending the season by offering an additional summer experience (because it really can be Christmas every day in Lapland). Now they have their sights set on China, where they will establish a new SantaPark in partnership with Floraland in Chengdu. In doing so they hope offer a complimentary offering to the “other” round and cuddly character that already brings tourists flocking to the Sichuan Province in their millions – the panda.
A Commercial Break
With proceedings mercifully short of the traditional sales pitches masquerading as presentations, Blooloop took the opportunity of a short teaser for the Autumn release of the analysis of park ownership which it is currently working on with leisure economic and market analysis firm Entertainmentand Culture Advisors (ECA). ECA partner Christian Aaen, introduced a short overview of the report. Watch this space.
The Chinese Market
Darren McLean is the CEO of Movie Park Animation Studios (MAPS), coming soon to Malaysia. In his talk entitled “How to make JVs jive in Asia” he observed that joint ventures work best when “two companies come together because they can’t do it own their own. If you can do it on your own, you should.” By partnering with the local Perak Corporation, the Sanderson Group has been able to secure the land it needs for the 50-acre MAPS project, which opens next May. To others considering entering into joint ventures, Darren offered this advice: “White (Western) is not always right, be polite and respectful, be prepared to change, appoint impartial management, don’t vote (get a consesus), the person is never bigger than the company and, finally, quit while you’re ahead.
“Waterparks are quite an amazing thing in Asia, ” announced Alan Mahony. And he should know. During his 19 years in Asia, the Australian has helped give birth to prominent parks including Bejing’s Happy Magic Watercube, Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia and Chimelong Water Park – the world’s no.1.
“Everything is different from a western waterpark. Half the guests don’t even arrive with swimsuits.” But arrive guests do, which is why not just Chimelong (annual attendance 2.25 million) but also seven other Asian properties feature in the global top 20. The numbers are enough to make most Western waterparks owners green with envy, but still there are some lessons to be learned, as you’d expect in any developing market. A lack of shading can be a problem at some parks, for example, and sometimes developers simply overdevelop, leaving little room for expansion. Alan doesn’t build anything without a 10-year plan and has it all covered at the new La Viva indoor-outdoor park he’s creating in China. “No worries.”
The third Aussie speaker of the day, Jason Todd, offered a personal view of the “China experience.” As Village Roadshow’s general manager of operations for Asia, he is helping to guide the development the company’s first parks in China, together with partner CITIC.
“’This is China’ is something you hear every day, even from the locals, ” remarked Jason, referring to constant lack of surprise at any situation, however perplexing to some. “One thing I do know though is, if something needs doing it gets done – and quick.”
Hong Kong Maritime Museum director Richard Wesley talked about the challenges of operating a sustainable not-for-profit attraction. With limited resources, the museum relies a lot on the generosity of its donors who by loaning their collections feel a sense of ownership, almost like shareholders. Yet the museum has many stakeholders, and strives to align itself with a wide range of communities in and around Hong Kong. Annual visitor numbers remain in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions, but Richard revealed one item in the museum’s care he felt might entice a few conference delegates to pay a visit while they were in town: “We’ve got a snuff bottle worth $2 million, that might get a few of you down.”
The old “performing open-heart surgery on a marathon runner while he’s still running” analogy is one that gets banded about quit a bit these days, but for Tom Mehrmann and his team at Ocean Park Hong Kong it is fitting. Although no marathon runners were operated on during the transformation of the Hong Kong attraction, the work that has been carried out since Tom arrived as chief executive in 2004 – all while remaining open to the public for 12 months a year – is quite some achievement.
Previously the park “had a taste for champagne but only enough money for a Coke.” Annual visitor numbers have since more doubled to over 7.7 million. By Tom’s own admission, “We have been blessed to be located at the southern tip of China at this period in time, ” but he’s not complacent. Ocean Park may retain its not-for-profit status and top 4 in Asia attendance but its owner, the Hong Kong Government, will not subsidise its operation and so it must return a cash surplus year after year. Thankfully the park has a special place in the heart of many Hong Kong residents and a motivated workforce that delivers a strong performance. Tom highlighted the attitude among his colleagues by revealing he used to ask them if they aspired to success. Now he asks them if they expect it. “And they do.”
A quick Q&A and wrap-up from Charlie Read brought the day’s official business to a close, then delegates were free to enjoy early evening cocktails in an adjoining room overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, courtesy of Tejix. Apparently there was a light show going on down there, but we missed it. The company and conversation must have been that good!
blooloopLIVE Asia returns in June 2016, with a June date in Shanghai – the same week IAAPA will be in town for Asian Attractions Expo. We really must stop meeting like this.
Images: all photos knd courtesy Adrian Fisher.