Todd Hougland (right), joined Ocean Park Hong Kong as an Entertainment Consultant in 2004 and is now Executive Director, Operations and Entertainment. He has been instrumental in the park’s growth and transformation from a small theme park into the “Applause Award” winning industry leader of today.
He spoke to Blooloop about his own career path, the challenges of keeping Asia’s largest theme park running smoothly, animal welfare and the future.
Disney, Universal and Total Fun
When he was still in High School in the United States, Hougland had a summer job as a performer at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“I was sixteen years old; I thought it would be fun. First I was in the Main Street Electrical Light Parade at The Magic Kingdom. Then I was a character performer and a dancer in some of the Atmosphere shows at The Magic Kingdom. This was for two years during the school breaks.”
While attending university at Central Florida Hougland continued performing part-time at the Epcot Centre. He also began to learn about the administration of the entertainment team and the scheduling of performers.
Later he moved on to production management for some smaller shows being introduced at Universal. iThese included ‘An American Tail – Fievel Goes West’ and ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’. Having cut his teeth on production he went on to oversee street entertainment. He also oversaw the character programme and the celebrity look-alikes. This continued until he was offered a job in St Louis, Missouri producing stunt shows for the Totally Fun Company.
After acting as stage manager and company manager for one of Totally Fun’s stunt shows at Six Flags his career blossomed: “It wasn’t really my intention, it was just kind of fun.”
Managing the Show
He continued with Totally Fun for four years, travelling as the projects dictated it, from St. Louis, Chicago to the Netherlands, then to Italy at Mirabilandia; producing and company managing large-scale stunt shows, “…working with everything from the talent to the tech. I enjoyed the process: getting a show up and running; watching the audiences as they enjoyed the shows.”
He moved back to the US after Italy in 1997. This was to work with Soundelux Showorks out of Orlando. “They were primarily systems integrators – they did audio, video and lighting systems for many of the large theme parks. They were starting to develop a production arm. So on the creative side we produced a number of the Batman shows in the late 90s. These were for the Six Flags parks and ended up working on the Warner Brothers Madrid project that opened in 2002.”
Hougland was the senior project manager overseeing the Police Academy stunt show (“Loca Academia de Policia”) and the Gotham City Street Show, a Batman street show for the Warner Brothers Madrid project. Right before the opening he was contracted by Utopia Entertainment Inc. They asked him to relocate to Madrid and be an on-site consultant for Warner Brothers Madrid’s Entertainment Department. They asked me to “help them in their inaugural year really to get their process going – and in the handover of all their major entertainment productions.
Enter Tom Mehrmann
“I was onsite in Madrid for almost two years working with their local entertainment team: their entertainment director; their managers and the show producers, so it was a fairly feverish process getting to Grand Opening. And then I stayed on with them over the first year and a half of operations just to make sure that the operations of the entertainment department were smooth and efficient. And that’s where I had the opportunity to work very closely with Tom Mehrmann.”
Tom Mehrmann, now CEO of Ocean Park Hong Kong, was at that time the General Manager for Warner Brothers Madrid.
Hougland got to know Mehrmann (right) well, working with him to get the park up and running. After Mehrmann relocated to Hong Kong, he called in Houghland to use his experience in creative and operational entertainment production to take Ocean Park’s Halloween event to the next level.
“He asked me to come to Hong Kong for a five month contract in 2004, and ten years later I’m still here.”
Full Time with Ocean Park
That initial contract was extended by another six months, then another two years. Eventually, Houghland came on board full time with Ocean Park as the Entertainment Director, overseeing the entire entertainment production – operations, technical, wardrobe, shows, liaising with the existing teams around Ocean Park. In 2010 he took over as the Executive Director for Operations and Entertainment.
“My current role, which I’ve been in now for four years, is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Park. I report to Tom, the CEO, directly on what’s happening. Currently I oversee everything from ticketing, guest services, security, first-aid, general services (which is our cleaning team), landscaping, entertainment, wardrobe, park operations and ride operations. Those are the various departments that report in to my division. We keep the park going on a regular basis. The three core values of our operations are Safety, Service and Show, and every task that we do we keep those three things in mind to make sure we’re positively impacting the guest experience.”
A Primary Goal of Connecting People with Nature
Any attraction that showcases captive animals – particularly marine animals – is inevitably fraught with controversy. But Ocean Park has an excellent reputation, and contrives to maintain the delicate balance between pleasing its guests in terms of spectacle, while ensuring the highest possible standards of animal welfare.
Hougland says, “We work very closely with our zoological operations and our education teams (which fall under another division). We are developing the animal presentations so that we are ensuring we keep our primary goal of connecting people with nature. This is part of our corporate mission and a primary reason for those presentations. We have moved all our animal behaviours to what would be natural behaviours. We have taken out those behaviours you might have seen in presentations years ago. Sea-lions balancing balls on their noses and whatnot. We don’t do any of those. All the behaviours in the shows are natural behaviours.”
Highlighting Natural Behaviour
During the renovation of the dolphin exhibit last year two large LED screens were added to show footage of dolphins in the wild. They were to highlight the natural behaviours of the facility’s own dolphins.
“When they’re actually doing some of these similar behaviours, whether it might be a feeding type behaviour, or we’re doing something where they’re coming up and we’re weighing them, we show how they would be doing this in nature. And again, it’s a great way to tie that message in – what is the key point of that particular presentation for our audience.
Being here in Hong Kong we have a great opportunity to reach a large number of mainland guests who probably don’t have the opportunity to see many of these animals in any other location. Certainly we want to show them the highest level of standards in terms of how we care for our animals; how we present those animals. We feel like we’re on the leading edge of that in terms of natural behaviours; making sure that we’re giving them a very critical message when they’re enjoying the animal presentations.”
How Ocean Park Actively Engages with the Public
A little over two years Ocean Park Hong Kong made headlines. This was because of its decision not to include Beluga whales as part of its North Pole Encounter.
“The facility was designed for Beluga whales. It’s still designed for Beluga whales. We ended up building it; it’s prepared; it’s large enough. We had had quite a thorough research project. This studied the population of a particular area of whales we were looking at from Russia. Ultimately the decision for us was that it wasn’t the right time for us to bring in these whales.”
The decision was made by Ocean Park’s CEO and the chairman of its Board of Directors. They did extensive research and concluded that no purpose would be served by bringing the animals to the Park. It was a popular decision that put animal welfare before any profit motive, and a shrewd one, avoiding potential controversy.
Hougland adds, “We do listen to our public. We listen to the general public and we listen to the green groups. Also, we try to actively engage with those groups. Even when it goes back to the dolphin presentation that I was talking about earlier when we did our renovation. We met with them a number of times to hear their concerns about the dolphin presentation. Considered what they thought was acceptable. We addressed thise concerns and tried to weave them in. Especially making sure that we were giving the right message to our audience.”
The Mechanics of Park Management
Ocean Park is one of the most visited parks in the world. It has a growing annual attendance that currently stands at 7.5 million.
“It is a challenge. We make sure we plan and – when we went through our redevelopment – design the Park to ensure we provide enough entertainment units. We try to schedule our shows intuitively. This means that our dolphin presentation, for instance, is very large and has a big audience who come out at the same time. So we have to manage the guest flow. Our Park Operations team monitors that on an ongoing basis. This is ifor every attraction, every ride and every show. Length of stay is also important in the two sections of our park. We look at length of stay in the Waterfront versus the Summit. We also look at how many guests are in each area so that we can determine if we need to deploy staff for transportation.”
One section of Ocean Park, the Waterfront, is at the base of the hill. The other, at the top, known as The Summit, is reached by cable car, the Ocean Express funicular railway, or Hong Kong’s second longest open-air escalator.
“Our biggest challenge at the Park is those transportation systems between the areas. The cable cars and the Ocean Express funicular train are key. We have to be able to move guests up and down the mountain. So we’re constantly looking at how many guests are in the Park and how many guests are in the different sections of the Park. We’ve introduced a few things during some key seasons.”
Apps and Analysis
For the Halloween season and the big Halloween Fest, the Park introduced a scheduler app. This was from Danish company Entertainment Booking Concepts. Guests can download the app for free when they get into the Park. They can then use it to schedule five of the attractions, and the app tells them when to go to each. Once there, they have priority access and don’t have to wait in line.
“So it’s able to disperse the guests because it knows when we have peak hours. When we have additional hours and we want to push people to… let’s say, the Waterfront at 8.pm. It’s not a huge number of people but it’s a way that gives our guests the ability to have a priority access. It is limited in terms of the capacity. However, we’ve seen a great boost in terms of guest service because they see it as an option. They certainly enjoy that it’s free. We do spend some money on it.”
Though the app is only in use at the moment at specific events and seasons, Hougland is evaluating the use of something similar as a long-term option. He adds, “We’re also developing an internal management app that will be able to track all of our guest flow electronically. All of our management team would be able to see that via i-phones or i-pads. They would be able to deploy based on where we see issues in the Park. When you’re dealing with 7.5 million visitors a year, guest flow and finding those choke points is absolutely critical.
“We’ve just started segmenting our forecast of attendance so we can look at our groups versus non-group guests, because the way they enjoy the Park is very different. If they’re on a tour group they might come later in the afternoon, they go to certain rides and attractions. But our non-group guests are locals or independent travellers from mainland China who are not on a tour package, and they will experience the Park a separate way. So looking at that segmented forecast we can plan and deploy our staff in a more targeted manner.”
The Future for Ocean Park Hong Kong
For Ocean Park the long-term development plan is as a resort. Two hotels and a waterpark are in development.
“We’re getting ready to break ground for the first hotel this winter. That’s really where we see the future for Ocean Park: creating that resort approach. In terms of attendance and attractions we’re constantly looking at renewal – I think everyone in the industry is always looking at new ways to engage the guests. Although we just finished a major new development in 2012 there are still areas of the Park that we have on our drawing boards for redevelopment and enhancement.
“For me personally, I’m excited to continue to grow. I started in entertainment, and now in terms of operations I’ve had a great opportunity over the last four years to really learn many other aspects of this industry. I enjoy it tremendously.”
Hougland is the IAAPA Entertainment Committee chairman, and also on the Education Committee.
“I enjoy being a part of our industry and sharing with others, whether they’re here in Asia or across the world. 1986 is when I started in this business as the best summer job in the world. Almost 30 years later, I’m still doing my summer job.”