The three owners of PRS (Parks and Resorts Scandinavia) knew nothing about the minutiae of running a string of parks when they bought the company in 2006.
With an exuberance underpinned by financial acumen, business sense and originality of approach, they have developed strategically, turning failing parks around, increasing visitor numbers, and engaging the loyalty of their workforce. The group today is Sweden’s largest theme park company, and owns some of Sweden’s most popular amusement parks, including Gröna Lund, Kolmården, Furuvik, Skara Sommarland and Aquaria.
Blooloop spoke with owner and Head of Strategic Development at Parks and Resorts, Mattias Banker (pictured left), who bought the Parks and Resorts group in 2006 together with his best friend, Johan Tidstrand, and Tidstrand’s sister Helena Tidstrand, a silent partner.
Banker’s background is in marketing: he has a financial degree and, before acquiring Parks and Resorts, worked in the surgical implant market. Tidstrand, the majority shareholder, had a tattoo business.
“My background has nothing to do with theme parks, except that I like coasters, " says Banker. "Johan has always loved theme parks, and he had a dream that we could buy Gröna Lund, the park in Stockholm.”
In 2005, there was a rumour that the park was for sale so, together with an adviser, Banker and Tidstrand made contact. It transpired that it was not the park that was for sale but the entire group, which at that time comprised Gröna Lund, Kolmården, Sweden’s largest wildlife park, the hotel Vildmarkshotellet, and Skara Sommarland, Scandinavia’s largest water park.
“It was all or nothing, so we decided to try and buy the company.”
A nerve-wracking six months followed. Knowing nothing about the industry, they sold everything they had.
“Johan can be very goal-oriented. We had a great contact at the bank and we put together a group of five people. At the end it was a bidding thing just between us and Parques Reunidos.”
After meeting Banker and Tidstrand, the owners decided to accept their offer in January 2006.
Having bought the group, they discovered that the three parks and one hotel worked as four entirely separate entities. There were effectively four different cultures run by a Head Office in Stockholm and there was no theming. They began by setting up an office in the centre of Gröna Lund: “In the beginning we were in the offices in town, but we wanted to be in the parks."
They made the decision to build the themed roller-coaster at Gröna Lund. Banker says, “In the first year we wanted to put a ride in place in Stockholm where people could do stuff together, and we wanted to theme it. We love Disney, and we wanted to create that feeling you have in the best parks in the world: to take an ordinary ride and make it an experience. At that time I had a three year-old and a four-year old, and I really wanted to build something that we could do together.”
So, in April 2007, Kvasten, a 395m suspended family coaster with a peak height of 20 metres and a length of 395 metres, was launched at Gröna Lund. It was an instant success, as was their next idea.
“We also decided to build new habitats, tripling the original size, for further tigers at Kolmården, and to theme the attraction. The tigers are from Siberia and Russia, and as Russia is very close to Tibet, we decided to theme it as a temple, something like Animal Kingdom.”
The animal park, privately owned before being bought by PRS, hadn’t been making money. Visitors were regarded as something of an inconvenience that might upset the animals.
“We thought just changing the direction of this huge ship would be a six month job, more or less, and now we’ve been at it for ten years, " says Banker. "Now we’re moving forwards. One thing we have created from that position is a Parks and Resorts Academy where we teach culture and good service.”
Giving staff a sense of ownership
Many techniques are, he admits, in imitation of Disney.
“It’s a tiny company and we told the staff that we owned it together with them. We moved the decision-making from up top to everybody: it’s an interesting trick.”
It is a trick that works, giving everyone – from the boardroom down to the employees – a sense of investment in and personal engagement with the company and its success.
Having added an aquarium and a wildlife park to the portfolio, Banker and Tidstrand decided to move their business strategy to create the same culture and focus on guest experience across all the parks.
For this year a common goal for the entire company has been set up, called The Challenge. If the objectives, focussed on the total guest experience and the revenue are achieved, they will rent a plane and take everyone in the whole company to Florida for five days in January 2016. It is proving to be a very effective motivational strategy. Every employee has a personal investment in the success of the plans – and there is an added incentive if their efforts are successful.
“It’s not a ‘thank you’ trip; it’s a learning trip. Telling people is one thing; showing them is a completely different thing. It looks great, actually. The numbers are with us.
“We told everybody that we had ideas, but that we didn’t yet have the money. If we did everything right for three seasons and everyone did their share we would not only be able to afford to open the World of Bamse [it opened this year] and the coaster Wildfire, we would also be able to bring everyone over to Disney World, and show them the best of the best.”
Banker explains that he has used this strategy before with his family: “Before this, when my life was more normal, I’d tell the kids, next year, we’re going to Thailand, so we all need to do our bit – we can’t buy the new bicycle; we can’t go to restaurants every night – we need to save money. And the kids understood. That’s what we do with the company. We include everybody in the project, and it’s successful. I’m so proud of everybody. Together with them we can build the best wooden coaster in the world.”
Keeping plans fluid in a fast-changing industry
“To say that we have a 10-year-plan is not entirely true. We have ideas for 10 years, but this business changes a lot and the manufacturers come up with new ideas. It’s more a case of knowing that five years from now we’ll need to add something big at Skara Sommarland.”
Having tackled the animal habitat and the coaster at Gröna Lund, they decided to examine every aspect of the park’s running: cost control, opening hours and so on.
“Gröna Lund used to be one of Stockholm’s main stages, and we wanted to take that back. So, almost every Friday, we have a great concert, and on Mondays and Tuesdays we have smaller concerts one on our small stage. When we began we had 5 concerts; this year we’ve had 51.” Lenny Kravitz, for example, played at Gröna Lund on the 3rd August this year.
Increasing attendance by 50%
Another effective innovation at Gröna Lund has been the introduction of an inexpensive pass.
“The pass is extremely cheap, and gives you free entrance: you can see all the concerts, and can experience the park. You can’t do the rides: you have to buy a wristband or tickets for that, but you can see 51 concerts. There’s a dance floor with live bands; a hip hop kids show; tons of things you can do for free. It’s only 24 Euros. And, for that you get free entrance for 130 days.”
In 2005, Gröna Lund sold 5000 annual passes. This year they will sell approximately 130, 000. While the annual passes are very cheap, those who buy them tend to visit the park, on average, three times, each time buying food, beer, wristbands, mementoes. It’s a successful model.
“By adding to the parks, we have increased attendance at the Stockholm park by 50% in six years. This needs to be said, because this is a business where people drink champagne when they increase attendance by 1 and 2 per cent. 50% is enormous."
This has been achieved not by expanding the area, but simply by changing the attractions, and optimising the guest experience.
“You pay a hell of a lot of money entering parks, with wristbands and food and everything: the least we can do is give you the best experience possible.
Building a team
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the owner of the company: if you want people to speak their minds you have to listen. We’d never owned a company before this; we didn’t know what we wanted, but after a while we understood what kind of people we wanted at the park: not yes-sayers, but positive nay-sayers. Now we have a team that works together.”
In 2013, PRS appointed Christer Fogelmarck as CEO. Previously the company's marketing director, he has a strong management background in the event and sponsorship arena. HIs new role puts him at the head of the team shaping financial strategy and future planning.
“We are a group. We have meetings twice a week; we sit on the same floor; we’re friends – he is the boss, but we’re doing everything together. And, that’s the way we want it.
"In the old days it was the owner who had the leash, and he said ‘jump’ and you jumped – this is absolutely not what we want: we want everybody to be included.”
A free exchange of ideas
When they bought the park, Banker and Tidstrand decided to create a department – run by themselves and Peter Osbeck, the ride manager – which would be a filter for ideas.
“We created something with the really boring name of ‘Strategic Development', ” he explains. “I’m a Marvel fan, and at the time I think we thought ‘Strategic Development’ was fun.” [Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. is the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.] Everything from the park map to the new coaster is filtered through this department.
“Good ideas come from visitors, from employees and from us. Sometimes we have a great idea – like Eclipse, the world’s tallest StarFlyer (a 121.9 meters tall swing ride that opened in 2013) at Gröna Lund, or Life, the new dolphin show created by Kolmården : they told us about the idea and together with them we created something world unique.
"We have a special system for employee engagement called “Sparks” connected to our intranet so anybody with an idea can get in touch with us and we contact them, and together with that person we will either do something with it or not do it and explain why.
"We think it’s very important for the person or group of people coming up with the idea to be included in the project from the beginning.”
It’s an original approach, and ensures that the parks remain open to all influences, so the best ideas can be identified and applied.
Banker explains Marketing has been retargeted: “People understand that Gröna Lund is a park that offers many things, so, instead of telling them that, we tell them, this year, this is our new thing: the haunted house; the kiddy ride; the big coaster.
"We have 500, 000 people today annually. We need 700, 000, maybe a million. To achieve that we need to do is add good animal experiences, as well as additional attractions. We decided to have themed areas that we think will enhance the experience.”
Collaboration is key. For both Wildfire (the wooden mega coaster) and the World of Bamse, PRS collaborated with Nick Farmer and leading theming experts, Jora Vision.
For House of Nightmares, PRS worked with dark ride attraction leaders Sally Corporation, on what CEO John Wood described as, "a complete redevelopment of a classic walk-thru haunted house".
“Bringing in people on a consulting basis proved to be a good idea. It was a really good collaboration, so we’ve decided – for every project – to bring in the best. Disney has a 3000-people army of Imagineers working for them round the clock. We have Johan, myself and our ride manager Peter Osbeck. We need other voices and other ideas.”
The World of Bamse
“Bamse is a well-known character here; a cartoon character in Sweden. He’s nice to kids; he’s nice to animals. And, he doesn’t eat candy. But we built the candy store anyway.
"When Bamse needs to be strong he drinks ‘dunderhonung’ ("thunder-honey"), specially prepared for him by his grandmother. Unfortunately, if anyone but Bamse (and his daughter and pet bee) drinks the honey, they get a stomach-ache for three days.
“So we can’t sell thunder-honey: kids wouldn’t want to buy it. So, we hatched the idea that maybe there could be empty thunder-honey jars in the store. For 8 euros you get the jar, and you can fill it with candy.”
Banker approached a friend of his who had started a candy company from nothing before selling it to Candy King at a vast profit. The friend helped with the candy store, and put Banker in touch with a company in China which could make the thunder-honey jars.
“He called me up and said, how many do you want to buy? 10, 000? It was New Year’s Eve and I said, let’s buy 20, 000. If we don’t sell them this year, we’ll sell them next.
"We opened on the 1st of May, and after 3 weekends all the jars were sold out. During May we sold all the candy we had bought for the entire season.
“People want something to bring home. At Harry Potter World it’s a magic wand. Here, it’s a thunder-honey jar. And these jars are good quality, they look like they do in the comic, and the candy store is themed from ground up. It’s a fantastic guest experience which proves that if you have a gut feeling, a dream – do it and see what happens. If it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world.”
The decision to add rides and theming to the Kolmården Wildlife Park has resulted in increased visitor numbers, and an increase in revenue. However, Banker still felt that Kolmården still needed something to deliver the ‘wow’ factor to all ages.
“We really wanted the world’s best wooden coaster. The problem with wooden coasters is that they are big and they are very noisy, so about six years ago we looked at this and said – no: we can’t build it because the animals are our priority.”
Enter Rocky Mountain Construction Group with their innovative designs for quieter wooden coasters including new elements such as inversions. With the expertise now available to construct the coaster, the landscape of the site posed its own challenges – a 45 degree lift is required to reach the top of a natural cliff, followed by an 83 degree drop.
“It’s a hell of a coaster, ” says Banker.
Once the Wildfire had been designed, a computer animated POV trailer was made with the announcement that in two years’ time the “best wooden coaster in the world” would be opened. That journey turned out to be a rollercoaster ride in itself.
“We got enormous attention. We started building – got the building permits and so on – then some of the neighbours decided to be obstructive and to push back the building permits. They wrote a petition, and our permit was revoked. After putting 4 million euros in the ground, everything had to grind to a halt.”
It seemed like the end. Then, just three weeks ago, the park won its appeal and Wildfire is back on track. Construction is once more in progress, and the coaster should open, as originally planned, in 2016.
“So we’re happy, ” says Banker.
Building the best parks in the world and having fun at the same time
With the application of clear-sighted business acumen and a sense of fun, PRS has contrived to maintain much of the original ‘feel’ of the parks, while increasing their appeal with theming and the strategic addition of attractions and rides.
While expansion is key, Banker says, “…we’re not looking at putting in any new parks. We just want to evolve and expand the existing ones – building the best parks in the world and having fun at the same time.”
Images: Parks and Resorts Scandinavia