Six Flags, the world’s largest regional theme park company, is setting its sights on Vietnam.
John Odum is President of the company’s international division. He believes the country’s growing tourist market and rising middle-class make it a land of opportunity for Six Flags.
“The dynamics fit nicely with what we bring to a market, ” he says.
John Odum (left) spoke to Blooloop about the Six Flags business model that makes it perfectly placed to lead the charge into new, dynamic markets across the globe.
Odum embodies the American dream – he joined Six Flags Over Georgia as a costumed character when he was just sixteen.
He knows the business inside out, having worked his way through the ranks in a number of departments including operations, finance and retail. Among his many roles, he has been President of Six Flags St. Louis and Six Flags San Antonio before a stint in the corporate world, overseeing lesser parks from an operational perspective.
“And then, a couple of years ago, Jim Reid Anderson, our CEO at the time, came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in starting up the international division of Six Flags, ” he says.
“We felt that, domestically, we were very strong and solid. We had found a good business model that had been working well for several years, and we were ready to take that step internationally.
“That brings me to where I am today. In my role as the President of our international division, we are really leading the charge in finding new markets and building new parks and bringing Six Flags to the world.
“In the 43 years that I’ve been with Six Flags I’ve experienced a lot of different things. It’s been quite exciting. It’s great to be able to take that depth of experience and spread it throughout the world.”
Lands of Opportunity
Asia’s theme park industry, while growing quickly in certain regions, is broadly still very much in its infancy. This is particularly true of Vietnam, which has so far escaped the attention of any of the big-hitters.
Yet, despite being under the radar, Odum believes it is ripe for theme park development.
“It has a growing middle class with an increasing propensity to spend. It also has a travel market that’s starting to feed Vietnam. We really think the dynamics fit nicely with what we bring to a market.”
What’s more, detailed psychographic research in the area has revealed that, despite what one might expect, people already ‘get’ the Six Flags brand.
“What we’ve found is our brand is so well-known, much more so than any of us had anticipated it might be. People know exactly what we are: we are all about thrill.
“People tell us they’re eager to see the biggest and best rides. Some say ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to get on the largest and the best – but I love seeing other people do it.’
“We’ve got such a diversity of rides that it really gives a thrill to all ages. We feel we’re a good fit for a region that’s really growing very quickly.”
The Six Flags Franchise Model
“The business model that has been found to be optimal for Six Flags and its partners is a franchise-type model. With this, the chosen partners take on all capital investment in the park, while Six Flags charges a fee for bringing the brand name and licenced IP.
“We will bring the management expertise to the park. The right people that understand the safety that is so critical to our business, and understand how to operate a strong financial model while protecting that safety. Nobody does safety better than we do.”
“Six Flags will also bring the design and project services, helping design the park, its layout, overseeing construction and procuring the rides.
“They will gain the value of all of our negotiating clout – we buy rides so much more cheaply than anybody else; they get the benefit of our buying power.”
Because Six Flags does not invest any money, it costs them nothing to enter these partnerships. It also gives the new operators the flexibility to run things in a way that suits their particular market.
“Most of our partners are interested in a bigger resort development. They may be adding hotels, they may be adding retail, dining and entertainment and all of the other resort amenities, ” explains Odum.
“What this model allows them to do is to operate a little differently from the way we would. If they want to put heads in beds in the hotels, they might discount the park a little bit more, or run ‘specials’ at times that we might not normally be open.
“There are no operating encumbrances on the way they can operate the park when we go in with a franchise-type model like this.
“We think it’s the best for both partners. It seems to be working really well so far.”
The First Six Flags Theme Park in China
Six Flags has already announced its first theme park in China. It will be located in Haiyan on the coast of Hangzhou Bay in Zhejiang province.
China is already well-served by big name brands such as Wanda, DreamWorks and Disney. However, Odum insists the market is a long way from reaching anywhere close to saturation point.
“In the US, we have about 300 theme parks the size of a Six Flags park or larger. These serve 320 million people. In China, there are around 150 parks of this size or larger, serving 1.2 billion people.
“When we look at the sheer numbers, we feel there’s tremendous untapped potential for growth and development of this market set. Especially as we see this growing middle class. We also see the family size growing from the single child to the multi child family and as we see the middle income growth and prosperity that is developing in China.”
“In fact, I would say the Chinese theme park industry is probably where the North American theme park industry was 20 or 30 years ago. We feel like we’re moving in at the right time and there are tremendous opportunities for this market.”
Chinese Love the Regional and the Thrill
Odum dismisses the generally-held belief that China is less interested in thrill rides than other markets. He cites data from recent psychographic research:
“What that market told us is. We love thrills in all different forms. And, with Six Flags, while we’re known best for our world record roller coasters and the larger rides, it comes in all forms. There are a lot of smaller types of rides that are unique to Six Flags.
“The ability to match up that different level of thrill to the different components of a family, we believe, is really a thing that will help us grow and prosper in the market.”
“The Chinese know Six Flags. They are very eager for Six Flags to come to China, ” he says. “One of the things they have also told us they especially like about Six Flags is the fact that we are a regional theme park. Each of our parks is different and built to focus on that region of the country.”
Unlike the giant brands that reproduce the same model time and again, each Six Flags park will be customised to a particular region, taking on the local culture, the local foods.
“Yet, we will also offer enough Western experience that they will get a sense of the best of both worlds, ” says Odum.
Odum believes that storytelling relevant to the local market will be crucial to each park’s success.
“One of the first things we do when we go into a region is send in a team to study the history and culture. They talk to the people of the area and try to understand the types of things that they hold important in their history; the things that they like to honour.”
“What we have done for our first theme park in Haiyan is to take a section of our park and replicate the local ancient tale of a sailor who went off to sea while his girlfriend stayed behind waiting on him. There’s this whole story of how he went through battles and adventures then came back to meet her and they lived happily ever after.
“We’ve replicated the entire story. Everything from the big ships and the sailing town, and all those things that make that story come to life.”
But, he says, it is still very much a Six Flags park:
“There are sections of the park that reflect much of the Western culture. There are things the Chinese might enjoy learning about North America.”
Rising Customer Expectations in a Tech-Savvy Market
Customer expectations are constantly changing in the light of developing technology. This is particularly true, Odum says, across much of Asia, where the market is innovative and tech-savvy.
“This is another reason why they really like Six Flags. It is because they see us as being on the cutting-edge of technology, ” he says.
“We were the first in the entire industry to introduce VR in our rides. We went into our roller coasters and partnered with Samsung and RealD 3-D and Oculus. Then we put together an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.”
“We took some of the older rides intentionally. They weren’t quite as popular. We created storylines, and we created these virtual worlds. In some you’re a fighter pilot, and some we’re adapting to our Hallowe’en experiences and you’re fighting gargoyles.
“As we get towards the holiday in the park you’ll be flying in Santa’s sleigh. There are a lot of ways that we can use VR. We can really take some of the older rides and bring them into a new world.”
VR – Lifting Existing Rides to the Next Level
Technology has also been used to take some of the newer rides to another level.
“The Superman ride is popular. We have been able, through VR, to create an opportunity for people on the Superman ride to literally fly with Superman.”
“We were pitching this concept to the head of the licensing with Warner Brothers. After we had taken him through it, he sat back and said: ‘You know what? The reason I joined DC Comics and Warner Brothers was because as a little kid I had always wanted to fly with Superman.’ He was one of the first ones on the ride when we introduced it.
“VR is one of the many different things that we are doing to really take the entertainment of the theme park industry into this new world.”
Dubai Parks and Resorts
A Six Flag theme park is currently in development at the UAE’s mammoth leisure destination, Dubai Parks and Resorts.
“It’s just an unbelievable market, ” says Odum. “When I first visited seven or so years back it had tremendous potential. I was amazed at what the city was. And then, when we came back a second time. I was blown away at how far it had come in those few years.
“We had studied the market early on. I think we realised this is a burgeoning market that is just growing like none other in the world.”
The economy has largely recovered from the effects of the global recession. This had put ambitious developments such as Dubailand on hold.
“I think, in that earlier phase, they were growing so very rapidly so it probably hit them harder, ” he says.
“When things settled to a more positive economic climate and we went back in, it is just unbelievable what they are doing to develop that market. I’m especially excited about the resort that DPR is creating. We will be one of four major theme parks in this resort. There will be tremendous retail, dining and entertainment, a world-class resort and many other amenities including a large upscale outlet mall that really fills this out as an entertainment mecca.
“Dubai is bound in intent to be the Orlando of the Middle East. They are well on their way to doing just that.
“We’re going in with some of our biggest and best; we’re excited in that development because each of the parks fills a unique niche.
“As long as there’s a unique niche filled, instead of dividing the pie into more pieces, you just make the pie bigger, ” says Odum.
“And, a rising tide raises all ships.”