Following a turbulent year for the attractions industry, blooloop talks to three of the people helping to bring a fresh look to Compagnie des Alpes’ sites across Europe.
Three years ago, François Fassier, Compagnie des Alpes’ Director of Leisure Parks, spoke about the group-wide transformation of theme parks and attractions in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada.
Since then, the company has invested close to €100m a year into this side of the business (the other being its Alpine ski resorts), ending almost a decade of underinvestment. It has also acquired a theme park in Austria, added a waterpark to one of its existing sites in Belgium, and disposed of wax museums in the Czech Republic and South Korea.
So how are Compagnie des Alpes’ parks looking right now, and how were they performing prior to disruption by the pandemic?
Post-COVID trends at Compagnie des Alpes
“All our parks are seeing the same trend,” says Fassier. “As we continue to invest, we are attracting more people and seeing an increase in guest satisfaction. Before 2020, we increased the turnover of my division close to 30%, and we increased the EBITDA close to 10 points. This is a very good result.
“If you look at Parc Astérix, we added three new attractions and invested a lot in the resort with 300 new hotel rooms. We invested massively in Walibi Belgium and Walibi Rhône-Alpes, where we will transform 100% of the theme park and have already invested three years of turnover. At Futuroscope, we have announced an investment of more than €300m, creating new attractions, a resort and a water park.”
Parc Astérix pushes ahead
“The story of Parc Astérix is interesting,” says Fassier. “In 2014, the park received 1.7 million visitors. So 2.4 million [in 2019] is a huge increase, more I would say than any other park this size in Europe. When you invest, you can make good or bad things. I would say every Euro was spent in the right way.”
The park outside Paris reclaimed its title as the nation’s busiest non-Disney property in 2019, overtaking Puy du Fou, which had beaten it the previous five seasons.
Opened last year, Le Quais de Lutèce was the first 4-star hotel at Parc Astérix. It takes the resort offer to a total of three hotels and 450 rooms. Its rich theming was recognised with a Thea Award. The previous year the park added Attention Menhir!, a 300-seat 4D theatre by CL Corp. More recently, it was announced that new performances are being considered for the 2,000-seat amphitheatre that formerly hosted dolphin shows.
A multi-launch coaster from Intamin is planned for 2023, following the last new roller coaster in 2017, Pégase Express. In addition, there are plans for a fourth hotel, bringing the total room stock to 750.
“The hotels change the profile of our visitor,” says Fassier. “You go from one day to one night and two days, and two days and three nights.”
The logical next step would be a second gate. “We’re working on that,” he says
Compagnie des Alpes and the future of Futuroscope
A resort offer is also planned for Futuroscope. Compagnie des Alpes has been a majority shareholder in this unique French theme park since 2010. Its attendance in 2019 was 1.9 million.
Futuroscope’s planned €304 million expansion will be realised together with the local Vienne council. This will see the addition of three new attractions, two hotels, a ‘Hyperloop’ restaurant and a second gate waterpark by 2025. Together, it is hoped they will generate an additional 650,000 annual guests.
Technology and exploration remain central to the park in Poitiers, however, under Compagnie des Alpes’ management it has also begun adding rides.
In 2013, the relaunched Time Machine dark ride introduced the playful Rabbids intellectual property to Futuroscope fans. Opened in 2017, the Dynamic Attractions flying theatre L’Extraordinaire Voyage was a natural progression from the park’s plentiful media-based attractions. Last summer saw the opening of the venue’s first-ever rollercoaster, Objectif Mars, with a ride system from Intamin.
Designing a roller coaster and water park, Futuroscope style
Julien Simon, Project Manager at Compagnie des Alpes, explains the thinking behind some of the new additions.
“Futuroscope has all these theatres where you are sitting inside with a big screen; 2D, 3D, 4D, IMAX. But unless it’s an incredible movie, you don’t really want to see it again for two or three years. The park needed more fun attractions where you have physical sensations and not only sensation through a screen. With a roller coaster or a dark ride, you can do it several times in a day.”
Fassier agrees. “If in your own home you can now have a 3D TV, we have to think differently at Futuroscope.”
So how does one take a theme park staple such as a roller coaster and give it an authentic Futuroscope flavour?
“I would never take something like a dive coaster or flying coaster,” says Simon. “It had to be a coaster that matched the essence of Futuroscope. That is why a lot of it [Objectif Mars] is in the dark, with storytelling, screens and special effects.”
Set to open in 2024 at a cost of €100 million, Aquascope is the name of the forthcoming water park.
“It won’t be a regular waterpark,” says Simon. “It will be a water park plus the Futuroscope touch.”
Meet the team bringing a fresh look to Compagnie des Alpes’ theme parks
Julien Simon and Creative Development Manager Fabien Manuel joined Compagnie des Alpes in 2013 and 2014 respectively. They have since worked together on many projects. Whilst technically in-house, their relationship with each Compagnie des Alpes property is more that of a consultant.
“We start by asking each park what they wish to address,” says Simon. “What kind of ride are they looking for, where do they want to put it? Sometimes the park has a really good idea of what they are looking for. Sometimes they don’t know at all. People know that I travel a lot and ride a lot of coasters. So they will ask if I have seen anything special.”
Manuel cites his and Simon’s work at Walibi Rhône-Alpes, where approximately 80% of the park has been transformed since 2016, as perhaps their proudest achievement.
“It is very much like our ‘baby’ because we worked on this project from the beginning when we joined Compagnie des Alpes. The previous rebranding of the park had not been working, so there was huge work to do. I worked on the brand books, the retheming, and Julien did the masterplan and attraction choices.”
The transformation of Walibi Rhône-Alpes
It may be the smallest Walibi property, however, the French park has achieved impressive results in recent years. Annual attendance climbed from 350,000 before the recent transformation began to more than 550,000 in 2019.
The first changes came in 2016 with the launch of the Explorer Adventure area and a wooden coaster called Timber.
“We didn’t want to take too big a risk by putting in a big steel coaster,” says Simon. “But we still wanted to make some kind of statement. At the time, there were only two other wooden coasters in France. Timber was the right decision, and it’s been really popular.”
New attractions and themed areas followed including Festival City with various Zamperla rides and a Gerstlauer Infinity Coaster named Mystic. New in 2020 was Europe’s first NebulaZ ride from Zamperla, AirBoat.
The final piece of the jigsaw will be the redevelopment of the former Aqualibi water park into Exotic Island. Featuring both an indoor and outdoor section, this will be integrated with the dry park, starting from 2022. By the time the total transformation of Walibi Rhône-Alpes is complete, it’s hoped annual visitor numbers will reach 700,000.
A big year for Walibi Belgium
In the meantime, Compagnie des Alpes is committed to returning Walibi Belgium to its former status as the country’s busiest theme park. That title is currently enjoyed by Plopsaland De Panne. To beat it, Walibi’s attendance needs to climb from 1 million to over 1.4 million. Both parks will launch major new roller coasters this season.
“We have keen competitors,” says Fassier. “But we stay with our strategy to retheme the complete park, add new product and improve the guest experience. This year we make a huge investment, more than €20 million.”
New additions to the park in Wavre, near Brussels, since 2016 include Pulsar (Mack PowerSplash), Tiki-Waka (Gerstlauer Bobsled Coaster), Fun Pilot (Zierer family coaster) and Popcorn Revenge (interactive dark ride by Alterface). Most anchor completely new themed areas. In addition, the adjacent Aqualibi water park has undergone a Caribbean makeover.
The park’s biggest attraction yet will be ready for the start of the 2021 season, just as soon as the Belgian authorities give the green light (a new four-week lockdown was announced starting March 27).
Named Kondaa, the 1.2km Intamin mega coaster forms the backdrop to a new themed area within Exotic World. At 50m in height and with a top speed of 113km/h, it is the tallest and fastest roller coaster not just in Belgium, but the wider Benelux countries.
Something for everyone
“Kondaa is a great, but aggressive, ride,” says Simon. “You have to be 1.3 metres to ride. So small kids or adults who are afraid of the coaster will not ride. But thrill-seekers are not the only type of guest we have at Walibi Belgium.”
Also new in Exotic World for 2021 are a huge themed restaurant and a family ride called Kondalaa (Zamperla Barnstormer). The latter was previously part of the Fun World area.
“If you look at Exotic World, three years ago there was nothing except Challenge of Tutankhamon,” says Simon. “Today, we could almost put a gate in front of this area and sell it as a separate ticket. We have the dark ride, two coasters, a kids ride, theatre, restaurant and bar, toilets; everything.”
“I think it’s the most complete theming project we have done,” says Manuel. “The landscaping is really beautiful, the people who worked on this project did great.”
Simon cites working with legendary ride designer Alan Schilke on Untamed at Walibi Holland as a recent career highlight. Yet he and Manuel have had much less input into the Dutch park.
“The theming is adapted for the country, and I think they are the best people who can do this,“ says Manuel. “The festivalization rebranding is really nice and different.”
Visually, only the Walibi logo and a new mascot introduced last year are common to the three Walibi parks.
Streamlining the Walibi portfolio (and a new outlet for Astérix?)
Last year, Compagnie des Alpes ended its licensing agreement with the former Walibi Sud-Ouest. Located midway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, the park was sold to the Aspro group in 2015.
“The decision was taken to sell this park, which is a nice park, because we consider the capacity to develop it was lower than our other parks,” says Fassier. “So we continue to spread our cap-ex in fewer parks.”
As from this season, it will trade as Walygator Sud-Ouest, a brand Aspro picked up when it acquired the former Walibi Lorraine in northeast France in 2016.
In addition to the remaining three Walibi parks, there is a possibility that the brand could find a new home in Austria. But don’t expect a full rebrand of Familypark near Neusiedlersee, which Compagnie des Alpes added to its leisure parks portfolio in 2019.
“This park is well known in Austria and very attractive for kids from three to 10 or 12 years,” says Fassier. The goal is to stay attractive to families, but go up to maybe 18 or 20 years old. Familypark is a nice brand, but perhaps this park could welcome an Astérix Land or a Walibi Land.”
Bellewaerde’s animal attraction
Also strong with families is Bellewaerde in Belgium, which mixes rides with animals and nature.
“It is an interesting concept,” says Fassier. “We start a new plan from this year. This is to modify the animal presentation and invest in attractions to create capacity.”
Last year a new family coaster was added named Wakala. This came one year after the launch of an indoor second gate, Bellewaerde Aquapark. Neither has yet had a chance to perform to its full potential due to COVID-19.
“We opened the aquatic park in July 2019, and have had only six months of normal operation,” says Fassier. “So it’s too early to make a conclusion on the product. We can say that 25 percent of the attendance is packaged with the dry park. I think we will need to increase the size of the aquatic park in the next five years.”
The Parisian park that never goes out of fashion
As well as its wholly-owned parks and attractions, which also includes France Miniature, Compagnie des Alpes now has a 20% stake in Paris’ Jardin d’Acclimatation, the nation’s oldest amusement park. Located on the edge of the city’s Bois de Boulogne, the pleasure gardens were founded in 1860.
As part of the LVMH Foundation, the venue has an unlikely relationship with one of the world’s largest luxury goods companies. This explains the presence of a Louis Vuitton museum, complete with a striking shell by Frank Gehry. The rest of the site features classic rides and attractions, plus room to graze with family and friends.
Several rides were refreshed when Compagnie des Alpes took over the day-to-day operation of the park in 2018, following a year-long renovation. At the same time, new attractions were added with Steampunk theming.
“We are very proud to be part of this joint venture,” says Fassier. “We give our expertise to LVMH, working on the thematisation and concept design. The new product that you see today is very nice, very friendly, with high guest satisfaction.”
With close to 1.8 million visits in 2019, the Jardin d’Acclimatation is the third busiest park operated by Compagnie des Alpes. Yet average revenue is low as only a token admission fee is charged on the gate. Inside, guests pay for rides as they go.
Grévin’s global expansion
Not all Compagnie des Alpes’ expansions have gone according to plan over the past few years.
The Grévin waxwork museum has been a Paris institution for well over a century. Yet the company’s attempt to turn it into a global brand by opening new outlets in Montréal, Prague and Seoul between 2013 and 2015, has not achieved the same results Merlin has enjoyed around the world with Madame Tussauds.
“The fact is it was not a success,” says Fassier. “The brand was not well known in the areas where we did these museums. We didn’t have the number of visitors that we expected. After a few years of operations, the conclusion was made that we are not able to manage this kind of product [in Prague and Seoul]. We are still in Paris and Montréal.”
However, Compagnie des Alpes has had more luck with a newer short-stay attraction, Chaplin’s World in Vevey, Switzerland.
“We are very happy with that,” says Fassier. “The tourism situation in Switzerland, like in Paris, is very difficult at the moment. To get back in the normal way will take one or two years, but the product is fantastic.”
Bespoke attractions for each location
Launched in 2016, Chaplin’s World is located in the home town of the comedian’s grave. Therefore it does not necessarily have the potential to be rolled out to other locations. Yet Fassier believes this bespoke approach to creating attractions is one of Compagnie des Alpes’ strengths.
“We should not be industrialised. Each country, each park, has its own history. We have to respect that and develop specific concepts for each area, taking care of the environment, taking care of the history, and taking care of our customers.”
“Even the three Walibi parks are not the same,” says Simon. “Walibi Holland is really teenager orientated. Walibi-Rhône-Alpes is family orientated. Walibi Belgium is family-friendly, but a little bit more teenage. And the attendance is not the same. Rhône-Alpes is more or less 500,000, so you cannot make the same investment as the other parks that are 1 million and more.”
After a sojourn to North Africa, where it previously operated Parc Sindibad in Morocco, Compagnie des Alpes’ leisure parks portfolio remains rooted firmly in Western Europe. Yet Fassier reveals the company is considering new join ventures further afield.
“We already work with some snow dome products in China, and we have had some contact with leisure operators in Turkey and the east of Europe.”
A season to forget
Compagnie des Alpes’ group-wide transformation programme had a postive impact prior to the pandemic. But 2020 cannot be ignored, and both sides of the business took a big hit.
In 2019-2020 (the company’s fiscal year runs from October to September), Compagnie des Alpes’ ski resorts generated sales of €360m. The previous year, revenue was €444 million, as 14 million ski days were enjoyed across 11 resorts in the French Alps.
Sales in the leisure parks division fell from €381m (9.6 million guest visits) to €232m (5.5 million). This of course reflected lockdown related closures last spring. Most parks reopened in June, with capacity restrictions.
“The guest satisfaction was very good,” says Fassier. “But when you reduce your volume, it is very difficult for the employees.”
Halloween was in fact the busiest period for many parks in 2020. Yet all were forced to finish early due to a fresh round of government closure orders (ranging from 24 October in Belgium to 2 November in Austria).
One positive trend, as other attraction operators have observed, was that in-park spending was up (by 5.3%). Alas, schools and other group sales were absent.
Ski resorts slide
With no Christmas season to boost revenue at Futuroscope, Parc Astérix or Grévin Paris, sales across the leisure park division in the final quarter were down to €24.7m versus €80.5m over the same period the previous year. Ski turnover plunged 97% from €60.1m to €1.8m as all but two resorts were closed for the entire period.
“In 2021, the turnover of leisure parks will be higher than the ski resorts,” says Fassier. “I imagine that will be the case for the next few years. But consider that we will have perhaps no activity in our ski resorts this year.”
At the time of writing, Compagnie des Alpes could not be sure when any of its parks will be able to start their 2021 season. Expecting to operate under the same restrictions as 2020, the company is forecasting just 3.7 million visits for the fiscal year to September.
“We can be ready to open for the middle of April,” says Fassier. “If the authorities give us authorisation, that will be fine. If not, our maintenance will be done and we will be able to restart very quickly.”
Compagnie des Alpes will bounce back from COVID-19
After implementing a new government-backed loan for €269 million in December, Compagnie des Alpes had a liquidity position of €514 million at the end of 2020. Enough to keep the company running throughout 2021, even under the worst-case scenarios.
There may be short term savings, but investment in its parks will not return to the low levels of 2006 to 2013, promises Fassier.
“You cannot increase your debt and do nothing,” he says. “We have to replan our investment. But we need to be ready when the business is back. We know that if we reduce drastically our cap-ex, we will suffer for many years. Our big parks will stay at the same level as the past.”
With pent up demand, people could be visiting Compagnie des Alpes’ theme parks and attractions in large numbers again before too long.
“The bounce-back could be very hard,” says Fassier. “Honestly, I hope that we can reach the 2019 level in 2022 or maximum 2023. People want entertainment, to have activities with groups or their families. And we need to stay attractive.”
Top image: Pégase Express at Parc Astérix