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Ground breaking ceremony Puy du Fou Asia

Puy du Fou in China: a new market for a winning model

We speak to Puy du Fou Asia CEO, Geoffroy Ladet, to find out more about its expansion plans

Puy du Fou, the historical theme park that enchants guests with its live spectacles and shows, is well on its way to becoming a global brand. Puy du Fou France opened in the Pays de la Loire region of Western France in 1978 and was voted’ Best Theme Park in the World’ in Los Angeles in 2012 and Orlando in 2014.

Following this, Puy du Fou España opened in 2019. Now, the group plans to develop its unique concept in Asia. It will begin with the creation of the biggest immersive show in the world in the heart of Shanghai in 2022, followed by future projects in China.

Puy du Fou and Geoffroy Ladet

geoffroy ladet
Geoffroy Ladet

Geoffroy Ladet is CEO of Puy du Fou Asia. He spoke to blooloop about the plans for the new park, and how complications in the evolving process led to an innovative new interim project, SAGA. This is a ground-breaking immersive show, due to open in Shanghai next year.

Ladet has been in China for 12 years, originally working as a consultant in cross-border projects in France and China.

“This is what led me to Puy du Fou,” he says. “I started to work with them as a consultant at the beginning, advising them on their strategy for China, and how to deal with local partners. We had this first phase of getting to know each other and working together. They were all based in France, and I was travelling back and forth, as a consultant.

“When it started to go well in China and I found the partners, we decided to create a real company here. We needed to have a full-time team who understood China. Nicolas [de Villiers], our chairman, asked me to take the lead in the company.”

Expanding Puy du Fou

Outlining the idea behind the concept, Ladet says:

“Between 2010 and 2015, Puy du Fou France started to win several international awards, and therefore international recognition. Before, we had been well known in France. But afterwards, we became increasingly well known around the world too. This international recognition meant a lot of Chinese developers started to come to the park in France, saying that they wanted a Puy du Fou in China. This is the reason why I started to be in the loop.”

Nicolas de Villiers

This was at a point where CEO Nicolas de Villiers felt that Puy du Fou was ready to expand:

“Puy du Fou began its international development in 2010. It was mostly doing consultancy work, advising other parks. But in around 2015, 2016, de Villiers had enough confidence to say, ‘okay, I want to build the first Puy du Fou outside of France.’

“It would be in Europe because it would be simpler to stay in control if it was nearby. So, the Puy du Fou España project started at this point. The strategy for Spain was that it would be led by Puy du Fou, invested by Puy du Fou, and controlled by Puy du Fou, both in terms of the creative aspect and investment.

“For China, the approach was different. It is a big market and has a history and culture which fits with our storytelling approach. The consensus was that it was, potentially, a good market, but the culture was so different. It was so far away.”

A second market

The Puy du Fou team decided to take China as the second market. However, because it was new, they would approach it as a service provider:

“We would service the developers who were looking for expertise and would provide services both during the development and creative concept and also during operations. This was our first mission, at the outset. The deal was to find a reliable Chinese partner to understand better the local market.”

puy du fou Asia
Early concept art for Puy du Fou Asia

“So, we found those developers. We found a plot. We started to work on designs for several potential projects. During this period, from 2016, until 2018 or 19, it made us understand just how big the potential was in China for the type of project that we were developing.”

Initial challenges

However, the team also realized that it was going to be incredibly difficult to develop the project that they wanted. He explains:

“We were here as a service provider, but we wanted full artistic control to have a successful show. In short, we had to be in charge of the design to be successful, but in this model, the developer has a say.

“During much of that period around 2015, 2016 or so, it was a time where the real estate land acquisition for the developer was becoming increasingly difficult. The government was requiring them to have some cultural projects. The real estate developers didn’t care about us. They just needed a cultural project to get their land, so they could begin building their high rises and apartments and so on.”

Le Signe du Triomphe at Puy du Fou
Le Signe du Triomphe, Puy du Fou France

“What they had in mind were these cultural projects that were constantly losing money during operation. They were never really focused on the whole project.”

Essentially, a ‘cultural project’ was a means to a different end:

“We were making the basic concept for them. But we felt it would be difficult during construction and operation to have the freedom to operate in a way that would mean the project would be successful in the long term.”

A new approach

In 2018-19, therefore, the team, led by Nicolas de Villiers, decided to take a new approach.

“We realised that to be successful in China, we must, firstly, have a team onsite full time. It wasn’t something that could be serviced from France and Spain. Second, we needed to be the ones to lead our development. We needed to be the ones to go and see the local government to initiate the project. And therefore, to make this possible, we needed to invest, at least in part, at this initial stage.

“So, it was decided that from now on, we would have our own development team. We would develop our own project.”

puy du fou espana el sueno de toledo
El Sueño de Toledo, Puy du Fou España

When the team had a location secured and a concept design finished, they would find the proper local partner. They would be joining at a point where the concept was already complete and would bring their local know-how.

Ladet says:

“We would oversee the operation and would keep a controlling artistic say when looking for partners.

“They wouldn’t necessarily have to be real estate developers. We are not developers ourselves. Local governments, cultural or tourism partners can create synergies, for instance, which is preferable to not having our interests aligned, as was the case before.”

Complex deals

Something else the team realized at this point was the complexity of land purchase in China:

“The process we had been accustomed to in France and Spain was that we would pay and get the land. The whole process would take one or two months. Here in China, however, it can take a matter of 2, 3, 4 years.”

What we do is historical and cultural live shows. What we do is we give emotion to our visitors by doing shows based on history and legends.

“It made us realise that if our first project is a theme park, it will take 10 years to develop. It was particularly difficult for us because we’re not known in the Chinese market.

“We began to think about who we are: What is Puy du Fou? What is it that we do? Does it need to be done as a big theme park of 200 hectares?

“The answer, of course, was no. What we do is historical and cultural live shows. What we do is we give emotion to our visitors by doing shows based on history and legends. We don’t need to have 200 hectares.”

A new project for Puy du Fou Asia

They decided to take a different approach.

“We said, ‘Okay, we’re in China. In China, you have big cities. We have five great immersive shows now in France. Let’s take our experience from those immersive shows, find an existing building, and create a huge landmark show that will be a new ‘product’’ – though I don’t like this word.

“We can create a three-hour experience downtown for people. For those who want a one-to-three-day experience, well, that will be our theme park. This would be a different offering using the same know-how.”

La Cinéscénie Puy du Fou
La Cinéscénie Puy du Fou France

The new project began with the code name ‘City Concept’. He says:

“We now have the ticketed brand, which is named SAGA: our own brand urban immersive shows, which we hope to develop in a lot of major cities. The first one is in Shanghai, which was quite an obvious choice for us. We got strong support from the government of Shanghai, who helped us to find a proper location, and are also investing in the project.

“Having found a location, we are right now in the construction process. The project will open next summer.”

Introducing SAGA

The SAGA immersive shows will build a recognized product identity for Puy du Fou in China, on which the company will be able to capitalise when it builds the theme park:

“SAGA is the first step of Puy du Fou in China and could pave the way for future development for the group in this geography.”

Facade SAGA

SAGA will not only raise brand awareness of Puy du Fou; it will also be the largest immersive show in the world.

“First of all, it’s a Puy du Fou show, so it’s built around the story. This story is based on the Shanghai of the 1930s. There is no hanging around; you’re taken and you follow a character and the story, from room to room.

“There will be a lot of different styles of rooms, experiences, and themes. We will also have, as we do in Europe, a lot of heavy machinery.”

Immersive spaces

The space that Ladet and team have rented for SAGA is a former expo centre:

“We have huge spaces. We have a 12-metre-high ceiling. There’s a lot of space between the columns. It’s huge. We’re building a Shanghai old city. We’re building a real train and a real boat.

As you follow the story, there will be lots of different alternative paths that you can choose.

“As you follow the story, there will be lots of different alternative paths that you can choose. At one point, for example, you have to choose between two doors. One will take you into a bar. One will take you into a theatre, leading to a different outcome and a different feeling. Another time the story remains the same. It’s like you have parallel roads.

“When you reach the dock on the old Shanghai street, you have to choose whether you will take the boat or the train at the end. And you should experience SAGA if you want to know what your destiny will be in both cases.”

This is where a lot of effects and projection mapping have been used.

Paving the way for a Puy du Fou park in China

The expectation is that SAGA will pave the way towards the first Chinese Puy du Fou theme park. The projects the group is working on in China, he explains, will be characterised by the same concepts as the French and Spanish iterations:

“Essentially, it could have three main themes. The first, of course, could have the full range of our different live shows; indoor, outdoor, theatre, night, day. There would also be historical villages, with craftsmen, F&B, and a bit of merchandising. And then we have many types of themed hotels, each with a different style and period.”

Puy Du Fou Les Vikings family owned theme parks
Les Vikings, Puy du Fou France

“The park is our core business. We’re still very early on, but we are quite confident that we have outstanding know-how in this field and that the demand in China for such experiences is booming.”

Puy du Fou and cultural differences

Cultural differences are a factor that must be considered when creating a new park.

“In terms of history and research, we’re surrounded in the team by Chinese historians and Chinese researchers,” says Ladet.

We don’t want to do a copy-paste of France. But we do want to take what’s good from our experience, some of the know-how, and apply it to a new park

“What we bring is the expertise in creating emotion, into show-building technique, into how to write the scripts. For instance, here, we need some happiness; here we need a ‘wow’. And then, there is the content. Across the whole development, of the 100 team members here in Shanghai, 80% are Chinese.

“We don’t want to do a copy-paste of France. But we do want to take what’s good from our experience, some of the know-how, and apply it to a new park.

“Our team is a mix between historical talents of Puy du Fou in France and new talents with strong backgrounds, especially in China. So we have had the experience of delivering shows in China.”

Touching guests’ hearts

Puy du Fou, Ladet reminds us, is, above all, about emotion:

“This is our secret recipe. Emotion is a key word for us. We used to say other theme parks are the parks of sensation. We do not provide sensation, but emotion. Others touch your body; we touch your heart. Touching the heart is much more difficult.

“Nicolas is happy if, at the end of the main night show, he sees people cry. Because when they cry, we have touched their heart. And that’s what we want to achieve in China.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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