Organised by the The Noppen Group, the first China Theme Park Expansion summit took place September 8th and 9th at the Intercontinental Hotel, Shanghai. Over 250 operators and executives from the Chinese theme park industry heard from speakers on subjects ranging from the avoidance of “project landmines”, through to the future development of attractions experiences, the growth of social media in China and the state-of-the-art in display technologies.
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China is a vast country with a rapidly developing middle class. The potential for growth in the attractions and theme park sector is correspondingly enormous. Last year in excess of $3 billion was invested in China's theme park industry and Chinese theme parks welcomed over 100 million visitors, with conservative estimates reckoning on further growth this year of around 15%. The Shanghai World Expo showed the world that China could stage a major global event and in doing so exceed all expectations (during the last month the queue for the China pavilion was over 8 hours long!). With Shanghai Disneyland having broken ground in April this year, it was a propitious time for this new conference to similarly break ground, with the Chinese theme park business set to grow and grow.
A slight change to my plans was the last minute promotion to conference chairman. Due to unforeseen circumstances the scheduled chairman was unable to attend and it was with gratitude and not a little trepidation that I accepted a role which turned out to be enormous fun.
The first day began with a word from Wei Ming, the Deputy Director of the Shanghai International Tourism and resorts Zone, who welcomed us to the conference and explained how the huge success of last year’s expo in Shanghai was paving the way for aggressive growth in the leisure sector. Mr Zhang Jianzhong from the National Tourism Administration department of China then addressed the delicate matter of the news that had hit the headlines mid-August, that the Chinese Government was “curbing theme park development”. Whilst this might have seemed a draconian step it is in fact anything but. The government is simply clamping down on abuse; on people passing off retail or real estate developments as “theme park” projects.
The government is starting to clean up the huge amount of debt that local governments have accumulated through infrastructure projects, and bogus theme parks are a good place to start. As the National Development and Reform Commission stated in its directive, "Since 2004, the State Council [China's cabinet] has clearly ruled that it must approve construction of large-scale theme parks. But in recent years local governments have approved large parks on their own.” So the directive is procedural, much needed and far from proving a bar to the theme park industry’s continued development it will serve as a necessary brake on those developers that were not in reality developing theme parks at all.
Theme park vital statistics
Over the course of the next two days, delegates saw presentations from a number of industry experts and were able view the booths of the show’s sponsors. These included leading many industry leaders such as Jack Rouse Associates, The Sanderson Group, The Rubicon Group, nWave Pictures and Christie.
AECOM’s Chris Yoshi delivered a fascinating overview of the theme park industry as it currently stands in Asia and China from an economic standpoint, outlining its size and expected growth. His report will appear shortly in these pages, but suffice to say that the potential in China is simply vast. Chris’s analysis of the market shows that stratospheric growth will be the defining characteristic for the next decade and more. He expects the market “to double in the next 5 years then nearly double again by 2020”.
Lenny Larsen, Director of Themed Entertainment at Rubicon Group Holdings (RGH) spoke in depth about how he saw attractions developing, and looked at how they had evolved during his time in the business. Lenny, asides from being an experienced themed entertainment designer (and one of the first graduates of the renowned Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Centre), also happens to be a brilliant springboard diver, competing at a very high level internationally (check out the video on his phone) and brought the same degree of precision and skill to his speaking. Granted he was discussing a business which is in itself often jaw-dropping and visually stunning, but he spoke with such eloquence and vigour he had the audience utterly transfixed. Such was his skill he might have delivered 30 minutes on the history of the Caravanning Club and still had those watching taking notes.
Lenny is currently working on a themed entertainment destination resort in Jordan’s Aqaba, The Red Sea Astrarium (TRSA), which owing to the fact that it will feature among its many rides and attractions a Star Trek attraction, has been dubbed by the media “The Star Trek theme park”. Headlines such as “Jordan's Trekkie King Gets a Star Trek Theme Park”, “Jordan theme park treks ahead” and “It’s a theme park Jim, but not as we know it” have abounded. This is a slight frustration to those working on the project, since the planned park, on which RGH is working with both Paramount and CBS, will have many other themed and branded attractions.
New technology for theme parks
Delegates also heard from companies about technical innovations for the industry. Dr. Thomas Foerste from Nanotron Technologies GmbH, a Gold Sponsor of the conference, introduced us to “CLOPS”, the company’s Child Loss Protection System, which is currently being launched into the theme park business. With a Ph.D in Semiconductor Devices and experience working on the Soviet space program, Thomas is a smart guy and talked us through the product, its application in the theme park industry and also gave an overview of Nanotron’s background.
David Vatcher , CEO, Dynamic Motion Rides GmbH then told us about his company’s new flying simulator, the development of which was initially spurred on by the market’s need for a high class simulator experience akin to Islands of Adventure’s Spider-Man etc but at a fraction of the cost. Riders stand on the moving platform and watch a movie (which in his example was a high speed flight over Vienna but could of course be anything), whilst “4D” effects enhance the experience. David explained that they have found no guests have suffered any motion sickness at all, often an unpleasant side-effect of some simulator rides. (I was reminded of a particular euphemism I heard last year for sickness on coasters – “protein spill”)
Funa International’s Brian Paiva then gave an interesting outline of all the things that can (and often do) go wrong in a theme park project; those unwanted “project landmines “and importantly how to avoid them. Ken Wheatley from Christie also gave an illuminating talk about how projection technologies had changed over the last 20 years and illustrated this with a few of the projects with which he had been involved. Perhaps the most remarkable was the enormous painting Christies helped bring to life in the China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, “Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day)”, a masterpiece both from an artistic and technical perspective and no doubt part of the reason for those queues in the final months.
A really promising start
I then gave my own talk in which I looked at the growth of the internet and social media in China and how this related to theme parks. Perhaps the most surprising element to emerge from my look at Chinese Social media and theme parks was that the leading brands are not just copying Facebook, Twitter et al but outdoing them, quickly developing into better products and creating their own vast communities. Theme parks simply must get on board with social media as their visitors are there right now, especially so in China where participation in social media is much greater than in the west.
In summary this was a good conference and a solid start to what will surely become a fixture in the theme park industry calendar, with respectable attendance, a really great atmosphere and a lot of world class networking done both during the conference and in the evening sessions. All of the major Chinese parks and most of the Asian parks had delegates in attendance, and attendees enjoyed the content and the opportunity to meet theme park industry colleagues and discuss business. With a few tweaks the 2012 conference will be even better.