Last year Merlin had a reorganisation of their business forming a new creative and development organisation – Merlin Magic Making (MMM) – alongside its three operating groups – LEGOLAND Parks; Resort Theme Parks and Midway.
Merlin Magic Making focuses on raising the bar in terms of innovation and creativity; with the single objective of keeping Merlin well ahead of the competition, and is not only a critical component of Merlin Entertainment’s continuing success, but also an organisation which is unique in the world. (See Merlin Entertainments – Senior Management Changes )
The small, but highly talented MMM team of less than 400, brings together site search and property development, project management, creative development and creative production. In short Merlin says they are responsible for:
• Creating the Magic – through innovation and creativity
• Finding the Magic – new site search
• Producing the Magic – wax figures, LEGO models, aquarium displays development, attraction theming
• Delivering the Magic – project management and development
Merlin Magic Making is led by Chief Development Officer, Mark Fisher (above). Charles Read caught up with him.
Related: Merlin Entertainments: interview with Mark Fisher, MD Theme Parks / Merlin Entertainments' Glenn Earlam on "Brands with Unlimited Potential" / Merlin Entertainments' John Jakobsen on the Rise and Rise of Legoland
Why was the management restructuring necessary and what is your current role?
As the company grew we were concerned that we might lose the entrepreneurial and creative essence at the heart of Merlin’s success – those little touches of “magic” which make our attractions so special. Merlin, more than any other company in the sector through the talents, not just of the Merlin Magic Making (MMM) team, but also through our 20, 000 employees around the world , has an established reputation for creating amazing and special experiences in every part of the business at just a fraction of the cost others spend – whether it is singing heads at the London Dungeon, “Crabaccinos” in Bray SEA LIFE, amazing new rides like the SWARM at Thorpe Park or a huge project like LEGOLAND Malaysia which has just opened.
In short continuous investment and creativity across the whole business is at our core, and we work hard to ensure we never forget that, and we never become complacent. My own role therefore is twofold:
- To ensure that Merlin is at the cutting edge of innovation and new thinking in our sector and the first choice partner. Not because we can outspend the Disney’s and Universals, but because we can achieve magic in ways that no one else has thought of.
- To encourage creativity and innovation across the whole business and to show that while the 400 people at MMM may be a central hub and focus for creativity, that every Merlin colleague has the potential to add something special to the experience and contribute to giving our visitors a memorable day.
It’s an amazing and privileged role and I am loving it!
Logistically, how does MMM work? Is the team based in Poole (Merlin Entertainments’ Headquarters)?
Actually very little of the team is based in Poole:
• The nearest to Poole are our marine development team in Weymouth
• Our wax studios, creative and site search and property teams are based in Acton in West London – although we also have site search experts in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific
• We have a theming department at Alton Towers and
• LEGO Masterbuilders workshops in the UK/Denmark/Malaysia/California and Germany
However it is certainly our aim to have much more of the creative activity based locally to major attractions in the future and we are always looking to recruit talented individuals around the world to join the MMM team. .
Your new group creative director Paul Moreton (right) has a background in television. How do you think this experience will benefit Merlin and MMM group in particular?
In fact Paul has a long history with attractions before his television work. At the Tussauds Group this included playing a key role in the opening of the London Eye and the new positioning of Madame Tussauds as a modern contemporary attraction brand. He has a wide understanding of our brands and what we are trying to achieve, and his time away and the contacts he made through TV provide a new, more pragmatic and subjective view of how we can get there. Most of the senior Merlin team have been with us for a very long time so it is very healthy for us to have the addition of a colleague with different but related experience. (See : Merlin Entertainments Appoints First Group Creative Director)
What are the challenges of your new role?
I have had operational responsibility for almost all our brands including LEGOLAND, Alton Towers, SEA LIFE and Gardaland, so I have a great deal of experience and understanding of the brand positioning of each business which I can bring to the MMM role. This background allows me to view some of the team’s creative ideas from that perspective and to comment or challenge as an operator.
The challenge is the breadth of the brief – particularly given the dynamic growth strategy. Its success is very dependent on us because everything new comes through some or all of my team. That, therefore is also my personal challenge – to make sure we concentrate on those things that really make a difference, and to motivate and maximise the talent of my amazing team – a team which is unique in the world. On a practical level, given the speed of decision making required and the fact that as a global business we work on a 24 hour clock – I also need to manage this to ensure that I maintain an acceptable balance in my working and family life.
Please tell us about site search (ie finding suitable locations for Merlin’s global Midway brands).
The team is led by Steve Shears (above) who manages a team of people who may be on the road looking at as many as 150 potential sites across the globe for our brands at any one time. This is in line with the recommendations of a very experienced central research team who are constantly looking at the demographics and potential of new locations- regions, countries, towns and the very specific locations within them in which one or more of our brands would be successful .
Each brand has very different criteria. A Madame Tussauds for example, needs to be in a major city with high tourist volumes, whereas a LEGOLAND Discovery Centre will prosper in towns where there is a dense local population and large family catchment area. This research is critical as is the final choice of the site – the wrong street/part of town or shopping mall can make all the difference to the successful opening of a new attraction.
Growth of Merlin
Merlin is expanding rapidly. What do you see as the risks?
The biggest challenge for us, given the speed of our growth is ensuring we have enough good, well-trained people available who understand the Merlin culture and brands, and that we find ways to motivate and inspire them every day. My colleague Tea Colaianni (left), our Group HR Director and her team have made huge strides here both centrally and at a local level.. This has been through the instigation of very comprehensive training and development, motivational programmes, and the development of a graduate training scheme, which is fast becoming one of the most sought after amongst top quality students both in the UK and in the other markets where we are rolling it out – the USA and Asia for example.
Recruitment is also helped by the prominence and reputation of our brands and of Merlin’s growing employer profile. It is understood that we can provide exciting global career opportunities for entrepreneurial, self-motivated people. Everyone in the company has a significant workload – particularly my team within MMM – and it is essential we ensure we do not lose people for this reason, and so we offer them comprehensive support and career development opportunities.
The second challenge is maintaining the quality of our attractions and continuing to invest in them despite tough economic pressures. We are unique in having created a very senior role – the Product Excellence Director, Gordon Mutton (above) – to oversee the quality of the visitor experience and feedback comment and recommendations daily at Board level.
We (the management team) know all the attractions; we have grown up with them. My biggest fear for Merlin is that we become too “corporate”. We have been lucky in that we have bought in very, very good management teams that are like minded. The Board is made up of people whose backgrounds include Lego, Tussauds, etc as well as others coming into the business from outside, a really good mix. A lot of our people have also been around the industry for years – they have enormous experience and insight. For example, our Divisional Director for Europe used to run one of the rides at Thorpe Park, the Australian Divisional Director worked on rides too at Chessington…. hundreds of people came through the ranks, and this grounding in the park business makes a real difference to our ability to grow fast and successfully.
What sets Merlin apart from other operators?
That’s easy – it is the passion and talent of our people – at every level. Merlin has a very special culture and values – we call it “The Merlin Way” – and I see that in action every day in the development of our business strategies and in every attraction. It is also apparent in all the creative and support departments – it is intangible but at the heart of our success.
In short The Merlin Way is…
• We love what we do
• We care
• We are innovative and fast moving
• We do what we say
• We make every £, $, € ……. count
• We take ownership
…………… And we make it fun
After all, taking our business seriously doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy it.
To what degree can the individual attractions be autonomous?
Our philosophy has always been local autonomy with a well-defined central strategy and support. Our managers know their markets and their visitors and what they are expected to achieve commercially and they have a lot of leeway to do that, particularly in those markets where they may be operating without other colleagues nearby to bounce ideas off on a daily basis. Everything we do must put visitor satisfaction and quality at the centre, but we never condone any action which would undermine the reputation of Merlin or any of our brands.
From outside we might be seen as a big corporate kind of organisation, that is inevitable because we have done some stuff (!- Ed.) But inside our greatest strength is that individually we still all have this same passion for the business, we have it in spades.
Your core brands are well known, are you looking at other IPs?
We already have a number of very strong IP partners eg ICE AGE in Alton Towers and Gardaland, Madagascar in Chessington and Marvel at Madame Tussauds. Part of my role at MMM is to ensure that the very best IP partners think of Merlin first when they are looking to develop their brands into visitor attractions. We have managed to astonish even the most demanding of IP partners with the quality of our ideas and interpretation of their franchises into our attractions and we certainly plan to do more of that. IPs must of course be complementary to our own brands and add real value to the visitor experience. As for taking our own brands “outside” and extending their value in the future – as they grow in prominence across the globe – watch this space!
Which key regions is Merlin focussing on?
Our key development areas remain the USA and Asia including China, although we will always pursue specific opportunities which arise in Europe. We are of course always looking at the emerging markets Like India and South America in particular, but currently there are much greater demographic, social and income differences in these regions which make the long term success of an attraction harder to predict.
This is potentially a very important development market for us not least because a recent McKinsey Report predicted that by 2025, 200 of the world’s leading 700 cities will be in China! Indeed we have several new projects there already well advanced, in addition to the attractions we are already operating in Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, success in China in our experience depends very much on timing, on working with the right local partners and in continuing to develop our own local teams who can move the market forward for us through their understanding of both the Chinese culture and our attractions. So, I would summarise our approach as being very positive and pro-active but cautious.
How does the project development at new and existing sites work?
We have a central project development team in MMM led by Grant Stenhouse. They are involved in/co-ordinate all new Merlin projects across the globe – working closely with local teams and partners.
Any news on a potential IPO?
We are very fortunate. We have three very supportive shareholders , Blackstone, CVC and KIRKBI – the LEGO toy owners – who believe in the company, the management and the team. They have allowed us to grow in line with our aspirations so while we have never made any secret of the fact that an IPO may be the best way to secure our growth long term, there is no rush and we will not consider this until we are sure that the market is stable enough to recognise the true worth and potential of Merlin as a business.
And second gates, accommodation?
With theme parks, our strategy is not about having a theme park on its own. We will add accommodation and second gates more and more, creating multi-day stays -we are looking at expanding visits not visitors. In LEGOLAND Deutschland for example, we have expanded our popular holiday village accommodation twice already, and are about to expand a third time because the demand is so great. We have of course opened our second LEGOLAND Hotel this year in Windsor to great acclaim and more important very high demand! The hotels at Chessington World of Adventures and Heide Park have equally been hugely successful.
Currently, we are halfway through building hotels in LEGOLAND California, which we will open next year; and in our newest resort LEGOLAND Malaysia. This hotel will open in 2014. Indeed wherever there is a LEGOLAND park we will add accommodation. We also have planning permission for a hotel at Thorpe Park and outline pp for another in Gardaland.
How do you foster and encourage creativity and innovation?
In many ways.Internally, we have to give our employees the encouragement and autonomy to put forward and develop an idea wherever they may be in the business, in the knowledge that it will be considered and taken forward if at all possible and that they will be given maximum support. This means that an idea from any of our 20, 000 staff can be heard. To help this we already run creative forums at every business and have recently launched a new “Spark An Idea” initiative which is an intranet based ideas forum. My aim is to take the energy and thinking I see every day in my colleagues at MMM to every part of the company.
Externally Tim Burnell our Production Director, whose very talented teams of ‘artists’ are responsible for actually delivering ‘the magic’ – wax figures; theming for rides and attractions; and LEGOLAND models – works very closely with art colleges running relevant courses. Wimbledon School of Art for example in the UK – which has also been the source of many of our bright new sculptors. He also works with local operational and PR teams to find trainee LEGO Master Builders from all walks of like in places like the USA and Malaysia to learn the art from their experienced colleagues. In his spare time he also looks after our central livestock team!
Is it your strategy to grow in-house expertise or rely on third party contractors?
I think we have an excellent balance between in house expertise and the desire and ability to also work with third party experts who can add value to a project. This could be creatively, technically, or simply by facilitating a project through their local knowledge and cultural understanding.
How does the investment in individual attractions work?
Every individual attraction has a 5 year plan, signed off by the Board and developed by the business in conjunction with my own team. Investment works on a cyclical basis for each attraction with something happening each year. This might be upgrading of infrastructure and general guest services, gap filling with a small or medium attraction aimed at a specific target group or a major new investment area.
Where are we seeing the most creative and innovative developments in the attractions industry?
There is so much going on but I have found some of the augmented reality technology coming out of Asia mind-blowing. The merging of technologies is creating the kind of special effects and genuine immersion in an experience we have not seen before. This is particularly exciting when related to brands or IPs – the Harry Potter attraction at Universal is a great example.
Finally, if you were not at Merlin, what might you be doing?
If I stayed in the industry then I would probably get involved in a very, very small park, where I could be part of everything happening on the ground – because that is what I enjoy, and sometimes miss a little. I had a trip down memory lane last year: my first job was live events at Alton Towers, and I saw an event there – it was fabulous watching it all work again from the ground up.
That said if I left the business would try my hand at being a farmer, a very poor one I suspect!