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Theme Parks: Blooloop interviews Tom Mehrmann, Chief Executive, Ocean Park Corporation

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tom mehrmann ceo ocean park theme park hong kongHow did you get started in the amusement and leisure industry?
Like many in the industry in the States, my career began as a seasonal job at Knott’s Berry Farm as a sweeper.  While still in high school and looking for extra money to pay for gas and save for college, it evolved into a career that spanned 21 years at Knott’s and led to progressive opportunities of growth in management roles, capital development and expansion of the brand and property.  Now, it has been 33 years and opportunities have allowed for international assignments in Europe and Asia, which have been beneficial for enhancing cultural awareness and global perspective.

Please share with us some of the key leadership roles that you’ve held.  What have been the important lessons that you have learned that have enabled you to succeed at Ocean Park?
I have been fortunate enough to work with many talented people over the years, which has lead to many key roles.  I was provided the opportunity to lead the operational aspects (design, construction and operation) for Knott’s Camp Snoopy in Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, which opened in 1992.  Additionally, I lead the effort for the re-branding and conversion of The New Marine World into Six Flags Marine World, which is now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California.  Of particular significance was the opportunity to lead the acquisition of Warner Bros Movie World, Madrid from Warner Bros. to Six Flags in the design phase and to then lead the effort of design completion, construction and operations.  The Park opened in 2002 below budget, on time and at expected quality levels.

Of greatest pride for me has been the recent leadership role at Ocean Park Corporation, Hong Kong, as we have achieved 6 record breaking years of attendance, revenues and surplus over the last 7 years, while defining, funding and executing a US$750 million redeveloocean park theme park hong kong ariel viewpment plan for the Park, which has enhanced Hong Kong as a tourism destination and firmly positioned Ocean Park as a leader in the industry.

Who in the industry has been an inspiration to you and why?
Terry Van Gorder (former CEO at Knott’s Berry Farm) had profound impact on me in shaping the philosophies and perspectives I have today.  He is a visionary with a global perspective and has the distinct ability to bring all things macro to the finite application within a theme park.  He provided me the direction and opportunities to grow in roles which were new to me, but he had the vision and courage of conviction to give opportunities where he saw potential.  His teachings that a theme park must be culturally relevant to the markets it serves still guide me today and became the cornerstone of the strategic positioning required at every park I have had the benefit of leading.  Likewise, he believes a balanced and superior theme park is represented by the perfect blending of visceral and cerebral experiences, which have guided my views on master planning and development at theme parks to this day, and is best represented at Ocean Park, as it connects people with nature through education, conservation and entertainment initiatives/attractions.

Under your leadership Ocean Park has enjoying record-breaking attendance figures for 6 successive years, whist also undergoing redevelopment and fending off competition from Disney.  To what do you attribute this success?
I would attribute much of this success to our sense of innovation in product planning and with a major theme park like Disneyland as a neighbor, the Park’s best tactic has been to differentiate ourselves and rise above throller coaster at ocean park theme park hong konge competitive influences, focusing more on the complementary opportunities. Our animals and our breathtaking natural scenery offer us the biggest differential quality along with our special events, which are constantly being re-invented every year to give new value and variety to the attractions.

Ocean Park brings fun and excitement to the entire family through its rides, animal ambassadors and themed events. Serving the Hong Kong community for 33 years, we have been instrumental in developing collective community memories of the Park, as well as cultural heritage for nearly 100 million visitors from around the world.

When you joined Ocean Park it is reported that you spent 18 months formulating your strategy for the future and the response to competition from Disney.  What are the key elements of the strategy and why do think that they are they important?
My tenure at Ocean Park began in 2004.  The master redevelopment plan was conceived and delivered for review and approval within 10 months.  The effort to present it to Government and financing institutions took place over the next 6 months and financing was secured by June 2006.  We broke ground for the 8-phase 6-year project in November 2006 and we are on track to complete the master redevelopment plan by April 2012.  The strategy was simple, to focus on our differential values (animals, education, conservation messages, location, history in market, generational value, etc..) and to allow them to be the strength of the complementary relationship we would need to position ourselves in the same market with Disney.  By recognizing our heritage in Hong Kong, as a park built by Hong Kong for the people of Hong Kong, we had a distinctive opportunity to capitalize on collective memories of the community and the generational linkage of connecting the Park with those who came as children and now bring their children to the Park.  Likewise, a great deal of effort was placed on the concept of keeping the best elements of the Park and improving thedolphin at ocean park theme park hong kong rest, such that we did not lose the legacy elements of the Park that endear it to the local community.  It was a paramount strategy to ensure the park remained culturally relevant to the market it serves, which drove the master planning concepts and product mix.

Ocean Park is undergoing an extensive and ambitious redevelopment.  What is the secret to project managing the new development whilst keeping the operational core of the park running smoothly?
We established, early in the process, that we wanted to maintain a critical mass of entertainment capacity at all times the construction activity was underway.  We set criteria and capacity targets for entertainment mix and operational objectives for length of stay and entertainment value, which governed the manner by which we removed and added attractions, as well as managed our seasonal events, guest traffic flows, and guest arrival and departure patterns.  Currently, we are undergoing a major US$750 million Master Redevelopment Project (MRP), a 6-year project that is scheduled to complete in April 2012. By then the park will boast over 70 attractions, doubling the number that existed at the start of the project in 2006. This huge infrastructure redevelopment is taking place while the park continues to operate as usual.  We have stated the process is analogous to performing open heart surgery on a marathon runner, while he is running.

First of all, the new Ocean Park is being developed in phases which allows for the park to remain operational, with our animals and habitats kept to a high standard in accordance with our AZA accreditation and international standards. Since the redevelopment of the park includes developing previously unused land, most of the attractions can remain open in the meantime. The areas under construction would also be cordoned off appropriately and we will continue to adhere to government building regulations and noise protocols to ensure the Master Redevelopment Plan would not cause any disturbance to surrounding neighbors.

Open for over 30 years, Ocean Park retains a special place in the hearts of the people of Hong Kong.  How have you formulated and communicated your strategy to be sensitive to public opinion?
Ocean Park prides itself on being Hong Kong’s People’s Park, and our objective is to be culturally relevant to the markets we serve. We connect people with nature, by inspiring guests through education presented in entertaining ways to learn, understand, and to take action for nature conservation. And our corporate social initiatives also reinforce our commitment to the local community by having many programs in place to ensure Hong Kong people from all walks of life can have a chance to visit Ocean Park.

We believe in the approach to “keep the best and improve the rest” and thus we keep our popular attractions intact for posterity, while others could reappear in a totally new presentation. For example, our Goldfish Treasures house at the Amazing Asian Animals attraction area, which opened in April 2009, is an example of an iconic animal (goldfish) returning in a new compelling way. Inspired by traditional Chinese jewellery boxes, the goldfish on display are interpreted as living gems in enchanting “treasure chests”.

Ocean Park is actively involved in conservation and sustainability.  How are conservation issues included in the visitor experience and how do you educate whilst entertaining?
One of Ocean Park’s mandates is to provide elements of education and conservation in the products offered.  Education is one of the backbones of Ocean Park and aside from educating guests every day on wildlife and conservation, Ocean Park, through its education arm Ocean Park Academy, welcomes over 46, 000 students each year with its structured educational programs on animal care, nature conservation and liberal studies. Connecting people with nature is part of the Park’s vision statement.

While Ocean Park has been delivering entertainment and education experiences through its attractions and educatom mehrmann at ocean park theme park hong kong conservation daytion programmes since 1977, our conservation arm, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK), has helped fulfil our commitment to wildlife conservation.  Since 2006, we have donated HK$1.00 of each paid admission to OPCFHK for the preservation of biodiversity in Asia, as well as the research efforts needed to protect the environment, conserve our natural resources and educate the public.

Since its establishment in 1995, OPCFHK has engaged in over 200 research projects and has since expanded our efforts from whales, dolphins and giant pandas to many other species in Asia, and every animal that we help and care for moves us one step closer to our conservation objective. The Foundation also provides funding to scientists in Mainland China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and even India to study and conserve endangered wildlife and their habitats.

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, OPCF established a Giant Panda Base Rebuilding Fund and donated emergency relief items such as temporary offices, trucks and computer equipment to the affected nature reserves to help them resume daily operations. By working with the Mainland forestry departments, OPCFHK continues to support rebuilding efforts by donating additional relief equipment, rebuilding facilities, restoring panda habitats and supporting conservation projects.

 In addition to these conservation projects, OPCF is committed to nurturing conservationists by educating secondary and primary students through various education programmes. We also send local university students on field trips to learn first-hand from field scientists.

How important has the support of the Hong Kong government been to Ocean Park and how have you persuaded them to buy into your vision of the future?
As a Government owned, not-for-profit, statutory body and public trust, the support of Government is paramount to our success.  Government has representatives who sit on the Board of Directors and participated in the conceptual design process, as well as the necessary actions to “sell” and promote the plan for the appropriate funding and Legislative Council support of the Master Redevelopment Plan.  Government’s support and belief in the Park has allowed various animal gifts from neighboring nations to be placed under the care of Ocean Park, such as: Giant Pandas, Red Pandas, Chinese Salamanders, Chinese Sturgeons and Koalas.  Our success can be directly linked to the Government support received, as well as to the autonomy provided to Management to develop and execute the respective strategic plans, business plans and operating plans, such that we can be competitive and comparative for theme park experiences within the market, the region, the nation, the Industry and the world.

You devote time and effort to the community and to promoting tourism development in Hong Kong.  Why is this important to you?
We take our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) quite seriously at the park, which includes supporting charitable organizations, respective chambers of commerce, grade schools and universities.  I contributed 240 hours of my free time to presenting the “Ocean Park Story”, as well as case study analysis and community programs, such as: World Coastal Clean-up day, Earth Day, World Oceans Day, International Day for Disabled People, etc..This is important, as the Park is the People’s Park of Hong Kong and we are connected to the community for collective memories, generational legacy, educational programs, conservation awareness and the caretakers for the national treasures (Giant Pandas and Chinese Sturgeon) of Mainland China.  Last year alone, we raised over HK$8.5 million, which was donated to Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, to support conservation initiatives in restoring biodiversity in Asia, as well as the restoration of panda habitats in Sichuan, following the devastating impact of the earthquake and landslides in 2008.  We are a caring Company that believes in giving back to the community and the world through our mandate of conservation, education and entertainment.  We do believe that if Hong Kong is seen as the aspirational destination of the tourist market that no trip to Hong Kong will be complete without a visit to Ocean Park.  Our efforts in the community and in the market are intended to give back to Hong Kong, the region, the country, the industry and the world.
ocean park theme park community clean up hong kong

And finally….what makes a great theme park visitor experience?
A great theme park visitor experience is achieved through great employees, attractions, service and products, which exceed the expectations of the guests, in a safe and fun environment.  This all happens by blending and integrating cerebral and visceral experiences, including real natural encounters with wildlife, and education presented in an entertaining, engaging and inspirational ways, which all lead to positive life-long memories.

marine mammal shows at ocean park hong kong theme park

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