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Themed Entertainment: Death and Recession at the TiLEzone Conference 2012


The TiLEzone London Seminar, which took place March 21st at The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, brought together professionals from the themed entertainment industry from across Europe and further afield to hear about the latest trends, technologies and developments in the field of themed entertainment and leisure attractions. Skeletons, a sleeping lion and talk of recession made for an interesting day.

The Recession as an Opportunity in Themed Entertainment?

lesley morisetti themed entertainment theme park feasibilityChaired by Lesley Morisetti (left) of LM Associates, the first session focussed on how the leisure business is facing up to and coping with the “age of austerity”. Lesley and Michael Collins of Leisure Development Partners each ran through their thoughts on the recession from an economic standpoint.  How does the current recession compare to previous ones?  How have visitor attractions fared?  Is there truth in the popular notion that the attractions business is more resilient than most and if so why?  A summary of Lesley’s presentation will appear in these pages shortly.tony berry the national trust themed entertainment

We then heard from two of the country’s leading visitor attractions operators, with their thoughts on the recession:  Tony Berry (right), Visitor Experience Director for The National Trust, and Duncan Campbell, New Business Strategy Director, Merlin Entertainments Group.

The National Trust and Recession Behaviour

Founded in 1895 with the brief of protecting the United Kingdom’s heritage and open spaces, The National Trust is one of the UK’s largest charities and both the largest landowner and the biggest membership organisation in the country.  Members – of which there are over 4 million – are entitled to entry to any of the Trust’s thousands of historic homes, gardens and opens spaces.

Tony outlined a number of trends he has seen with regard to the Trust’s experience of the recession and how it is impacting the business.  Although overall he thought the organisation was weathering the storm well, with increased visitor numbers and both catering and retail spend up, he did point out a national trust family day out themed entertainmentnumber of factors which he felt were of interest:

  • The  spend per head was declining, and therefore biting  into profits
  • Benefitting from the “Staycation” syndrome
  • Though no statistical measure, anecdotal evidence seems to point to an increased desire on behalf of a cash-strapped public for the more simple pleasures: does the “honest, earthy break in the countryside in glorious surroundings” offered by the NT catch the national mood?
  • A decrease in membership of people for whom membership is viewed not as a season ticket but as a worthy cause.  Visitors are perhaps more hard-nosed, looking for benefits and “work” their card more.
  • KPI (key performance indicators) having been rising for years, had a fall last year: recession affecting the mood?
  • The people whose membership is least  likely to lapse are those, regardless of their finances, with the most emotional attachment to the NT

electrosonic sponsor tilezone seminar themed entertainmentIt is of course understandable that in harder times, visitors are more circumspect about their disposable income, and want more for their money.  Tony also spotted some “classic recession behaviour” .  The 12-months-for-the-price-of-9 offer for new joiners has seen some existing members cancel their membership, only to rejoin as “new” members in order to take advantage of the  offer. Tony and his team are currently looking into ways in which to reward the loyalty of their existing membership.

Another key strategy is in seeking to monetize the vast footfall the NT has to its free entry sites.  With footfall of up to 100 million a year (compared with 19 million to paid entry sites) there is huge potential here.  Car Parking and catering are being considered.

The overall strategy is to encourage longer dwell time and increased spending, “smart visiting”. The NT will aim to “bring properties to life” and also recognises the huge growth in local visits.  Properties are being seen more and more as local amenities.  Tony said that this is “an antidote to high fuel costs” and gave one site experiencing high local visitation as an example.  The 30% increase in local visitor numbers saw a 5% reduction in mileage, meaning that the attraction was increasing its footfall whilst decreasing its carbon footprint – a win/win for an organisation focussed on conservation and the countryside.

At its heart, the strategy is to make the brand “recession-proof”.  The drive is to focus on the outdoors – “We’re not just trudging around boring old houses” – and make the NT the natural destination for people seeking parkland, outdoor activities and a healthy lifestyle.


A Broad Portfolio: Merlin Entertainments

We next heard from Duncan Cambell,   New Business  Strategy Director at Merlin Entertainments. Working with the roll out of Merlin Entertainment’s branded attractions across the world – SEAlife, Dungeons, LDC (Lego Discovery Centres), Wax Museum Tussauds and Obsmerlin entertainments logo themed entertainment theme parkservation attractions – Duncan gave an interesting global perspective to the recession currently experienced in the UK.

The Recession was mainly affecting developed western nations he said, meaning around 200 million of a world population of over 7 billion. Viewed in such a context, Merlin’s position is a strong one, with a growing presence not only in Europe and The US but also in Asia and Australasia too.  Duncan’s role involves him tracking over 330 markets and he pointed out that even in regions where the recession is biting, there are still success stories and vibrant, successful attractions within those countries. (See : Merlin Entertainments 2011 Financial Results: Double Digit Growth and International Expansion)

Merlin’s large portfolio of attractions is growing all the time – if anything it is speeding up – but he stressed that his approach is still that quality is as important as ever.  He attributed the company’s success to a number of factors: legoland california theme park themed entertainment

  • Their balanced portfolio: Broad range of products allows for a buffer against regional, seasonal and tourism/local market fluctuations. Can ride out any minor shocks.
  • Strong cash-flow philosophy.  We spend wisely and carefully and demand value for money.
  • Seek best value per customer, with strong promotions etc.
  • Guest satisfaction vitally important across Merlin.  A Director specifically in charge of this.
  • We act fast. Turnaround developments in a minimum of 12 months.
  • As Merlin is owned by venture capitalists, expansion plans funded at the outset.

The “Virtuous Circle” – Attractions Management

The next session was lead by Blair Parkin, MD of Visual Acuity.  He explained how many aspects of the operation of attractions – ticketing, revenue, heating, lighting etc – will soon become integrated, making for “smart institutions”.  Booking online will (with the visitor’s permission) create a unique identity enabling  the attraction to be able to shape the experience of the visitor by altering the exhibits, the information available and the content to suit that particular individual.john davies omniticket ticketing access systems theme parks

Networking technologies, Wi-Fi, The Cloud etc. will mean that companies that previously would have never crossed paths, will now work together to offer a seamless, integrated offer to attractions operators. 

Operators will be able to know more and more about the visitors to their attraction and a simple interface will allow them access to this information.  How many visitors per hour? Are they members? Which attractions or room is busiest and at what time? Can we send something to the visitor online?  Might they be future members?

The “dashboard” will alsoalex carru ceo medialon themed entertainment allow an operator to close off parts of the building not in use, focus visitors where they are wanted, and manage energy use, turning off lighting in empty rooms for example. The visitor and the visitor experience are at the centre of the “Virtuous Circle”.

Revenue and payment systems have changed out of all recognition since 2008. Omniticket’s  Director John Davies (above right) , then  spoke  about how revenue and ticketing systems are at the heart of the visitor experience and form a vital arc of the circle. (For a summary of Johdamian andrews visual acuity themed entertainment technologyn’s presentation see:  Attraction Ticketing and Access Systems- An Overview)

Medialon’s  CEO, Alex Carru (above) then showed us how, once the visitor is in the attraction, a single and unified control system interfaced to building management, ticketing and access, revenue , ride and exhibit systems and sustainable building technology will rapidly become the operator’s method of working with its visitors. A summary of his presentation will appear her  shortly.

Visual Acuity’s Damian Andrews (bottom right) then highlighted a project he is currently working on – the new Miami Science Museum – as an example of the virtuous circle in operation (see video below).   Although the principles are in place in many museums and attractions, to his knowledge this is the first time the whole circle will be utilised for an entire building.


The aim is for the operators to have access to one simple dashboard, from which they will manage everything from air flow, lighting and heating to the operation of individual function rooms. With RFID technology an important part of the process, this will allow for guest profiling, meaning visitors from this bilingual city will receive information, whether by audio or signage, in their own language. 

From Medical Imaging technology to an attraction?

crouching lion lioness themed entertainment tilezoneDelegates were then treated to a presentation by Professor Anders Ynnerman (below) from the Department of Science and technology at Linköping University, Sweden.  He introduced us to the state of the art medical imaging technology which he and his team are adapting to make available for visitor attractions such as museums, science centres and zoos. 

In an extraordinary presentation we were shown a number of images which were as grim as they were fascinating: results from autopsies where the technology has been used to pinpoint the cause of death of the deceased.  With the technology enabling  the viewer to see deep inside the body of a person or animal with total clarity, it was astonishing to see the skeletons of real (albeit) dead people in such intricate detail. The fractured neck on a car accident fatality was as clear to us as the 6 inch knife lodged deep into the head of a murder victim.anders ynnerman medical imaging themed entertainment

This technology is ideal for the attractions industry.  Anders’ company is combining these techniques with interactive, multi-touch table technology, opening up new ways for visitors to explore and understand the normally invisible. During the breaks between presentations, while we drank weak tea and tried not to eat too many biscuits, the interactive table on display was a constant focus of attention.   Attendees were seasoned museum and themed entertainment professionals yet crowded around like excited kids watching digital skeletons revolve and halve and reveal their secrets.  Anders closed his session with an image of a lioness, under anaesthetic and looking like a creature of the underworld. “My precious, ” he called it.

Sound and Vision: Video Mapping

Later in the day we were treated to a look at the way high power, high resolution video projection technology is allowing the creation of large scale displays, leading to the current use of video mapping to create “media facades”.


 Robert Simpson, founder Director of Electrosonic talked us through “Unusual Projection surfaces” and how advancing technology now allows for projectionelectrosonic tilezone themed entertainment onto shaped and very large surfaces. Covering such techniques as autostereoscopic and 3d projection, large scale layered projection and hemispherical screens, Robert also highlighted his presentation with a video (above) of projection mapping onto the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Dubai.

peter ed lighting themed entertainmentLight Emissions’ Peter Ed (left) rounded off the day with a look at how the LED has enabled incredible new visual tools to bring whole buildings to life. Curved screens, lining building walls, 3D volume animation, transparent screens and interactive floors  are just a few of the methods being employed to immerse visitors into spaces wholly controlled by video.

The evening saw a TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) Mixer at The Fuel Bar.  Delegates to the TiLEzone conference reflected on another fascinating event.  Whilst small, the event  gathers together an impressive array of speakers and delegates from a broad range of attractions, making for a unique opportunity for networking and learning and an unmissable date in the attractions industry calendar.

Images: Skeleton and lion images kind courtesy CMIV – Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization" at Linköping University . National Trust image kind courtsy National Trust. Legoland california Waterpark kind courtesy Merlin Entertainments

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