Merlin strikes in Singapore… and I am impressed.

For those who know me I have a strong opinion about Merlin Entertainments and usually I tend to be rather critical. But for the first time I am really impressed. Let me share my thoughts after visiting their recently opened operation in Sentosa: Madame Tussauds Singapore & Images of Singapore LIVE.

The new attraction is located in the former Images of Singapore building in the Imbiah Zone in Sentosa Island, for which Merlin Entertainment won the bid a year ago. I was really curious to see what they’d done since we participated in the bid too with one of our clients.

Merlin took a different approach than ours as they decided to split the building in two to accommodate a 2-in-1 attraction with Images of Singapore LIVE and Madame Tussauds Singapore. It turned out to be a very smart approach, which allowed them to win the votes of the Sentosa board.

In the RFP document, Sentosa was asking for an operator to “redevelop and operate IOS with the option to operate F&B, retail and/or any other supporting provisions”. Merlin’s approach to keep part of the Images of Singapore exhibit (the pre-show remains unchanged) and to rearrange existing decors and props into a series of a dozen of scenes featuring live actors and special effects works very well. Evidently it is inspired by their Dungeons concept but where Merlin managed to impress me is for once they decided not to plug an existing brand/concept but to create something new and culturally relevant using their existing resources.

In my opinion this could be the sign of a shift in Merlin’s strategy, which could potentially open up a whole new world of opportunities. What if Merlin started to redevelop under-performing attractions in prime locations around the globe? Imagine all these science centres, museums, etc left dying by government-lead bodies and suddenly marketed by the world’s second largest attractions company…

But where Merlin really strikes is by squeezing a relatively small size Madame Tussauds attraction into the building, allowing them to jack up the admission price from S$10 for Images of Singapore to S$35 for the combo! And that’s where the money is. Madame Tussauds is a very strong brand and appeals to the Asian audience obsessed with photo taking, and now selfies.

As an ‘educated’ visitor who would normally bad-mouth any Madame Tussauds museum located in a shopping mall (Bangkok, Shanghai, etc) I have to say I had a really good experience in Singapore. We bought the combo and so the visit started with Images of Singapore LIVE. For 45min we were taken through a quick summary of Singapore’s history and it was very entertaining. The scripts are well written, the actors rather convincing and the recycled props of Images of Singapore very well suited. At the end of the 45min we should have gone on the Spirit of Singapore boat ride (currently not working) taking us to the beginning of Madame Tussauds.

The Madame Tussauds exhibition is quite standard although I would say the section on the history of Madame Tussauds and how wax figures are made is better than usual (they might have been inspired by Grevin’s new museums in Montreal and Prague!). The mix between local and international celebrities is good; I was with a Singaporean friend and it was clear she was enjoying pointing out to me the different local celebs and what they did for Singapore.

Here is a short video of Madame Tussauds (filming at Images of Singapore LIVE was not allowed).

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I love this infographics #disneygenius

It was not until my first visit of Walt Disney World in Orlando last year that I realized Disney’s genius. I was born when the Disney empire was already big and I always took it for granted. Even when I started working in the industry I would look at Disney as an industry mammoth and wouldn’t pay too much attention to what they were doing (it doesn’t help that I was born in Paris and then lived in Hong Kong, where Disney operates two of its less successful parks). But that day when I raced like a kid through Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, everything changed; I was struck by the Disney magic. And this priceless infographics from 1957 I just stumbled across explains why…

Disney is a machine and it all revolves around “Creative Talent”. On this chart Walt Disney Studio is in the heart of the business and provides material for comic books, characters for merchandise licensing, art for record jackets and rides for theme parks. As me know creativity is sometimes difficult to get in Asia (and particularly in China), but for Disney this is what got the empire started. It is in their DNA and transpires in everything they do. The recent example of Frozen is quite relevant. After so many years of making princess stories Disney is still able to take the whole world by surprise with a completely new approach (from Creative Talent), which now impacts the entire business, from merchandise licensing to theme parks and music.

Disney’s genius is also in how the different businesses are interconnected to each others, be it theme parks providing customers for TV commercials or TV plugging theme parks. Although not entirely relevant in 2014 one can see that it can easily be applied to Disney’s new businesses such as digital, PIXAR, etc. Because this runs in their veins since the 50’s, Disney knows better than anyone else how to create these synergies.

I like that Disney calls its production “Theatrical Films”. To me it says a lot about the intent of their content to be very staged and highly entertaining. Theatre plays are based on strong plots with rich characters and this is essentially what has made Disney’s success over the years, from Snow White to Frozen.

When I look at our industry today I don’t see anyone capable of applying this model, and certainly not in China despite what Wanda and all its followers are saying about their cultural tourism city model relying on their own IP and content. One exception though could come from a small town in Belgium, at the border of my home country, where Steve Van Den Kerkhof has been slowly building the Plopsa Group based on a strong synergy between Studio 100 animation studios and Plopsa theme parks. I am off to De Panne soon to check it out. Stay tuned.