The day China became a happier place

So I was one of the happy fews who made it for the opening day of Shanghai Disney Resort, one of the most important days in the history of entertainment in China.

That day I cried… of joy! I couldn’t believe my eyes, my ears and my heart. I was not in China but transported together with thousands of happy Chinese guests to a land of happiness.

One of the Walt Disney Imagineers I was talking to just before the opening told me it was the most immersive park they ever built but nothing prepared me for such degree of perfection.

In his opening speech Bob Iger also mentioned how important the music was for this new park and I must say the soundscape is truly remarkable; from the peaceful sound of nature complementing the beautiful landscape to the superb electro sound of Tomorrowland.

In Shanghai, Disney has taken the multi-sensory experience to new levels and this is what makes it so unique and will gain the heart of millions of Chinese who will want to experience the magic of Disney not as a symbol of the US but of as the purveyor of happiness.

Shanghai Disney Resort is true to its name. It is a resort, a place for families to spend time together, enjoy nature activities (Camp Discovery), let kids play (Treasure Cove’s pirates ships), tweens dance (Pepsi E-Stage), etc. The theming offering so much rockwork and water bodies provides an amazing sense of serenity.

There would be so much more to say about this beautiful park but today on the next day of my visit I just want to say thank you Disney for taking your time to build this gem. Now China is happier place.

Unlocking SE Asia

This is a transcript from my recent talk for blooloopLIVE Asia.

I moved to Bangkok in 2004 and have been in a relationship with SE Asia ever since

Working for AccorHotels I was in charge of 3 countries and I loved them all but none of my colleagues wanted to look after them or even go there. They were Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

And now everyone is telling me the future is in these 3 countries. How did that happen?

Throughout my time in SE Asia, I have been very lucky to experience the rise of ASEAN to what it is today: one of the most dynamic regions in the world.

So I thought I would share with you 3 of my keys to this fascinating region and a bit of my journey on the way!

I now live in Malaysia and I travel a lot, usually with Air Asia (fascinating success story by the way).

Each time I go to KLIA2 I get reminded the region has a population of 600 million, that’s way more than the US and almost as much as Europe!

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So my first point today is on the need to understand a large and diverse population unified by a few common values.

And religion probably being the most important: Islam in Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world) and Malaysia. Buddhism in Thailand and increasingly in Vietnam. And Roman Catholicism in the Philippines.

All of these religions are very strong and deep inside the lives of people.

Even Singapore is not immune to this phenomenon and religion is almost everywhere, even on your mobile on the way to work!

Education is another one. On average families have 2 to 3 kids, regardless of their religion.

Making sure that kids learn and develop skills that will give them better chances to succeed (and therefore to look after their elders) is very important.

Recently I sat down with Claudia INGKIRIWANG who used to run the Jungleland theme park south of Jakarta. She told me she used to run educational visits of the park, where school kids would learn about the mechanics of rides and coasters. That’s a big stretch!

But elsewhere in Indonesia it’s the same. TranStudio Bandung has a science centre as one of its attractions and Jatim Parks a Natural History Museum! So there you go, send your kids to the theme park so they can learn!

Also regardless of religion, family comes first. And doing something with the family is always a top priority.

Now moving on to my second key to the region: making sense of urbanization.

Whoever has not sat for hours in traffic in Jakarta or Manila has not experienced SE Asia! This is the reality of millions of people coming to the big city to look for opportunities, be it education or a job. In Indonesia alone, 5 million people enter the urban consuming class each year!

In addition to traffic there is pollution, high cost of living and lack of space, which is why urban dwellers are always looking for ways to escape, whether out of town or within the city in what I would call a ‘bubble’.

In Jakarta alone, there are more than 20 water parks!

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And if you look at the region, all large theme parks are within 1 to 2 hours drive from the major cities. That’s a fact. But these parks were often built in the 90’s and today it is more difficult and certainly more expensive to develop new parks given urban areas have expanded so far out.

Now according to research by Nielsen in SE Asia, as they urbanise people are willing to spend, they want better not more and they seek new experiences and offerings. This is what they call premiumisation!

And this premiumisation is to be linked to another trend towards concentration of commercial development in the hands of a happy few I call the ‘lords of urbanization’. Think Central Group in Thailand, Ayala Land in the Philippines, Agung Podomoro in Indonesia, Vincom in Vietnam or Sunway in Malaysia.

Their entire strategy relies on leveraging such premiumisation, which is the key driver for business in their glitzy malls.

So if a big theme park outside of a big city is no longer possible or viable maybe there’s room for a premium product designed for the lords of urbanization. Think Kidzania, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre and similar indoor visitor attractions playing the role of ‘bubbles’.

My third and last key to the region is balancing technology.

People in SE Asia are fast adopters and hyper social; they like to share everything.

The Top 4 countries with the highest time spent on social media in Asia are in the region: Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. 3 and a half hours per day, that’s definitely too much!

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And I find this to be a dilemna for our industry. Because technology has such a big impact on the way we design and manage attractions.

So on one side this means we should provide an experience that fits the latest technology trends and probably even push the envelope to close the gap

But on the other side our role is possibly to provide places where people can connect for real (not just with their device), where they can engage all their senses and build lifetime memories with each others (especially family members).

So how do you find the right balance?

And this is probably our biggest challenge in the region. To successfully bridge the online and the offline. To use the latest in technology (probably involving some sort of leapfrogging) to achieve a more ambitious goal of educating and bringing people together.

Now if I go back 10 years ago and look at the factors of change that enabled ASEAN to be where it is today. Such as population and economic growth, urbanization and technology, I see these are the very key to understand this region that I shared with you today.

So here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself before designing or investing in a new visitor attraction in SE Asia:

No.1 Are you designing a place that is VERY family friendly? Are you designing a place that is respectful of traditions and religions?

No.2 Do you provide a strong sense of escapism and togetherness for urban families?

No.3 Are you offering better not more? Are you crafting an experience that is new, unique and authentic?

No.4 Do you engage the lords of urbanization and provide them with solutions, which will attract their support in return?

No.5 How do you plan to bridge the online and the offline? Is your attraction technology advanced for a reason other than just following trends?

Now, no one has the perfect answer to all these questions but if we work together, share our experiences & knowledge in occasions like today’s event, I am convinced we can build collectively a very bright future for our industry in the region. A future where ASEAN leads visitor experience.

THANK YOU.