Fiesta Carnival and the number one lesson for property developers

When Fiesta Carnival opened in 1971 in Cubao – back then a suburb of Manila – it was the first indoor amusement park in the Philippines, and probably Asia. At a time when the country was the most advanced in the region J. Amado Araneta, a visionary and a great believer in family entertainment, decided to complement his Araneta Coliseum (home of the famous Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975), New Frontier Cinema (Asia’s largest at the time) and ice skating rink with an indoor leisure and amusement center covering close to two hectares.

By the 1990’s, Fiesta Carnival began to lose its appeal among the children who have become more enamored with mall-based entertainment, computer gaming, not to mention the appeal of grander amusement parks especially with the opening of Laguna-based Enchanted Kingdom during that time. Fiesta Carnival soon degenerated as a run-down amusement park that was plagued by incidents of theft and other petty crimes. Jorge Araneta decides to close the park and bring Shopwise supermarket in the building. The ice skating rink was also closed.

Fast forward another 20 years and things are changing, back to entertainment. Earlier this year the New Frontier Cinema reopened as the KIA Theatre and is now welcoming some of the hottest bands on tour in the Philippines, Art in Island – off the trendy Cubao Expo – is the country’s biggest trick art museum and Araneta Centre is considering a new-generation indoor family entertainment centre for the extension of its Gateway Mall.

Does this mean we are (finally) seeing the end of the Retail is King era that saw retail driving all property development? Times are definitely different with online retail affecting the expectations of mall visitors. Lifestyle, community and family entertainment are now the key words we hear from every property developer.

I believe that those who understand it and truly believe in it, like Jorge Araneta, will be the big winners of tomorrow, because what Fiesta Carnival brought to many families are collective memories that will never be forgotten. And that is what successful destinations are made of. #jointhemovement!

REVIEW: The Mind Museum, Manila

I have been going to Manila since 2004 and the first time I went to Bonifacio Global City a.k.a. ‘The Fort’ there was really not much, maybe a few high-end condos mostly for expats. Now there’s a massive Shangri-La hotel, some of the best restaurants and clubs in Manila, and even themed attractions since the opening of The Mind Museum (2012) and KidZania (2015).

I was in town working on a new project in another part of town but I had some free time on my last day and decided to visit the Mind Museum on my way to the airport. I was curious to see the outcome of a collaboration between JRA and the Science Centre Singapore, which won the THEA award for outstanding achievement as a science museum in 2014.

The Mind Museum is a project by the non-profit Bonifacio Art Foundation, which is financed by the Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation together with private donors and a few sponsors (well acknowledged throughout the museum). It is a good example of public-private stakeholders coming together to build a landmark facility for a new city as opposed to fully government led. This is one thing developers in the Philippines are very good at; just look at the success of areas like Makati, Rockwell, Alabang, Araneta Centre, etc.

I went on a Friday afternoon and it was busy! A few school groups, some families and quite a number of teenagers and young adults, mostly couples. Entrance tickets are priced at PHP625 (USD12.5) for adults, PHP475 (USD9.5) for children (and foreign tourists!) and PH190 (USD3.8) for public school students. This is in line with privately owned attractions in the region and reflective of the purchasing power in Metro Manila.

Being a stand-alone building it provides a number of advantages such as the Science-in-the-park outdoor area, a covered open space in front of the outdoor ticketing area for activation and exhibitions, and a high ceiling. The inside is not that big, and a lot smaller than the Science Centre Singapore for example.

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The layout works well with most of the exhibitions on the ground floor and a 1st floor wrapping around leaving a nice atrium in the centre. The content is ambitious with 250 interactive exhibits through five interconnected stories: AtomEarthLifeUniverse, and Technology. There is also a dedicated teenagers area and Mind pods classrooms on the 1st floor.

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I enjoyed the Technology part the most as it is more what I would expect from a science museum. The piano stairs were my favorite; I loved listening to the different notes as my feet were passing captors walking down the stairs: simple yet memorable.

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The museum has been open for 5 years and it shows. Most of the stations are well worn out and some are even broken. This is where maybe the design by JRA was more suited for a Western market than an Asian market like the Philippines, where school groups are bigger and people in general maybe less aware of how to handle interactive exhibitions. I thought there was also too much text, which no one was reading.

The show component comprises of a live lab demo, a few movie rooms and an auditorium on the first floor. I would have suggested more show and maybe less interactive stations, which is an easier way to manage kids groups and convey a message in this part of the world.

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So here is the verdict. The Mind Museum is a very praiseworthy initiative with all the good intentions. The ambitious variety of topics in such a small space is double-edged: it includes many aspects of schools curriculum but it lacks of depth and of a strong storyline. The museum would benefit from a consolidation into 3 areas (instead of 5) and an open show area in the centre. Maybe for the upcoming renovation, hopefully soon!

REVIEW: Hub Zero, Dubai

Having worked on a concept of video game theme park for a client, I was looking forward to my stop-over in Dubai to go see the newly opened Hub Zero at City Walk.

Dubbed to be “the region’s first immersive gaming theme park” according the press release issued by Meraas, this 15,000sqm indoor theme park offers “an extensive e-Sports LAN gaming zone and a children’s play area, in addition to event rooms, retail space, and food and beverage offerings”.  Jean Marc Bled, General Manager, Leisure & Entertainment at Meraas, adds: “the experiential entertainment at Hub Zero will challenge visitor perceptions and revolutionise how gamers see and experience video games. We are confident the stimulating and engaging journey will compel visitors to come back time after time.”

If you read my previous post entitled “Why video games are the future of theme parks” you will understand why I got excited about Hub Zero. And so I went hoping to get a glimpse of the future of theme parks and maybe my first ‘gamified’ visitor experience.

I got there after my visit of IMG Worlds of Adventure at around 8pm on a Saturday (the end of the weekend in Dubai). City Walk was not very busy that day and Hub Zero even less busy, which I thought was not a good sign for the end of the weekend.

Hub Zero occupies its own building in this al-fresco retail complex. The entrance lobby is very big and impressive, with a bit of a futuristic look & feel (of course, it’s video games!). Tickets for the ground floor area (gated) can be purchased from the ticketing counter and an escalator leads visitors to the first floor (non-gated), which features the e-sports gaming zone, billiard room, karaoke rooms, old-school video games arcade (think Pac Man, pinball, etc) and a café.

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I decided to go upstairs directly and see if I could look at the ground floor from the top. I was virtually alone on the 1st floor but the view was quite good and I got a feel for the entire place.

Most of the attractions are media and IP-based (e.g. Resident Evil, Battlefield, Gears of War) and include VR experience, dark ride, 5D cinema, laser tag, laser maze and simulators. There is also a kids and toddlers Plants vs. Zombies themed play area, which looks a bit like an after-thought.

I will not make any assumptions on the performance of the park but judging from what I saw it doesn’t feel like people are rushing through the doors. Why is that?

First I was told City Walk is having a slow start as the concept of an al-fresco mall is very new for the region and people probably still prefer big enclosed malls such as Dubail Mall (only 15min walk away and packed that night!). This doesn’t help Hub Zero, which probably needs more eyeballs for a new concept and a new brand not borrowing from any of the big video game publisher brands i.e. it’s not a Nintendo park or a Ubisoft park.

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Second I am not convinced the gated park approach is the right one. It is minimum AED160 (USD43.5) to access the attractions on the ground floor. Yes I know Dubai residents are wealthy but it is still a lot of money for a teenager or a student, which seems to be the main target audience. In a region where FEC’s are very popular maybe Hub Zero should have tried to give the FEC model a new twist… maybe using the principles of gamification! Instead of a series of video game-based attractions dispatched along a circular corridor, why not try to take the visitor into a video game, where he/she becomes a player of the park?

Third I think the choice of theming is too segmenting. It assumes all video game players are geeks and like futuristic stuff. It’s not the case. There are all sorts of people playing video games, including girls and young kids. These are the ones Hub Zero should have thought about and catered for with the same elements that make a theme park successful: fun and immersive theming, experiences bringing people together, live entertainment, etc.

Is Chinese culture a trump card to rival Disneyland?

This is a very interesting opinion piece from Yang Huan, the chief editor of China Radio International Online. I think she provides a great analysis of the ‘war’ on Disney started by Wanda.

The highly-anticipated Shanghai Disneyland officially opened its gates on June 16th. Although there are no official statistics yet about the number of visitors on the first day, one thing for sure is that the US$5.5 billion complex will become a gold mine of Walt Disney, which is eyeing expansion into China’s lucrative market.

It is probably the ambition of the Disney empire seeking to expand its market share globally that is provoking a number of Chinese “patriots” who maintain that China could crush the Western entertainment giant with its own theme parks featuring localized attractions. Wang Jianlin, the billionaire boss of Wanda Group, has already declared a “war on Disney” with the opening of his own theme park in Nanchang, capital city of southeast China’s Jiangxi Province. The project, as Wang describes, highlights “China’s influence in the cultural domain.” He also struck a nationalistic tone during its opening by claiming “craze for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is over,” saying “the period when we would blindly follow where Disney led has been gone for years.”

Honestly, I am somewhat astonished to hear his nationalistic remarks, which sounded as though they came from a revolutionary period in China. Granted, Wang most likely made this comment as part of his commercial strategy.  But insisting that the popularity of legendary cartoon figures from Disney have vanished is simply a testament to ignorance and arrogance.

I am not going to blame those who claim that China’s theme parks are no worse than a Disney resort. What I am saying is that Chinese culture is not a trump card to play when competing with a Western entertainment conglomerate. In terms of exploring and inventing cultural icons, China can learn a lot from Walt Disney in many ways.

There is no denying that China has a time-honored history and profound culture. Thus, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build a theme park in China with a distinctive character which embeds Chinese culture throughout the centuries. However, these characteristics in theme parks in China are – in many cases – devoid of glamour and charm. In 2010, a theme park dedicated to the Chinese literary classic “A Dream of Red Mansion” opened in Shanghai. Although the novel is known the world over, the number of visitors to the park is much lower than many had predicted.  A theme park built in Hebei province featuring mythological characters from “Journey to the West” is also struggling.

The failure of these parks can be attributed to various factors, among which includes attempts to transplant cultural icons in an outdated manner.

Disney has created a wealth of impressive cartoon figures, all of which are amusing in their own way, and also have enduring vitality. Even youngsters born after 2000 are familiar with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. So going to the Disney resort provides tourists with a unique experience, allowing them to interact with iconic figures. You can sing and dance with Snow White or fly with Peter Pan. The moment you step into Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is as though a spell has been cast upon you.

In comparison to the iconic figures at Disneyland, cultural icons at Chinese amusement parks are merely decoration. There is far less interaction between tourists and the characters. What visitors are treated to at Chinese amusement parks is a lot of cutting-edge technology. It’s easy to pour money into a theme park. But if it has no soul, it’s doomed to fail.

A review of China’s long history shows there is boundless inspiration for building an amusement resort. But those famous images from China’s unique past are being lost on the youth of today.  Young people today have little reverence for the past. So, it is – in essence – a question of innovation. China’s entertainment industry lacks innovation to create new and recognizable brand.

Disney is at the forefront of innovation, and this entrepreneurial value has allowed Disney create a world of loveable characters. There is a hidden value that Disney can unleash by creating new characters through its existing brand. “The Avengers” is a great example of that. By pulling together different characters from different movies, Disney has been able to create a completely new product.

Last but not the least, the success of Disneyland is also related to its superior customer service. “We don’t put people in Disney, we put Disney in people” is the line used by Disney HR in recruitment and training. Every employee and volunteer is instructed to be extremely friendly, doing all they can to assist visitors with the hope of creating a memorable customer experience.

Tokyo Disneyland staff encourage tourists to cheer as the Disney characters walk past in a colorful daytime parade. There are also volunteers who teach visitors how to take best photos. All the staff at Disneyland are aware of their responsibility and individual roles in the narrative they’re projecting. They are fully integrated into the Disney culture.

There is no need to consider Disneyland a ‘wolf’ that threatens China’s entertainment industry.  Companies in China, such as the Wanda Group, would also be wise to reject any narrow-minded plans to create a Chinese “wolf pack” to take down Disney. As the world’s largest tourism company, Disney has a longevity in its brand. Right now is a good opportunity for Chinese theme parks to observe and learn from their Western counterpart.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we should never take our ancestors’ legacy for granted.  Attempts to exploit our rich history without innovating or adapting it to fit today’s standards won’t work. Confidence in China’s culture is great. But we need not cross a line into cultural arrogance.

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.

The UK perspective on our industry

This is a very interesting article by Vanessa Thorpe published in The Guardian on 30th April 2016, which provides a unique analysis on what’s happening in our industry from a UK perspective. What role can the UK’s cultural mothership BBC play?

BBC in race with theme park giants to build hi-tech visitor attractions

Doctor Who to vie with US superheroes as BBC develops 3D film experiences for parks abroad as well as partnership with Paramount London.

The BBC, which now boasts several of the world’s most popular entertainment brands, from Sherlock, Doctor Who and Call the Midwife to Top Gear, is to compete with US theme park giants Disney, Paramount and NBC Universal, in a multibillion-pound race to build hi-tech visitor attractions around the globe.

It is developing 3D filmed experiences for new theme parks abroad, as well as for a vast Paramount London site by the Thames in Ebbsfleet, Kent. Another new BBC entertainment venture in Asia is to be unveiled later this month.

“We’re always interested in working with partners who can help us extend fans’ enjoyment of the BBC brands they love,” said Stephen Davies, BBC Worldwide’s director of live entertainment. “Abroad, we’re looking for fixed-attraction opportunities in Asia and we operate and license a number of UK attractions, including CBeebies Land and the Doctor Who Experience, and we’re looking forward to running Countryfile Live at Blenheim this August.”

High-stakes commercial ventures might seem unwise when the BBC is being asked to cut costs and clarify its core purpose, but its global division operates independently and its job is to earn maximum value from popular programme “content”.

“Our Live Events business helps us grow the BBC brand abroad and contributes to BBC Worldwide’s returns to the public service,” said Davies.

Mainstream film industries in Britain and the US increasingly focus on the familiar franchises, from Bond to comic-book superheroes, rather than on original film-making. As a result, there is a fresh drive to squeeze the most from popular brands, off-screen as well as on, with a dawning era of themed visitor “experiences”.

Visual effects specialists in Hollywood and London are already competing to create immersive experiences based on the TV shows and films with the biggest international audiences. John Lambert, a producer working in LA with Europe China Pictures Group, thinks any forward-thinking content producer is now planning for virtual reality, augmented reality and for immersive screens of all sizes.

“We look for a story that can be told in the theatre and the small screen and gives the audience something to take with them after the primary viewing,” said Lambert. “We also look at elements that can be taken to a deeper level in theme park adventures, rides and immersive environments. In short, it is about connecting all the senses and delivering it to the audience.

“These are the technologies and techniques that will carry the movie and entertainment industries into the future. The future is now, not 10 years from now.”

Last week, in Hollywood’s biggest financial deal, DreamWorks Animation, producer of the lucrative Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and Madagascar franchises, was sold for $3.8bn to NBCUniversal, the company behind some of the most successful theme parks.

The purchase is widely seen as strengthening links with Asia, now a key battleground for entertainment parks and fan merchandise. In 2012, DreamWorks was one of the first Hollywood studios to open a production base in China and the company has assiduously built up audiences in the world’s second-largest film market. Its beloved animated properties will be a big boost for NBCUniversal’s sales, already at $500m a year. Revenue from its theme parks also doubled between 2010 and 2015 and a new park is planned in Beijing. Announcing the purchase, which is yet to be approved by regulators, Steve Burke, head of NBCUniversal, said: “How great will it be to have Kung Fu Panda in our park when Beijing opens?”

The Middle East is also investing heavily in visitor attractions. A long-awaited Warner Bros billion-dollar destination, featuring comic-book heroes Superman and Batman, along with Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes characters, is under construction in Abu Dhabi and set to open in 2018, near to a Ferrari-branded theme park. According to Warner Bros chief executive and chairman Kevin Tsujihara, it will be “a fully interactive, innovative and unique experience that will allow fans of all ages to experience the most exciting aspects of Warner Bros in a completely immersive environment.”

No need to wait so long for IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, which opens this summer. The 1.5m sq ft site will be split into four zones, each with themes taken from Marvel or the Cartoon Network.

Other planned parks are concentrating on hit virtual reality games. This month, Nintendo and NBCUniversal announced a $250m collaboration on themed attractions, while a park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, devoted to the games Assassin’s Creed and Raving Rabbids is due to open in 2020. In Tokyo, the Oriental Land Company, which owns Disney’s Japanese resort, plans five new attractions in the next four years.

It is also boom time for this new breed of “immersive” theme park in Los Angeles. Southern California visitor attractions broke records on spending and attendance last year, and at the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter last month, the mayor of Los Angeles spoke of drawing in 50 million visitors a year by 2020. When the $500m Harry Potter attraction opened at Universal Studios Hollywood, the evidence for his prediction was in the long queues that had, reportedly, held vigil outside the gates overnight.

Last week, Disney released the first images of its 14-acre Star Wars Lands sites in Florida and California. Disney bought the Star Wars franchise in 2012 and now plans a series of feature films and attractions to follow the hugely successful release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens last Christmas. NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast, is thought to be inspired by the strategy of Disney chief executive Robert Iger, the man who orchestrated its acquisitions of Pixar Studios and Marvel Entertainment. “Comcast is definitely trying to emulate Disney,” said Scott Krisiloff, chief investment officer at Avondale Asset Management.

The idea of bringing paying visitors into a branded experience has appeal outside film and TV. Ferrari is now choosing between California and Florida for a new park and in Long Beach, Los Angeles, the Aquarium of the Pacific has raised $40m in donations to pay for an “immersive theatre” with a 40-metre-long curved screen to simulate an ocean and coastal environment.

On 5 May, Legoland California will open Ninjago, a one-acre “Ninja training space” and interactive ride, allowing visitors to shoot virtual fireballs. Many parks already use technology to let guests to interact with attractions, for example by projecting the visitor’s name or home town into the effects as they pass.

At the end of this year, nine parks run by Six Flags will have rollercoasters equipped with virtual-reality headsets so that riders can pretend they are flying or fighting aliens. It is proving a cheaper upgrade than building new rides or employing more actors. By the summer 24 VR-equipped rollercoasters are expected to be functioning around the world.

The pace of development is such that, by the time London Resort Company Holdings, the group behind the BBC and Paramount’s joint 388-acre venture at Ebbsfleet, is ready to put in its planning application next year, the international competition is likely to be a whole lot scarier.