With rising nationalism dividing countries around the world, how can theme park designers and operators make everyone feel welcomed and understood, so that they keep coming to their parks?
Industry leader Bob Rogers posed that as the top question in this year's Legends panel at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. Joining him on the panel were IAAPA Hall of Fame member Roland Mack, from Germany's Europa Park, and Universal Studios Beijing President Tom Mehrmann, who previously ran Ocean Park in Hong Kong.
"Yours in not a job. It's a purpose," panel moderator Bob Rogers told the IAAPA attendees. "Your work can reach across a divide and touch the heart of guests who come from another culture or another way of thinking from our own."
Human nature is on the industry's side, Mack said. "We speak one language, which is fun and laughing."
But even if we start life as natural fun-seekers, cultural differences can separate us over time. So successful artists and managers must find ways to work with those differences.
"We were saying for a long time that we were uniquely Hong Kong and distinctively Ocean Park," Mehrmann said, noting Disney later tweaked that phrase to promote Shanghai Disneyland as "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese."
"Let's focus on what makes us culturally relevant to our markets," Mehrmann said. "I said the same thing in Spain at [Warner Bros.] Movie World when I was there, and I said the same thing at Knott's Berry Farm," where Mehrmann also once worked, helping to develop in-park programming to appeal to the Filipino and Korean communities in California's Orange County.
At Ocean Park, Mehrmann and his team worked to make the park more accommodating to mainland Chinese visitors, changing the park's menus and adopting more welcoming marketing messages. Ocean Park also had to manage political challenges within Hong Kong, where the park is operated as a non-profit public trust.
"One of the legislative councilors began to rail on us," Mehrmann said, "'If you call yourself the people's park of Hong Kong,' he said, 'how come you don't let people in for free?'"
"He got us thinking," Mehrmann said. "It led to us say, we could do that, actually." So Ocean Park started a promotion to allow all Hong Kong residents to enter the park for free on their birthdays — a program later copied by Disney and now Legoland California.
"The point is, who goes to a theme park alone on their birthday? I hope nobody," Mehrmann said. "We were banking on that. We knew more people would come with that individual, and it drove the gate."
Such challenges give a park the opportunity to make changes that will allow it to grow, if the park's leadership has the humility to listen to and understand the challenge.
"In my life, I am never going to be the competitor who disregards my competition," Mehrmann said. "We are learning from everything and everyone. That's key. Never be too proud to learn. Never be too arrogant to take note of who is around you and what they are doing. Even if you think it is not that good, take a look at what your market is responding to because sometime we get so inflated in our view of how good we are, we forget that the guests are enjoying what we call not-so-good."
Ultimately, the goal is to create something fresh that appeals to a new or changing market, not to simply duplicate stuff they can find more authentically elsewhere.
"We always try not to copy the culture of the countries, but try to get the atmosphere," Mack said. "Find a solution that is not a copy but that is your own way, that is the best."
Getting that right requires working with artists and others from the communities you wish to represent, rather than relying on outsider's impressions. Rogers told the story about Canadian tourists at Walt Disney World's Epcot being offended by the lumberjack-style costumes worn in park's Canada pavilion, while thinking that the lederhosen worn in the Germany pavilion was authentic and appropriate.
For the park's refreshed France pavilion, Europa Park worked with French film director Luc Besson to create a virtual reality experience for the land's rethemed roller coaster, to create something that was both new and evocative of a French mindset, Mack said.
"If you have problems and you try to [address] them, you have a chance to create something new," Mack said. "We are in the most beautiful business worldwide. The industry is the best industry you can work in. You can create new things, and if you do it with good quality, it will work."Tweet
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