High stakes in the Low Countries
As one of the cornerstones of the European economy, the Benelux countries also host some of the major names in the parks industry, as Andrew Mellor discovers…
It would not be an unreasonable observation to say that the European parks industry has seen some pretty major changes and developments in the past few years.
A selection of new facilities have been opened in various countries. Perhaps even more notable is the number of new names that have come into the industry as operators and the ensuing acquisitions that have taken place. As a result, many previously family owned parks are now in the hands of larger, corporate organisations or investment companies, bringing a very different business culture and the inevitable comparisons with “how it used to be.”
Interestingly, it has not just been European companies that have become involved in the parks sector, but US organisations as well, although not all have stayed! Six Flags, for example, has come and gone, as indeed it has at many venues across the US itself, while Paramount is another. We have subsequently seen the return of one or two very well-known names to the European industry, including that of the Walibi Group, and the introduction of new players, such as Plopsaland and Toverland.
As part of these changes, the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – have seen their fair share of activity (although admittedly the latter’s only links to the parks industry are through a couple of suppliers). The aforementioned Walibi name has become prominent once more in both the Netherlands and Belgium, while new developments have also taken place to add further to the attractions offerings available in these countries. And those involved at the sharp end confirm these significant changes, and progress, in recent years.
“Changes have taken place not only in the Benelux but throughout Europe where we see the influence of groups and chains,” said Jeff Bertus, vice president of IAAPA Europe and secretary of the Dutch parks association, Club van Elf. “For instance, in the Club van Elf (Club of Eleven), two members belong to the same chain and another park to another chain. In the old days these were individual, stand alone parks, so people need to get used to this scenario.
“In the Netherlands and the Benelux generally,” he continued, “there are new developments of both parks and other attractions that are successful. Plopsaland is one and Toverland another. This has operated for five years and is continuing to grow. It started as an indoor facility and now has a large outdoor section.
“We are also seeing developments where cities and municipalities are trying to get our industry involved in the museum sector. These moves are not always successful but some developments like the Dutch Railroad Museum have been rediscovered. The old museum style has been left behind and it has become more of an experience and has doubled its attendance figures.
“This is a good example of all sections of the industry adapting and using each other’s good elements, which is beneficial to the industry as a whole.”
Noting that 2006 was ‘rather tough’ for quite a lot of countries, Filip Dewitte, general manager at Bellewaerde Park in Belgium and president of the Belgoparks association, added that the years before that were ‘pretty good.’ He said: “It can change from one park to another but in general most parks have had pretty good years recently.”
Dewitte is also president of the Tourist Association in Belgium and reveals that in research carried out by the organisation which covered the years 1996 to 2004, the number of one day visits to venues in Belgium didn’t increase.
“As a result,” he continued, “if new attractions are built they have to share the visitors that are around at the moment, so it is very slow progress as far as the number of visits is concerned. The figures are stable so parks and other attractions need to carry out hard promotions and special offers. But competing with each other on price won’t help any of us.”
Bellewaerde and the Walibi parks are now part of the CDA group (Compagnie Des Alpes) and before that, were part of Star Parks and Six Flags organisations. As Dewitte points out, each time new owners have come in, a significant amount of investment has been made in the relevant facilities, which has raised the bar in terms of quality and standards generally.
“Other parks have also been taken over by larger groups,” he noted, “which has seen more professional management teams coming in and more investment being made. The quality in the last five years in Belgium has dramatically increased in all areas, including rides, food and beverage, hygiene, etc., so hopefully this will benefit the whole industry and visitors will realise this too.”
Significantly, Dewitte also noted that official figures show almost half of the Belgian population don’t participate in one day outings to a tourist attraction of any kind, so there is clearly huge potential in this particular market to add to current visitor figures. And he adds that half of Bellewaerde’s visitors come from northern France with another important group from the Netherlands.
At Efteling, the largest park in the Netherlands, director of marketing and operations Olaf Vugts goes back to 1992, (when a well-known mouse and friends joined the European parks market), as being a key time for the industry, not just in the Benelux but Europe-wide.
“In 1992 Disney came to Europe and was followed by other US companies who thought they could survive in the European, and Benelux, markets,” he said. “They were very successful in the US and bought parks mainly from family owners. But they didn’t succeed and they all went away again, except Disney. We like Disney very much and we hope they will survive.
“Now, European companies and investment companies are taking over many parks, such as the Walibi Group, but we know that investment banks and other such groups buy in for three to five years and then sell again.
“Also, there are practically no new parks being built because the market is full. But when you do have a new idea it must be unique. Build a quality attraction and be yourself, as Bob Rogers at BRC once said. And we agree!”
At Toverland, a relative newcomer to the industry, managing director Caroline Maessen-Gelissen said: “We look around us a lot and see that the focus is on family attractions and innovative attractions with parks trying to find something new.” Meanwhile, at Dutch ride manufacturer Vekoma Rides Manufacturing, Charlotte van Etten cites a number of areas of progress for the industry in Benelux, also believing the business is set to grow in this area of Europe.
“The parks have continued to focus more on family and innovative attractions,” she said. “Further, Benelux seems to be expanding as we work with various developers and financial institutions looking into new parks and FECs. From the existing parks, a consolidation is observed as organisations such as the Palomon Group (Six Flags parks transaction) Parque de Reunidos, Merlin Group and Compagnie des Alpes, are expanding their groups by the acquisition of existing parks (Mirabilandia, Gardaland, Walibi parks).”
Trends are something everyone in any business watches closely and several were noted by our interviewees as being apparent in the Benelux region.
Jeff Bertus: “If we look at parks like Efteling and some others, one trend noticeable here is that they are focusing on the shoulder seasons and winter opening, particularly the Christmas period. These times are getting more important by the day for them, especially Christmas. If you offer the right product at such times you get very good per cap spending and a longer season.
“Not everyone will do Christmas opening. Halloween is becoming more popular too and is definitely part of the game these days. If you scare the hell out of your visitors they love it!”
Efteling also has its own theatre and has shows produced especially for this venue which are very successful. It is therefore able to offer packages incorporating the theatre entertainment, the on-site hotel and the restaurants, which in turn helps other facilities such as the park’s golf course.
“We don’t have parks with shopping malls yet,” continued Bertus, “but factory outlets are very popular and are becoming attractions in their own right. One can imagine this formula finding a place at or near, or even in a park.”
A trend noted by Filip Dewitte is a lowering of the level of investments being made in parks compared, for example, with the levels put in by Six Flags, along with a more thorough thought process going into these investments.
“Operators are thinking about their target groups more,” he said, “and more about the long term and asset preservation. And there is a tendency to not invest in new rides all the time but to maintain what we already have. Personnel costs are also rising so people are looking for attractions that don’t require too many staff, while, of course, safety continues to be a key issue.”
Yet more trends are noted by Olaf Vugts. “We see that people in the Benelux have less time to spend as quality time,” he observed. “They are prepared to travel but it (the attraction) must be good. You have to have a unique product. A marketing man who says their market is full should be fired because it means he can’t come up with anything new to offer. We don’t think consumers want the highest and fastest roller coaster, they want an experience and something different. Once all parks look the same you are finished.”
Toverland’s Maessen-Gelissen believes her facility is the biggest trendsetter in the area. “We started Toverland five years ago opening 365 days a year,” she said. “Parks are now lengthening their season and try to do extra events to get people to their parks in the low season. Many come to visit us to see what we are doing.”
Charlotte van Etten: “The trends are still focusing on families, branding and interactive rides, while making sure that the new attractions are also attractive to teenagers. There are also new features available to have an on-ride video of their ride experience. Vekoma Rides is continuously developing new ride designs and new trains with interactive features, for the guests to even more enjoy their ride experience.”
In the leisure sector competition for the public’s time and money is another issue that affects the parks, but in general if the offering is right then they will get a decent slice of the cake.
“I agree that there are many options available,” said Bertus, “but on the other hand if you see the development of parks in the service they provide and their overall offer they can well stand this competition. If they offer what people want and it’s of a high quality then they are there. Of course it is much tougher to compete against all the other things available nowadays. People are aware that their time together is valuable and they want the best, so this is a challenge for parks.”
“The competition is not only other attractions,” said Dewitte, “but from TV, gaming, mobile phones and other such things which also compete for money, from teens in particular. Parks should therefore have a unique selling proposition. Our park has rides and animals so it is a nice outing with family or friends. They can’t get this on a TV! So parks need to develop a soul. We have a lot of variety of parks in Belgium and they are all different so families are attracted to different parks.”
Olaf Vugts agrees that being unique and of a high quality is vital. “People are very keen on what to do,” he said. “Today you can buy a seven night holiday in Turkey for under E200, while in the Netherlands there are 160,000 different free events that take place every year. So there is enormous competition for people’s leisure spend and time. However, if you are unique and the price and quality of your attraction is good, then people will still come.”
Quality is something of a watchword at Toverland and is apparent in every area of the operation.
“When you look at Toverland, the indoor area is one of our unique points but I think the most important thing is to deliver quality every day and every hour,” noted Maessen-Gelissen, “in attractions, restaurants and other facilities, and especially in your employees. We train our staff to smile at guests and to send them away feeling very relaxed. It works very well and other parks are aware that this is a unique element of Toverland. Many places have beautiful coasters and attractions but it is a palette of good impressions that make people come back. You have to make it very personal and have the attitude that every guest is a special one.”
Van Etten sees parks increasingly trying to create more of an experience for guests by offering a variety of attractions, including shows, dining and a tendency to have extended and late openings to give the guests a ‘real night out’ (like Christmas openings, Halloween nights, etc.) along with special promotions. But, of course, with so much choice already available, it begs the question as to whether or not there is scope for new parks in the Benelux countries.
“There is a huge number of attractions in the Netherlands,” Bertus revealed, “including parks and zoos. But, if you look at the fact that our population of 16 million people is responsible for almost one billion days out in the country that number implies that people are very willing to do things. However, we only get four or five per cent of this figure in our parks.
“If a new park comes, if they want to visit they will, but they will move from other activities to go,” he continued. “There are always opportunities for new developments and you don’t always need millions of visitors to succeed. Some attractions do very well with just 200,000 or 300,000 visitors.”
Dewitte says that he is personally sceptical about some projects, especially those financed by public funds, a scenario which is all too apparent in other European countries too, while both van Etten and Vugts believe future opportunities for successful new openings will depend on the uniqueness of the product.
“For example, Plopsaland is now planning to open in the Netherlands and we think they will succeed because their attractions are based on unique characters and TV shows,” says Vugts.
At Toverland, Maessen-Gelissen noted: “There are a lot of parks in Holland but that’s also a strength. But it wouldn’t be wise to put more parks in this area as there is a limit to what people can spend on going to parks.”
Success in the future, of course, depends on many things and all those we spoke to touched on various areas that they feel will make a difference.
“If the climate doesn’t change the world drastically,” said Bertus, “it will be a healthy future but one with challenges with regards to the population changing. Parks will need to find ways to entertain a more diverse group of people from their own countries as well as those coming from places like Turkey, Morocco and other areas.”
“I see a very good future,” said Dewitte. “We have seen a very good evolution at Bellewaerde in the last five years. The most important thing will be to listen to your customers, do a lot of visitor surveys, do what they want and invest in your strong points. We’re very optimistic that we’ll have a good 2007 season.”
Olaf Vugts: “We are facing a unique five to 10 years for the parks as many are struggling with the question of what’s new. Our answer is to create a TV series and to license products from Efteling for retailers, which we see as important ways for us to develop, along with the new accommodation we are building and new small and large attractions. Parks need to ask themselves ‘Why should people come to us and how can we be unique.’ Then they will have a chance of success.”
Maessen-Gelissen revealed that big investments are planned for Toverland in the future, including a new wooden coaster for 2007, but stressed again the importance of quality and listening to guests as key to future success.
“Good quality (in all areas) and asking customers what they want will be vital,” she said. “What explains our success is not only what we want but also delivering what our guests want. It’s very important to get their input, both from adults and children.”
Vekoma’s van Etten also believes the future is promising, noting that parks are investing once again and are offering their guests new attractions each year. “From feedback in the market, it shows that these investments seem to pay off and do indeed draw more people to the parks,” she said.
For the Benelux, then, although challenges will continue to crop up, there is definitely a positive outlook. The market has gone through some big changes but it would seem it has come through this significant period stronger, perhaps more in tune with market requirements. With the right content, good quality and an attractive price there’s good reason for optimism in the future.