InterPark Editor Beth Whitaker caught up with IAAPA’s new President & CEO Jakob Wahl following his appointment to the position in November 2022; Wahl succeeds Hal McEvoy who will retire in April.
Beth Whitaker: How long have you been working in the parks and attractions industry for?
Jakob Wahl: I had my first summer job in the amusements industry when I was 16 years old; I checked tickets at the entrance of Phantasialand in Germany – a beautiful theme park. After that, it feels like I’ve never left. I was attracted to this industry from the very beginning and never wanted to work anywhere else. That first summer job was the beginning of a wonderful career in the industry for me.
BW: How has your career unfolded over the years?
JW: After my summer job I continued with my education and then I made a small detour doing something completely different, before being hired in 2009 by Andreas Anderson and Karen Staley. Back then, they were Executive Directors of IAAPA Europe, and I started with them as a Program Manager. It was a very small team, very entrepreneurial, we all did a little bit of everything. It was a fun road and I stayed there for around five years before moving to Europa-Park in Germany, the second largest amusement park in Europe after Disneyland Paris. There I worked with the owner family and eventually became Director of Communications before moving back to IAAPA. It always felt like I had two hearts in my chest, so I went back to the association and became Vice President and Executive Director of IAAPA EMEA, then COO last year, and now, obviously, I’m moving into the CEO role, which is an amazing honour.
BW: What is it you love about this industry?
JW: It’s two things. The first is the people – whenever you meet anyone in the industry, you really get a sense of how social we all are, to the point where even so-called competitors are willing to help each other to leverage the industry. I think that is something you don’t find in many other sectors. It is wonderful to see this positive attitude across the globe. The second thing is, and it might sound a bit cliche, we bring joy to people. We work to make people have a better time and the fact that we as an association can help our members promote their business to become better, is a beautiful purpose of IAAPA and we should all be proud to work in this industry.
BW: What changes have you seen in the industry over the years?
JW: When the Tivoli in Denmark opened, the founder was asked when it would be finished, because it was obviously not ready on time. He responded with, “Tivoli will never be finished.” That’s very representative of our industry – we’re always changing and innovating. The biggest trend I’ve seen over the last 15 to 20 years is the use of intellectual property. Think about how many parks work with known brands and licenses. I’m not only talking about the Disneys and Universals of the world. Other examples are Peppa Pig, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, and more. Aside from IP, we’re always seeing changes in technology and how that affects park operations and the development of projects or offerings around the world.
BW: And how has the visitor profile changed?
JW: I think we have a globalised world today and while 30 or 40 years ago our catchment area was very regional, things have changed. With the prevalence of social media, the world has become local and it’s fuelling people to travel more and experience things for themselves instead of just seeing pictures online. There’s a fear of missing out, meaning we must step up our game in when it comes to offering experiences that guests can’t have anywhere else.
This is where themed experiences and themed accommodations come into play. You want to offer them something they can talk about and but can also share on social media.
BW: What challenges is the industry facing currently?
JW: If there’s one overarching theme in our industry right now, it’s related to staffing and supply chain issues. It’s such a wonderful industry to work in and we are all in love with what we do, so it’s a pity that currently we aren’t managing to show younger people what a great career they can have in this business.
BW: What feedback are you getting about why parks are having staffing issues?
JW: I think it has intensified over the past few years. It’s not only an amusements and attractions industry issue, but something affecting the entire hospitality industry. Today’s younger workforce has a different perspective. There’s a stronger desire to work hours that allow for better flexibility at home.
To combat that, several great companies are stepping up their benefits package for employees. For example, Hershend is offering free education for their staff members. This is obviously costly, but they are convinced that this is showing their people how much they’re valued.
IAAPA is also pushing to turn things around globally. We’re talking to several universities in Europe that are introducing a master’s programme for students in effort to educate young people and make them realise it’s a good industry to work in.
BW: What about the cost-of-living crisis in some parts of the world; how will this affect things?
JW: I sometimes refer to the saying, “the price will be forgotten if the quality remains,” and I think that is the key factor to success. If we are relevant and can provide good family fun, we will get through difficult times. Yes, there is an energy crisis in many countries across Europe, which ultimately hits the bottom line of many of our operators, but we are hopeful that people still see the value of attractions. If you think back to 2009 when there was a huge global economic crisis, most of the regional parks didn’t suffer as much because people stayed at home and visited those regional attractions to ultimately have a good day out.
BW: How is IAAPA continuing to support its members during these tricky times?
JW: The world is ever changing, and the speed of change accelerates also within IAAPA. I see this association as one that should assist its members on this journey of recovery and it should be independent of where the members sit, or the size, or type of organisation. We should speak for the overall attractions industry and to try to help people entertain their guests.
This is where, coming out of Covid, there are many different areas that we still need to focus on. I’m super happy that we have stepped up investments into economic impact studies all over the world and are about to launch our new benchmark report, where we try to show our members what is going on and what is relevant and how we can help them in their daily business. I also have some great regional Vice Presidents in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America who spot when there are issues or trends. They have the freedom to react and come up with white papers helping our members more directly. The Water Park Week from the Latin America Caribbean Office or an accessibility white paper are some of these items.
BW: What are IAAPA’s key values?
JW: IAAPA offers a global umbrella where we bring people together from all over the world, but at the same time offer regional services. We have the benefit of worldwide teams who know what’s going on in the regions A great example is our Covid guidance document. Quite early on when Covid hit in the first quarter of 2020, we brought together the leading operators from across the world to discuss how we moved forward; how we guaranteed safe fun in our parks. We created that document together and shared it with our other members who might not have had the same resources. I think that ultimately illustrates the idea of an association where we benefit from the knowledge that is sitting within it and we share it out. Bringing people in touch with each other… I’m totally convinced of its benefits.
BW: Almost creating a family within a family-focused industry?
JW: Yes definitely, it’s like when you come to one of our trade shows, it feels like a friendly reunion. I think that makes it very special and makes it easier for us to service this industry because everyone is willing to share.
BW: What have been some of your career highlights so far?
JW: Obviously being nominated as CEO is the highlight of my career. But there were other things, I’m very proud of: working at Europa Park and being involved in opening a flying theatre was fantastic on the operator side… On IAAPA side I’m very happy with my active involvement in bringing events to all areas of the world. I’m proud that I was involved in bringing the first-ever event to Africa in 2020 and expanding massively into the Middle East, a region where we now have a lot of members and the profile of IAAPA has grown.
IAAPA used to be perceived as a very American association in Europe until the early 2000s. Together with Andreas and Karen, we have really tried to show we understand the various markets and that charted the profile of IAAPA as international and truly global association leading the way for other regional offices such as Mexico, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and then ultimately the North American office.
BW: What are you looking forward to in your new role?
JW: It’s such a pleasure to be able to help members. I think it is our job to see the trends and the best practices across the world and question whether it could be something of relevance for others and then share those messages through education, communication, trade shows, and to really try and elevate our industry. That is something I’m very excited and honoured to be able to do. I love this industry and I love the association. I think it’s been beneficial for me to have worked as an operator – to have been on that side and understand the daily operations of our members – it also helps for a global association that I have worked and lived on four different continents.
BW: What was your impression of the most recent expos in Orlando and London?
JW: I think both events were successful. We saw many innovations on the show floor, the education and networking sessions were full, and there was a general positive vibe: I’ve never seen so many satisfied exhibitors and I think that is a great sign for optimism in our industry.
Highlights included the Thursday night event IAAPA Celebrates in Orlando at Islands of Adventure, where Universal hosted us in an incomparable way.
We also introduced the first global sustainability summit at the Expo in Orlando. This subject is close to my heart, so I was particularly happy about this.
BW: Is there anything more we need to know about your work at IAAPA?
JW: IAAPA wouldn’t be where it is without our members and volunteers. They make the difference in helping us establish the regional offices, shows, and events. This is a member-driven association and the collaboration between committees and the team is the foundation for our success in responding to member needs across the world.