The region’s emerging theme park industry has potential for great growth but as six experts point out, its success depends on establishing a destination around the attractions
LM: What are the main features of the attraction you manage?
Hudacak: The Dubai Mall, the new centre of the earth, involves a variety of attractions and entertainment including Sega Republic. We’re working on a variety of things, including the fit-out and installation of rides, attractions and games. Sega Republic was inspired by Joypolis in Japan, and we’ll also be launching a 22-theatre cinema complex and a children’s entertainment complex, called KidZania. I’m responsible for the venue’s financial and artistic success.
Frimand: Ferrari World’s going to be a very good-looking building on Yas Island, with the red Ferrari logo on top. Most of the theme park will be indoors; we’ll have attractions, several roller coasters, and a lot of dark rides with Ferrari-related content and there will be lots of F&B opportunities, from table-serviced Italian restaurants to cafés. There’s going to be several merchandise locations and something for all age groups, from driving experiences to thrill rides.
Al Habbai: Dubailand is three billion ft² of land, and within Dubailand we have 24 major projects, some of which are being developed by a third party, such as Dubai Sports City, Motor City, City of Arabia and others. Plus we have our own projects within Dubailand which are being developed by Tatweer, such as Global Village, Universal theme park city, Tiger Woods and within Bawadi Boulevard, Asia Asia. My responsibility is to ensure that the projects in Dubailand achieve the goals of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai’s vision and are completed.
LM: What are the key markets the region’s theme parks should target?
Al Habbai: We’ll be targeting the GCC; this will be our initial focus. The prime market we have identified is within four-six hour flying radar from Dubai; the UK, France, Germany, Italy, China, India, Korea. Our alignment is also with Emirates Airline and Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). I’d say 50-55% of visitors will come from the UAE and GCC countries.
Zamzam: We will of course be attracting markets from the Middle East and the GCC area — we’ll be attracting residents in the UAE to start with, going out of the GCC area and into the neighbouring countries within the region.
Hudacak: I’ve confidence in the residential market [in the UAE], which is probably 65% of our visitation up to this point. I think they’ll come from the MENA area and we’d like to see that expanded into some other locations, we know some people from Australia are coming and we’d like to see some more from South East Asia visiting. I think they’re also going to come from East and West Europe.
LM: How will you staff the theme park and ensure high retention?
Al Habbai: Recruitment is a major challenge due to the high-inflation levels in Dubai and lack of appropriate skills for specialised jobs within the theme parks as this concept is new to the region.
We have brought in experienced people from Disney, Six Flags and others, and we are working very closely with our partners to ensure we train them to the highest standard of safety, security and customer service. At the same time, Dubailand will contribute to job vacancies and we have to play that role hiring and training the local and regional market, especially because 50-55% of our people are coming from the region.
Hudacak: Our staffing recruitment process has been to the extent possible right here in Dubai and the UAE, but we also have significant representation from throughout MENA.
This region is our primary focus and typically we can accomplish this through internet as well as newsprint. They [staff] all receive an in-depth introduction to the UAE and our services, general product training and job-specific training. On-the-job training is the last piece of the puzzle prior to us understanding that the staff employees are up to standard on recognising what our guest service standards and objectives are.
We have a rigorous training programme which orientates employees to their particular role, then we have performed cycles and a soft opening for people to experience and develop a better understanding of what the role is and how to execute it. Anybody would be well served to have a soft opening; I would not recommend proceeding without it.
Frimand: We’ve recruited a number of industry specialists at all staff levels, people with extensive industry experience. In addition to that we’ve taken on people who are already in the UAE and over the next six to nine months we’ll bring in the operation and administration staff and these will be recruited from the local market, as well as international markets.
Davidson: There aren’t a lot of amusement parks currently open in the region, so until we develop the full experience of people here, we’ll pretty much have to look elsewhere for staff.
Vivekanand: The downside of the Middle East market has always been that everybody invests a lot of money when they build something new and very few of these operators are what we call progressive operators, who do something new every year to their theme park.
So most of the time what happens traditionally in this region is there’s a lot of money going into the design of the park and being invested at the time of the build. The same amount of enthusiasm and resources is not dedicated to recruiting the most qualified staff.
So it has been a difficult market when it comes to timely renewals and capital investment. But that trend’s changing. When everybody was announcing the tallest rollercoaster in the world, existing operators upgraded operations and shut down ones that were not making money.
LM: What other challenges does the industry in this region face?
Metzger: The entertainment and theme park industry in the Middle East is being financed by developers who are not in the industry. So you have people who are developing the product who are not really familiar with working with tourism agencies because they’re real estate developers and in the past their product has been office buildings. I think that’s going to be a major problem.
Vivekanand: The people that are developing the destinations and theme parks have not done that before so it’s a new venture for them.
Al Habbai: One of the major challenges for the theme park is the summer, but at Universal almost 85% will be covered or shaded to overcome the heat and to ensure it’s run 360 days a year.
Frimand: The challenges here are the same. It’s a new industry but it’s not really that different to opening theme parks in other parts of the world.
LM: How can developers and operators work to progress the industry?
Vivekanand: Government agencies need to be flexible in working with the developers who are now looking for help in developing international standards and importing labourers if necessary.
Metzger: Developers need to get more proactive and recognise that they’re no longer a real estate developer; that they’re developing a destination and it’s important that they work with the tourism organisations to promote these destinations properly.
Hudacak: I think the numbers will come regardless of the weather because of the variety and the exceptional service they’re going to get.
LM: What potential is there for a world competitive industry?
Davidson: The amusement industry in the Middle East is booming and the UAE is specifically focusing on the amusement and entertainment component and the overall infrastructure.
The number of theme parks and entertainment facilities has increased exponentially over the last couple of years and so will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Hudacak: This area is unlike any I’ve seen before; it’s got a central location, good flight schedules, year-round opportunities and the variety of growing products is fantastic. The diversity and the culture of the people is truly amazing.
I think the industry growth is going to be consistent with the growth of tourism that has to develop.
Vivekanand: The UAE will be the centre for trade, leisure and tourism from Pakistan to Morocco, leaving aside the other markets which also come to the UAE,
In this region alone, we’ve got around 300 million people and the UAE will remain an important destination for people from India too.
Al Habbai: We believe, from our regional consumer research and studies, that there is great potential for a successful and competitive theme park industry in the Middle East.
Customers’ interest in the theme park concept is very high in this region — more on average compared to Europe and other countries.
ABOUT THE EXPERTS
Prakash Vivekanand, director, Amusement Services International LLC
After launching and organising the Dubai DEAL show, Prakash Vivekanand worked in various posts in the regional attractions industry, which included a period spent working for the Al-Futtaim Group. In 1999 he set up ASI, providing design and supply solutions for the worldwide entertainment industry.
Mohammed Al Habbai, senior vice president, Dubailand
With more than 15 years’ experience in sales and marketing with Emirates Airline, Mohammed Al Habbai has undertaken the task of establishing Dubailand as one of the top leisure and entertainment destinations in the world.
Yasser Mohammed Zamzam, marketing manager, Yas Island project, ALDAR Properties PJSC
As a graduate in business administration and marketing, Yasser Zamzam headed the hospitality industry and developments department at Sharjah Tourism Development Authority (STDA) before moving onto his current role. Zamzam is responsible for the marketing of theme parks and communications on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Glenn Davidson, commercial director theme parks, ALDAR Properties PJSC
In his 30 years in the attractions industry, Glenn Davidson has managed 11 theme parks worldwide. Seven years have been spent in Dubai as a general manager for the Jumeirah Group. In addition to his current position at ALDAR, Davidson serves on the board of directors at the World Waterpark Association (WWA).
Claus Frimand, general manager Yas Island Theme Parks, Farah Leisure Parks Management LLC
Originally from Denmark, Claus Frimand has spent 17 years in the industry events trade, working on projects such as Disneyland Paris, global Olympic orientations and The Travelling Museum. His current role in Abu Dhabi involves managing the operating company, Farah Leisure Parks management, for Yas Island theme parks.
Darrell Metzger, senior vice president, Venetian Macau Resort and chairman of the International Attractions and Amusement Parks Association (IAAPA)
Having spent 10 years with Disney, Darrell Metzger moved to Hong Kong as CEO of Four Ocean Parks, Sentosa Island. Later, his career briefly led him to Dubai, where he worked as a consultant before he took up his current position in Macau.
John Hudacak, vice president operations, Emaar Malls Group (and spokesperson for Sega Republic)
Based in America, John Hudacak worked at Busch Gardens: The Old Country theme park (now called Busch Gardens Williamsburg) before moving to Missouri to take on the role of vice president and general manager at Worlds of Fun theme park and Oceans of Fun waterpark. His work led him to Dubai last September.