The Sinking Ship: (Un)Love Letters to Merlin

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AstroDan

TS Team
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Steel Vengeance, Cedar Point
Fair enough. Do you believe the Merlin Management should invest more liquid capital into the RTP division given the current financial situation? Do you believe that more money into Entertainment/Rides would bring the masses back?

I do, however, believe that the damage to Merlin's Reputation on the Balance Sheet (intangible asset of goodwill) will taken a massive hit - something I don't believe the Merlin Financial Team have properly accounted for.

My view is that by reducing the ride line up, entertainment offering and food and beverage offering at the theme parks, is that the park is no longer able to cope on busier days, which arrive from time to time (e.g. Scarefest / Fireworks). Furthermore, guests who have been visiting the park for a long time, notice these lacking elements and clearly it will negatively affect the reputation.

Alton Towers is a 2.5 to 3m guests a year theme park. Whilst those numbers might not be there right now, it needs to be absolutely prepared for when those numbers return. And it could be 2017, 2018 or 2019. Or even 2020. But it's needed.

I don't have much time for KPIs. Alton Towers are very good at directing you towards them after a positive experience but far less keen for you to do so when something goes wrong.
 

CoasterCrazyChris

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Nemesis
Alton Towers is a 2.5 to 3m guests a year theme park. Whilst those numbers might not be there right now, it needs to be absolutely prepared for when those numbers return. And it could be 2017, 2018 or 2019. Or even 2020. But it's needed

What are the odds of the park ever seeing 3 million visitors per year again after The Smiler incident?

They only just managed it in 2010 and the only other time was 1994/5.
 

CoasterCrazyChris

TS Member
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Nemesis
2014 the park almost hit it, too.

I didn't know that.......yet despite this if I remember correctly the start of the 2015 season was Austerity Towers as usual like it had been since 2011 with no new rides and a half baked lodges development, even if there weren't ride closures and as many closed F&B outlets as now.

Seems when visitor numbers were good the park gets the bear minimum and when they are bad they don't even get that.
 

delta79

TS Member
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Nemesis, Air
when i worked in a factory, the company started to cut costs and lower down time that cost money in lost production.
They dropped production line staff so one person kept 3 machines in the line. cut maintenance budget and non critical building area had less repairs and upkeep. overtime was stopped for maintenance dept, and a down time bonus system was started, the same day. the quicker you got the line working again the bigger the bonus you could get. by shaving 15 mins of each down time per shift meant you get the same amount of bonus as the lost over time per month.
This lead to more downtime as crap fixes would be done, to get the bonus and the attitude of 'some other bugger can lose they bonus then the crap fix failed'

I can see a similar thing happening here.
 

Leah

TS Member
We really ask too much of the park. I mean, we're being spoilt by the European parks really. who are we to expect the rides to be open or decent opening times from what is supposedly a park second only to disney?

The fact is that merlin don't care. They don't even try to notice the opinions of enthusiasts in most cases. even if all 2400 members of this forum decided to boycott merlin all together, it would have a completely insignificant impact on profits. The fact is that towers can keep cutting the quality each year, and keep getting away with it because of the reputation they made years ago.
 

Towerslover

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I

I would disagree, the number of people who comment on swarms themeing shows the UK public do enjoy well executed projects. The problem alton have is most of the budget is spent hiding the coaster never really much theming is added, that goes back to toussauds.

Thats exactly what I said, if it is there, they will appreciate it. But there's no deneying from a business point of view a gimmick sells better.
 

jon81uk

TS Member
Ticket prices are so erratic, that guests pay £20 but think they are due a £50 product. Cutting the headline price, offering a small discount online and using the brand to get people in rather than the price would be a sure fire way of sorting this, and predicting guest flow to boot

This to me is the most important change they need to make. Most negative reviews comment that they were glad the had 2for1 vouchers as the day wasn't worth £50. They either need to work on improving the product so it is worth the full price or as you say, abandon the £50 price and cut to something more realistic. When you compare to Lazer Quest, The Crystal Maze experience, the cinema and other days out, theme parks aren't expensive really, but the way Merlin price things give the wrong expectations.
 

jon81uk

TS Member
Also I think some of the decine started before Merlin took over Tussauds. There were issues with the Tussauds theme parks before Merlin bought them, they improved a little when Merlin started using their brands to improve the Tussauds parks (adding Sea Life etc) but as you say they are going downhill again.
 

TheBolt

TS Member
What Merlin needs is competition, to start an arms race.
Legoland's closest rival is probably Disneyland Paris for target market, but they aren't close enough to have much affect on each other.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach is threatening to take on Alton Towers, so hopefully they'll continue building momentum on the coast.
The proposed Universal Park in Kent would be ideal to force Chessington/Thorpe to compete; but that project looks 50/50 on whether it will be built.

There is no imminent sign of strong competitors emerging; so I think Merlin have a few more years of their current approach to their parks. The risk is that people tire of what is being offered and stop coming; one can easily argue that is what we are already seeing.
 

Matt Creek

TS Member
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Steel Vengeance
Whilst Merlin aren't the worst operator out there, I have certainly noticed the parks decline noticeably as a result of their ownership in the last few years.

Alton Towers:
Closure of food outlets
Neglected upkeep (TLC has helped but there's still areas that need sorting)
Cull of flats/support rides such as Ripsaw and Submission
On the cheap fences (as a result of knee jerk safety)
Roads and infrastructure look worn and neglected (Express is shocking)
Reduction of rides in the family market
Park entertainment is non existent (bar CBeebies)
Gardens feel neglected in parts

Thorpe Park:
Inconsistent ride reliability
Number of older attractions seem worn and forgotten I.E Colossus and Rumba Rapids
Derelict old attractions as a result of neglect
Park feels grotty in many areas
Entertainment non existent
Entrance feels dated
New (non major) attractions feel shoe horned and last minute as a result of Merlin's desperation of bringing guests in I.E Angry Birds, Storm Surge and IAC,
Park feels like a nightmare on packed days
Fastrack ratio feels disproportionate

Chessington: (where do I begin)
Lack of overall investment
Lack of direction
Dragons Falls- removed rock work, stone faces shortened tunnel
Vampire- reduced to two train op (once 3), garish metal fences, removed chandeliers, maplin UV lights, lack of audio, dead animatronic, poorly layer out station,
Rattlesnake- dirty, neglected, Lower throughputs, high fences ruining effects
Tomb Blaster- miss mash of neglected facade and poorly done UV refurb with behind the scenes areas and effects in clear view, an embarrassment of a refurbishment and likely reduced in capacity,
Truckers, Toadies, Fury and Buccaneer also seen with dips in throughputs,
Everything post 2010 seems to be solely Africa or animals
Bubbleworks was just being killed
Food choices limited

Sadly, I feel our park's are being run as businesses by a bunch of accountants, unlike parks like Europa, Phantasialand and Efteling which feel more like they are run as tourist attractions, museums, local trusts or shows. Any further comparison would be rating a frozen ready meal to a gourmet restsurant dish.

I don't want our park's (and Merlin) to fail, I want them to succeed and be amazing. But with these extreme capitalist, targets, images and "let's do this to make more profit and bring in guests" attitudes diminish, I can't see this happening in the future.
 
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PeteA

TS Member
Is it a coincidence that the Merlin era decline started when they floated on the stock market? Of course not. They now have to please shareholders. How do they do that? Well by, amongst other things, giving them a dividend pay out, which of course comes from the profits the company made. To maximise that, they reduce costs, hence the ride / f&b closures at the Theme Parks (not just Alton).

The midway attractions are pretty self reliant and already run on minimum numbers of staff. Costs are low, revenue generated is high so that is perfect for Merlin. The theme parks (minus Legoland) are all staff heavy and are high cost driven, and this is the problem for Merlin.

Like it or not, Merlin are primarily (like any other business) interested in profits and their share holders. If they don't give them a good dividend, then investors will look at other companies to invest in and sell their underperforming shares in Merlin.

The problem is, that in order to keep the investors happy, the product is suffering. Believe you me, it isn't just theme park enthusiasts who are noticing. Many people in the company I work for, know I am a theme park geek and often talk to me about days out they have had at attractions. The most comments this year is about how bad their visit to Alton has been. They were shocked by the numbers of rides closed, how there wasn't really anything for kids who were too old for Cbeebies, but too young for the big thrill rides, those families who loved Charlie and Hex and how it had been a struggle to find food !!!

I asked if they were going to go back next year and quite scarily about half said no. Its these people Merlin have to worry about.

As for me, since my pass expired in June 2015, I have not visited one Merlin attraction. Sadly, I haven't really missed any of their parks. I love Alton Towers so deeply and do not want to see how it has now become, so I am pleased that I haven't been to see the rot that has set in.

To conclude, a lot of emphasis is being placed directly at the Smiler, but lets be brutally honest, the rot set in well before the tragic incident, its just now been speeded up by it. It started when the company floated on the stock market.
 

Rob

TS Team
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Steel Vengeance
Fair enough. Do you believe the Merlin Management should invest more liquid capital into the RTP division given the current financial situation? Do you believe that more money into Entertainment/Rides would bring the masses back?

I do, however, believe that the damage to Merlin's Reputation on the Balance Sheet (intangible asset of goodwill) will taken a massive hit - something I don't believe the Merlin Financial Team have properly accounted for.

The theme parks that tend to be the most successful also seem to be the ones that invest the most. Is that purely a conincidence or is there somehting in it? Does success bring investment or investment bring success? I am a firm believer in the latter (although the former helps with the cycle).

It's not just investment in large capital projects which obviously help to bring in guests. It is not just large capex projects though, parks need to invest to make guest's theme park experience to be as good as it possibly can be. This is what drives those all imporant repeat visits and recommendations. People aren't going to bother returning if they've had an awful day. You need to create a unique and enjoyable day out, something that people will remember and want more of. I do not think Alton Towers are doing this at the moment.
Is it a coincidence that the Merlin era decline started when they floated on the stock market? Of course not. They now have to please shareholders. How do they do that? Well by, amongst other things, giving them a dividend pay out, which of course comes from the profits the company made. To maximise that, they reduce costs, hence the ride / f&b closures at the Theme Parks (not just Alton).

This is a very good and valid point. Cuts have been more drastic since Merlin floated and they seemingly value their shareholders more than their guests.

What worries me most is that Merlin are saying that they are happy with the direction that the parks are going in and that they've had a postive year. Really? This must just be generic standard paragraph speak. Alton Towers is the worst it has ever been since I started to visit (2004) in terms of an overall theme park exerpience. Chessington is just a joke with no significant investment in new rides. Thorpe Park is still hell whenever it's busy and ride availability remains a concern. Is this the right direction?

After The Smiler incident Merlin said that they expected Alton Towers to recover within 3 years, they announced this to shareholders. However the park is being managed and reduced in size to such an extent that you'd think they never expect it to recover. And if it ever does then it will not be able to cope.

It saddens me that Merlin have and are transforming Alton Towers from one of Europe's biggest and best theme parks into something really quite small with limited offerings. And I have no confidence that things will be changing any time soon.

:)
 

jon81uk

TS Member
Also I had another look at Tripadvisor, if you ignore the five star reviews that have one sentance comments, there are a lot of 2.3 star reviews, where people were not impressed at ScareFest and/or fireworks. Mainly around ride closures (Hex, Charlie, Flume) and little to do for kids too old for CBeebies. But also bad comments about crowds and queues (rides and food) at Fireworks and general upkeep. I do think they are looking at the overall TripAdvisor rating, but not drilling down into the comments enough if they think the reviews are good.
 

Benzin

TS Member
It's not a case of the level of investment, for any park it's all about investing in the right thing...

It's often worrying that small parks across the world produce a better quality product on a minimal budget (though that must relate to expectations, however there are many parks that are at Chessington's level and aren't in the same state)...
 

Error

TS Member
I agree that there is too much emphasis on the smiler crash yes it dented visitor numbers but its being looked at too deeply. The incident is history and the ride is back open with added safety features and people are re-riding it. During this time I believed that because the smiler was closed, people didn't visit, they wanted to ride it again as it was a (relatively) new ride.

At this present time I believe the main issue is the value for money and experience, I didn't go to scarefest this year but what I've heard and read about the amount of f&b outlets closed during the most busiest time of the year is shocking.
Not to mention the amount of closed rides and the ludicrous opening hours. Nice summers day still glorious sunshine and the park is closing at 16.30 - 17.00pm? (feel like kids being put to bed when its still daylight) and still charge over 50 something quid.

Don't get me started on the diabolic pricing and entertainment In the hotels...
 

andeyhart

TS Member
Favourite Ride
Nemesis
I agree that there is too much emphasis on the smiler crash yes it dented visitor numbers but its being looked at too deeply. The incident is history and the ride is back open with added safety features and people are re-riding it. During this time I believed that because the smiler was closed, people didn't visit, they wanted to ride it again as it was a (relatively) new ride.

At this present time I believe the main issue is the value for money and experience, I didn't go to scarefest this year but what I've heard and read about the amount of f&b outlets closed during the most busiest time of the year is shocking.
Not to mention the amount of closed rides and the ludicrous opening hours. Nice summers day still glorious sunshine and the park is closing at 16.30 - 17.00pm? (feel like kids being put to bed when its still daylight) and still charge over 50 something quid.

Don't get me started on the diabolic pricing and entertainment In the hotels...

But the incident isn't history because it gets rehashed constantly in the media. Just two weeks ago when the press covered the job cuts, it was all brought back up again. It still feels recent to some.

A lot of people did still return to ride Smiler in 2016, but I think there were also a lot of potential new visitors that were put off coming. The park certainly hasn't recovered from the after effects of the crash yet, not by a long shot.
 

AstroDan

TS Team
Favourite Ride
Steel Vengeance, Cedar Point
Whilst it indeed got worse after Merlin floated, let us not pretend it was fine beforehand.

The first 3 or 4 years under Merlin were pretty good. Certainly better than the last 5 years under Tussauds. The Alton Towers marketing arm worked wonders at getting guests in, refreshing outdated transport infrastructure, re-developing the brand, updating tired food and beverage options, laying on events (AT Live, 30th birthday bash, P!nk etc.) and extending opening hours, returning fireworks to the park etc. It all culuminated with the brilliant 2010 season. Th13teen's ludicrous marketing aside, everything else was fantastic that year. And I remember it well.

Beyond 2010, things went down hill - and went down hill fast.
 

CoasterCrazyChris

TS Member
Favourite Ride
Nemesis
2008-2010 in retrospect was a mini renaissance for Alton Towers after the DIC Tussauds years.

I remember the buzz on the forums in 2008 when the mood concept boards were released for SW6 which is what sparked my own enthusiasm for the park after a school visit.

2010 in particular was also an impressive year for quality and offerings of F&B across the park.

2003-7 was when the worst damage to the park occurred however due to the cumulative effect of nearly 15 years of neglect, cutbacks and wildly varying quality of investment have meant the last few years have easily been the worst in the park's history.
 
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