Thorpe Park: General Discussion

Discussion in 'European Parks and Attractions' started by Ted, 11th Jun 2012.

  1. AstroDan

    AstroDan TS Forum Team Team Member

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    It is interesting how Merlin approached Alton Towers during their 'troubled years' with The Smiler vs. the way that SeaWorld parks approached SeaWorld following Black Fish!

    The polar opposite approach.
     
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  2. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    I'm not sure that's quite true. Blackfish came out seven years ago, there was a definite rethink in the years post Blackfish and a real focus on cost.

    Gwazi, Rhino Rally, Darkastle, Tanganyika Tidal Wave all struck from the balance sheet for cost reasons. New rides were on a noticeably smaller scale for a period and I'd say operations in the parks were not as good, for a time - again with a focus on cost.
     
  3. AstroDan

    AstroDan TS Forum Team Team Member

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    Whilst I don't think you are wrong, the net changes to SeaWorld parks now vs before Blackfish is one where we have seen significant investment in new ride hardware - irrespective of the closures we did see.

    Within Merlin, this has not been the case. Alton Towers, for example, has been - as a business, wholly downsized since 2015 in pretty much every department. We haven't yet seen any return to the levels of investment or operations from the early 10s.
     
  4. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    @AstroDan I can't really argue with that.

    I think Merlin are still trying to work out what to do with the RTP portfolio. It'll become clearer over the next couple of seasons.
     
    Last edited: 19th Jan 2020
  5. kydog1299

    kydog1299 TowersStreet Member

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    The biggest risk Merlin can take right now in my opinion is investing heavily again in a new ride/experience at Thorpe for it to fall flat again. But business is about taking a risk to see if it pays off and if it doesn’t, you take the key learnings and you implement a plan on how to get back in touch with your audience. A strategic plan needs to be built to assess what direction the park needs to take.

    I doubt if Merlin even did look to sell THORPE it wouldn’t attract many buyers, with 2 potential competitive parks down the road (including Legoland which is arguably Merlin’s/one of the UK’s top attractions in visitation figures).

    The park’s management really need to sort out their basic issues: their target market/audience, their strategy, their long term and short term development & targets, and what they want their business to look like from a marketing perspective to the general public (whether this be an all out thrills park, a family park etc). There are huge discrepancies with their audience, for example they increasingly market themselves as an older family park but make notable changes like TWD, Fright Nights which is marketed as a stronger-horror/thrill event than the more universally family approach Towers take, and then they invest in children’s attractions when they’ve already went on the war path to remove them? My biggest confusion was when they ripped out Octopus Gardens to get Storm Surge in, and 3 years later they change their target audience direction to families

    Even if you look back at the investments it’s all really confused:
    -2009: SAW
    -2010: SAW ALIVE/Octopus Gardens removal
    -2011: Storm Surge
    -2012: The Swarm
    -2013: Brave It Backwards (Park changes target audience and marketing material)
    -2014: Angry Birds (Understandable, change in audience, makes sense etc)
    -2015: I’m a Celebrity (partially makes sense in line with audience)
    -Can’t remember the year but Timber Tug Boat etc opens (Loggers closes?) ((Yet they removed Octopus Gardens))
    -2016: DBGT?
    -2018: TWD?

    Feels like we’ve gone full circle. Started as a thrill park with horror/more adult themes, to family, back to adult themes again.

    If I were sat in a boardroom with the managers I’d actually struggle to understand what direction the park is going & who they’re even targeting. A good product and your vision should easily be understandable to anyone in a few sentences, it’d take a very long paragraph to make sense of who TP is aimed at, what their plan is, what their image is, etc. The rest of the RTP portfolio is easily understandable but Thorpe always raises big question marks.
     
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  6. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    I would suggest there were firm intentions in both Tussauds and Merlin for Thorpe to go in a very specific direction to differentiate itself from local competitors, but those haven't necessarily played out the way it was hoped, either in terms of visitor numbers or the balance sheet, or both.

    Some of the investments on your helpful list look strange if you think they're part of an unwavering strategy, but they're not - they're a deviation from it in response to results and feedback. That I think is clear, what is less clear is the mixed messages that the park send out alongside.
     
  7. AT86

    AT86 TowersStreet Member

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    I think Thorpe Park has been hit hardest out of the RTP in terms of lack of investment because there are two issues.

    One is the general reduction in investment that Merlin announced a couple of years back - something like £100million less to be spent on RTP CapEx compared to their original plan.

    Combine this with the fact that large investments haven’t resulted in an increase in guests over the last 10 years at Thorpe and it makes it an easy decision to move the cash elsewhere, where the risk of getting a return on your investment is lower.

    If you had £15million to spend and could see that the last two large investments at Alton Towers resulted in visitor growth, but the same investments at Thorpe Park resulted in no change. You’d probably plump for giving the cash to Towers.

    Of course now they don’t need to report to the city on the success (or failure) of their investments it may mean there are changes, but it is too early to tell.
     
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  8. Thameslink Rail

    Thameslink Rail TowersStreet Member

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    I agree with most of that however Thorpe Park are cutting on new rides while Alton Towers are cutting on opening hours so the investment gap probably isn't that large.
     
  9. Alsty

    Alsty TowersStreet Member

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    I'm curious to know how much influence Merlin has on capex investments (if any). Do Merlin provide any conditions on investment, for instance the money should be used for a family or thrill ride, whether any particular IP should be used, what their vision is, etc or whether the park have free reign over it? I'm trying to understand if the failings at Thorpe Park lie squarely with Thorpe Park management or if there's a shared failing with Merlin.

    I get the feeling that it's been mostly up to Thorpe Park management to decide the direction they want to go in with little or no supervision by Merlin, which is probably a good thing in some ways (not micro-managing), but they've just completely lost their way and don't seem to know how to get back on track. I would like to think Merlin have stepped in and given them an action plan and greater scrutiny, much like when schools or hospitals go into "special measures", rather than just leaving Thorpe Park to continue rudderless.
     
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  10. djtruefitt

    djtruefitt TS Site Team Team Member

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    I would imagine it’s a lot to do with Merlin. Merlin magic making are the ones who come up with the rides and projects, I assume they do the research and decide in the end what direction to take the park.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the parks get much say in the major changes the parks get, and certainly not much say in the budgets they get.

    I think it says a lot when the guy who works for Merlin magic making who is responsible for Thorpe and Heidi, has now been given Towers as well this season. Which basically shows there isn’t much going on at any of these parks.
     
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  11. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Merlin HQ influence/control pretty much all of those things especially capex. That doesnt mean the park has no say at all, the park management will be on the development team for new projects, but the ideas come from MMM rather than the park and the park must request capex from Merlin. All ride concepts and the marketing strategy has to be approved personally by Nick Varney as well, or at least the Merlin board I think

    Yes it does seem that Alton has been added to John Burton's remit, instead of a separate creative director for Alton to replace the guy that left, so probably no big Thorpe projects. I mean, when MMM ends up doing Bouncezilla just to make use of resources I can see why!
     
    Last edited: 20th Jan 2020
  12. Alsty

    Alsty TowersStreet Member

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    Thanks, so it is centrally managed by Merlin. That's not what I expected.

    Does anybody know how it used to be under Tussauds? For instance, were Oblivion and Air "in house" at Alton Towers or did those concepts come from up high?
     
  13. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    For better or worse, I don’t think the individual parks get that much say over the main aspects of how their business is run. They all have the same in-house brands of restaurant, so presumably they have limited control over their food and beverage operation. They all sell the same lines of merchandise, which seem be ordered centrally. They all have the same business partners, like Pic Solve for photography, or HB Leisure for the games. They all have the same style of marketing and promotions, even if the brands are different. Judging from interviews with John Wardley, the parks get limited say in which rides they get. They all seem to use the same suppliers, like Ima Score for music. They also use the same recruitment system and do the same style of staff training and assessment centre. They all have the same Stars incentive scheme. I guess they’re all living and breathing the Merlin way.

    It means they can all benefit from economies of scale and Merlin’s buying power. It also means to an extent people know what to expect when they visit a Merlin attraction. Most of the time Merlin are using proven formulas. I suppose you could argue that it gives them a consistent standard. I suspect it does also mean that managing a theme park isn’t quite how a lot of us imagined it to be when we were kids. At least not if you’re managing a park for a big chain. It probably does also mean that in a chain like Merlin, the management team for each park has a limited control over how successful it is. A lot of the critical decisions are out of their hands.

    In a way this is the way of the world and how big corporations tend to operate. I don’t think McDonalds lets its managers mix the menu up a bit because they fancy a change or because they’ve got some good ideas. This style of management seems to work for a lot of successful businesses and customers often do seem attracted to the familiarity.

    For many workers, it must sometimes be frustrating that all of the big decisions are taken in a head office by people they’ve probably never met. It’s funny how as a society we’re getting better and better qualified, at least in terms of how many years of education we’ve done, but more and more employers are centralising decision making so that workers and managers are just following a series of checklists and processes. For people who are creative, or who want to feel like they’re making a difference, many large organisations do become a straightjacket. Merlin are working with at least a couple of universities (one in the UK and one in Germany) to sponsor theme park management degrees, but what they’re looking are for people who are good at unquestioningly following rules and plodding through checklists. No wonder Linked In’s full of Merlin employees who are trying to go free-lance.
     
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  14. djtruefitt

    djtruefitt TS Site Team Team Member

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    Says a lot really when the menu in crooked spoon for 2019 is exactly the same as the hotel restaurant at Chessie, even word for word.

    Just shows how little control the parks have only basics like food menus. Even Jordan in a vlog last year said the menu in Finns was new, as it was being standardised by Merlin.
     
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  15. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    That’s interesting djtruefitt. Is that the Zufari bar and grill? I wonder whether this means they’re bringing in more pre-prepared food from a central production unit. Some people will look and this and wonder whether it matters. It probably means Merlin can keep costs down/increase margins and there can’t be many people who regularly eat at the Chessington Hotel restaurant and the Crooked Spoon.

    But with so much homogenisation, it’s unsurprising that so many people seem to be trying to get out of the UK theme park industry. Unless you get very near to the top, your career is going to be one of enforcing rules and filling in forms that you’ve had no input in creating. Things like setting the menus must be one of the more interesting parts of running a restaurant. It also means that the decision making process becomes further from the guests. If the menu changes and a guest leaves feedback, their comments are unlikely to get as far as the person who writes the menu. I know it’s no different to being a manager or a ‘chef’ in a restaurant for a big chain, and some people like it. But some people want more.
     
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  16. Alsty

    Alsty TowersStreet Member

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    I heard that about Zafari. It's a shame as they used to have some really nice items. Crooked Spoon is not exactly aiming high is it?

    It's disappointing that this homogenisation is just a way to lower standards across all the resorts rather than raise them all up to a higher standard. That must be "the Merlin way".
     
    Last edited: 20th Jan 2020
  17. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Tbh it's not much a surprise that Merlin is run so centrally. All their UK parks are now all exactly the same, just with different colours and demographics. Sometimes the similarities arent intentional, like their operational problems

    In terms of development, well really the park management is just there to operate the park, maintain it and make money. They should input on the operational and marketing side when new developments happen, but they wont have their own developers.

    A typical park might say 'we want a new launched coaster' or sometimes just 'we want something for this space'. Then the park would appoint a team to develop it for them, with an external developer to pitch ideas and make it happen. That's pretty normal in construction worlds.

    What Merlin does is have MMM to basically keep all the development processess controlled. The actual design might still be freelanced, but planned and controlled by MMM. In theory this could be a good thing, but I think track record proves the whole system is pretty bureaucratic / dysfunctional. No doubt there are talented people doing what they can in MMM and sometimes a good ride pops out. But look how out of touch developments can be, like Thorpe Park getting the most expensive to maintain, faulty ride its ever had, when Thorpe dont even get the budget to maintain such a thing.

    I think you've got the right general idea but maybe you're jumping to a few conclusions? Who's to say we're more educated to manage theme parks now than before. A university degree in this kinds of field is a starting block, but the real learning always comes from experience. I wouldn't say it's a surefire sign that there are better managers today than before. And I dont think you can gauge a whole picture from Linkedin.

    A bigger difference will be what Merlin pays their managers and what experience/background do they hire. Merlin's senior people are usually always FMCG marketing based and their creative directors often straight outta uni.
     
    Last edited: 20th Jan 2020
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  18. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    I think a central function like MMM makes complete sense, but that's not to say what it produces is perfect.

    Parks should be full of talent who are good at running parks, maintaining rides and entertaining guests (note, I said should be).
     
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  19. Jb85

    Jb85 TowersStreet Member

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    my only issue with this is they seem to roll out the same formula across parks, although we are yet to see this happen in the same country.
     
  20. jon81uk

    jon81uk TowersStreet Member

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    When the plans came out for the building that now houses Derren Browns confusing VR experience I was really hoping for a proper dark ride to go in there on the Spider-Man or Transformers scale (I don't think we would get RotR scale). But they followed the VR fad instead of going for something that could actually last for 20+ years (again such as Spider-Man at IoA).
     
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