Merlin’s Nick Varney on His Company’s Rapid Growth, Media Relations

By Keith Miller

Nick Varney at GM and Owners

One of the attraction industry’s greatest success stories over the past 20 years has been the extraordinary rise of Merlin Entertainments. The company’s CEO, Nick Varney, shared the challenges and opportunities facing both Merlin and the broader attractions industry during Wednesday’s GM and Owners’ Breakfast.
In 1999, Merlin was a private company with revenues of around £20 million. Today, Merlin is a publicly traded company, with revenues totaling £1.3 billion in 2016. The United Kingdom-based company operates 124 attractions in 25 countries with more than 29,000 employees. The company owns numerous attraction brands including Legoland theme parks, Sea Life aquariums, and Madame Tussauds, along with successful amusement parks like Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, and Gardaland.
According to Varney, the company is targeting a balanced distribution of its attractions across Europe, the Americas, and Asia, with one-third located in each of the three regions. Over the next 18 months, Merlin is also developing three new attraction brands: Little Big City, Bear Grylls Adventure complexes, and Peppa Pig, with the latter fostered through an agreement with Entertainment One.
During his keynote address, Varney mentioned a handful of issues facing the attractions industry and highlighted two in particular—lengthy guest queues and aggressively negative media coverage of incidents. About long lines, Varney said, “When I first entered the industry in 1990, it was customers’ main cause of complaint, and in 2017, it is still customers’ main cause of complaint.” He said the good news is that technology is allowing this issue to be addressed and it’s improving. He also stressed the importance of giving guests something entertaining to do while they’re waiting.
The second issue is what Varney termed “Fatal Attraction—Industry and the Media.” He said an attraction’s relationship with the media is symbiotic, and mentioned the media coverage associated with the opening of a new ride. The park benefits from all of the positive press coverage, and media outlets benefit because such openings draw higher readership and viewership and thus increase their advertising revenues.
“But if you have an accident, then you get attention focused on every little attraction breakdown,” Varney affirmed. He said a long succession of negative stories can chip away at consumer confidence in an attraction, and safety in the attractions business must be insulated from fiscal pressures.
Varney finished his presentation by providing several do’s and don’ts for attractions:

• Don’t just launch a ride with a name on it; make sure it has a good backstory.

• Don’t invent a park mascot and assume it will have the impact of icons like Mickey Mouse. Unless it connects with an appealing story on film or TV, it probably won’t work.

• Don’t borrow someone else’s ideas and characters if you don’t have any of your own.

• Do seek IP alliances that work for your attraction.