2017 IAAPA Attractions Expo Recap - CEOs Speak

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FROM LEFT: John Wood, Jim Pattison Jr., Xavier Lopez Ancona, Matthias Li

CEOs Encourage Healthy Mix of Innovation, Fundamental Principles

by Michael Switow

Four industry giants from three continents discussed the essence of creativity, along with the proper role of chief executives in the attractions industry, before a packed audience in the 2017 edition of “CEO Speaks.” While agreeing innovation is essential, they warned professionals not to be overly captivated by shiny new toys.

“New technology, especially that which is not fully developed, is dangerous in this industry,” warned Sally Corporation CEO John Wood, whose company is renowned for its production of dark rides. “Fun is the criteria. Always create an opportunity for your customer to escape the reality they want to leave behind, so they can enjoy the time they have together. This is not an industry based on the role of the new—it’s really the tried and true.” 

“We won’t invest in something unproven,” agreed Ocean Park Hong Kong CEO Matthias Li.

“For decades, what makes Ripley’s Believe it Or Not! interesting is the exhibit itself. What’s changing for us is how we present it,” added Ripley Entertainment President Jim Pattison Jr., noting his company added more interactivity to exhibits and built display cases lower to the floor to make them easier for children to see. 

At KidZania, which debuted in Mexico in 1999 and has since expanded to 19 countries, the core activities in each outlet are consistent, like giving children the chance to be a firefighter. “But the first fire station and the last are very different,” KidZania CEO and founder Xavier Lopez Ancona explained. “We do video mapping now for fire, so it’s more authentic and real.”

While Sally, Ripley, Ocean Park, and KidZania are continually testing markets, observing competitors and listening to employees to gather new ideas, the leaders take different approaches when it comes to the design process.

“I constantly meddle with the design department,” said Pattison. 

“I try to stay out of my guys’ way,” Wood said. “I consider myself to be a very interested bystander. They know they’ll have to pass it by me eventually, but as long as they meet their obligations and create fun, why should I get in the way? Our whole company is based on creativity. My responsibility is to make sure these creative people remain employed every year.”

“(Design) is where I spend most of my time. That’s the fun part. My wish is to have a CEO to run the administration and finance,” said Ancona.

For Li, who started his career in finance and became Ocean Park CEO 16 months ago, being curious and having a keen desire to learn more has been one of the keys to his career. “In the early days, when people didn’t want to do something, I took it up because I wanted to learn the business,” Li reflected, noting that, at times, his responsibilities expanded to include retail, safety, and even waste management. Young professionals shouldn’t complain “this isn’t my job,” he said, but should instead try new things, particularly since the attractions business encompasses a multitude of disciplines.

One of the best places to learn about this diversity, the four CEOs agreed, is IAAPA. 

“One of the special things in this industry is that operators are really not competing with each other, so they are willing to share,” concluded Wood, who joined the organization in the 1970s, a day after first hearing about it.