Cover Story - January 2016

How Mexico’s new Ventura Entertainment takes the best of three different attractions and makes them one

tribe (n):  a group of persons having a -common character, occupation, or -interest

—Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

When you’re dangling upside down dozens of feet above the Mexican jungle floor, you better trust the guy strapping you into that zipline harness. Fortunately at Selvatica, an adventure park located between Cancun and Riviera Maya, Mexico, you’ve got a group of friendly guides who treat you like one of their tribe. They fly ahead and behind you—braving the same elements before you do and offering words of encouragement in the most daring moments. You’re in this together, every clip in of the way, a family in the sky. Now, as a part of the newly formed Ventura Entertainment attractions group, their tribe is expanding and the spirit of kinship nurtured in the treetops is taking root in a big way.

Created in 2014, Ventura Entertainment is an attractions platform led by Ventura Capital Privado (VCP), a local private equity firm with several investments in Mexico. Apart from Ventura Entertainment, its portfolio includes healthcare and telecommunication investments. Ventura Entertainment is comprised of three merged attraction companies with facilities across Mexico: Selvatica, Dolphinaris, and Grupo Entreteparq. On any given day, a guest can swim with dolphins, swing through trees, or ride one of the oldest roller coasters in the country—all while remaining a customer of Ventura Entertainment. Now the parent company to nine parks in three states, Ventura Entertainment is the second largest theme park operator in Mexico. It has acquired a portfolio varied in geography, revenue, activity type, business model, and management style. So after all that activity, it now faces two big questions: How do they make such a diverse group work as one, and where do they go from here?

A Fragmented Industry Forges a Family

The attractions industry in Mexico is primarily made of family-owned-and-operated facilities. Though some international companies have a presence in the country, few homegrown attractions groups exist. Its disjointed nature drew VCP, Ventura Entertainment’s sponsor, to the world of outdoor attractions. “We saw a very interesting opportunity to be a consolidation agent in a very fragmented and polarized industry,” says Fernando Castillo, partner in VCP. “Also, there is a lack of entertainment options in a country where the middle class is growing and has more disposable income. We’re looking forward to developing new innovative concepts and bringing better and more diverse attractions to Mexicans and tourists in Mexico.”

The fact that other private equity funds in the United States and Europe have similarly consolidated parts of the industry also encouraged VCP to pursue an entertainment platform. “You see in other parts of the world that volume matters and size matters in this industry. You don’t have any particular group trying to take advantage of that in Mexico,” says Castillo. “We see a lot of opportunities to consolidate, but also to create new parks.”

Before the company could begin to build new attractions, it had to have a solid base of existing offerings. In 2014, VCP acquired a majority stake in Dolphinaris; with five swim-with-dolphins facilities and one water park in Quintana Roo, Mexico, the company was an established player in the dolphinarium sector for decades.

“Ventura came to us [and] had something we liked: a very clear vision of what they wanted. They didn’t want to [just] buy a business,” says Mauricio Martinez de Alba, CEO of Ventura Entertainment and former CEO of Dolphinaris. “They said, we want to become the number-one company in outdoor entertainment in Mexico. We want a platform, and we like your business in terms of size and potential value.”

With Dolphinaris serving as the base business of the entertainment platform, VCP launched its outdoor attraction holding company: Ventura Entertainment. The investment group had already identified two other merger opportunities that would help them grow in the right direction. “Our focus is to have a company that is diversified in activities, locations, and revenue streams,” says Martinez.

The newly formed Ventura Entertainment directed its attention from the beaches of Quintana Roo to a legacy amusement park in Mexico City. The company successfully merged with Grupo Entreteparq in May 2015 and Ventura Entertainment now holds management of its two parks: La Feria de Chapultepec in Mexico City and Selva Magica in Guadalajara. La Feria opened more than 50 years ago as a fun fair in Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s Central Park. The presidential residence overlooks its grounds and it holds a special place in the hearts of citizens—it was originally a government park created for the people. The opportunity for institutionalized growth appealed to Grupo Entreteparq. “Ventura not only has a tendency to grow, but to grow in an orderly fashion,” says Gerardo Flores, former co-CEO of Grupo Entreteparq and current CFO of Ventura Entertainment. “We have to standardize all our operations processes and the service we provide our customers. That’s what we find in Ventura—management that not only thinks in growth, visitor numbers, and attractions, but also in blending a business to grow in an orderly fashion.”

Speaking of, Ventura Entertainment merged with Selvatica in June 2015 “mainly because of scalability,” says Guido Benassini, formerly CEO of Selvatica and now chief innovation officer (CIO) of Ventura Entertainment. “We have an amazing product that has won many accolades in the industry as well as with guests and travel agents. However, our growth potential was very dependent upon our internal success. A merger with Ventura Entertainment opened the door to realize much of the potential of our park and our people—as well as to many other projects we had been developing for many years.”

Selvatica is a 320-acre jungle property with ziplines, bungee swings, off-road vehicles, swimmable cenotes (sinkholes fed by underground springs), and more. The park also provides a personalized experience. “We want to bring in our guests, as family members, into our tribe. We call ourselves a tribe—citizens of the jungle—and it works because it’s authentic,” says Benassini. “We really believe we transform people into better versions of themselves through connection.”

Management Matters

The group’s diversity is its greatest strength and proving to be a powerful tool in creating a business and management culture from scratch. But to build a unified company out of those various parts, you start from the top.

“We, as a fund, believe that for a company to be successful you have to have a very strong team,” Castillo says. “The main reason we decided to get into the business and enter by acquiring a majority stake in Dolphinaris was because we saw a very strong management team led by Mauricio Martinez.”

Management from each attraction remained on board and the new roles draw on strengths of each individual. Martinez became CEO because of his experience as an operator. Benassini’s creative character and talent for surfacing new concepts made him a perfect fit for CIO. Flores’ extensive career in finance led to his role as CFO.

“You need a little bit of information from each one to build the powerful model that will mitigate the investment risks that come from investing in green fields,” says Castillo.

Operational Independence and Borrowing the Best
As the management team works together, the unique cultures of their previous companies are blending. Each individual company arrived fully formed, with its own intact management styles and operational quirks. Dolphinaris is a meticulously run group and uses data to improve the guest experience. Selvatica prioritizes the personalized excursion, with individualized attention and warm personalities. La Feria has mastered the art of cash management. As the different players work more closely together, elements of their cultures rub off on one another. “The fusion, the merge, is allowing us to get an understanding of each of the players and grab the best each one has,” says Benassini.

Dolphinaris is putting more emphasis on multi-faceted experiences akin to Selvatica—adding swimming pools and restaurants to provide guests with a full-day trip, rather than a single dolphin encounter. In turn, Selvatica has adopted Dolphinaris’ systematic approach to operations.

At La Feria, 90 percent of transactions are handled in cash. In contrast, Dolphinaris’ guests are mostly tourists who prefer credit card transactions. “We exported to them our knowledge of cash management, while we have imported their working methods and customer service standards,” says Flores.

The resulting culture is one that borrows the best of each company, while maintaining operational independence. “We’re trying to protect each brand and allow them to remain as independent as possible. We’re really focused on not changing the experience, because we believe the experience has to be catered and built and developed to whatever market we’re trying to cater to,” says Benassini.

Ventura Entertainment leaves facility management to those who know best. Though human resources and aspects of finance will be centralized, each company will maintain autonomy in operations, sales, and marketing. This approach proves particularly efficient when it comes to sales. In areas like Cancun, attractions rely on travel agencies for promotion. Tourists travel by shuttles, often provided by the these agencies. Shuttle drivers talk up different attractions during the drive—attractions that have arranged with the travel agencies to be recommended by the drivers. The sales team in Quintana Roo focuses on building relationships with the travel agencies to ensure when a tourist mentions an interest in a dolphin encounter or zipline park, Dolphinaris and Selvatica are the first names out of a driver’s mouth. Ventura Entertainment allowed sales in that state to continue with the same approach that worked for years. Respecting the expertise of each individual company, much like the respect shown to the new management team, built a foundation of trust in Ventura Entertainment among staff.

Nine Attractions, One Goal
Creating a cohesive corporate culture involves more than swapping best practices. The merged companies had to share a dedication to the same objective, and the management team soon discovered one goal the individual companies could all support: creating exponentially transformative experiences. No matter which Ventura Entertainment attraction they visit, guests should leave empowered and equipped to make a lasting impact on the world.

The companies discovered a shared passion for the aspects of their work that benefit society. Out of that bond, a number of new initiatives and approaches have been established to ensure guests leave with more than what they came for.

At Dolphinaris, animal trainers have a 24/7 job and are driven by their commitment to caring for the dolphins. To talk to trainers about their work is to hear stories of late-night births and medical missions in outside waters—once-in-a-lifetime connections with the animals and a belief in the good that comes from the work. Now, trainers will be a part of new education programs and share their personal passion directly with guests.

Similar education components are being installed at other Ventura Entertainment facilities as well.

Wet ‘n Wild: An Attraction in Need of a Tribe
One Ventura location obtained during the mergers needed more guidance than culture alone can provide. Though the company plans to make improvements at all its facilities, the Wet ‘n Wild water park it leases in Cancun is slated to receive extra attention. The water park was built in the late ’90s on the outskirts of the hotel zone, on 7 hectares (17 acres) of prime beachfront property. Dolphinaris was originally an attraction at the park, but soon became so successful it was spun off into its own company and Wet ‘n Wild was sold. While Dolphinaris thrived and expanded, Wet ‘n Wild languished. No real development took place in the area, and the water park is one of the few structures breaking up the stretch of shoreline. Eventually, Dolphinaris leased back the park as an added value for the dolphin experience. “It’s a park that hasn’t exploded like it should for many reasons,” says Benassini. “One reason is the location—being so close to the ocean, being a water park. The ocean is so beautiful and it’s free, so no matter how nice the attractions may be, you’re competing against the ocean.”

So what’s Ventura Entertainment to do with a park that’s been left on its own for so long? Bring it into the tribe. The company plans a whole new concept for the facility: Ventura Park, an attraction that combines the best of Dolphinaris, Grupo Entreteparq, and Selvatica. With necessary upgrades for equipment and theming, the water park will retain the name and Wet ‘n Wild brand, but will be joined by new mini-parks and Dolphinaris under the name Ventura Park. The mini-parks include:

  • Ahh-ventura: This area includes all-weather and soft-adventure attractions like ropes courses and ziplines. A zipline roller coaster will stretch through half the park and end on the beach.
  • Go-Kart Track: This track will zip in, out, and around the existing water park slide structures.
  • Underworld Family Entertainment Center (FEC): This indoor attraction will feature a LazerFury360 arena—a game that combines bumper cars and laser tag. There will also be a Virtualizer—a multiplayer virtual reality game.
  • Caribbean Walk: This themed area will resemble a typical village found on the islands and will roll out in a later phase of development.

The attractions were chosen to fill a gap in Cancun’s nighttime entertainment. Eventually, the park will host shows and build an observation wheel with the hopes of drawing crowds who are tired of the beach or looking for something to do after dark.

“We created a different balance that doesn’t depend just on the water park,” says Benassini, and, thus, the only standalone water park in Cancun is now a part of the tribe.

Future Adventures Ahead
Seeking to further diversify its offerings, Ventura Entertainment has plans to expand internationally and open attractions unlike anything else in the portfolio (see sidebar for details). “Every time we bring in a new platform, it will create greater synergies,” says VCP’s Castillo. “What that leads you to is being able to invest more in your parks, have different attractions, and to continue to innovate and be a competitive company to attract visitors. That’s our main goal.”

The company hopes to go public in the next few years and become the big name in outdoor entertainment in Mexico. “Let’s focus on Tijuana to Quintana Roo. We have a whole country. We have a lot of people who do need that kind of distraction and leisure and entertainment,” says Flores. “[We want] people to look at us and say we’re Mexico’s premier [provider] of entertainment services and when they have leisure time, they think of us as one that offers the same standard of product everywhere.”

Creating a company culture will continue to be a priority moving forward, as well.

 “We’re trying to develop that as we’re walking along,” Benassini says. “We’re very conscious that we have to create this tribe, this new culture which will evolve from the best of all of us into something new, better, and grander than each one of us as individuals.” 

Contact Associate Editor Prasana William at pwilliam@IAAPA.org.

A Guide to Ventura Entertainment

Ventura Entertainment consists of nine facilities from three states in Mexico. Here’s a quick guide to the second largest outdoor entertainment company in the nation:

Dolphinaris

Swim-with-dolphins experiences are the main attraction at Dolphinaris. With five locations in Cozumel, Tulum, Cancun, and Riviera Maya, it is a major player in Quintana Roo and features on-site restaurants, lounge areas, and pools to make a visit an all-day excursion. It also houses the Dolphinaris Foundation, which aids the study of dolphins in the wild.

La Feria de Chapultepec

One of the oldest attractions in the nation, La Feria is home to “Montaña Rusa,” a wooden roller coaster that debuted in 1964. The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.

 

Selva Magica

Located in Guadalajara, Selva Magica is the sister amusement park to La Feria. Its 36 attractions are nestled into forest surroundings and is the only park of its size in the region.

 

Selvatica

This 320-acre jungle property features 15 adventure attractions, including ziplines, bungee swings, a zipline roller coaster, and off-road vehicles. A highlight of the park, located between Cancun and Riviera Maya, is the presence of swimmable cenotes—sinkholes fed by natural underground rivers.

Wet ‘n Wild Cancun

The Cancun water park features a wave pool, revamped kiddie water play structure, new apron area, and more. It will be absorbed into Ventura Park, Ventura Entertainment’s forthcoming attraction.


Challenges of Mergers

Fernando Castillo, partner at Ventura Capital Privado, saw both opportunities and challenges in creating an entertainment platform. Based on his experience, here is some advice when considering an acquisition or merger.

Find the right partner: You don’t want to bring in a company that isn’t thinking in the same direction you are. Ventura Capital Privado found partners that wanted the same consolidation and growth opportunities.

Execute projects successfully: “We are spending a lot of time in really executing the projects we have in the pipeline in the right manner,” says Castillo. “That’s a challenge that we’re mitigating by being very hands on in the investment, in the projects we have. The execution part of it is key for the growth of this company.” Never underestimate the power of creating an execution plan.

Remember the staff: Buy-in from existing staff is essential during a merger, and Ventura Entertainment took note. “The investors are very geared toward creating good employment and wealth, treating our employees in a very good manner, and aligning incentives,” says Castillo. To that end, the company established stock options and promotes career development by allowing employees to move to different facilities within Ventura.

 


A New Life for LA Feria

Where Dolphinaris and Selvatica concentrate on preserving nature, La Feria will focus on preserving Mexican culture after a few renovations. Its urban setting in the capital city makes it the ideal cache for the nostalgia of a nation and conservation of the Mexican way of life. To that end, the park is being rethemed to reflect the timeless traditions of Mexico. “La Feria was originally built to be the theme park for Mexicans,” says Benassini. “We want to re-create the dignity of the Mexican people with their own park.”

When guests arrive at the revamped park, they will enter through a reproduction Zócalo populated by familiar characters from native folklore and pop culture. Like the main streets of many classic amusement parks, La Feria will feature a walk inspired by the villages of Mexico, lined with shops and cantinas. The wax museum will include national luminaries; even the haunted house will receive a makeover with figures from Mexican horror stories.

“We’re trying to bring out the best Mexico had and has, so we can all feel proud of our past and present,” says Benassini.


What’s Next?

Over the next two years, Ventura Entertainment plans to aggressively expand in Mexico and the United States. Here’s a preview of what’s to come:

Dolphinaris (Scottsdale, Arizona): The first U.S. location for Dolphinaris will feature the same swim-with-dolphins experience as the facilities in Mexico. The location is close to Odysea in the Desert, an ocean-themed entertainment district that will feature exhibits on marine life, touch pools, the OdySea Aquarium, an IMAX theater, and more. Dolphinaris is scheduled to open in 2016.

Bengala (Quintana Roo, Mexico): Unlike any of Ventura’s existing attractions, Bengala is a wildlife preserve for big cats that will provide an intimate look at the lives of the animals in its care. Construction begins mid-2016.


The Main Players

Ventura Entertainment’s management team consists of representatives from every facility and Ventura Capital Privado.

Fernando Castillo
Partner, Ventura Capital Privado

Castillo is part of the team at the private equity fund that is the holding company for Ventura Entertainment, and oversees the platform.

Mauricio Martinez de Alba
CEO, Ventura Entertainment

Martinez is the former CEO of Dolphinaris. He originally managed the Wet ‘n Wild water park in Cancun and was integral in the creation of the swim-with-dolphins facility.

Guido Benassini
CIO, Ventura Entertainment

The former CEO of Selvatica, Benassini was one of the first entrepreneurs to bring ziplining to Quintana Roo. The role of chief innovation officer (CIO) was created to build on his creative strengths.

Gerardo Flores
CFO, Ventura Entertainment

Flores was a part of the original team that acquired La Feria de Chapultepec, Selva Magica, and another park to create Grupo Entreteparq. He is a former director of Grupo Entreteparq and now manages the finance and administration arms of Ventura Entertainment.



2016 Leadership Conference and Latin American Summit Post Tour

March 11-13, 2016

After the event in Mexico City, attendees are invited to register for a post tour of Quintana Roo, the state that is home to Cancun, Riviera Maya, and many of Ventura Entertainment’s attractions. The tour will include:

Dolphin Discovery: At this Isla Mujeres facility, attendees can swim with the dolphins or manatees and enjoy snacks and a presentation on the facility.

Wet ‘n Wild Cancun: Participants will see all the new additions to this water park, detailed in this article..

Selvatica: A tour of this jungle facility is on the agenda for this stop.

Xcaret: Participants can explore this eco-archeological attraction before enjoying a dinner show.

For more information or to register, visit www.IAAPA.org/LeadershipConference.