Feature - Sense of Adventure - February 2019

MERLIN ENTERTAINMENTS

Merlin Entertainments conjures up new FEC and Midway brands full of challenges and playful IP

by Juliana Gilling

At The Bear Grylls Adventure in Birmingham, United Kingdom, you’re as likely to find yourself ziplining out of the back of a Chinook helicopter as diving among sharks, braving the Survival Maze, and experiencing the rush of skydiving.

Like its famed adventurer namesake, The Bear Grylls Adventure is all about testing limits. That’s also what Merlin Entertainments is doing with the latest addition to its Midway Attractions portfolio. Merlin’s Midway business now exceeds 113 sites in 22 countries, generating 40.7 million visitors and £656 million in revenues. Average annual capital expenditure in new Midway Attractions amounts to £60-70 million.

MERLIN ENTERTAINMENTS

Located at the NEC Birmingham, the attraction covers around 8,000 square meters and features indoor and outdoor elements. (Credit: Merlin Entertainments)

Bear Necessities

Merlin’s decision to open the £20 million Bear Grylls Adventure was based on increasing evidence of the public’s appetite for adventurous activities. The growth of the “Tough Mudder” obstacle courses, the ­phenomenon of Parkrun (an ongoing weekend collection of 5K running events taking place on Saturday mornings across 20 countries), and the popularity of indoor climbing (there are around a million visits annually to indoor wall facilities in the United Kingdom) show the demand for challenging pursuits are no longer just for weekend warriors.

“Everybody was getting involved,” says Mark Fisher, Merlin’s chief development officer..

Having spotted a gap in the market, Merlin wanted a concept that could “launch into multiple geographies.” The business needed “scalability and differentiation,” and Merlin set about looking for a powerhouse intellectual property (IP) with an adventurous spirit and worldwide appeal. The timing proved fortuitous—Merlin’s team was already talking to Bear Grylls’ people when one said, “Oh, you should get Bear involved in this.”

Bear Grylls, the former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier with the British Army turned adventurer, made a global impact with reality television shows starring former U.S. President Barack Obama and A-list celebrities. 

“The three markets that he’s strongest in are the U.K., the U.S., and China,” says Fisher. Those are Merlin’s “obvious go-to places” for expansion.

Grylls turned out to be an active ambassador.

“He’s a really nice guy,” says Fisher, adding Grylls started tossing ideas in during an early planning meeting. “We were talking about shooting or archery, and he said, ‘No, no, no. We should do ax-throwing.’ I almost fell off my seat, thinking, ‘How do I explain to the health and safety guys back home that we want to do ax-throwing with the public?’ But he was really enthusiastic and supportive, which made a big difference.”

The world’s first Bear Grylls Adventure is a “high-energy personal challenge area,” where everyone can escape the ordinary and achieve something epic.

“It’s a recognition that everyday people are looking to push their boundaries and try new experiences,” says Fisher. 

Located at the NEC Birmingham—a well-connected venue in the heart of England known for hosting exhibitions—the attraction covers around 8,000 square meters. It features indoor and outdoor elements, the balance of which might change to suit future locations. Merlin is mainly targeting young adults (age 18 to 30) and families with children older than 11 years with the attraction, which launched in September. “We’re also expecting to do a lot of corporate team-building business,” adds Fisher. 

Backed by copious research, The Bear Grylls Adventure business model is nevertheless Merlin’s own leap of faith, much like the one that guests face. Merlin has organized the offering into packages ranging from £20-160 per person. A visit automatically includes Bear’s Adventure Basecamp, which consists of four experiences: the Breakout escape room, Survival Maze, Assault Course, and Target Archery. Groups of 16 have around 90 minutes to complete the challenges.

Premium experiences are available for an extra cost.

MERLIN ENTERTAINMENTS

The Bear Grylls Adventure offers a scuba dive experience in which participants explore the tropical ecosystem of a warm water reef. (Credit: Merlin Entertainments)

“We have an iFLY [indoor skydiving experience] in there, and we’ve got the tallest outdoor high ropes course in Europe,” says Fisher. There’s an indoor climbing challenge on realistic rock faces and a diving/snorkeling experience. Naturally, the upsell activities will have a lower capacity than Basecamp, which Fisher expects to attract 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year.  

What sets the attraction apart, he believes, is the “themed depth” that the Merlin Magic Making team has been able to achieve.

“When you get into the tank, for example, it isn’t just a body of water that you walk around with some fish in it. For all intents and purposes, you’re walking under the ocean,” Fisher explains.

Guests can tailor-make their own itineraries, tapping into what Fisher sees as another key trend, the “huge growth in personalized experiences and interactions.”

Merlin had previously seen the benefits of using staff to facilitate personalized experiences at its Legoland Discovery Centers. Lego lovers couldn’t get enough of the workshops run by Master Model Builders, so Merlin changed the status of staff to Playmakers. Employees are now trained to lead children in structured Lego play. The “one-to-one immersion” makes for a more satisfying visit, according to Fisher. 

“Our key performance indicators have gone up because it’s a deeper, richer experience,” he says. 

accesso Technology Group provides ticketing, queuing, and scheduling at The Bear Grylls Adventure. On arrival, each guest collects a “BearTag,” based on ­accesso’s Prism platform. The wrist-worn device comes loaded with the guest’s customized itinerary, steering them through the day’s challenges with live messages and reservation notifications.

“With just the swipe of a finger on the BearTag touch screen, our visitors have a world of adventure at their fingertips,” says James Thomas, general manager at The Bear Grylls Adventure. BearTag empowers guests to make secure, cashless payments for meals and merchandise, receive marketing offers in real time, and claim free photos from their experience.

New Tricks

Merlin has more tricks up its sleeve including a new initiative, “Merlin Ventures.”

“We’re looking to partner with small startup businesses. The idea is that we will invest and help from an arm’s length, letting them be super-entrepreneurial,” says Fisher.

Merlin Ventures should give the group more options in an increasingly crowded industry. Fisher points to the fact that 30,000 new experiences were added to TripAdvisor last year. Competition is adding to market pressures. In its October trading update, the group reported that organic revenue growth was flat in Midway Attractions. Terrorism attacks in London and a scorching summer played a part, but there are “good signs of growth,” according to Fisher.

Merlin continues to strive for a balanced portfolio, concentrating its Midway efforts in gateway cities, achieving an even spread of domestic and tourism brands, and clustering assets together. 

Family attractions remain “at the heart of everything that Merlin does,” but the family entertainment center market can be difficult.

“There are good examples of big companies that have tried and not been able to do it,” says Fisher. “That’s because it’s a delicate balance between capitalization, operating cost, and being in the right physical place for people to come and visit. If you get it right, it can be a very potent recipe. But if you get one of the ingredients wrong, it can be quite destructive.”

Fisher is intrigued by technology-driven FECs but remains cautious.

“The traditional model was to invest in something and get your payback over time. That’s difficult to do with leading-edge technology because it’s changing so quickly and expectations are so high,” Fisher says. “We know that, because we’ve invested in VR [virtual reality] in theme parks. I’m not a Luddite, but I don’t think everything has to have a plug on the end of it.”

He is convinced, however, that “the opportunity in our business is bigger, better, and more exciting than it’s ever been. You’ve got better IP, better technology, and better standards than you’ve ever had. You’ve got amazing companies that you can work with. Just look at some of the things people are doing around the world.”

www.merlinentertainments.biz

Going Global

Merlin banks on Peppa Pig FECs

“Nothing ever stands still” in the attractions industry, and Merlin Entertainments’ new Peppa Pig World of Play brand addresses a “lack of preschool products on an international level,” says Mark Fisher, Merlin’s chief development officer. After considering a number of different intellectual properties, Merlin decided Entertainment One’s much-loved Peppa Pig brand represented “the biggest global opportunity.”

IMG_2354---Credit-Merlin-EntertainmentsMerlin’s first Peppa Pig World of Play premiered at the LC Mall in Shanghai, China, in October. Families can shop for groceries at Peppa’s supermarket, pop into Rebecca Rabbit’s colorful burrow, and enjoy “Muddy Puddles,” where the more you jump up and down on puddle-patterned floors, the more Peppa and her onscreen family get splashed with mud.

“We’ve made Peppa Pig’s world come alive,” says Fisher.

Shanghai is the first of five Peppa Pig World of Play sites to open by the end of 2019. Next is Dallas, followed by locations in Michigan, New York, and Beijing. Merlin might also consider building and managing Peppa Pig World of Play centers for partners in new markets, as it’s done with the Legoland parks in Dubai and Malaysia.

The group’s approach to the Peppa Pig chain resembles a retail rollout program.

“We did the design and then worked with a partner [Lappset] on the rollout. We’ve never really done it like that before,” says Fisher. “Once we’ve got the product settled, we’ll be able to roll them out quickly.” 

As for The Bear Grylls Adventure, Merlin is focusing on the United States and China markets. It aims to open a second site within two years but is giving the United Kingdom operation time to breathe: “We want at least six months to understand what works and what doesn’t,” says Fisher.


Funworld Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the EMEA attractions industry. Contact her at julianagilling@gmail.com.