Wake-Up Call - September 2017

1709_LEOLANDIA_1Italy’s Leolandia is looking for its happily ever after

by Juliana Gilling

All photos courtesy Leolandia

Leolandia was the Sleeping Beauty that needed a wake-up call, says Massimiliano Freddi, vice president of strategic development at the Italian theme park: “She had huge potential—we knew that if we could only wake her up, we’d have a tremendous success on our hands.”

That faith has been rewarded as Leolandia is on course for its fourth record year in a row. “We plan to reach 1 million guests this year for the first time in our history,” says Freddi. Going from 200,000 guests to a million in a decade has been “quite a trip,” he says. As of press time, visitor numbers were up 24 percent and per caps by 40 percent from 2016, which made Freddi “very happy.”

He remembers setting eyes on the park in 2007 when it was known as Minitalia: “I found it a sad park—she didn’t look beautiful at that time. It was a sunny Sunday in September, and the park was open but empty.”

Freddi at the time was leading marketing and press in Italy for Disneyland Paris, and he wanted to know more. He discovered the park had been snapped up three months earlier by the Thorus Group, owned 30 percent by Zamperla and 70 percent by local investors.

Through the Italian parks association, he heard the new owners were looking for people to lead the relaunch. He put in his résumé and was called for an interview within 24 hours. His new boss was Fernando Velasquez, “the greatest guy on Earth,” says Freddi. In 2009, Zamperla sold its shares in Leolandia (Thorus took full ownership), and bought Luna Park at Coney Island, New York, taking Velasquez with it.

Freddi succeeded him as general manager of Leolandia before becoming VP of strategic development. He is grateful to Giuseppe Ira, president of Thorus, who took over as general manager in 2015: “If I have the idea, he finds the resources. If I think big, he thinks bigger.”

Zamperla’s time at Leolandia was marked by optimism. “You could feel that a boost was coming,” says Freddi, but the park needed focus. The idea was to create a Zamperla rides showcase, but Freddi’s Disney-honed instincts told him different: “We had to work on a theme park, not on a ride park, because Italy was already full of parks. We needed to stand out.”

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Leolandia saw intellectual property (IP) as a way to distinguish itself from local competition. The park now uses familiar IP like Thomas and Friends and Peppa Pig alongside original entertainment. (Credit: Leolandia)

Tenacious Efforts

He spotted a gap in the market for a theme park devoted to families with children under 10 years old. “Southern Europe is pretty much virgin territory for this kind of park,” says Freddi. He wanted to build a park free of teens and tweens where even anxious Italian parents would let their children roam. “We built a whole new audience,” he says.

Leolandia’s location in the Lombardy region of Italy, northeast of Milan, was a distinct advantage. Around 12 million people live within an hour’s drive of the park, which is close to the walled city of Bergamo and minutes from the A4 highway connecting Milan to Venice. International tourism is growing, with flights into Milan-Bergamo airport. 

Leolandia’s team set about regenerating the park with younger children in mind. A rebuilt Minitalia—a Lilliputian land comprising 160 Italian monuments—remains a favorite. “It’s the heart of the park,” says Freddi, and an homage to its heritage. Clustered around it are Leolandia’s latest offerings, including familiar faces from children’s television and literature. Peppa Pig World popped up in 2015. Children can take a trip on Thomas the Tank Engine, and meet and sing with Masha and the Bear. 

Leolandia hosts 40 attractions and shows, with a petting farm, reptile house, and aquarium that predated Thorus Group’s involvement. Alongside Peppa Pig World are themed areas inspired by the Wild West, Leonardo da Vinci, the 1906 Milan Expo, and pirates. 

1709_LEOLANDIA_FreddiLeolandia Makes Positive Impact Through F&B, Envrionmental Policies

Leolandia’s closeness with its customers has led to additions ranging from highly themed environments (developed mainly in-house), to services such as seven on-park nurseries and healthier food.

“We revolutionized our food three years ago, cutting out all the stuff we wouldn’t give to our children at home,” says the park’s Massimiliano Freddi. “We introduced great meat, great sandwiches, great pasta, salads, organic food, and more vegetables. You can still have burgers and ice cream, but they are amazing quality. We are making much more money with food because it’s sexier and tastier. Ultimately, we are reaching our strategic goals as well.”

Freddi, who serves on the IAAPA Europe, Middle East, Africa Education Committee, is passionate about food and environmental safety in the attractions industry. Leolandia buys its energy from renewable sources and ensures all utensils, food scraps, and printed materials can be composted. “This has reduced our environmental impact enormously,” says Freddi. “These things won’t mean we sell more sandwiches or entrance tickets, but we have a responsibility to set an example.”

Feeling IP

Pirates Bay is hosting the park’s newest resident, Geronimo Stilton. Bestselling books by the journalist mouse—published in Italy by Edizioni Piemme—have been translated into 49 languages. In Leolandia’s live show, Geronimo finds himself trapped on a ship in a bottle. Children meet him in the captain’s quarters and help him write an original song to transport him home. 

“Leolandia is not only a place where we invent and tell our own stories, but where children can also find the characters they love. IPs add an extra layer of storytelling and richness,” says Freddi. “Also, when an IP has a big success in Italy, it becomes like a rock star.”

Parks, in turn, offer IP owners the opportunity to extend their brand’s lifecycle, Freddi adds: “Theme parks are one of the best recyclers from that point of view. Our guests still love Peppa Pig World, even though it is no longer the number-one character in Italy. On a long-term basis, it brings children’s dreams to life, but it also keeps them in a precise place. So we will continue to add IPs.”

Leolandia is experimenting with character seasons, too. After a successful trial last year where it hosted different characters in different parts of the season, the park is revisiting the idea in 2017. Leolandia started with the Smurfs for the first three months, before launching its meet-and-greet with Geronimo Stilton on June 1. Stars of the top animated children’s television series “PJ Masks” will premiere at the park this summer. 

Dynamic Incentives

Dynamic pricing is another strategy that has paid off. Traditionally associated with the travel industry, it sets prices according to demand: As demand increases or decreases, prices rise or fall. In 2013, Freddi was concerned about the market’s reliance on special offers: “If you discount all the time, you won’t make more money, and you educate the market to look for special offers. I felt we should put the product first. People needed to feel the urgency to come to Leolandia.”

After meeting with dynamic-pricing specialist Pricetag, Freddi was convinced: “We cut 100 percent of our special offers and put the right prices at the right time on our website. We shifted from selling open-date tickets to fixed-date tickets, which was the first time it had been done in Italy.” 

The results were dramatic. “In 2012, we used to sell 8 percent of our tickets (open-date) online. Now we are selling 60 percent online with a fixed date,” says Freddi. It has changed the park’s cash flow and guest habits, as well as evened out seasonal peaks and troughs, allowing the team to plan more efficiently. 

Not that it was all clear sailing. The first three months of the 2013 season were marred by rain. “We had a very poor start. We’d just introduced dynamic pricing, and I had the whole staff saying, ‘You killed the park!’” recalls Freddi. “But then the sun came out in June and the numbers not only recovered, they grew. And the per cap grew. And the in-park guest satisfaction grew because people who had bought tickets online were better prepared. Before, they would just show up at the gate and improvise. From that point, our real growth started. Our numbers are growing through quality, not discounts.”

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Leolandia is experimenting with “character seasons,” hosting different characters for different periods of time throughout the year. (Credit: Leolandia)

We Are Family

Freddi credits Leolandia’s 600-strong staff as crucial to the park’s success. From Velasquez, he learned the value of being one of the team and empowering its members: “If you want to build and offer a place where families feel at home, you have to make staff feel at home.” 

Freddi knew the worth of a warm welcome. A theme park fan since childhood who has visited more than 170 parks, he praises attractions including Gardaland and Le Caravelle that gave the teenager a shot at his dream. He is determined to pay it forward: “If I know there is a theme park enthusiast, no matter if she is 5 or 20 years old, I want to meet her and get her to help us out. We need to build up a new generation of enthusiasts because they are our industry’s advocates—and I was one of them.”

With guests, he recommends: “Sit at that picnic table with them, work at the turnstiles, stand in line with them. Pay attention to their needs. Find out what they really want and then translate it into reality. When parks that have a strong bond with their guests deliver amazing new experiences, growth is unavoidable.”

Freddi is enthusiastic about technology in the industry, but not when it interferes with the family experience. Leolandia was the first Italian park to introduce an app in 2011, and the first to uninstall it. “We had parents looking at the app and not at their children,” Freddi says. That’s why there’s no free Wi-Fi at Leolandia.

“I’d like to see parks hiding technology again,” he says. “Epcot in the ’80s was highly technological, but the technology was hidden. Puy du Fou has introduced drones to shows, but it’s not high-tech for its own sake—it’s high-effect. I’d like to see parks creating physical experiences where families can unplug, look each other in the eyes, and keep it social in that moment.”

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Freddi is excited about technology, as long as it doesn’t distract from the experience. There is no free Wi-Fi in the park to allow guests to be  undistracted. (Credit: Leolandia)

Future Focus

Leolandia’s growth is “a consequence of us steadily building on our core market strategy, making sure everything—theming, services, experiences, food—is aligned,” Freddi says. The team used every inch of space in the park’s original 1971, 20-hectare footprint to achieve developments to date. To avoid capacity issues, the park has taken steps to restrain its growth, cutting promotions and marketing budgets, as well as raising prices. 

But Leolandia is now the proud owner of an additional 30 hectares. Within a decade, Freddi hopes to have four themed family hotels, a water park, and an indoor area that may include a family entertainment center. The outdoor park will more than double in size.

“Right now, we are the number-one park in Italy for families with kids under 10; we want to become the number-one park in Europe for them. I’m not talking about visitor numbers—though numbers are important. We want to make sure we are the best in terms of the quality of experience we offer,” says Freddi. “Had we pushed more on marketing, we would have already reached 1.5 million visitors. We need to make sure we build facilities as soon as possible to contain people who are already coming to the park.” 

Leolandia has extended its season to include the family-friendly “HalLEOween” (Oct. 1-Nov. 19), and opened earlier this year, in mid-March. “Our goal in 3-4 years’ time is to stay open all year round,” says Freddi.

Leolandia, the Sleeping Beauty, is certainly stirring—and Freddi, her prince, is confident of a happily ever after.


Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the Europe, Middle East, Africa attractions industry for Funworld. Contact her at julianagilling@gmail.com