Like the engine in a fine European sportscar revving into high gear, Compagnie des Alpes’ (CdA) attractions portfolio, alongside its ski resorts business, continues to accelerate with growth. The roadmap outlining a five-year investment plan drawn up by CdA’s team for its leisure brands, led to a speedy transformation in Europe.
CdA marked its 30th year with a series of launches, from Parc Astérix’s “Attention Menhir!” 4D theater to Bellewaerde’s indoor Aquapark, Walibi Belgium’s “Popcorn Revenge” dark ride, and the “Untamed” hybrid coaster at Walibi Holland. In addition, CdA acquired leading Austrian theme park Familypark.
The European group aims to build on five consecutive years of growth with these additions. CdA’s parks reported increases in sales (up 4.3% to 339.9 million euros), visitor spend (up 3%), and attendance gains in 2017 and 2018. The company’s leisure destinations racked up a record 8.8 million visits.
“We have drastically increased guest satisfaction levels,” says François Fassier, executive vice president of the leisure parks division, who enjoys moving forward in the fast lane. The man who climbs behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 on the weekends puts the pedal to the metal when applying the same speed for growth plans. “We have increased the leisure parks business by more than 40% during the last five years, and we wish to continue on that path,” he says. CdA is pursuing both organic and opportunistic growth. Fassier wants the portfolio to be more international. “We need to be in geographies where the economic growth is higher compared to Europe and where the weather dependence is lower,” he says.
CdA has management contracts in China and is open to taking on more risk in Asia in the right circumstances. The company also has its eye on growth possibilities in Turkey, Portugal, and Eastern Europe.
Rethinking the Parks
Fassier talks a lot about spirit, and it feels like the France-based group has rediscovered its “joie de vivre” (buoyant enjoyment of life) with its leisure parks. When Fassier took charge at the start of 2014, the leisure destinations division was “not in a very good shape,” he says.
The portfolio was much bigger then, with around 21 leisure parks. But, in the process of acquiring so many operations, CdA’s leadership had somewhat lost sight of its mission. “We were too focused on financial results. We weren’t guest-oriented at that stage. We didn’t invest enough in our product. We were not able to serve each park in a good manner,” recalls Fassier. “We needed to reverse the situation quickly.”
He streamlined the leisure portfolio, cherry-picking the strongest destinations, while CdA sold the rest. Fassier now oversees eight theme parks, four edutainment sites, and two water parks. These include Parc Astérix; Walibi parks in France, Holland, and Belgium; Futuroscope; Familypark; Bellewaerde; France Miniature; and Grévin attractions in Paris, Montreal, and Switzerland, as well as the Aqualibi and Bellewaerde water parks in Belgium.
Fassier based his decisions on several factors. First, he focused on the quality of the assets and what it would take to bring each attraction up to scratch. Then, he considered whether that capital expenditure could be justified. “If I spend millions of euros to put a park back to a good condition, I need to have a return on investment.”
Fassier prioritized well-known, well-located brands and scrutinized their growth potential. He wanted to persuade people to stay longer at the parks by enriching products and programming. He also hoped to attract visitors from farther away by merging leisure and accommodation offerings. Parc Astérix, for example, is reaching markets beyond its original catchment area with new hotels.
Guest satisfaction ratings have been Fassier’s lodestar throughout the process; he sees a direct correlation between these levels and parks’ economic performance. “Our objective is for all of our parks to be rated above 4.5 on TripAdvisor,” he says. “The spirit of our guests is the key factor in our growth. If we want visitors to come back, we need them to be totally happy with their experience.”
Under an ambitious midterm plan, CdA’s management wanted Parc Astérix and Futuroscope to close the gap with regional competitors. In Belgium, they aimed to regain the top spot with Walibi Belgium. “We are the third operator there,” says Fassier. CdA faces a similar challenge in Holland. “We need to have high-quality parks in our group that are really family oriented. Also, we have to create many occasions for people to visit us.”
At every step, CdA has focused on increasing quality, value, and engagement for visitors. The team has paid attention to the 360-degree guest offering. “We need to create experiences not only in our attractions, but in our restaurants and retail areas,” explains Fassier.
Strategic investments have expanded the parks’ capacity. “If guests visit our parks, they need to be able to make a certain number of rides per day, or we will never be able to increase their satisfaction,” says Fassier. “You have to create new events, shows, and rides frequently in order to have a revisit business.”
Guests who can enjoy plentiful activities more easily are more likely to stay longer, stop at a restaurant, and purchase a souvenir. “Some days we fail, but we learn from those failures,” he says. “On those days, you see that the per cap [spend] is totally linked with guest satisfaction.”
Developing “a consistent offer at a good price” with global appeal is a cornerstone of CdA’s efforts. As is “creating emotion for everybody”—especially feelings that families and friends can share. “Technology has its place, but it should serve the guest experience,” says Fassier. “We have to create real emotion, not virtual emotion.”
CdA is putting technology to good use through its digital strategy, which is strengthening its relationship with guests and driving more traffic into the parks. “We are investing a lot in digital tools. Pre-sales are very important for us,” says Fassier.
Digital technologies are helping CdA to better understand guest behavior and plan proactively rather than reactively. Staff have more time to work with creatives, suppliers, marketers, and stakeholders, which results in “a better-quality product for our guests.”
"I share that passion—for our guests, for our team, for our products. When you put passion into your job, everybody feels that.” — François Fassier
Keeping the human touch is crucial. “A good team has a key part to play in the guest experience,” says Fassier. Before 2014, power was centralized in CdA’s head office. Fassier was convinced that more decisions should be made by individual park leaders, who knew their markets best. “If we’re defining a pricing strategy in Austria, the Austrian team is more competent to make that decision. We try to give the right responsibilities to the right teams. We are a group, but we need each general manager to be an owner of his park.”
Taking care of employees is essential for companies going through transitions. CdA has worked to bring everyone along, from management to cast members. “You have to spend time with them. Share your vision and values. Explain, explain, explain, and support them,” says Fassier. “Without your team you have no product.”
In a career that has spanned 30 years, including periods at Disneyland Paris and CdA, Fassier is continually impressed with cast members’ motivation. “It’s difficult, working seven days a week and during vacations. But people are totally empowered and focused on the guest in this job. I share that passion—for our guests, for our team, for our products. When you put passion into your job, everybody feels that,” Fassier concludes.
Funworld Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the attractions industry in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Contact her at [email protected].