Hope in the Stars
At Phillip Island Nature Parks—one of the southernmost points of Australia about two hours south of Melbourne—around 2,500 visitors gather on viewing stands carved into a hillside by the beach to watch the world’s smallest penguins surf the waves and waddle home to their nests after sunset.
The little blue penguins first began captivating visitors decades ago, and the Penguin Parade is one of Victoria’s most popular attractions. Prior to the pandemic, 60% of penguin-watchers traveled from overseas to view the cute birds in their natural habitat; half of these visitors were from China. The demographic breakdown today is vastly different—more than 80% of guests hail from Australia.
“We’ve benefited from an increase in the domestic market, which has been fantastic,” says Phillip Island Nature Parks General Manager Peta Wittig. “But, we want to ensure that when Australians are ready to travel more overseas, we are ready.”
“We want to ensure that when Australians are ready to travel more overseas, we are ready.”
— Peta Wittig, Phillip Island Nature Parks General Manager
After emerging from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns—likely second only to China—Australia’s attractions industry is experiencing one of the strongest rebounds across Asia-Pacific, thanks to a surge of “revenge tourism.” Aussies are traveling more inside the country than overseas, thanks, inpart, to the high cost of international flights and hotels, which have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. There are signs, though, that this dynamic is beginning to shift.
“What we believe will happen is when the international visitors come back, Australians are going to be getting on planes and going other places. So as one comes in, one will go out,” says Wittig.
“We have been incredibly buoyed by the domestic post-pandemic bounce,” adds Village Roadshow Theme Parks Chief Operating Officer Bikash Randhawa. “We are slowly starting to see international tourists returning in small numbers, and while nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, we are continuing to work closely with tourism and governing bodies to get this market back to Australia and the Gold Coast.”
Assessing the China Market
One of the biggest questions for Wittig, and for attractions throughout Asia-Pacific, is the extent to which Chinese travelers will return, and when they do, whether their needs and consumer behavior will be different than before the pandemic.
China lifted COVID-19 border restrictions in January. The first group tours out of the country resumed a month later. The country’s economy is not growing at nearly the same pace as it did in pre-pandemic years, which is impacting travel and consumer spending. Beijing has set a target of 5% growth for 2023.
“People are going out and doing things again in China, but the per capita spending is very low,” observes Chris Yoshii, AECOM Vice President and Global Director of Leisure and Culture Services for Asia, who adds that a regional bounce from China’s reopening may take time to realize. “International travel always takes longer to rebuild than domestic travel.”
Chinese who have undergone strict lockdowns need to feel comfortable traveling again, while many must also wait to renew passports and visas before venturing overseas. Airlines also need to ramp up connectivity before visitor arrival numbers can reach pre-pandemic levels. There are signs that this is occurring, albeit slowly. Singapore Airlines’ discount carrier Scoot, for example, plans to increase flights fourfold between Singapore and China to 57 per week by June. However, this is still only about half of pre-pandemic levels.
New Chinese Consumer Habits
The way in which Chinese venture overseas is likely to change as well.
“The pandemic has underlined the vitality of travel planning freedom, and exploring destinations through a personal lens,” write China travel analysts Wolfgang Georg Arlt and Gary Bowerman in their “China Outbound Tourism Handbook 2023: 88 Practical Ways to Prepare for the New Wave of Chinese Visitors.”
“More Chinese travelers will seek the flexibility to revise their itineraries on demand and create add-on activities while in the destination, which group tours cannot offer,” the report states.
Group tours previously accounted for most Chinese outbound travel, but semi-organized tours and independent travel are expected to play a more important role going forward in a shift that poses new challenges for the region’s attractions.
“It’s much more difficult to get independent travelers to visit your attraction. They’re more competitive. They’re armed with reviews and what’s trending on TikTok and other Chinese social apps. It’s going to be a completely different ballgame.”
— Victor Danau, Ripley Entertainment
“It’s much more difficult to get independent travelers to visit your attraction,” reflects Ripley Entertainment Asia-Pacific Director for Development and Operations, Victor Danau. “They’re more competitive. They’re armed with reviews and what’s trending on TikTok and other Chinese social apps. It’s going to be a completely different ballgame.”
Resorts like Ocean Park Hong Kong, which traditionally have relied on mainland Chinese group tours for a large percentage of their visitor numbers, are already taking steps to adapt to this new reality.
“We have enhanced our online content and ticketing features,” says Rosalind Siu, Ocean Park’s executive director for sales, marketing and entertainment, “to make it convenient for visitors to book their admission tickets in advance with special promotion packages.”
Going ‘Asset Light’
Another major change is taking place within the China marketplace itself. Real estate developers were previously a big driver of new leisure investments, but an unprecedented property slump has led them to scale back. Attractions companies like Fantawild, Haichang Ocean Park, and the OCT Group are reportedly focusing on “asset light” management agreements, rather than investing their money in new properties.
“Local governments are stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we will be the owner of the park,’” Yoshii explains. “So, companies are doing these asset-light projects, where they design, build, and operate the theme park, but they don’t own it. That’s one way projects are moving ahead, if there’s financing.”
“We’ve actually seen stronger revenues than in 2019 which we think is just a sign that people want to spend money and get back to enjoying themselves outside, especially in amusement parks.”
— Thomas Boit, President of Asia Operations, HB Leisure
Taking a wider view of the region, Yoshii believes 2023 will be a “solid year of recovery.” Asian attractions will enjoy improved profitability this year, he says, but are likely to exercise caution before spending significant sums. “Operators need to rebuild their bank accounts and balance sheets before launching new investments. We are hopeful the industry will be back to full steam ahead in 2024.”
Make the Right Staffing Decisions
One optimistic sign throughout the region is that attractions operators and vendors are hiring again.
In no company is this perhaps truer than at HB Leisure, which some analysts have dubbed “Asia’s guru of midway games.” Best known for skill-based games—like “one in to win” basketball, tossing a ring over a bottle, and the lobster pot, where guests must land two balls in a bucket to win a plush prize—HB Leisure operates on a revenue share in attractions and family entertainment centers worldwide.
In Asia-Pacific, HB Leisure has doubled its staff strength over the past year to 400 people and opened a regional office in Singapore. It has also launched new ventures in Australia, in collaboration with Village Roadshow Theme Parks, and in Vietnam, at Ba Na Hills with Sun World. The company may be opening another site in East Asia before the end of the year.
“We’ve actually seen stronger revenues than in 2019,” says Thomas Boit, HB Leisure’s President of Asia Operations, “which we think is just a sign that people want to spend money and get back to enjoying themselves outside, especially in amusement parks. The whole region is emerging and growing so quick anyway. I think we’ll continue to see growth in general.”
HB Leisure is hardly the only company that is hiring. In the Greater China region, for example, Ocean Park Hong Kong is recruiting 350 new full-time employees “in anticipation of the gradual return of inbound visitors,” with Shanghai Disney Resort advertising for new cast members as well.
Planning for a bounce means ensuring that the right people and skills are in place, such as having sufficient interpreters on hand to assist international visitors. Yet, attractions operators face a balancing act—hiring enough new staff to handle a jump in business, while trying to avoid onboarding so many that they might be forced to retrench workers once a bounce subsides. At the same time, attractions in some markets are finding that a tight labor market can make recruitment difficult.
“Finding people that are passionate about amusement parks or the industry generally helps because you know they’re gonna stay around for much longer,” says Boit. “To keep people engaged, we just try and make it fun.”
After such a turbulent period, in which operating procedures changed frequently, looking after staff and keeping lines of communication open are crucial as well.
“If we’re having fun, then our guests are having fun,” agrees Wittig.
Creating a Starring Season
Advice for Asian Attractions as the market returns
As Asian attractions prepare to ramp up, they can learn from Australian companies, which have already enjoyed a bounce. Ensuring an attraction is top of mind when consumers start traveling again is particularly important. Owners and operators provided Funworld with key insights.
Crafting the Right Message
For Phillip Island Nature Parks south of Melbourne on the Bass Strait, partner engagement is the key.
“We’re at trade shows, conferences and talking to as many people in the industry as humanly possible,” general manager Peta Wittig says. “We focus mainly on B2B (business to business). We find, from an international perspective, that provides the biggest bang for our buck.”
At the same time, she is not neglecting retail marketing.
“We’re all over the internet with our TripAdvisor reviews, and if someone googles the Top 10 Things to Do in Victoria, we’re making sure we’re on that list.”
Overwhelm with Guest Service
Ripley Entertainment took advantage of the pandemic closures to fast-track an AU$2 million expansion plan at Surfers Paradise in the Gold Coast. It took over the lease next door, tripled the frontage, added a giant octopus to its façade, and doubled the lobby space. More recently, it added a new attraction, a mirror maze.
However, despite the additions, it did not have the physical capacity to welcome the influx of post-pandemic guests.
“The challenge in an attraction like ours is we can’t expand beyond the space that we have. We’re stuck within the four walls of our tenancy,” explains Ripley’s Asia-Pacific Director for Development and Operations, Victor Danau. “So, when the bounce came, we just had to be ready to operate extremely efficiently and overwhelm our guests with guest service.”
Danau decided not to increase the attraction’s throughput. Admitting too many guests at a time risked making it uncomfortable for everyone, and then “nobody’s having a good time,” he observes. Instead, Danau sent staff members to entertain people in the queue. They ran trivia contests, gave away prizes, shared fun facts, and even brought exhibits from Ripley’s Odditorium outside to share with people while they waited.
Take Control of Your Ticketing
Another major change by Ripley Entertainment moved to discontinue third-party ticketing systems.
“We decided that when we were ready to reopen, we were going to be the only one selling our ticket,” Danau explains. “Over the years, the Groupons and Expedias had slowly started eroding our margins. They were competing with us to sell our own tickets. They were even bidding on our keywords.
“So, when we reopened and when the bounce came, we were very, very thankful that we were the only one selling our tickets and we’re selling them for 100%. We don’t have to pay anybody anything.”
Danau acknowledges that, at some point, the location-based entertainment attraction may need to work with ticketing agents again, but when it does, it will do so with a master plan in place so it can maintain control of the process.
Promote the Destination Together
When it happens, “the bounce” won’t last forever, but attractions can leverage it to lay a foundation for future growth and return visits. Before COVID-19, many Australians had written off the Gold Coast as expensive, overpriced, and geared toward tourists. The opening up of state borders encouraged many Australians to take a fresh look at the region.
“This was our chance to make an impact and show them what an amazing set of attractions they have in their backyard,” Danau explains.
Ripley Entertainment continues to partner with other Gold Coast attractions and hospitality companies to promote the entire destination to encourage return visits. Government programs may help in this regard, as well. Hong Kong Disneyland, Ocean Park Hong Kong, and other companies are supporting a “Happy Hong Kong Campaign,” promoted in Financial Secretary Paul Chan’s budget speech, by holding themed fairs and carnivals.
The post-pandemic bounce may be proceeding at different speeds across the region, but a sense of enthusiasm can be felt throughout.