CEO Scott O’Neil talks to TTN about Merlin Entertainment’s expansion ambitions in the region and globally, the latest consumer trends and the importance of activating the trade
Creating magical moments
Merlin Entertainments, the operator of attractions, resorts and theme parks worldwide, has identified Dubai and Saudi Arabia (Riyadh) as two areas of particular interest for investment in the Middle East. The company is working to identify top gateway cities to establish major entertainment clusters worldwide by 2030.
With popular names such as Legoland, Madame Tussauds as well as Sea Life Aquarium in its portfolio, Merlin Entertainment includes over 140 attractions, 23 hotels and six holiday resorts in 25 countries across the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The company remains on track to add five to ten attractions a year globally, Scott O’Neil, CEO of Merlin Entertainments, tells us, during an event at Legoland Dubai Theme Park.
“Legoland Resort Dubai is rated number one in terms of guest satisfaction globally, across our entire theme park portfolio. Madame Tussaud’s on Bluewaters Island in the UAE is also performing well. We love Dubai,” he tells us.
“Everyone here - from me through to the security guard on my right shoulder, we’re all doing the same thing. We’re helping create memories - that’s the business we are running”
– Scott O’Neil
His visit at a time when Ain Dubai (also on Bluewaters Island) remains inoperative, and Legoland Resort Dubai’s neighbour Bollywood Park Dubai has also announced its closure is a mere coincidence – this visit is just a part of the CEO’s first world tour and marks his first official visit to Dubai and the Middle East, we are told.
O’Neil expressed his interest in the Saudi Arabian market, citing the country’s commitment to developing its tourism sector and transitioning to an entertainment and tourist-oriented economy. The company plans to explore investment possibilities in Riyadh in the coming months.
Without naming specifics, O’Neil shares his ambition of solidifying the Merlin Entertainment portfolio in Dubai. “Dubai has three or four key cluster attraction assets and we would like to see Merlin Entertainments handle at least one or two of them – this takes time, effort, investment in relationships,” he says.
“London Eye in the heart of central London is a great example of an ‘anchor’ for us. We have Madame Tussauds London, Sea Life London Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure London and The London Dungeon cluster – 25 per cent of all the tourists that come to London, visit one of our attractions.
“When it comes to investing more, we want to invest in 10 of the most important cities in the world by 2030, and Dubai is going to be one of them. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
The world of attractions and entertainment may very well be changing right before our eyes. “We’ve also seen a movement to immersive experiences. Our experiences are generally analogue experiences but also more and more interesting digital experiences are being added. I think immersive experiences will become more relevant over time as well.
“We’ve seen a shift from an economy of things to an economy of experiences. There is a definite desire among people to choose quality over quantity. Brands and IP matter a whole lot more these days. People are choosing fewer quality options but also spending more within the destinations they choose and staying longer. We are seeing people trade off long flights for short breaks, this bodes very well for us – we have some tailwinds.”
Merlin Entertainments has announced the first standalone Peppa Theme Park in continental Europe and North America’s second Peppa Theme Park in Dallas in 2024. Three additional theme parks have been announced in China very recently. A Legoland Discovery Centre has just opened in Washington DC and another one in Boston as well. Merlin Entertainment also just opened the world’s first Jumanji-themed land at Chessington World Of Adventures in the UK.
For the lesser-known assets of its portfolio and to keep all their products and destinations top of mind and traveller’s agenda, it is essential that Merlin Entertainment have a strong trade strategy.
“Our B2C business is wonderful, but our trade business is also a significant part of our overall business. We have a strong team dedicated to the trade and we are just having this conversation about how to maximise trade engagement. A roadshow is a good idea or even a trade education portal route,”says the CEO. Watch this space.
The 25-year sports and entertainment industry veteran has seen a lot of glamour in his roles but “there’s been nothing like watching parents on their hands and knees building Lego bricks with their kids. That is special,” he says.
Of course, any business needs to be profitable but it’s important to remember what your purpose is. “Everyone here – from me through to the security guard on my right shoulder, we’re all doing the same thing. We’re helping create memories.
“So, whether we see a mom taking a picture, we take that picture for you. Whether it’s a surprise and delight moment – to give them a little back of the house tour or with a special treat or if a kid drops ice cream, we give them a new one. That’s the business we are running.
“And I think that’s the magic, if you will.”