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IMG Worlds of Adventure’s CEO on recreating Dubai as a theme park hub

IMG Worlds of Adventure’s CEO on recreating Dubai as a theme park hub

With the grand opening of IMG Worlds of Adventure on the horizon, chief executive officer Lennard Otto explains what people can expect

How many years will it take for the theme park to pay for itself in terms of the massive capital outlay that was necessary to build it and how does this timescale compare to industry norms?

“It is a multi-billion dollar project with all of the infrastructure, land and theme park cost. We are looking to break even in the first year of operation and then we are looking at a return on investment of three to four years. That’s pretty good by industry standards.”

How many millions of visitors are you expecting in the first year of operation and does Dubai have the infrastructure in place to cope with that extra influx of visitors?

“We are looking at bringing in roughly 4.5 million people in our first year of operation. We expect 50 per cent to be tourists and 50 per cent to be residents, so it will be a nice mix. The infrastructure is pretty good in terms of our location with an eight-lane highway on both sides and ample capacity to increase traffic levels. We also have over 80,000 residents within a 10-minute radius of the park so there is already a strong captive market.

“We are also only 15 minutes away from Sharjah and both the international airports, and 20 minutes away from downtown so in terms of accessibility everything is in place. The resident numbers coming may stabilise but we expect the number of tourists coming to Dubai to keep growing at 7 per cent annually for the next five years.

“We are the first in this new entertainment space so we are creating the first real mega-entertainment offering in Dubai. That will drive tourism. We have a third of the world’s population in a four-hour flight radius so we can capitalise on that. Today, the United Arab Emirates has 120,000 hotel rooms and that will grow to 220,000 by 2020. The airlines and airports are also growing.”

But are there plans for a metro station here too?

“We have heard the RTA is also planning a metro station here that will connect to the international airport. It’s not confirmed but we believe there will be a metro line in the near future. It is the growth corridor of Dubai.

“A new highway is also being con-structed behind the park itself connecting all the way from Silicon Oasis to Dubai Investment Park, running through the back of Arabian Ranches. In 2019, there will be an additional two large flyovers right in front of the park.”

The park is due to open in the coming weeks, surrounded by a lot of empty land. Previously, you told me you would open a hotel onsite at some point. When will that happen and what other expansion plans do you have for the site in the medium to long term?

“We sit in the mixed use ‘City of Arabia’ development. We have the theme park with certain expansion boxes planned within that so that we can keep our offering fresh, meaning for the next five years we will be rolling out additional attractions in the park.

“And to cater to the critical mass, hotels are very much at the forefront of our planning for the next three to five years – whereby we want to become more of a destination where people spend multiple days. We also have a villa community currently under development to be finished in 2017. And there is a high-rise tower due to open in the next couple of months.”

Are you talking to specific hotel groups or is it something you will do yourself?

“We will probably do it ourselves and bring in a themed hotel experience to complement the park. People want that themed experience to continue all the way through their stay. That’s what made Disney so successful. LEGO is now doing it too. And we definitely want to do something similar.”

As a CEO, you are reporting to the Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari Group. Is that relationship difficult to manage, as both you and the shareholders might have different goals and ambitions for the enterprise?

“Absolutely not, the two brothers are visionary individuals. They’ve really conceptualised this park from the ground up to where it is today. It’s my job to take that vision and turn it into a successful business model that could possibly expand globally over time.

“The model is highly replicable. We want to take it out to a wider space in the near future. The brothers are extremely hands-on. They are in the office six days a week and they are very passionate about the project.”

IMG Worlds Of Adventure Exterior Coaster The Velociraptor resized

Where might the next park be then?

“We are looking at the MENA region very actively, as there are so many rapidly growing cities and countries there with the middle class growing even faster. South East Asia is also another interesting market we are looking at. In due course, we will be rolling out some exciting things.”

What demographic and nationality make-up are you expecting your customers to come from?

“We see two distinct groups. The park will run from 10am to 10pm on weekdays and 10am to midnight on weekends. Being a fully indoor park, we really have the ability to operate throughout the day and night. It gives us a competitive edge on the outdoor parks.

“So we expect the morning traffic to be Europeans and families. In the afternoon, we are looking to the local and GCC markets. The Saudi market is key for us. The Chinese market is important because they spend more. We are also looking at the Iranian, Indian and the North African markets. These countries are our focus.

“We have 50 different nationalities working in the park, speaking 25 different languages. We wanted to make sure we had a diverse team that could cater to an international audience.”

Just to throw you a bit of a curveball. What were your thoughts about the Dystopian Dismaland theme park created by the artist Banksy in England last year? Did you find it amusing, insightful or just offensive to your industry?

“I didn’t find it offensive, I thought it was interesting. It was quite creative, although maybe on the extreme side in places. For me, it was more a form of art and someone’s specific view on the industry. It doesn’t change anything. We are in the entertainment business and that’s what we do.”

There is a noticeable lack of the region’s Arabic cultural heritage in the park. Why is that and do you plan to address that further down the line?

“A key discussion point for us at the moment is bringing in a bit more of the local culture into our future expansion plans. The Arabian history is rich and there are some beautiful stories to tell. We focused on the brands we have today with Marvel and Cartoon Network and our own proprietary things, but there is no reason why we won’t expand the umbrella to include Arabian culture in the future.”

So the big question. How confident are you that the park will open in August, as planned?

“We are very confident. We are in the final stages of testing and commissioning our rides and attractions. Everything is running now. The outside infrastructure like the car park is largely complete. We have finished the fit-out work for our food and beverage outlets. We are in the final leg of the journey; we are 97 per cent complete. The final element is managing the regulatory approvals in order to be open by August 15.”

And what can we expect in August – will there be some sort of grand opening ceremony festival or concert?

“Given the brands that we have and the partners we have, you can expect quite a unique red carpet event. I can’t say anymore than that at this stage.”

Would such an ambitious project as this be achievable anywhere else in the world or is Dubai unique in terms of the forward-thinking approach to major projects and infrastructure?

“Dubai is highly ambitious and there is a high degree of risk-taking here. That has paid off. And we too are building something unique – it has never been done before. We have built an outdoor theme park and put a roof over the top of it. That’s what makes it different; we haven’t downsized our rides and attractions at all. We have full outdoor rollercoasters built inside the dome. It will change the industry landscape; we are on the forefront of changing things.

“Other markets will pick up on this. Today, if you look at the majority of theme parks, they are usually located on the equator because the weather conditions give an all-year-round operating model. Parks located to the north or south usually suffer from seasonality.

“By having a park like this and such a sustainable business model, we could put this anywhere else in the world too no matter what the weather. You could put this park in the North Pole without any issues.”

IMG Worlds Of Adventure Dino Carousel

Changing topic. The business case for IMG is built on there being an untapped theme park market in the Middle East but is it a good cultural fit within the region? Isn’t the risk that nobody exploited this market before now because it would be too difficult to create a new generational and geographical breed of theme park consumer?

“Before 2008, there were in excess of 10 theme parks planned for Dubai. It was the missing piece of the puzzle.

“Unfortunately, the financial crisis stopped all of these projects. Today, we are the first movers back into this space but there is a long line of parks coming up again.

“Now the macroeconomics in the UAE are extremely strong and there is a high disposable income as well as low unemployment and a large youth population. The region itself is untapped.

“Look at Emirates Airline’s direct flights to Orlando. They are full, just for people to go and visit theme parks. There is an appetite in this market place. Dubai is now shaping up to be Orlando 2.0.

“The infrastructure here is far superior to that of Orlando. Within the next five years, we will have the same amount of large-scale theme parks. There will be eight parks in the UAE by 2019.”

One fly in the ointment, given the uncertain times we are living in, is the heightened terrorist risk across the world. Just how robust will security be at the park?

“Security in this country takes precedence over anything else. We are shielded by the excellent measures the country has in place, being very robust from a visa standpoint and security at airports as well as the police background checks etc. that take place.

“We will not have security affecting our guest experience. You’ll be protected, but the experience will not be dimmed down in any way. You as a consumer will just not notice it. We have CCTV and facial recognition as well as bag identification systems and number plate recognition at the park entrances.

“We also have special areas for the police and so we will have a constant presence, both uniformed and plain clothes, from the authorities in the park to support our onsite security team.”

You seem to have started a gold rush of sorts in terms of other companies and countries building theme parks in the Middle East – including Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Most are due to come online in the next five years. How will you stay ahead of the competition?

“Our park is built to be future-proof because we have strategic space both in and around the park to be able to push and grow the brands, and the business itself.

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