A vast amount of land in China is about to disappear under rides and roller-coasters as the country embraces theme parks with accelerating enthusiasm.
It is expected that 59 new parks will open by 2020 with ticket sales expected to rise to $12 billion (from $4.6 billion in 2015). The list of new venues includes Six Flags’ $4.6 billion Hangzhou Bay development, Universal’s park scheduled to open in 2020 in Beijing and Dalian Wanda’s $9.5 billion park in Jinan, part of the latter’s determination to out-distance Disney as the supreme operator in China.
In fact, across the Asia-Pacific region, resorts and theme parks are set to spring up, even if in the Philippines, it is case of building down into the sea at the Coral World undersea park in Palawan. Attendances in the region are expected to rise more than six per cent annually, with China generating 42 per cent of expenditure on theme parks.
Some of these parks, such as Shanghai Disneyland, appear to have been runaway successes, crossing any cultural divide very effectively while taking great pains to ensure they offer the experiences that China’s expanding middle class clearly craves. Yet only in December, China Daily reported that a mere 10 per cent of China’s many theme parks actually make any money. Admittedly, some of these parks are said to have been set up to attract property investors, but the president of the China Tourism Academy was quoted as warning that many indigenous parks fail to meet demand in design, operation or maintenance and lack cultural creativity.
The hassle-free experience
Whatever the strengths or inadequacies of the rides and attractions, all these parks will have to accommodate the fast-changing expectations of consumers who now want a fully-integrated experience that uses digital technology to remove all the snag-points, the hassles and the queues.
Clearly, an operator such as Disney does not need to be told how to run a theme park. When it moved into China, Disney did not bring its famous MagicBand to Shanghai as a means of providing visitors with a cashless method of payment or gaining access to rides. Instead it relied on smartphone-related technology – a transition that seems to have worked.
This bears out the findings of research conducted by Omnico, that visitors to Chinese theme parks really do now demand a single, connected and personalised experience when they enter a destination resort. At the very least that entails using the same device to pay for hotels, attractions, rides, shops, restaurants and merchandise.
Looking at the evidence
The research questioned 670 visitors and found their top requirement was the ability to pay for anything using a cashless device such as smartphone app or a wristband – chosen by 91 per cent of respondents. Exactly the same high percentage also wanted to book everything to do with their visit in advance and in one go, either on a website or by using a mobile app. Nearly as many (87 per cent) also wanted to use apps for a variety of purposes including finding their way around a park, making fast payments and ordering meals in advance.
An operator who cannot fulfil these requirements is not going to make much headway as China’s tech-savvy middle class steadily grows. Because wherever you are in the world, arranging a family trip to a resort is a time-consuming affair. Since so much of the experience in a theme park is about youngsters, making a success of it can be very trying, especially when a larger family group is involved.
Anything that reliably smooths the path is going to be seized on immediately.
It is a great relief to know that everything you want to enjoy has been paid for in advance, or that you can give the children in your party a pre-paid wristband that enables them to spend but allows you to set a limit. How much better if you can also monitor what they are buying through an app on your phone, with the option to top it up if you are feeling generous. These are all options that more than three-quarters of the survey respondents want to see in theme parks.
Integration is the future
In fact the research makes clear that pulling together all the aspects of the theme park experience and making it possible for the visitor to manage them from one small device is going to be a fundamental requirement in the industry. Chinese guests, for example, are keen to use their phones for advance food and table-ordering in restaurants or for buying merchandise and tickets in advance.
Operators will have to be equipped to manage this, because it is apparent that consumers are going to expect flexibility in fulfilment. In other words, if it is not available in your size from the shop, they can get what you want to your hotel room later.
Obviously the device most likely to be at the heart of this is the smartphone which is now just as inescapably bound into the lives of millions of people in the Asia-Pacific region as it is elsewhere on the globe. But it could equally be an RFID-enabled wristband or some form of wearable technology. Some 35 per cent of respondents in the Omnico survey even said they expect to see smart tattoos as tickets.
Virtual becomes reality
Yet it won’t be here that the technological advances stop. The survey also showed that 70 per cent of Chinese consumers expect to see virtual reality at theme parks, both for entertainment and to provide guidance. Hardly surprising when the embrace of VR devices in China has been more enthusiastic than in Europe. Nearly half of the respondents (49 per cent) also believe that within three years a visit to a theme park will involve personal assistance from a robot.
This eagerness for advanced technology, coupled with increasing demands for a theme park experience that is entirely hassle-free means theme park operators cannot just invest in breath-taking rides and believe that customers will turn up.
These are visitors that know how digital innovation and the right software can remove almost all of the irritations that arise from booking, ordering, paying, waiting for a table or queuing for a ride. The smart operators will learn how to tie it all up so easily that nobody will notice the join as they move from hotel to restaurant to rides, shops and so on. Those that cannot grasp this or adapt what they offer to the ever-more sophisticated requirements of China’s middle class will almost certainly fall into the category of those “failing to meet demand”.
By Mel Taylor, CEO of Omnico Group