Martin Palicki’s conversation with Brian Machamer, Vice President – Theme Park Operations for Dubai Parks and Resorts
Brian Machamer came to Dubai Parks and Resorts (DBX Entertainment) with decades of experience in the theme park industry. The start of his career began at Walt Disney World Resort in 1988 with a summer job. Machamer joined Universal Orlando in 1990 and was fortunate enough to grow up through the ranks while having the opportunity to work in various areas of the Resort, and then transitioned overseas to help support the opening and ongoing operations of Universal Studios Singapore. He joined DBX four years ago, during the development of the Dubai resort property. Comprised of three theme parks, one waterpark, a retail and dining promenade and a tropical hotel, Dubai Parks & Resorts bills itself as a destination resort, providing a complete vacation package in one property. Various elements of the resort began operation in October, 2016, and continued with phased openings over the next eight months. InPark had the opportunity to interview Machamer in person at the Lapita Resort during a recent visit to the property.
CHANGING THE GAME
How are the Motiongate and Bollywood parks changing entertainment and tourism within the UAE region?
Within this region, Dubai is already a popular tourism market with easy access to Europe and Asia. Our goal was to increase length of stay. We partnered with leading studios to create a unique offering – a combination of indoor and outdoor attractions, with many air-conditioned environments to escape the intense heat.
Bollywood has a global following with a heavy focus on live entertainment. In Bollywood Parks Dubai we also offer traditional rides, but the stars of the park are the big, iconic Bollywood films that are represented inside. For those who may not be as familiar with the Bollywood film industry, it exposes them to a new genre of entertainment. It is also unique in the inclusion of the Rajmahal Theater and its resident show, Jaan-e-Jigar. This one of a kind Bollywood musical is packed with the perfect amount of Bollywood in a spectacular Broadway-caliber performance.
Motiongate is the cornerstone park here because of its appeal to different generations. It provides a good mix
of attractions and allows for flexibility in the future. Only 50% of the available land has been developed, allowing for plenty of room to grow.
How did you choose what kinds of attractions to include in the parks?
I think it’s very important to evaluate and understand your market. In this area, our market has very little direct competition, so our strategy has been to create a wide range of attractions that are highly themed. We wanted ride reliability so we chose proven technologies and products over experimental new-concept rides.
There may be a theme park war eventually as more properties are built, which will provide the impetus for such future development, but the market needs to mature for that to happen.
What have been the most popular attractions so far?
At LEGOLAND, the indoor Miniland is the center of the park and the most popular. Because it is indoors, we can control the lighting and provide more special effects in the models than at other LEGOLAND parks
At Bollywood, the Krrish [a 4D flying theater] and Sholay [a 3D interactive dark ride] rides are most popular, but one cannot leave without enjoying a live show inside the iconic Rajmahal theater.
At Motiongate, people are enjoying the indoor Madagascar Mad Pursuit launched roller coaster but we expect Dragon Gliders [an inverted powered coaster] to be the most popular. [Editor’s Note: The How to Train Your Dragon portion of the park opened in late April, after our interview.]
How did you balance the need for thrills versus family-friendly rides?
In Asia I’ve found that guests tend to prefer attractions the entire family can enjoy together, but in the Middle East, people are interested in thrills, particularly here in the Emirates. This certainly is in alignment with what we have seen from our guests so far.
We are currently building Six Flags Dubai to complement the existing parks and increase the thrill factor. From our market research, Six Flags has good brand recognition and will propel us forward. The park will have lands that are themed around the different Six Flags parks in the United States. Planned areas include Great America, reminiscent of America in the 1950s; Fiesta Texas, representing the Old West; Great Adventure, emulating the Pacific Northwest; Magic Mountain, a futuristic themed area; the Great Escape, a dedicated kids area (though kids’ attractions will be found throughout the park); and an entry zone to the park known as Thrill Seeker Plaza.
How do guests tend to navigate the complex of parks?
We have noticed that guests tend to go to LEGOLAND first, so that park opens and closes earlier. Guests then go to Motiongate and end the evening at Bollywood. Using RFID ticket media has made it much easier to track our visitors throughout the resort. We are currently working with Nielsen on guest satisfaction surveys and collecting lots of demographic data. We will be analyzing that data throughout the year and adjusting as appropriate.
STAGGERED HOURS & STAFF TRAINING
What are some of the lessons learned since opening the parks?
We have been regularly tweaking the park hours since opening. School groups are a big part of our scheduling, so we try to keep staggered opening hours for the parks, allowing schools to have special access to certain areas. We are also pursuing corporate business and working towards adopting an operating model that allows for that.
Our sales staff mostly comes from the hotel industry, so we are training them on how to maximize use of our specialized spaces for corporate events. For example, we recently hosted a networking mixer for the Themed Entertainment Association inside our Hotel Transylvania dark ride – which provided a unique space you can’t find elsewhere. We are willing to experiment and are learning how to utilize the assets within the property for exactly this purpose.
Now that the parks are open, one of my biggest challenges is in training and maintaining seasoned and experienced staff for the existing parks and of course to transition manpower to the Six Flags park once they get closer to opening. We really had to create an industry here and cultivate a workforce. We currently have over 200 Emiratis working here now and we are working with schools to develop training programs to nurture future staff.
VENDORS & WORKFORCE
What has the process been for selecting vendors to work on the parks?
We have had great leadership with Paul LaFrance and Matthew Priddy, but it has been tough with the construction of Shanghai Disneyland happening at the same time because many of the experienced vendors had a lot of their resources already committed in China. Vendors were naturally cautious in the early days because of the delays involved with the Dubailand project, but we have matured and moved past that.
We are finding that a lot of vendors are now setting up operations in Dubai, which makes our future development and planning easier. [See “From sawmills to Smurfs” in IPM issue #66 for more on how one vendor, Wärtsilä Funa, approached working for DBX]
What kind of training do you provide front-line employees?
Our training program is pretty standard for most theme parks. Everyone receives a base-level corporate induction and then moves on to their specific on the job training in the parks. We focus on proactive training for handling challenging guest concerns and emergency situations.
Can you provide some statistics on your workforce?
Labor management is the number one challenge for us here. We have just over 2,250 employees in the summer period and that number will climb to 2,750 employees during the winter period. Our unique challenge is that there is very limited seasonal or part-time work available. We don’t have a retired population to draw from as is popular in Europe and the US. Here in Dubai, we are responsible for providing accommodation and services for our employees. We wanted an international vibe, as two-thirds of our visitors are from outside the country. Therefore, we have been recruiting around the world and are working with the government to ease visa restrictions for our workforce.
We have to show local young people that this is a fun job and there can be a future in this industry.
FUTURE EXPANSION & GAUGING SUCCESS
Tell us about expansion plans.
We are expecting the Six Flags park to open in the fourth quarter of 2019. We are also working on a joint venture for a Legoland Hotel that has a two-year construction timeline. There are incentives in Dubai for developers to build more 3-star properties, which will greatly help to drive a core overseas market segment we are hoping to capture.
The resort is strategically located near Dubai’s Al Maktoum Airport (DWC), which is expected to become the region’s largest airport (surpassing Dubai International Airport, DXB) in the coming decade. We also expect more residential areas to be built nearby and more development around this area. With the expansion of the metro to this area in advance of Dubai Expo 2020, the resort is only one piece of a larger plan for this area.
How are you measuring success?
You have to look at the service level in addition to balance sheets. When delivering a product, everyone will make mistakes – this is a huge project and we will be learning and growing for some time. Dubai Mall debuted without all its stores open and Emirates was once a small airline. We are focused on growing in the long term.
Our management team is looking at 2017 as an extended soft opening. Overseas tour bookings are typically done at least nine months in advance, so we could not go big on tourism and travel promotions overseas until the parks were up and operating, so that element of the business is moving forward now.
The government is also invested in helping make the project a success. Recently visitors from China became eligible for a visa on arrival and if you are an Indian national with a United States Visa or Green Card, no UAE visa is required.
For a long time, a lot of people have bet against Dubai, but the results speak for themselves. The macro economic trends are still strong, and as we start achieving our goal of increasing guest length of stay, the other metrics will follow along with that. •