27 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
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Attractions Management
2023 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Scott O'Neil


Scott O'Neil

From a background in sports management, the new CEO of Merlin Entertainments has big plans for the world’s second largest attractions group.

O’Neil took over as CEO from industry legend Nick Varney Photo: merlin entertainments
The Shangai Dungeon opened in 2018 – the first Dungeon in Asia Photo: merlin entertainments
O’Neil describes Legoland California as “just extraordinary” Photo: merlin entertainments
Trading in the US and UK have been very strong, says O’Neil Photo: merlin entertainments
Merlin’s midway attractions include Madame Tussauds Photo: merlin entertainments
O’Neil has spent his first few months getting to know the business Photo: merlin entertainments
Three new Legoland resorts are being built in China Photo: merlin entertainments
World of Jumanji opens at Chessington World of Adventures in May Photo: merlin entertainments
Merlin plans to develop clusters of attractions in other world cities, as it has in London Photo: shutterstock/Gimas

I sit down with Scott O’Neil, the new CEO of Merlin Entertainments, on a beautiful spring day in the company’s office on London’s South Bank. To get to their offices, I walk past a large queue of people waiting to board the lastminute.com London Eye, and a steady stream of families and visitors excitedly waiting to enter Merlin’s Shrek’s Adventure! London, The London Dungeon and Sea Life London Aquarium attractions.

“I heard a statistic that a quarter of tourists who come to London, visit a Merlin attraction,” O’Neil tells me. “Isn’t that amazing?”

After five months in the job, O’Neil is still at the stage of being amazed by the company he’s leading – he’s spent his first few months travelling around the world to visit as many of Merlin’s attractions and meet as many staff as possible.

“I’ve probably hit between 40 and 50 attractions since I started,” he tells me. “Everywhere I go, I’m like a kid in a candy store. My eyes are big – I’m just struck by the attractions, and the incredible, passionate people that work for this company. It’s a special, spectacular place.”

O’Neil took over as CEO from industry legend Nick Varney, who headed up Merlin for more than 23 years before retiring in November 2022. Since forming the company in 1999 along with Mark Fisher and a senior team from Vardon, Varney led the firm through the acquisition of the Tussauds Group, a number of major private equity deals and helped to grow it into the world’s second largest theme park operator in the world after Disney.

“After I took the job, I met with Nick Varney and had a wonderful talk with him about his vision and how he built Merlin,” says O’Neil. “It’s an amazing story about growing a big, big business from a guy who’s very smart, very creative, understands brands and had a big dream.”

Full steam ahead
Since O’Neil’s appointment, Merlin has announced a number of new projects, including North America’s second Peppa Pig Theme Park, which is due to open in north Texas in 2024; the construction of a £35m 150-lodge Legoland Holiday Village at Legoland Windsor; and a global partnership with Ferrari to develop immersive themed brand experiences at three Legoland theme parks.

In addition, three more Legoland Resorts are under construction in China – in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Sichuan, which are set to open from 2025.

Closer to home, Chessington World of Adventures Resort is preparing to launch its World of Jumanji land in May, featuring the world’s first Jumanji-themed rollercoaster, as well as a further two rides. The result of a partnership with Sony Entertainment Pictures, it represents the single largest investment in the park’s history.

“We’re in a growth phase right now and we’re very bullish about our future,” says O’Neil. “When we last updated the market, we said trading is good, the US and the UK have been particularly strong. Asia’s still got some recovery left, but Europe’s been good, Australia is doing well. We’re doing great.

“The combination of having the brands and the world needing escapism – if there’s ever been an experience generation, this is it, and we’re sitting right at the heart of it.”

A new era
A US sports and entertainment industry veteran, O’Neil’s career has seen him work for the NBA and MSG Sports. He was most recently CEO of HBSE, parent company for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team.

During his time with HBSE, O’Neil helped build the business from a single team entity to a major sports and entertainment franchise.

“The last two places I’ve worked have been turnarounds,” O’Neil tells me. “Merlin is not a turnaround – it’s a wonderful, world class business that does very well financially, but that notion of having a transformation mindset is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

“What got Merlin to where we are now is probably not going to get us to where we ultimately want to go. A lot of my focus is on our strategy – how do we reset that? What’s it going to look like?

“The second thing I’m focusing on is taking a good look at the structure of the company, the people, the talent and where that sits. Thirdly, we’re evaluating the estate. A lot of businesses were under financial pressure during the pandemic and when you’re under financial pressure you don’t tend to put your foot on the gas and invest in the estate. A lot of assessment has gone into where we need to make our smartest and most prudent investments to stay top of the class.”

An unexpected call
O’Neil left HBSE in July 2021 after eight years at the helm. “Going through the COVID-19 pandemic was very tough on CEOs,” he says. “A lot of us reassessed – I did. I took some time off, wrote a book, invested in some companies, sat on some boards, and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to be.

“One day I got a call from a recruiter. She said, would you be interested in working for Merlin? I said I’ve never heard of it.” O’Neil laughs. “She said, Scott, why don’t you Google the company and call me back. I called her back very quickly.”

What appealed to O’Neil about the role?
“When I left HBSE, I spent a lot of time thinking about the characteristics of a job that would have me popping out of bed in the morning, and I kept circling around the idea of people, purpose and scale,” he says.

“I want to work with people I like, love and respect, and that was an easy check for this job. As for purpose – is there any better purpose in life that bringing fun and helping people make memories? If COVID taught us anything, it taught us that we need connection, escapism and fun, and we need to be together. Merlin is a very purpose-driven organisation.

“Finally, the scale is incredible. I’d never worked outside of the US, and I’d certainly never worked for a business with more than 140 attractions across 25 countries with 30,000 employees.

What’s next for Merlin?
What are O’Neil’s priorities for the business over the next year or two, I ask him.

“A lot of our emphasis will be on pricing, data, F&B and retail to make sure that those are four things we do at a world class level,” he says.

“It may not be as interesting as building a rollercoaster or doing the next deal with Sony Entertainment or Ferrari but these things are at the core of the business.”

In terms of pricing, O’Neil is keen to implement new ideas such as “a more sophisticated dynamic pricing model,” he tells me.

“The guest experience is hugely impacted by how many people are side by side with you. If you’ve been to an overcrowded theme park, you’d be hard pressed to say that it was as good an experience as if the numbers were regulated and one way to regulate that is with dynamic pricing.”

Describing himself as a “bit of a data junkie,” O’Neil says another major focus is understanding more about Merlin’s customers and their preferences. “That will help us to understand what experiences we should be acquiring, enable us to custom-tailor our experiences for our visitors and encourage them to come back more often,” he says.

In terms of F&B, O’Neil says he’s focused on improving quality across the Merlin estate. “When someone I know goes to one of our parks and says they’ve had a great meal, I say, did you have a great meal for an attraction, or did you have a great meal?” he says.

“I don’t know why we can’t have extraordinary food – and we do in some of our attractions, but I think you’ll see a bit of an upgrade in the UK and Europe.”

Building Legoland
In terms of Merlin’s new Legoland theme parks in China – Legoland Shanghai Resort, Legoland Sichuan Resort, and Legoland Shenzhen Resort, O’Neil says: “It’s a complicated time to be building right now, with inflation, and it’s always complicated to be building in China, but it’s very exciting.”

I ask about how many Legoland theme parks O’Neil sees room for long-term – instead of giving me an answer, he tells me that his focus is on ensuring the existing parks are as good as they can possibly be.

“We have some resorts that are just extraordinary – Legoland California, Legoland Billund Resort and Legoland Deutschland – and I’d love for that to be the baseline,” he says. “It’s a bit too early to say what that actually feels like and looks like, but I do want to raise the overall guest experience.”

Resort theme parks anD midway attractions
As for the resort theme parks division, O’Neil says there’ll be investment across the estate in order to bring all the parks up to the level of the best of them.

When Attractions Management interviewed Nick Varney two years ago, he said the strategy was to encourage visitors from further afield to stay for two or three days when they visit a Merlin theme park, by offering accommodation and adding second gates. Is that still the case, I ask O’Neil?

“Very similar,” says O’Neil. “Nick said bring them back for more days, I say invest in more data. It’s the same thing, said in different ways. I think the way to do that is not to build new rollercoasters – although we’ll definitely be doing that – it’s through understanding our customers’ preferences and who they are and what they want.”

And finally, the focus with the midway attractions is on growth. Using London as a model – a gateway city that’s hugely popular with tourists and where Merlin can cross-sell multiple attractions – the plan is to highlight a number of other gateway cities where the company can build more branded attractions.

“London is a wonderful model,” says O’Neil. “I’m trying to figure out other cities where we can build what we’ve got here. I can’t tell you where we’re looking yet, but it’s going to be good.”

As for the longer term, O’Neil says, “I can speak with certainty about where we’ll be in five years. This will be the greatest place to work in the world. Some companies are laying off – we’re not, we’re hiring. We’re in a growth phase.

More brand partners will enter the experience economy, which is great for us – Lego, Sony Pictures Entertainments, Ferrari – there’ll be more of those reaching out to us asking us to bring their brands to life. They’re already calling.

“We’ll also be bigger in more gateway cities and our resorts will be top of the heap. You’re going to see us take off like a rocket ship.

World of Jumanji
Chessington World of Adventures Resort

Opening in Q2 2023 at Chessington World of Adventures Resort in Surrey, UK, the £17m World of Jumanji land will feature the world’s only Jumanji-themed rollercoaster, Mandrill Mayhem, plus two more rides – Mamba Strike and Ostrich Stampede.

The £17m World of Jumanji marks the world’s first themed land for the popular Jumanji film franchise and is the single largest investment in the history of Chessington.

At the heart of the new area is the Jaguar Shrine which, at 55ft tall, ‘Keeps a watchful eye out over all who enter as it awaits the return of the curse-lifting Jaguar’s Eye jewel’.

World of Jumanji is the result of Merlin’s multi-territory exclusivity agreement with Jumanji IP owner, Sony Pictures Entertainment

The agreement will see a range of experiences being built across Merlin’s resort theme parks and waterparks in Europe (including the UK) and North America.

The deal forms part of Merlin’s broader global strategy to engage and work with leading IP and brands across its global estate.

Sony has described the partnership as a “pivotal step” in the studio’s larger global strategy to grow and expand location-based entertainment.”

Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 2

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