Take a wild ride
Recruitment at Ocean Park rocketing as new rides and attractions come online.
There has been no up-and-down roller-coaster ride in visitor numbers at Ocean Park since Tom Mehrmann took over as chief executive in 2004. Barring a pause for breath in 2008-09 during the global financial crisis, the trend has been unerringly upwards.
In the year 2003-04, weighed down by the Sars epidemic, the still-fading effects of the previous century’s Asian financial crisis and years of underinvestment, the park attracted 3.68 million customers. This has since soared to 7.7 million in Ocean Park’s last full year of operation.
“This is growth of 109 per cent [across the 10-year period] and this hasn’t happened in the industry before, especially for a mature product like ours,” Mehrmann says.
To ensure there is no let-up in the increasing level of popularity, Ocean Park plans to add around 30 attractions and a projected 1,100 permanent staff positions by 2017.
The new Sharks Mystique attraction opened this month, featuring 100 sharks in the renovated Atoll reef exhibit, while Adventures in Australia is due to welcome its first visitors in December.
“The recruitment work for fairly specialised positions has already begun as we need to have life-support-systems people, engineering staff and animal-care professionals already on board,” Mehrmann explains.
“Running a theme park requires everybody, from the line-level person who might be cleaning the streets, to the one who may be performing medical procedures on animals. We also have the traditional positions: marketing, accounting, finance of any sort, sales, food and beverage, and retail,” he adds.
Key projects next in the pipeline are a new 400,000 square foot water park and the 495-room Ocean Hotel. Beyond the manpower needed in the construction phase, these two facilities will create significantly more new positions. “About 500 permanent staff will be in the hotel when it is up and running, and we will have about 500 to 600 staff in the new water park,” Mehrmann says.
Ocean Park has obviously benefited from the overall rise in tourism to Hong Kong in recent years, but Mehrmann also points to the park’s major capital investments and the reinvigoration of its spirit through a number of key major events as the reasons for its upturn in fortunes.
“We kept the best and we improved the rest,” he explains. “We invested HK$5.55 billion in the property, in eight phases of development over the six years between 2006 and 2012. We changed what Ocean Park is, while not deviating from our core principles of education, conservation and entertainment. In fact, about 66 per cent of our total investment went into education and conservation. We also kept iconic elements like the cable car and the aquarium.”
Along with the upgrades to the “hardware”, the park annually stages its “big five” seasonal events, including celebrations at Lunar New Year, Halloween and Christmas. “The idea is that we change the ‘software’ five times a year, so if you’re coming back to the park it’s always going to feel fresh and new,” Mehrmann says.
“The MTR is coming to the property in 2015, and that’s going to change the way guests arrive and depart, and may raise our attendance beyond the growth we’re already seeing,” he adds.
With its mix of rides and wildlife, and its status as a not-for-profit, government-owned tourist attraction that must pay its own way, Mehrmann sees Ocean Park as a unique industry hybrid. In 2012, it even collected the “Applause Award”, presented every two years by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions to amusement parks that have inspired the industry.
“For me, the theme park industry is vibrant at the moment, and more so in Asia than anywhere else,” Mehrmann says. “Even in times of austerity, people want the type of escape that parks offer.”
Mehrmann himself has appreciated this special appeal throughout his career. “I grew up in the industry. I started as a sweeper and worked my way up to where I am today. I’ve had the chance to work in just about every position in a park, beginning in California at a park called Knott’s Berry Farm,” he recalls.
He went on to become vice-president of that facility, leaving to join Six Flags Marine World (now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) in San Francisco as vice-president and general manager. In 2000, Six Flags asked him to relocate to Madrid, as vice-president and general manager of a theme park they had acquired and were redeveloping.
“The offer from Ocean Park came at the time of transition [in 2004] and it was just too attractive an opportunity to miss, with the dynamic growth and world focus on Asia – specifically, China,” he says.
Mehrmann views the presence of Disneyland on his patch as a good thing. “I think the goal has always been to make Hong Kong a better destination,” he says. “So if you have two world-class facilities in the same destination, the guests are going to be prompted to go to both, and we have definitely seen that.
“While Disney offers fantastic intellectual property in the fantasy realm, we offer reality. If you want the real mouse you come here, if you want the animated mouse you go there. And we’ve got the largest rodent in the world.”
Ticket to the top
Tom Mehrmann outlines five qualities needed for a successful career in the theme park industry:
- A sense of humour
- A curiosity regarding strategic and tactical initiatives and products
- Perseverance and the courage of your convictions through great challenges and opportunities
- A great work ethic
- A respect for people and animals