To become a world class theme park, you need to bring your staff along for the ride

Author: PM editorial | Date: 27 Apr 2016

HR Summit & Expo HK 2016 preview: Ocean Park’s chief executive on staff engagement and retention

Turning a failing theme park into an international tourist destination requires a keen focus on customers and a knack for knowing how to deliver a truly memorable visitor experience. But perhaps the most important factor is much closer to home, according to Tom Mehrmann, chief executive of Ocean Park Hong Kong: having engaged and committed staff.
 
Between 1998 and 2003, Ocean Park’s visitor numbers had dwindled due to factors including the financial crisis, swine flu, avian flu and SARS. When Mehrmann was appointed in 2004, he immediately bunkered down with employees and chairman Allan Zeman to devise what he describes as a “master redevelopment plan” (MRP).
 
By the time six years of hard work (and HK$5.5bn in investment) had come to fruition in 2012, Ocean Park was back from the brink. Visitor capacity skyrocketed from 3 million to 7.8 million, employee numbers had been boosted from 600 to 2,400 and increased revenues had ensured the park’s future was secure.
 
Recalling the beginning of the MRP, ahead of his speech at the HR Summit & Expo HK 2016, Mehrmann said it was all about aspiration. The senior team wanted to stablise the organisation by developing the park to increase both attendance and revenue. But he had another important issue to consider: how to lead the park’s staff through these changes.
 
“At that time, we could definitely invest in building bigger facilities and greater rides. But we also needed capable staff. We had to make sure that we could retain the ones we had and help the team grow bigger,” said Mehrmann.
 
The first thing he did was to inform staff that the park would soon embark on an extreme transformational change to become a world class theme park, followed by a set of targets which provided clear directions to follow.
 
Mehrmann and his HR department conducted engagement surveys to understand how full-time employees felt about the park – and the results were surprising.
 
“We found that our team had very positive attitudes about the park. They thought they had a kind of spiritual connection with the park and they even saw it as their family, since they had been working through the difficult periods together and they were steeled by their experiences,” he said.
 
Results from engagement surveys were also positive, yet Merhmann realised that the engagement rate had dropped among newer employees. “Existing employees understand the park, therefore it is easier for them to be engaged. The newcomers don’t know as much about Ocean Park and are not sure what the park can do for them. In this case, what we need to do is to communicate and help them realise that they actually have a lot of opportunities here and we will help them grow,” said Merhmann.
 
Merhmann said the organisation also had to bear in mind that different generations of employees had different expectations of their employer, looking not just for immediate financial return but also corporate image. “They hoped that their employer would contribute to the community and were responsible to society as well,” he said.
 
Staff retention rates at Ocean Park have increased dramatically, and Merhmann said the focus on employees was a key component of ensuring the MRP was completed on time, on budget and with exceptional results; in 2012, the park won the prestigious Liseberg Applause Award, considered the Academy Award of the amusement park world.
 
Tom Mehrmann is among business leaders and HR professionals speaking at the HR Summit & Expo Hong Kong from 12 to 13 May at the HKCEC. For further information, visit www.hrsummit.com.hk.