Sugar bear sees sweet theme in parks

John Odum-led Six Flags is un­fazed by grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion, to con­tinue to ex­pand in China and over­seas

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By HU YUANYUAN huyuanyuan@ chi­

When John Odum, pres­i­dent of Six Flags In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Com­pany, joined the theme park operator as a cos­tumed char­ac­ter, he was 16.

Ever since, the magic of the theme park busi­ness has worked like, well, magic — it has been his life­long ca­reer. What’s more, the sugar bear char­ac­ter he dressed up as led him to meet his would-be wife, who was then work­ing as a ticket col­lec­tor at the en­try gates of the theme mark.

“It wasn’t un­til four years later, when we met at col­lege, that we re­al­ized we both had worked with Six Flags at the same time. She told me she loved the sugar bear. A year af­ter that, we got mar­ried,” Odum re­called with a bright smile.

To date, Odum has been with the com­pany for 46 years where he held mul­ti­ple su­per­vi­sory and man­age­ment po­si­tions within the ar­eas of en­ter­tain­ment, rides, park ser­vices, se­cu­rity, ad­mis­sions, food ser­vices, mer­chan­dise and fi­nance. Since May 2014, he has served in his cur­rent role. He has been com­mit­ted to ex­pand­ing Six Flags’ global mar­ket share.

Be­sides plans of set­ting up new theme parks in Dubai and Viet­nam, Six Flags eyes China as an ex­tremely im­por­tant part in its global strat­egy.

Six Flags has teamed up with River­side In­vest­ment Group Co Ltd, which acts as the exclusive co­op­er­a­tion part­ner in China. To­gether, they have set up theme parks in Haiyan, a coastal county in Zhe­jiang prov­ince, and Chongqing, a mu­nic­i­pal­ity in south­west China. Six Flags, which boasts the world’s most ex­cit­ing roller coast­ers, is mainly re­spon­si­ble for op­er­a­tions and man­age­ment of the ven­tures.

“There are a num­ber of other Chi­nese cities we are look­ing at right now,” Odum said, but de­clined to re­veal more de­tails. “Each of the cities we are look­ing at has a big pop­u­la­tion, is good in terms of ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion, has easy trans­porta­tion for trav­el­ers and a sup­port­ive gov­ern­ment.”

Odum is un­fazed that global brands such as Dis­ney and Univer­sal, and do­mes­tic giants such as Wanda, Chime­l­ong, Fantaw­ild and Happy Val­ley, are in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in the theme park busi­ness in China. He thinks the China mar­ket is not fully tapped yet. He af­firms there is still tremen­dous po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ment.

His con­vic­tion is based on hard facts and fig­ures. “In the United States, there are around 300 theme parks with a size sim­i­lar to that of Six Flags parks. Those 300 parks serve 300 mil­lion peo­ple. When we look at China, there are only about 150 parks of this size or big­ger, serv­ing 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple,” Odum said. “I’d say the Chi­nese theme park in­dus­try right now is prob­a­bly where the North Amer­i­can theme park in­dus­try was 20 or 30 years ago.”

China’s fast-grow­ing mid­dle class and the sec­ond-child pol­icy, Odum be­lieves, will pro­vide great op­por­tu­ni­ties for this mar­ket.

It’s dif­fi­cult to dis­pute that view con­sid­er­ing that Dis­ney’s new­est re­sort and theme park in Shang­hai, its largest ven­ture in the world, cost $5.1 bil­lion, an in­vest­ment that would not have been made if mar­ket re­search had not as­sured ad­e­quate re­turns.

Data from the China Tourism Acad­emy show the to­tal rev­enue of China’s tourism sec- tor was 4 tril­lion yuan ($588 bil­lion) last year, with about 230 bil­lion yuan gen­er­ated by theme parks. The na­tion’s theme parks are ex­pected to at­tract 282 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2019, more than double the fig­ure in 2014, ac­cord­ing to Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional.

For Chen Shi, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager of TFTR In­vest­ment Co Ltd, as­set-light parks that of­fer qual­ity ser­vices, ma­ture in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, in­no­va­tive fa­cil­i­ties and lots of in­ter­ac­tion with vis­i­tors can stand out de­spite fierce com­pe­ti­tion.

Given China’s soar­ing de­mand for leisure and travel, he is op­ti­mistic about the mar­ket po­ten­tial for theme parks.

Un­like many other brands that re­pro­duce the same model across the coun­try or in­ter­na­tion­ally, each Six Flags theme park will take the lo­cal cul­ture into con­sid­er­a­tion and will be cus­tom­ized to a par­tic­u­lar re­gion, Odum stressed.

For in­stance, Six Flags’ Haiyan park, which is ex­pected to open in 2019, will of­fer a game with a fish­er­woman theme based on pop­u­lar lo­cal folk­lore.

Six Flags’ roller coast­ers are an­other dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture. One of its theme parks in North Amer­ica boasts 19 roller coast­ers, tai­lored for kids, youth, fam­ily and even se­nior cit­i­zens re­spec­tively. It also has the world’s tallest roller coaster, Kingda Ka. Each theme park will in­tro­duce new roller coast­ers or rides ev­ery year. This strat­egy would help Six Flags win loyal cus­tomers, ac­cord­ing to Odum.

“The abil­ity to of­fer a dif­fer­ent level of thrill to dif­fer­ent mem­bers of a fam­ily, we be­lieve, will help us grow and pros­per in the mar­ket.”

The abil­ity to of­fer a dif­fer­ent level of thrill to dif­fer­ent mem­bers of a fam­ily ... will help us grow and pros­per.” John Odum, pres­i­dent of Six Flags In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Com­pany

Qian Hui con­trib­uted to this story.


John Odum fields ques­tions at the me­dia con­fer­ence to an­nounce Six Flags’ theme park in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince last year.

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