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Interview
Bob White

After a tumultuous period for Australia’s theme park industry, Village Roadshow COO Bob White talks to Attractions Management about riding the PR storm and coming out stronger. Tom Anstey reports

By Tom Anstey | Published in Attractions Management 2018 issue 1

Australia’s Gold Coast is known to overseas tourists for its pristine beaches, lush rainforests and spectacular landscapes. The region is also home to a number of world-class theme parks – and operator Village Roadshow leads the pack.

Founded in 1989, Village Roadshow is Australia’s largest theme park operator, owning five Gold Coast properties including Australian Outback Spectacular, Paradise Country, Sea World, Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast and, the crown jewel of its collection, Warner Bros Movie World. These Queensland-based properties regularly attract around 5 million guests per year.

Despite great successes and a fantastic safety record, Village Roadshow was placed under unprecedented levels of scrutiny in 2016 when four people died in a fatal ride accident at Village Roadshow’s Gold Coast rival Dreamworld.

With around 60 per cent of visitors to Gold Coast attractions visiting from Queensland, a media focus on ride safety had a significant effect, with attendance declines and financial losses for every operator. Village Roadshow recorded full-year losses totalling A$67m. If the company didn’t respond smartly, serious damage could be done, not only to the bottom line, but also to its reputation. That’s where Bob White came in.

A “theme park lifer”, in his own words, White started out in the industry while he was still at high school. He got a job at Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina, working as a ride operator through his college years, later moving on to a marketing position and spending two decades with the company. He eventually moved to Paramount Parks as general manager, later returning to Carowinds before joining Village Roadshow in 2008 as general manager and finally becoming COO.

Campaign of reassurance
Following the Dreamworld accident, Village Roadshow was under the spotlight. Wanting to change the direction of the conversation, management decided to engage in a campaign of reassurance.

“The big lesson we learned is that you have to be direct and you have to be timely,” he says. “You can’t wait around, do a statement and hope the problem goes away because, in the age of social media, it’s not really going to cut it.”

Following the accident, incidents such ride stoppages were getting significant press coverage, and the language the media used made what would be seen by the industry as a safe situation seem to the public as unnecessarily perilous.

With the increased scrutiny, Village Roadshow created its own ride safety videos explaining why, for example, a rollercoaster might suddenly halt and why that’s a safe procedure for visitors. The campaign, We’re Serious About Safety, proved so successful that it has been emulated by operators such as Merlin Entertainments, who created similar videos for Alton Towers, which suffered its own tragedy in the Smiler accident of 2015.

“We’re an overwhelmingly safe industry,” says White. “However, the traditional media and also some of the social media vehicles have their own interests. Context is so important and it has to be a context people understand.”

Despite the negative press and public concern, after a difficult two years, the Gold Coast market is finally starting to recover, with growth the next step.

Programme of investment
“We had a pretty tough period,” White says. “Our margins were down about 30 per cent, but in September last year we finally got back to essentially flat so there’s been a significant recovery.”

To facilitate growth, Village Roadshow’s investment programme has been impressive, last year debuting its record-breaking DC Rivals HyperCoaster at Warner Bros Movie World – a A$30m purchase that opened to the public in September.

At 1,400 metres long and 62 metres high, the Mack-manufactured ride reaches speeds of up to 115kph, making it the longest, fastest and tallest hypercoaster in the southern hemisphere. Further investments are on the horizon, with White promising more new openings at Movie World over the next several years.

“In this industry, staying static and maintaining the status quo doesn’t really work,” he says. “You’ve got to invest, not only in your attractions, but everything else.

“You’ll see that we’ll concentrate on the IPs, which is one of the advantages that comes with working with Warner Bros. Our next announcement will detail more new additions coming in the next two years.

“On the Sea World side, we also have new attractions coming. We’re opening up a new splash ground and we have a new sea jellies attraction opening in April.”

Global playing field
According to White, theming and detail are more important than ever, with visitors and theme park enthusiasts from across the world travelling to the best attractions.

“We’re paying more attention than we ever have to quality because we’re now competing with attractions all across the globe. People in Australia travel to America frequently, and we get a lot of international guests from places like China and India, for example, so guests are having experiences in different countries,” White says.

“It’s the details that draw people in. If you look at the kids’ area we used to have at Sea World compared with the new one with Nickelodeon, they’re quantitatively the same – the space is very similar and there are a couple of additional rides, but that’s not really the point. We’ve taken it from a B-plus execution to something much better, on par with global operators like Universal and Disney.”

Development plans
In addition to its core Gold Coast business, Village Roadshow runs Wet’n’Wild waterparks in Sydney and Las Vegas, and has future plans to launch Hainan Ocean Paradise and Hainan Wet’n’Wild in China, also signing a deal to open a 20th Century Fox World theme park in South Korea. Overseas and at home, things are looking very positive as the business continues to grow.

“We have a pretty large international component,” says White. “China particularly is continuing to grow very fast. It’s become a significant business for us.”

No emerging from under the cloud of the Dreamworld tragedy, which hung for a long time in the usually sunny Australian skies, what’s next for Village Roadshow?

“We’ve got some good secrets, let’s put it that way,” says White. “Accommodation is one thing we’re looking really hard at, particularly at Movie World, where we have a 140-hectare plot of land in addition to the 168-hectare park.

“We’re looking at building accommodation there, then maybe developing the area beyond that. We’ve got the room for expansion and have looked at models like Universal’s City Walk or Disney Springs, and we believe there’s an opportunity to do something like that.

“Sea World sits on a piece of land called the Spit, which is a beautiful area and we have some opportunities there too as we go forward.”

Topgolf partnership
Stepping outside the theme park realm, Village Roadshow is expanding its attractions presence on the Gold Coast even further, opening a A$35m joint venture development in June on 6 hectares of the aforementioned plot next to Movie World – the first Topgolf attraction in Australia and the first outside the US or Britain. Village Roadshow will manage the venue on a day-to-day basis.

Mixing fun point-scoring golf games for all skill levels with a family entertainment centre, Topgolf players aim microchipped balls at a number of giant circular targets to score points and measure distance, completely changing the driving range experience. The Gold Coast destination is the first of eight Topgolf facilities that Village Roadshow is planning to open across the country in what is an exclusive Australian partnership with the US-based business. Topgolf and Village Roadshow are also eyeing opportunities in Asian markets.

“We’d like four or five things like Topgolf on that 140 hectares,” says White. “We want to be worthy of three or four-day visits on our properties. Someone can, for example, spend a full day at Movie World, then go to Topgolf, then the Australian Outback Spectacular, and so on.”

With plans for its future starting to come together and the company over the PR hump of 2016, everything looks very positive for Village Roadshow.

“The fundamental growth of the economy, the growth in Australia and the growth in the international marketplace around Australia tell us that this was a blip for sure. As long as we continue to run safe rides and offer good experiences that are well branded, then we’re going to do really well in the future.”

VILLAGE ROADSHOW’s PORTFOLIO

Warner Bros Movie World
Opened: 1991
Located: Queensland, Australia
movieworld.com.au
Hollywood classics and DC comic heroes are the focus of this Gold Coast theme park

Sea World
Opened: 1971
Located: Queensland, Australia
seaworld.com.au
Australia’s 25-hectare marine park offers the chance to interact with dolphins, seals and sharks and experience Polar Bear Shores and Dolphin Beach

Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast
Opened: 1984
Located: Queensland, Australia
wetnwild.com.au
One of the world’s most famous waterpark brands, Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast is located alongside Australian Outback Spectacular and Warner Bros Movie World

Australian Outback Spectacular
Opened: 2006
Located: Queensland, Australia
outbackspectacular.com.au
Village Roadshow’s live entertainment experience includes dinner and a show featuring many Australian animals, songs and stories

Paradise Country
Opened: 2005
Located: Queensland, Australia
paradisecountry.com.au
This Aussie farm experience tells the story of bush culture and features koalas, kangaroos and emus. Guests can also stay overnight in eco tents

Sea World Resort & Water Park
Opened: 1988
Located: Queensland, Australia
seaworldresort.com.au
Sea World Resort has 402 rooms, its own waterpark and conference and meeting facilities

Wet’n’Wild Sydney
Opened: 2013
Located: Prospect, Australia
wetnwildsydney.com.au
Located in Western Sydney, the waterpark boasts a selection of world-first rides and the latest in-park technology

Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas
Opened: 2013
Located: Spring Valley, Nevada
wetnwildlasvegas.com
Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas is Nevada’s largest waterpark, with over 25 innovative slides and attractions catering for both families and thrill seekers

Wet’n’Wild Haikou
Opening: 2018
Located: Hainan Island, China
Mission Hills China, Guangxi Investment Group and Village Roadshow are expecting to open Wet’n’Wild Haikou at the Mission Hills development on Hainan Island

Lionsgate Entertainment World
Opening: TBC
Located: Henqin Island, China
Lionsgate Entertainment World will be an indoor experience centre, themed around some of the brand’s key IPs, located at a new cultural and entertainment complex called Novotown

 



Sea World is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 


Wet’n’Wild is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 
 


Paradise Country is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 
ABOUT VILLAGE ROADSHOW

Village Roadshow’s first operation was a drive-in cinema near Melbourne, Australia, in 1954. The company began to acquire traditional cinemas and went into film distribution in the 1960s and film production in the 1970s.

Continuing to pioneer modern multiplex cinemas with new styles of seating and cutting-edge sound and projection technology, in the 1990s the company diversified its entertainment business with the acquisition and development of parks including Wet’n’Wild (originally Cades County) in 1989, then building Warner Bros Movie World, which opened in 1992, purchasing Sea World in 1992 and opening Australian Outback Spectacular in 2006.

Village Roadshow increased its waterparks business in 2013 with Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas, Nevada, and Wet’n’Wild Sydney, Australia, and is currently expanding its footprint in Asia.

Village Roadshow Entertainment Group continues to focus on the film production and distribution business, including titles like Sully, The LEGO Movie, American Sniper, Happy Feet, The Great Gatsby, the Ocean’s series and The Matrix trilogy.

DC Rivals HyperCoaster is a major new investment for Village Roadshow’s Warner Bros Movie World
Horse races and fire displays are part of the charm during Village Roadshow’s Australian Outback Spectacular shows
Horse races and fire displays are part of the charm during Village Roadshow’s Australian Outback Spectacular shows
DC Rivals HyperCoaster is a major new investment for Village Roadshow’s Warner Bros Movie World
Paradise Country is a farm attraction with Australia’s famed native animals
Wonder Woman at Warner Bros Movie World
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Interview
Bob White

After a tumultuous period for Australia’s theme park industry, Village Roadshow COO Bob White talks to Attractions Management about riding the PR storm and coming out stronger. Tom Anstey reports

By Tom Anstey | Published in Attractions Management 2018 issue 1

Australia’s Gold Coast is known to overseas tourists for its pristine beaches, lush rainforests and spectacular landscapes. The region is also home to a number of world-class theme parks – and operator Village Roadshow leads the pack.

Founded in 1989, Village Roadshow is Australia’s largest theme park operator, owning five Gold Coast properties including Australian Outback Spectacular, Paradise Country, Sea World, Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast and, the crown jewel of its collection, Warner Bros Movie World. These Queensland-based properties regularly attract around 5 million guests per year.

Despite great successes and a fantastic safety record, Village Roadshow was placed under unprecedented levels of scrutiny in 2016 when four people died in a fatal ride accident at Village Roadshow’s Gold Coast rival Dreamworld.

With around 60 per cent of visitors to Gold Coast attractions visiting from Queensland, a media focus on ride safety had a significant effect, with attendance declines and financial losses for every operator. Village Roadshow recorded full-year losses totalling A$67m. If the company didn’t respond smartly, serious damage could be done, not only to the bottom line, but also to its reputation. That’s where Bob White came in.

A “theme park lifer”, in his own words, White started out in the industry while he was still at high school. He got a job at Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina, working as a ride operator through his college years, later moving on to a marketing position and spending two decades with the company. He eventually moved to Paramount Parks as general manager, later returning to Carowinds before joining Village Roadshow in 2008 as general manager and finally becoming COO.

Campaign of reassurance
Following the Dreamworld accident, Village Roadshow was under the spotlight. Wanting to change the direction of the conversation, management decided to engage in a campaign of reassurance.

“The big lesson we learned is that you have to be direct and you have to be timely,” he says. “You can’t wait around, do a statement and hope the problem goes away because, in the age of social media, it’s not really going to cut it.”

Following the accident, incidents such ride stoppages were getting significant press coverage, and the language the media used made what would be seen by the industry as a safe situation seem to the public as unnecessarily perilous.

With the increased scrutiny, Village Roadshow created its own ride safety videos explaining why, for example, a rollercoaster might suddenly halt and why that’s a safe procedure for visitors. The campaign, We’re Serious About Safety, proved so successful that it has been emulated by operators such as Merlin Entertainments, who created similar videos for Alton Towers, which suffered its own tragedy in the Smiler accident of 2015.

“We’re an overwhelmingly safe industry,” says White. “However, the traditional media and also some of the social media vehicles have their own interests. Context is so important and it has to be a context people understand.”

Despite the negative press and public concern, after a difficult two years, the Gold Coast market is finally starting to recover, with growth the next step.

Programme of investment
“We had a pretty tough period,” White says. “Our margins were down about 30 per cent, but in September last year we finally got back to essentially flat so there’s been a significant recovery.”

To facilitate growth, Village Roadshow’s investment programme has been impressive, last year debuting its record-breaking DC Rivals HyperCoaster at Warner Bros Movie World – a A$30m purchase that opened to the public in September.

At 1,400 metres long and 62 metres high, the Mack-manufactured ride reaches speeds of up to 115kph, making it the longest, fastest and tallest hypercoaster in the southern hemisphere. Further investments are on the horizon, with White promising more new openings at Movie World over the next several years.

“In this industry, staying static and maintaining the status quo doesn’t really work,” he says. “You’ve got to invest, not only in your attractions, but everything else.

“You’ll see that we’ll concentrate on the IPs, which is one of the advantages that comes with working with Warner Bros. Our next announcement will detail more new additions coming in the next two years.

“On the Sea World side, we also have new attractions coming. We’re opening up a new splash ground and we have a new sea jellies attraction opening in April.”

Global playing field
According to White, theming and detail are more important than ever, with visitors and theme park enthusiasts from across the world travelling to the best attractions.

“We’re paying more attention than we ever have to quality because we’re now competing with attractions all across the globe. People in Australia travel to America frequently, and we get a lot of international guests from places like China and India, for example, so guests are having experiences in different countries,” White says.

“It’s the details that draw people in. If you look at the kids’ area we used to have at Sea World compared with the new one with Nickelodeon, they’re quantitatively the same – the space is very similar and there are a couple of additional rides, but that’s not really the point. We’ve taken it from a B-plus execution to something much better, on par with global operators like Universal and Disney.”

Development plans
In addition to its core Gold Coast business, Village Roadshow runs Wet’n’Wild waterparks in Sydney and Las Vegas, and has future plans to launch Hainan Ocean Paradise and Hainan Wet’n’Wild in China, also signing a deal to open a 20th Century Fox World theme park in South Korea. Overseas and at home, things are looking very positive as the business continues to grow.

“We have a pretty large international component,” says White. “China particularly is continuing to grow very fast. It’s become a significant business for us.”

No emerging from under the cloud of the Dreamworld tragedy, which hung for a long time in the usually sunny Australian skies, what’s next for Village Roadshow?

“We’ve got some good secrets, let’s put it that way,” says White. “Accommodation is one thing we’re looking really hard at, particularly at Movie World, where we have a 140-hectare plot of land in addition to the 168-hectare park.

“We’re looking at building accommodation there, then maybe developing the area beyond that. We’ve got the room for expansion and have looked at models like Universal’s City Walk or Disney Springs, and we believe there’s an opportunity to do something like that.

“Sea World sits on a piece of land called the Spit, which is a beautiful area and we have some opportunities there too as we go forward.”

Topgolf partnership
Stepping outside the theme park realm, Village Roadshow is expanding its attractions presence on the Gold Coast even further, opening a A$35m joint venture development in June on 6 hectares of the aforementioned plot next to Movie World – the first Topgolf attraction in Australia and the first outside the US or Britain. Village Roadshow will manage the venue on a day-to-day basis.

Mixing fun point-scoring golf games for all skill levels with a family entertainment centre, Topgolf players aim microchipped balls at a number of giant circular targets to score points and measure distance, completely changing the driving range experience. The Gold Coast destination is the first of eight Topgolf facilities that Village Roadshow is planning to open across the country in what is an exclusive Australian partnership with the US-based business. Topgolf and Village Roadshow are also eyeing opportunities in Asian markets.

“We’d like four or five things like Topgolf on that 140 hectares,” says White. “We want to be worthy of three or four-day visits on our properties. Someone can, for example, spend a full day at Movie World, then go to Topgolf, then the Australian Outback Spectacular, and so on.”

With plans for its future starting to come together and the company over the PR hump of 2016, everything looks very positive for Village Roadshow.

“The fundamental growth of the economy, the growth in Australia and the growth in the international marketplace around Australia tell us that this was a blip for sure. As long as we continue to run safe rides and offer good experiences that are well branded, then we’re going to do really well in the future.”

VILLAGE ROADSHOW’s PORTFOLIO

Warner Bros Movie World
Opened: 1991
Located: Queensland, Australia
movieworld.com.au
Hollywood classics and DC comic heroes are the focus of this Gold Coast theme park

Sea World
Opened: 1971
Located: Queensland, Australia
seaworld.com.au
Australia’s 25-hectare marine park offers the chance to interact with dolphins, seals and sharks and experience Polar Bear Shores and Dolphin Beach

Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast
Opened: 1984
Located: Queensland, Australia
wetnwild.com.au
One of the world’s most famous waterpark brands, Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast is located alongside Australian Outback Spectacular and Warner Bros Movie World

Australian Outback Spectacular
Opened: 2006
Located: Queensland, Australia
outbackspectacular.com.au
Village Roadshow’s live entertainment experience includes dinner and a show featuring many Australian animals, songs and stories

Paradise Country
Opened: 2005
Located: Queensland, Australia
paradisecountry.com.au
This Aussie farm experience tells the story of bush culture and features koalas, kangaroos and emus. Guests can also stay overnight in eco tents

Sea World Resort & Water Park
Opened: 1988
Located: Queensland, Australia
seaworldresort.com.au
Sea World Resort has 402 rooms, its own waterpark and conference and meeting facilities

Wet’n’Wild Sydney
Opened: 2013
Located: Prospect, Australia
wetnwildsydney.com.au
Located in Western Sydney, the waterpark boasts a selection of world-first rides and the latest in-park technology

Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas
Opened: 2013
Located: Spring Valley, Nevada
wetnwildlasvegas.com
Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas is Nevada’s largest waterpark, with over 25 innovative slides and attractions catering for both families and thrill seekers

Wet’n’Wild Haikou
Opening: 2018
Located: Hainan Island, China
Mission Hills China, Guangxi Investment Group and Village Roadshow are expecting to open Wet’n’Wild Haikou at the Mission Hills development on Hainan Island

Lionsgate Entertainment World
Opening: TBC
Located: Henqin Island, China
Lionsgate Entertainment World will be an indoor experience centre, themed around some of the brand’s key IPs, located at a new cultural and entertainment complex called Novotown

 



Sea World is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 


Wet’n’Wild is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 
 


Paradise Country is central to the operator’s Queensland offering
 
ABOUT VILLAGE ROADSHOW

Village Roadshow’s first operation was a drive-in cinema near Melbourne, Australia, in 1954. The company began to acquire traditional cinemas and went into film distribution in the 1960s and film production in the 1970s.

Continuing to pioneer modern multiplex cinemas with new styles of seating and cutting-edge sound and projection technology, in the 1990s the company diversified its entertainment business with the acquisition and development of parks including Wet’n’Wild (originally Cades County) in 1989, then building Warner Bros Movie World, which opened in 1992, purchasing Sea World in 1992 and opening Australian Outback Spectacular in 2006.

Village Roadshow increased its waterparks business in 2013 with Wet’n’Wild Las Vegas, Nevada, and Wet’n’Wild Sydney, Australia, and is currently expanding its footprint in Asia.

Village Roadshow Entertainment Group continues to focus on the film production and distribution business, including titles like Sully, The LEGO Movie, American Sniper, Happy Feet, The Great Gatsby, the Ocean’s series and The Matrix trilogy.

DC Rivals HyperCoaster is a major new investment for Village Roadshow’s Warner Bros Movie World
Horse races and fire displays are part of the charm during Village Roadshow’s Australian Outback Spectacular shows
Horse races and fire displays are part of the charm during Village Roadshow’s Australian Outback Spectacular shows
DC Rivals HyperCoaster is a major new investment for Village Roadshow’s Warner Bros Movie World
Paradise Country is a farm attraction with Australia’s famed native animals
Wonder Woman at Warner Bros Movie World
 


ADVERTISE . CONTACT US

Leisure Media, Portmill House, Portmill Lane,
Hitchin, Hertfordshire SG5 1DJ Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385

©Cybertrek 2018

ABOUT LEISURE MEDIA
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