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17 December 2012

Leadership, theme parks, museums and hospitality: Ocean Park's Tom Mehrmann, AAM's Ford Bell and others speak at IAAPA


Tom Mehrmann
Drawing wisdom from the hospitality industry
InPark co-editor Judith Rubin reports from IAAPA 2013 -- The subject of leadership was canvassed by Tom Mehrmann, Chief Executive of Ocean Park Corporation, on Nov 13 during a day of educational sessions at the 2013 IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. Regarding Ocean Park Hong Kong's significant recent expansion and 8 years of growth, he noted how decisions were made and strategies put in place to keep the park open during expansion, to differentiate from the competition (Disney), to empower employees and “break through the wrong kind of thinking.”

One intriguing guest services policy: There is $250 available to any employee on the property to tap in order to solve any guest issue on the spot, rather than send the issue, along with the weary guest, up through the chain of command. He remarked on how judicious the employees are with these funds.

Mehrmann conjured the hospitality industry as a model. His example of gracious, empathetic service: the Ritz Carlton. He put emphasis on the value of personal, handwritten thank-you notes.

His talk was peppered with maxims such as “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing,” “not for profit is a tax status, not a business plan,” catch employees doing things right,” and “listening lavishly; responding with focus.”

Mehrmann also shared some of his favorite keys to success, with examples of how they'd been implemented at Ocean Park Hong Kong. 1) Be hungry for change. Example: When the park achieved its goal of 7 million attendance early, it was necessary to get rid of the coffeemugs on company desks carrying the “7 million” slogan. 2) Be innovative. Example: Ocean Park's very successful commercial campaign that juxtaposed human behavior with interesting counterparts in the animal world, and “changed the way our market saw and interacted with us.” 3) Be disruptive by nature. Examples: Ocean Park's “Aqua City” commercial, for which a custom song was composed that became a popular ringtone, how an Ocean Park K-pop spoof video had gone viral, and how the park's Halloween Bash and promotions had brought record attendance numbers and helped establish the holiday in Hong Kong. 4) Be genuine, not just generous. Example: Ocean Park's corporate social responsibility programs, and special discounts for locals, the disabled, seniors and low income residents.

Mehrmann's final list: the 10 qualities he looks for when grooming new leadership in the company: Curiosity, Sense of responsibility, Sense of humor, Passion, Courage of convictions, Initiative, Creativity/innovation, Sense of urgency, Persistence and Confidence.

Mehrmann began his tenure with Ocean Park in 2004. He started his career in the theme park industry in 1977 as a park attendant at Knott's Berry Farm, working his way up to the position of Vice President of Park Operations and Entertainment in 1996. He was with Six Flags Marine World as Vice President and General Manager in 1998, and was appointed VP and GM of Warner Bros. Movie World (Madrid) in 2000.

Ford Bell, president of AAM. Photo: Judith Rubin
AAM's big tent
This year's Museum & Science Center Day at IAAPA boasted a completely full house. Among the attendees were designers, architects, media producers, economic analysts, event producers, exhibit fabricators, museum operators and theme park operators.

The opening address was from Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The organization recently changed its name, swapping out Association for Alliance. Why? Bell explained that the terminology change signaled a change in the structure of the organization, retooling itself to spread a “bigger tent,” be more inclusive. The intention is not just to add more members, but to deepen relationships with other groups having similar interests and magnify the visibility and lobbying power in the face of shrunken Federal assistance. AAM has likewise changed its institutional membership tiers for inclusiveness, offering at the lowest level a “pay what you wish” membership and setting the highest at $5,000 (down from $15,000) which can be upgraded to an all-staff package. Alliances with other groups include crossover accreditation and best practices programs with AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) and AASLH (American Association of State and Local History). Other efforts include outreach to engage other categories of stakeholders such as museum trustees. “We are fighting for a very pathetic sum of money,” he said, pointing out that Federal funds for museums total $60 million annually. AAM will make the most of its “big tent” to boost its annual Advocacy Day in Washington DC.

Ike Kwon, Guy Labine, Cynthia Sharpe (Thinkwell) and John Robinett
Measurements
In a subsequent session, John Robinett of AECOM, which has done numerous attendance studies for museums and cultural institutions, showed ways to obtain meaningful stats that can be used to make peer comparisons and examine such things as the differing behavior patterns of residential markets to tourist markets, the ratio of visitation to exhibit square footage, the operations cost per square foot (most museums come in about $80-$100 per square foot) and evaluate admission prices. Robinett's fundamental graph showed the declining attendance curve of the museum that fails to reinvest on a regular basis – he maintains that museums should follow the practice of successful theme parks - reinvest yearly and take a close look at how to maximize earned income (“retail performance is a missed opportunity for a lot of museums”, enhance the perceived value to the visitor and increase per-capita spending.

Satisfying the many
Ike Kwon, director of guest operations at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences (home of the Morrison Planetarium) talked about strategies that the museum had employed in order to maintain visitor satisfaction in the enviable position of huge attendance numbers. Before the museum was rebuilt (the previous structure was damaged by earthquake), its average yearly attendance was 80,000, reported Kwon. “Now we do 8,000 in 3 weeks and are creeping up on 7 million attendance since opening [in 2008],” he said. He illustrated the problem with an example from the planetarium: the bundled ticket option covers a visit to the Morrison, but throughput in the dome wasn't sufficient to meet demand, meaning that some visitors would not get the full value of their ticket. They analyzed theload/unload p ace and created a shorter planetarium show to facilitate a 30-minute cycle. This adjustment was one of many implemented in a full-scale overhaul of operations with the goal of improving the guest experience, based on a model Kwon had learned in his days in the hospitality industry. The process relies heavily on input and suggestions from staff who deal with day-to-day issues.

Know your value
Guy Labine, CEO of Science North in Sudbury, Canada, talked about how the museum used the results of an economic impact assessment conducted 5 years ago to attract more government funding and more than double the proportion of earned income relative to total budget (from 30% to 70%). The study revealed the true extent of the museum's role in the community and of its contributions. “We found that Science North is a main driver of the city's economic tourism engine,” he said.