Saturday February 2, 2013
Stimulating economy through theme parks
By MARINA SUWENDY
Themed Attractions and Resorts CEO talks about why the company focuses on its current business and its future projects
“I KNOW exactly what I want. Edamame, soft shell crab hand roll, atsuyaki tamago and an unagi set”, Tunku Datuk Ahmad Burhanuddin, the chief executive officer of Themed Attractions and Resorts Sdn Bhd, ordered as we sat down for our Power Lunch session at Niji.
He explained that Niji has always been a favourite Japanese restaurant of his and so he's well versed with their menu. Although he managed the time to sit down to a lovely meal, he tells me that it's not quite how his lunch hour goes.
“I'm usually just walking in the park. Whether at Kidzania or elsewhere, I just grab something.”
But he admits he actually doesn't really have any problem with working through his lunch breaks, as it's very much part and parcel for him to integrate his work into his daily life.
“It intermingles all the time. I went on holiday with my family a couple of weeks ago, and it combines work because we go to different places and I see possible ideas for our parks.
“I take photos and e-mail them to my management for them to have a look. So, work and play tends to mingle into one.”
But, jokingly, he adds: “I've just been trying to ensure that I don't become a yo-yo between KL and Johor. I'm based in KL but I'm down in Johor on a weekly basis. Luckily it's not that far and it takes me two hours to get there with Firefly, then it's 20 minutes to our park from the airport.”
Before our food arrives, we touched a little on his background and he told me that though he used to be a banker, he'd always had an interest in theme parks.
However, at that time, it did start from the perspective of how to improve customer experience.
“It's the experience once you get into Disney World. I'm not even talking about the park. I mean the things that people usually won't like, such as queuing up for the rides and waiting to take pictures, and yet they could make it into a nice experience.
“So, I thought, if we could just do this in the bank. Even just 50%, it would make the service much better and would improve customer experience. And that slowly transformed into It would be great if we could run a bank this way'. Then, that transformed into, It would be great if I could run a theme park'.
“Eventually, my bosses said that If we ever do a theme park, we will call you up to see if you're still interested'. That was about 10 years ago. Then the opportunity came to operate Theme Attractions and they asked if I was interested in applying for the job.”
And though the two may seem like polar opposites on the surface, Tunku Ahmad says: “We're in the business of making people happy”, and that, ultimately comes down to service quality, customer experience and product.
Why theme parks?
With LegoLand, Puteri Harbour and Kidzania under their belt, I wondered what inspired their decision to go into theme parks in the first place?
He explains the reasoning behind why Themed Attraction was incorporated.
“It was during the economic crisis, so we were looking into what would stimulate the economy and where were the gaps. So, we got a consultancy company to look at it and they advised us that one of the major gaps was in tourism.
“We have huge nature and cultural assets, and families come to Malaysia because it's safe. But we didn't have enough products. Compared with neighbouring countries, the number of tourists we received was lower and so was the spending.
“So, what could we do to bring that up? Looking at the demographics, we decided to focus on family-based tourist and family-based assets.”
Stimulating the economy
Along with tourism, we went on to talk about how else this has stimulated our economy.
“We've been able to open the employment market. We've created over 300 new jobs in Kidzania, and at Puteri Harbour, about the same number. It's about a thousand at LegoLand. And that's just direct employment. Indirect, there's the hotels, transport, food suppliers, etc. It's a huge number. It's the economic knock-on effect,” Tunku Ahmad shares.
As for the hotels in Johor, he tells me that they've been overjoyed by the increase in their business.
“We've been the darling of the hotels in Johor. They're always full. New hotels have been built and more are in the pipeline.
“We actually also have two hotels within our Khazanah leisure tourism group. One of them is the LegoLand Hotel and the other is Traders, which is at Puteri Harbour.
“They're under construction. Traders will open at the end of the first quarter of this year. Legoland Hotel will be in 2014.”
While we discuss the Traders and the LegoLand Hotel, he shares that they are further adding to their developments. In progress in Johor, they've got the LegoLand Waterpark, Ocean Splash and Ocean Quest at Desaru Coast. And, for the interest of avid golfers, their sister company (Destination Resorts and Hotels) is currently working on two designer based golf courses designed by Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.
Speaking of the new developments, Tunku Ahmad excitedly takes out an iPad and pulls up a presentation video on their Malaysia Truly Asia Attraction.
“It's Malaysia in a nutshell. It will be an experience. We're still conceptualising but we have started some work there already. It's at Lake Gardens. We're developing bits of it but maintaining the park and jungle experience. It's exciting. An opportunity to promote our culture is definitely there. It's an initiative by Themed Attractions and our Government.”
As we continue to dine, Tunku Ahmad gestures around for me to notice the restaurant and its design. He explains that with many restaurants, you can see elements of the country that their food represents, but with their upcoming attraction, Lat's Place, they've decided to take that a step further with the help of the latest technology available.
“Lat's Place is reflective of Malaysian lifestyle. We want our guests to be able to come to a place and experience walking into a Malaysian village as it was. To experience a kampung house or maybe a kenduri, but with a slight twist. It's like going into a comic book.
“It's not Lat come alive. You are entertained in an animated format. Imagine switching on a TV at home and being able to have a conversation with the cartoon character. You can interact. And though you come in at a scheduled time, it's not a dinner show. It's an experience.
“For example, we can personalised for birthday celebrations. That's where the art is and that's where the technology comes in,” he shares.
Lat's Place at Puteri Harbour is scheduled to open on Feb 6. Tunku Ahmad tells me that they're expecting good response from it, and that they're considering the possibility to have more locations.
“This is the first one that we're doing. We're looking at perhaps another one in KL. But I'm also thinking a bit larger as well.
“We're looking at how we can promote Malaysia around the world. Can we bring Lat to London, New York or Japan? That's the ambition but first, we're starting in Puteri Harbour.”
He tells me that, that's what Lat's Place and the Malaysia Truly Asia Attraction are about. Promoting our culture and our history.
“What is our differentiating factor? Our heritage is what makes us. We have a rich culture and it is important that we should be proud of it. It's important as our differentiating factor. It is our history.”