October will never be the same since Ocean Park began celebrating Halloween in 1999.
The spectacular event has grown year after year, requiring more performers, technicians and preparation time each year, breaking attendance records — more than 500,000 guests passed through the gates last year.
"It's our biggest annual event," says Todd Hougland, Ocean Park Hong Kong's event and entertainment director. "Everyone gets involved: animal care, engineers, public affairs, sales and marketing. We even get our executive directors dressed up on stage to play a part."
Leading a team of specialists including technicians, performers, designers, costumers and stage managers among others, Mr Hougland's ultimate goal is to create and deliver a festival atmosphere. "It doesn't matter what the event is — if it's Christmas we want it to feel like Christmas in the entire park for our guests," he says. "Our role is to create an immersive experience. The theme begins at the entrance and reappears throughout the park." By transforming the park for these events Mr Hougland hopes that people will visit Ocean Park multiple times each year, rather than feeling that they have been there once and seen everything already.
Each of the park's events can take up to 10 months to prepare for, meaning that planning for the following year's events basically begins as soon as the current year's finish. "The preparation time is significant," Mr Hougland says. "Immediately after our final Halloween show we started clearing up and getting ready for Christmas while also starting to plan again for next year's Halloween."
In addition to the special events, the event and entertainment staff organise the park's regular shows and entertainment throughout the year. With so much happening all at once, a diverse range of skills and expertise is required. Mr Hougland has a theatrical background, having started his career as a performer at Disneyland in the US while still at university. "I always wanted to learn more. Eventually I got into production, learning about things like music production, multimedia performances and stunt shows," he says, adding that this background helps in planning as he has a feel for what will look appealing on stage.
People with event planning experience are highly sought after in the field as they have a demonstrated ability to be organised and to multitask. "There are so many things to consider, even down to the emcee's outfit and the colour of the stage carpet. Therefore, people who can visualise the big picture are invaluable," Mr Hougland says. This ability comes in handy at all stages of the process, including budgeting and costing. "When you are brainstorming you must realise how much things will cost, what contractors can feasibly achieve, how much time is necessary and how many people will be involved," he adds. "For instance, you might require a panda sculpture designed, fabricated and installed, so you must be organised and understand what is feasible."
Although Hong Kong does not have many theme parks, Mr Hougland feels there are endless opportunities to gain event planning experience. "Get involved in community events," he advises. "You'd be amazed at what it takes to put a festival on. These do not necessarily have to be theatrical but they still take a lot of planning and provide opportunities to learn the ropes backstage. For all events the organisers must also think about concepts like crowd management and where to put extra public amenities."
Mr Hougland says the final, though possibly most important skill for prospective event planners is creative troubleshooting. "At Ocean Park it's not like a theatre. We don't have a stage to work on. We create space in areas that are usually used for a different purpose. For instance, you must be able to look at a queuing area and imagine it as a stage for dancers. For Christmas we will bring in performers from all over the world for a mega ice-skating show inside a 1,200-seat theatre. Ocean Park doesn't have a skating rink though so we must create one. And as soon as Christmas is over we'll be preparing for Halloween again and the area will become a haunted house."
Being involved in high profile, multimillion-dollar events on a daily basis, event and entertainment staff at Ocean Park enjoy an exciting and rewarding work environment. Mr Hougland notes that the park emphasises training and development, and arranges for staff to participate in international trade conventions such as the International Halloween, Costume and Party Show in Las Vegas to experience what the world's leading theme parks are doing. Under the company's "promotion from within" policy, there are several viable career paths for employees who join as production assistants to move up the corporate ladder or horizontally into other fields such as sales and marketing and guest relations.