At 31 years young, Ocean Park is anything but past its prime. Despite a dry spell in the late 90s that threatened its very existence, the most popular amusement park in Hong Kong knows just how to create a good-time atmosphere.
With Goldfish Pavilion turning into a haunted house during Halloween and a makeshift foam disco in summer, Ocean Park slips into different costumes at least five times a year. While the rides do not change, fun-seekers can always count on new experiences. "Creating special events is now part of what makes us unique," says Paul Pei, executive director, sales and marketing, Ocean Park Hong Kong.
Even though the park now boasts five million annual visitors, its path to success has not always been smooth. The number of visitors to the 870 thousand square metre marine mammal park plunged drastically after 1997 and dwindling ticket sales strained its finances. At its worst, it was losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year and seriously faced the possibility of being closed down. Desperate to move out of the doldrums, Ocean Park installed a new management team who promised to breathe fresh life into the company's then insipid corporate image.
Software vs hardware
Like most amusement parks, Ocean Park has its fair share of breathtaking rides that provide a quick fix for thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies. However, most people do not realise that there has not actually been a single new ride added since 2001. Instead, Mr Pei explains, the park has turned itself around by changing its marketing strategy. "We realised whatever we stick in the ground is only going to be new for one day anyway. Even after we spent HK$70 million on the new ride in 2001, some of the very first reviews from customers were that the experience was already too 'old', and that was after just one ride."
Accepting that money is finite and the park was in dire need of more revenue, the Ocean Park team went back to examining the basics of the business — the product. They decided that expensive rides did not have to be the main attraction. "The entertainment business is fickle at the best of times and customers can be very demanding as they have such high expectations, but basically it all comes down to creating a sense of fun and innovation. Everyone wants to get value for their money and they are willing to pay for something that is new and has never been done before," Mr Pei says.
In a bold move, Mr Pei proposed the very first Halloween event, suggesting a month-long transformation from marine mammal park into a land of roaming witches and goblins. He notes that initially it was a tough pitch to sell and many believed that Chinese superstitions would not bode well with "ghostly" fun.
Despite such reservations among the management, the very first Halloween Bash at Ocean Park was launched in 2001 with a smash. The event became an instant hit, bringing in hordes of customers eager for a good time. For Mr Pei, the outright success debunked the myth that fun does not translate across cultures. "Regardless of nationality, everyone just loves to have fun," he emphasises. Since then, the Halloween party has become one of Hong Kong's most popular events, now drawing in more than 500,000 visitors every October.
Building on its success with Halloween, the amusement park then began actively promoting special events such as Christmas and Chinese New Year. Like a giant wardrobe change, the park's emphasis on multiple short-term events with themed decorations over permanent structures like rides, have made it possible for the park to upgrade its image all year round. "This allows us to look new even though we are 31 years old. And it really does feel like a different place, it gives people many reasons to come back again and again," Mr Pei explains.
Producing these radical changes and throwing a good bash is no easy feat. It requires a well-trained crew of staff who are passionate about their work and Mr Pei emphasises that investing in people is the key to Ocean Park's success. "Fun and enjoyment is the secret to our success and this is not limited to the customers. Our staff have a great time working here, and we prefer it this way because when the staff are happy the customers see this and the energy and excitement rubs off on to them."
Though Ocean Park has evolved to become more than just a marine mammal park, the animals are still its most precious assets. "They have been with us through three decades of existence and are still what makes us Ocean Park," Mr Pei says. "Our goal to raise public awareness about conservation through the continuous maintenance of our first class aquariums and our always popular dolphin shows remain unchanged."