EXCLUSIVE: Scott M. O'Neil, Chief Executive of Merlin Entertainments, has indicated that the operator of Legoland Resorts and Discovery Centres along with Madame Tussauds, SEA LIFE and the Dungeons brands, is eyeing expansion in Australia.
Speaking to Australasian Leisure Management Publisher Nigel Benton during a visit to Sydney last month, O'Neil, headhunted to replace Nick Varney, who led Merlin for more than 23 years before retiring in November last year, stated “Sydney is a major market for Merlin but I think we've just scratched the surface in terms of what we can do.”
On a global tour where he set out to visit as many of Merlin’s attractions and meet as many staff as possible, O'Neil is extraordinarily confident about future opportunities for the world’s second largest attractions group.
Noting the importance of what he calls ‘gateway cities’, he explained “when I arrived at Merlin’s head office in the UK I heard a statistic that a quarter of tourists who come to London visit one of our attractions. That’s amazing, and we want to do the same here as Sydney is one of our biggest upside markets.
“We've been through a pretty intensive review of our gateway cities, which are cities where we'd like to do a lot more business, and Sydney is certainly an area where we'll be spending more time.
“Growth always starts with the management talent, and whenever you have such talent you can keep building.
“That's what I'm really excited about over the next five to 10 years here. We have areas for growth, what can we go get, what can we go buy, who can we partner with, what are the best attractions here, how can we do more?
“Because the notion in London where I work is whenever you have the combination of this type of market that has this many tourists and a market that seems to be very government friendly - a pro-business government that understands the value of tourists, plus access to capital, then you can do business.”
O’Neil also acknowledges that not “bidding the earth” to win the 2018 tender to operate the BridgeClimb Sydney attraction was a “missed opportunity”, but advises “we have plenty of work to do to get there, and this is a long lead business.
“I wish I could snap my fingers and triple the number of attractions, it just doesn't work like that. We have some conversations underway and we'll have a lot more, but I think five years from now we'll have a much bigger business here.”
Detailing this, O’Neil explains “our focus has to be ‘how do we get Sydney to double its business?’, ‘How many attractions do we need in Sydney to be more meaningful, more impactful, and have more penetration?’, ‘How many more tourists can we touch?’
“What we do extraordinarily well is being world class operators, bringing brands to life and knowing how to cross-sell and upsell.
“We have an anchor attraction, the Sydney Tower Eye - and we have plans and the opportunity to upgrade that experience - and we can break out from that.”
With Legoland Resorts the group’s fastest growing activity, and noting the popularity of the LEGO brand in Australia, O’Neil comments “I wonder why we don’t have a Legoland Resort here, maybe on the Gold Coast, it has to be a possibility.”
With Merlin not currently having a presence on the Gold Coast, he states “there should be a Legoland Resort on the Gold Coast - whether that's tomorrow or years from now, and whether that's a repurposing of an existing park or a building a new park, that'd be something that likely happens at some point.”
After his Australian visit, O'Neil travelled to Singapore where he commented on Merlin's expansion in Asia.
Australasian Leisure Management’s interview with Scott M. O'Neil is in issue 156.
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Images: Scott M. O'Neil takes in Merlin Entertainments' Sydney attractions.
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