Attractions industry news

07 Jun 2023

New Merlin CEO, Scott O'Neil, reveals his plans for the post-Varney era

Scott O'Neil has revealed that data will play a major role in attractions giant Merlin's plans to upgrade its existing attractions and further grow its business across global markets.

Speaking exclusively to Magali Robathan, editor of Attractions Management, the American – who took over as Merlin's CEO from industry legend, Nick Varney, in November 2022 – outlined his priorities after five months in the job.

He revealed there's likely to be a change in approach as the company moves into the "post-Varney" era.

“What got Merlin to where we are now is probably not going to get us to where we ultimately want to go," he said.

"A lot of my focus is on our strategy – how do we reset that? What’s it going to look like?

Describing himself as a “bit of a data junkie,” O’Neil said a major focus will now be to understand more about Merlin’s customers and their preferences – rather than simply "building new rollercoasters".

“Data will help us understand what experiences we should be acquiring, enable us to custom-tailor our experiences for our visitors and encourage them to come back more often,” he said.

“A lot of our emphasis will be on pricing, data, F&B and retail to make sure those are four things we do at a world-class level.

“It may not be as interesting as building a rollercoaster or doing the next deal with Sony Entertainment or Ferrari, but these things are at the core of the business.”

In terms of pricing, O’Neil is keen to implement new practices, such as “a more sophisticated dynamic pricing model".

"The guest experience is hugely impacted by how many people are side by side with you," he said.

"If you’ve been to an overcrowded theme park, you’d be hard-pressed to say that it was as good an experience as if the numbers were regulated – and one way to regulate that is with dynamic pricing.”

O’Neil added, however, that the new, data-driven direction of travel doesn't mean Merlin won't be investing in new attractions.

This has been reflected the number of new projects announced since his arrival.

These include North America’s second Peppa Pig Theme Park, which is due to open in north Texas in 2024; the construction of a £35m 150-lodge Legoland Holiday Village at Legoland Windsor; and a global partnership with Ferrari to develop immersive themed brand experiences at three Legoland theme parks.

“We’re in a growth phase right now and we’re very bullish about our future,” O'Neil told Attractions Management.

“When we last updated the market, we said trading is good, the US and the UK have been particularly strong. Asia’s still got some recovery left, but Europe’s been good, Australia is doing well. We’re doing great."

* To read the full interview in Issue 2/2023 of Attractions Management, click here.

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