Looping Group Hopes for Regional Resilience After COVID-19
Looping Group has a history of acquiring regional, family parks and turning them into flourishing businesses. It operates 15 parks in seven countries: France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Looping’s diverse portfolio includes theme parks, water parks, wildlife parks, and aquariums. It welcomes around 4.5 million visitors a year, with a turnover above €110 million.
As parks across Europe start to reopen, Régis Marçais, director of corporate development at Looping, reveals how they are adapting their operations in the COVID-19 era.
How are you doing at Looping Group?
We are in a good and positive mood. We are much more optimistic now than a few weeks ago. At the beginning, we were wondering when we would open. Then we realized that the real questions were when and how we would open. Now, it’s when, how, and how long will this last for? We thought this might be solved in the short term. Now, the industry is realizing that it might be one to two years before we go back to normal. It’s a different world and the situation is changing daily.
What’s happening across your portfolio?
Things are constantly evolving but it’s a really important time for Looping because we have just reopened five of our 15 parks. These include Hellendoorn in the Netherlands and Fort Fun in Germany. In France, we’ve opened the Aquarium de Saint-Malo, Planète Sauvage, and Zoo de la Flèche. Aquaparc in Switzerland will probably be the next to reopen. It’s good to be in different countries and different business segments.
Our target is to be fully operating – with restrictions – by the beginning of July. Everything will be phased. We will see how visitors behave and adapt accordingly.
How are you adapting your operations during the pandemic?
We are a highly decentralized organization, that is our business model and we trust in it. The relationship between regional parks and local authorities is fundamental, and even more so now. We’re asking our site managers to work extremely closely with local authorities.
Internally, we established a multidisciplinary task force to build a protocol to reopen and operate safely and successfully. This is a work in progress by definition. In it, we outline new ways of working, with mandatory, recommended, and optional measures.
For instance, at Hellendoorn and Fort Fun you can only buy tickets online with specific arrival times. This allows us to manage capacity and reduce contacts at the entrance. Parks have extensive visual markings to ensure social distancing.
Staff who are in contact with guests wear face masks. Depending on local policy, masks for visitors are mandatory or optional, or imposed only in areas where we cannot ensure physical distancing. Hand sanitizers are installed close to the main touchpoints. We are increasing cleaning and we are making this cleaning visible to the guests; their perception of hygiene is important.
There are no shows or costumed characters, as they usually generate crowds. Most restaurants are closed; we favor takeaways and snacks instead. We are strongly pushing for cashless payments.
As a consequence of these adaptations, the visitor experience will change but our parks must remain fun. We must adjust our operations according to feedback. The first goal is to regain our visitors’ confidence.
The key challenge is to find a balance between safety, fun, and financial sustainability.
What does the visitor journey look like at one of your newly opened sites?
Aquarium de Saint-Malo, which receives 370,000 visitors, reopened on May 20. Visitors can buy a ticket at the main gate (no change in tariff). The hostess wears a mask and is behind a plexiglass cough screen.
We have limited capacity in the aquarium based on four square meters per visitor. It is a one-way visit and several attractions are shut. The restaurant is also closed for the moment. Masks are mandatory for over-12s. Visitors will see signage on the ground and the walls, use sanitizer stations, and see our staff cleaning regularly. A voice message plays every 20 minutes, reminding them to respect physical barriers.
The restart is slow so far, below our expectations, but we knew that the recovery would be progressive. The guests we have interviewed were satisfied, felt safe, and were happy to have almost a private visit!
What steps are you taking to reassure employees?
First, we created the multidisciplinary and multicultural task force. Everyone shared their best practices and ideas. Together, we built our Looping guidance, inspired by IAAPA and other European associations. We are grateful for the exchange of information and practices between all the parks. This collaborative work is very important to get our teams’ support. Communication and training are fundamental, and we are organizing this for permanent and seasonal staff.
How is COVID-19 affecting your plans for Looping Group?
We are very lucky to have a strong shareholding structure. One of the lessons of this crisis is the importance of having good partners and stakeholders to support you. We also have an entrepreneurial culture and we do not intend to stop our development.
We will continue to grow organically, with new attractions, new rides, new accommodations, and acquisitions. We believe that we can be a good home for other parks, as family owners realize that maybe it’s safer to be part of a group.
The regional park business is probably more resilient than destination parks and may experience a market rebound. We had quite a good rebound after the last financial crisis in 2008, so we are optimistic.
Looping’s positioning is: Regional, family, a natural environment, limited queue lines, and affordable. These features have allowed us to grow over the years. Our catchment area is usually limited to 150-200 km, so we may benefit from the staycation trend and regional tourism. We will continue to develop premium accommodation offerings at our animal parks in France and the U.K.
What else does the attractions industry need to grow?
More talent. This crisis confirms even more that business is people. When we are delegating decisions at a local level, the quality of our staff in these territories is key. We have fantastic teams all around our parks and we will need more talented people to support our growth.
What would be your advice to others coping with the impact of COVID-19?
We must be very humble because we are all learning. I am amazed by the strong solidarity between all the park owners and the professional associations. We are exchanging information and advice daily. It’s great to see this collaboration. Together, we are stronger and better prepared.