Wednesday, June 14, 2006
By Merissa Marr and Geoffrey A. Fowler, The Wall Street Journal
A few months ago, Hong Kong Disneyland Chief Bill Ernest hosted a series of elaborate dinners with Chinese travel-industry representatives. His mission: to find out what was going wrong with a park that, after just six months of operation, was grappling with attendance woes.
Mr. Ernest was told in no uncertain terms that Disney didn't have a big enough presence in China. People knew the Disney name but didn't feel compelled to visit the park. "It was a very concentrated learning experience," Mr. Ernest says.
Walt Disney Co.'s response is a major marketing campaign that launched yesterday. Hong Kong Disneyland is markedly ramping up its advertising this summer, especially in television, in a bid to lure visitors with a clearer message of what the park is about. Inside the park, too, Disney is making dozens of changes to make the experience more understandable to Chinese, many of whom have seemed more confused than amused during visits.
"We need to take visitors almost by the hand and tell them what to expect," says Joseph Wang, vice chairman WPP Group PLC's Ogilvy & Mather China, which is working with Disney on the marketing campaign.
The new campaign will be crucial in determining whether Disney reaches its target of 5.6 million visitors in its first year. In a recent earnings call, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger flagged the park as a potential issue for the Burbank, California, entertainment company, noting unexpected swings in attendance and below-par marketing. The upshot: Hong Kong Disneyland has to make up a lot of ground this summer.
From the very beginning, understanding Chinese visitors was a big problem for Disney. "People from the mainland don't show up with the embedded Disney software (in their heads) like at other parks," says Jay Rasulo, president of Disney's parks and resorts.
A major slip-up, Disney now accepts, was that its original marketing campaign wasn't aggressive enough. For this summer's campaign, Disney is spending three times more than it has to date. While the original ads gave a "helicopter" view of the park, the new campaign will highlight the individual experience and specify clearly what it is a Disneyland vacation offers, Mr. Wang says. In one TV spot, Disney shows images of visitors riding attractions, with the voiceover: "This is a land where anything is possible. Teacups dance. Elephants fly." In its new print campaign, Disney shows a grandmother, mother and daughter all wearing tiaras at the park.
"The message is live your dreams, with families sharing the experience together and bonding," Mr. Wang says. He says that in China, bonding between parents and children often is strained because of the hierarchical nature of society. "We want to say it's OK to let your hair down."
The question remains whether the campaign's message will really strike a chord. Some of the ads, for instance, continue to feature a "nuclear family" of two parents and two kids -- a possible mistake in a country where parents are allowed to have only one child.
Hong Kong Disneyland "guestologists," meanwhile, have been poring over problems that Chinese were having once inside the park. Camping out with stopwatches, they discovered that Chinese people take an average of 10 minutes longer to eat than Americans. So they have added 700 extra seats to dining areas. Another change: extra warnings in front of Space Mountain that the attraction is a roller-coaster ride (before the warnings were posted, unsuspecting guests had boarded and felt ill).
Another effort addressed waiting-line protocol. At Hong Kong Disneyland's "Jungle Cruise" attraction, there are separate queues for three languages, so riders can hear the narration in their native tongue. Mandarin speakers were regularly hopping in the often-shorter English line, eager to get to the front faster -- only to be perplexed by the English-speaking guide. While Disney always staggered the lines so that no line is given the advantage of moving more quickly, now three separate signs make it clear to guests there is no point of moving to a different queue.
The addition of Mandarin speakers to the park's staff as guides has been accompanied by new Mandarin reading materials and subtitles added to shows such as "Festival of the Lion King" and the "Golden Mickeys," because Disney noticed that audiences were missing their cues to laugh or applaud.
"The subtitles are very helpful," said Lu Ming, a 34-year-old finance worker from Zhe Jiang province who was at the park recently with her husband as part of a tour group. However, she expressed a common complaint: "The park is too small, even smaller than the parks in our province. We have all sorts of (theme) parks at home, so there is really nothing more exciting here."
Built on reclaimed land in Penny's Bay, Hong Kong Disneyland is Disney's smallest park. Mr. Ernest says the master plan is to expand the existing space to accommodate 10 million visitors over the next four or five years.
Phase 1 continues to unfold with three new rides -- Autopia, Stitch Encounter (an audio-animatronics attraction, based on the Disney animated movie "Lilo & Stitch") and Cool Zone, a water play area. Disney also plans to add its boat ride, "It's a Small World," to Fantasyland in summer 2007.
Travel agents, who are central to funneling visitors from the mainland to the park, say Disney is finally starting to listen. "Initially, they were the kind of Americans that were not willing to learn about the local market and Chinese culture," says Liu Yinghao, manager of the South East Asia division of the China International Travel Service and one of several travel agents who met with Mr. Ernest recently. "Then they learned some lessons and started listening to us. We've had some positive discussions."