Merlin: A year on from public ownership

Oblivion / courtesy of M WellsEarly next month will mark a year since Merlin Entertainments become a public company and floated on the London Stock Exchange.

It was much talked about for years before it happened, with an aborted attempt taking place a few years earlier.

But almost a year on from entering the world of having shareholders to please, what has been the impact on Merlin’s theme parks in the UK?

Investment has continued in the form of CBeebies Land at Alton Towers and the new Aztec Hotel at Chessington World of Adventures.

A more modest spend of an Angry Birds 4D experience has been introduced at Thorpe Park, which is repositioning itself as a place for families after years of targeting the thrill-seeking teens and twenty-somethings.

Price rises

It is worth noting that the above additions have not come without increased cost to those guests wishing to experience them.

The admission price at Alton Towers now sits at £49.20 – which represents a 5.1% rise on that charged at the end of last season.

StealthThe company’s annual passes have also risen in cost by around 5-6%.

Inflation in the UK is currently sitting at around 1.2% – that is a measure of how prices are generally rising for most products in Britain.

With the average annual wage rise coming it at a similar rate, it is not clear how long Merlin’s pricing strategy – which typically includes multiple price rises during the season – is sustainable without having an effect on visitor numbers.

Breaking the psychological £50 barrier seems inevitable next season at both Alton Towers and Thorpe Park, the latter of which now has an on-the-gate price of £49.99.

It is certainly true that Alton Towers has been welcoming back young families in their droves with the addition of CBeebies Land – but the effect of Thorpe Park’s new marketing strategy is far from clear.

Drive for savings

Merlin has also been attempting to make savings in a number of smaller ways, including the withdrawal of its unlimited refillable drinks capsule for its annual pass holders, replacing it with a smaller capsule which incurs a small charge per refill.

It is certain that staff are being briefed with ways on how to get guests to spend a little extra money in the park – think of the recent Sainsbury’s gaffe that saw a staff brief poster put up in a shop window regarding encouraging customers to spend an extra 50p each visit.

The SmilerIf Merlin has identified 5% annual price rises as sustainable for its British parks, it is unclear how easily that perception could change if visitor numbers were to fall.

The company is aggressively building new attractions globally, with a Legoland announced for Dubai earlier this week – but the strategy for its UK theme parks lacks an obvious sustainable long-term plan.

That is not to say that there are no long-term intentions, the company has retained the classic secrecy when it comes to details of new rides – particularly rollercoasters.

It is ultimately the record-breaking, world-first and unique rides that capture the public’s imagination – and if those investments are to continue then 5% annual price rises might just be bearable for the public to swallow.

It is a constant balancing act – as it was before public ownership and indeed in any such business – of managing the costs of entry, car parking, food, drink and merchandise at levels which the public will tolerate.

Providing Merlin lives up to its claim of being magic makers with new additions, the shareholders should be as happy as a captivated theme park visitor.

Do you think Merlin Entertainments’ theme parks have become overly expensive in the past year – or do their investments justify above-inflation price rises? Use the comments form below to add your views.