Grévin & Cie's success with developing and managing family entertainment facilities derives from its adherence to set management principles: offering attractions that are anchored in local heritage and traditions; developing and retaining highly creative teams of employees; a management approach that respects the particularities of each facility; and, a senior management team with a solid track record of international development.
Grévin & Compagnie SA is France's leading operator of amusement parks and tourist attractions (in terms of attendance figures) and one of the fastest growing in the European market. Grévin intends to be a motor in the consolidation of the highly fragmented European attractions industry. The company's portfolio of attractions in France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland attracts more than five million visitors per year, with an emphasis on a local, family-oriented clientele. The company's core holding remains the Parc Asterix theme park, based on the famed Asterix comic book character created by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, which accounts for approximately 55 percent of the group's ticket revenues. Grévin also owns the world-renowned Musée Grévin in Paris, that city's second largest privately held tourist attraction (the first is the Eiffel Tower), which gave the company its name in 1999 and forms the core of the company's tourist attractions segment, also including France Miniature in the Paris region and Mini-Chateaux in the Loire Valley region. The company's grouping of amusement parks includes Bagatelle in the north of France, Avonturenpark Hellendoorn, near Amsterdam, in The Netherlands, Fort Fun in Germany's Hochsauerland, and Aquaparc, a water-themed park on Switzerland's Lac Léman. Grévin's third pole of activity revolves around nature and animals, and includes the Grand Aquarium-Saint Malo, in the Brittany region; the Dolfinarium in The Netherlands' Hardewijk; and the Aquarium du Val de Loire. The company is currently constructing a new nature and health-themed park, called Bioscope, in France's Alsace region. Led by CEO Olivier De Bosredon, Grévin is a wholly owned subsidiary of French ski lift operator Compagnie des Alpes.
French Theme Park Pioneer in the 1980s
The Asterix the Gaul comic books first appeared in 1961 (the characters had originated two years earlier), and by the 1960s had become an international success. Creators Goscinny and Uderzo quickly realized the potential for extending the popular series--based around the adventures of the Gallic Asterix and Obelix and their resistance to Roman occupation--into other formats. Among the authors' ideas was that of a theme park, patterned after the Disney model. Although Goscinny died in 1977, Uderzo kept both the Asterix series and the theme park idea alive. Yet the French market, where amusement parks were more readily associated with small, often shoddy traveling carnivals, appeared unready for a theme park.
Disney's announcement that it intended to open a Disneyland in France created a new interest in the sector. A number of new projects came into being during the period, including Big Bang Smurf, based on the popular comic book characters, located in Metz near the German border; the Zygofolis in Nice; and Mirapolis, featuring Rabellais' Gargantua character, near Paris. While the Smurf park opened only in 1987, both Zygofolis and Mirapolis were operational by 1987.
In 1984, Uderzo brought the theme park idea to Barclays bank, which brought in conglomerate Genérale des Eaux and the fast-growing hotel group Accor as investment partners in the project. Planning began soon after, and construction, on a 500-acre site just north of Paris, began in 1987. The opening of the park, in April 1989, was accompanied by the creation of a company to operate it, Parc Asterix SA. Included on the management team of the new company was Olivier de Bosredon, formerly with Accor, who initially served as managing director.
Extensive media coverage helped ensure early interest in the park--opening day boasted a sellout crowd--and by the end of its first year, Parc Asterix had succeeded in attracting nearly 1.4 million visitors. The company's emphasis on family entertainment--which was to remain a company hallmark--and the park's accessibility to the vast Parisian market, gave it a strong returning clientele rate as well.
Yet the park was to remain a money-loser into the early 1990s, despite its success. Construction costs, which reached some $155 million, a heavy debt load, and high operating costs combined to plunge Parc Asterix into losses. Parc Asterix, like its rivals, suffered from a combination of factors, combining French inexperience in theme park creation and operation with a lack of understanding of culture-specific client habits.
While Asterix and its competitors found themselves overspending to attract customers--ranging up to $200 and more per customer, compared to an average of $70 per attendee in the United States--the company also misjudged certain French particularities. For one thing, the French, whose children attended school on Saturday mornings, tended to reserve family outings for Sundays. As opposed to U.S. customers, who tended toward informal meals taken at no set time throughout the day, French customers preferred sit-down meals at fixed times; Asterix quickly found its restaurants overwhelmed at mealtimes. Yet French customers were also much less patient with long waiting times, exposing another shortcoming at Parc Asterix, which had not included enough thrill rides in initial planning. These oversights forced the company to close the park to new entries on certain days.
Worse for the company was the impending arrival of a new heavyweight to the French attractions market: Disney. The 1992 opening of the new $3 billion Euro Disney (later Disneyland Paris), situated like Parc Asterix near the French capital, proved irresistible to the company's French clientele, despite the country's much-trumpeted disdain for American culture. By the end of that year, Parc Asterix's attendance rates were down by more than 30 percent and the company appeared headed for disaster. Meanwhile, two of the company's early competitors, Mirapolis and Zygofolis, had already gone bankrupt, while the third, the Smurf park, was struggling along backed by government subsidies.
Asterix began fighting back, however, as Bosredon took over the CEO spot in 1992. The company restructured its debt and also took steps to reduce its costs, shedding about one-third of its employees and adopting a winter closing schedule--the park now remained open only from April to November. The company also took steps to reduce waiting times, as well as adapt its restaurant offerings to its French family market--notably by allowing families to bring their own picnic lunches.
Although draining Parc Asterix initially, Euro Disney proved to have certain beneficial side effects for the company. For one, Disney's heavy marketing helped educate the French public about theme parks and amusement parks in general, helping to overcome reluctance from many potential Asterix customers as well. For another, French backlash against the "invading Americans" played into Parc Asterix's French-dominated culture, in particular given the ready parallels between the Americans and Asterix's Roman foes. Not least, Disney's "artificial" culture--where employees are forced to smile all the time--contrasted sharply with Asterix's more "natural" employees, who, if grumpy at times, remained recognizable for the French customer.
Meantime, Disney itself was hampered by many of the same oversights as Asterix and the other French theme parks, slipping into losses. Attendance began to pick up again at Parc Asterix. By the end of the 1993, the company had entered into profitability for the first time. The company then began expanding its amusement offerings, spending FFr 20 million ($3.5 million) to build a new, Greek-themed village, based around the Icarus myth, for the 1994 season. Also helping the company was the creation of the "Great European Theme Parks" grouping, with England's Alton Towers, Germany's Europa-Park, The Netherlands' Efteling, and Liseberg in Sweden, formed to counter Disney's marketing muscle with agreements to exchange discounted ticket offerings and increased marketing among Europe's travel agencies.
By the end of the 1994 season, Parc Asterix could claim that it had been "adopted" by its core French public, as attendance topped 1.5 million, and sales jumped some 32 percent, to nearly FFr 270 million ($50 million). In that year, too, the company's backers--by then Accor had gained a majority share--agreed to a new restructuring of its debt.
Attendance and profits continued to grow into the mid-1990s and the company began preparing a public offering for 1996. Poor market conditions forced it to put off that move, however. But by 1997, Parc Asterix had successfully listed its shares on the Paris exchange's Secondary Market. In that year, attendance at the park neared two million for the first time.
European Expansion for the New Century
The company's public offering set the stage for the next phase in its growth--that of expansion through the acquisition of other attractions. In 1998, the company paid FFr 37 million for its first acquisition, that of the Saint-Malo Aquarium in the Brittany region. Opened in 1996, the aquarium was not only popular, but profitable. Originally designed on a pedagogic basis, Parc Asterix launched a redesign of the site to emphasize an entertainment aspect. That year, also, the company received the contract to manage the government-backed Maison de la Magie in the Loire Valley.
The company found its next acquisition target in 1999, when it acquired the famed Musée Grévin, along with that company's France Miniature attraction. Grévin had been founded in the early 1880s, when noted French journalist Arthur Meyer came up with the idea of providing three-dimensional displays of noted current and historical events. Meyer turned to sculptor, costume designer, and caricaturist Albert Grévin, who created a series of wax figures, and the Musée Grévin opened in 1882.
The acquisition of Musée Grévin led the company to change its name, to Grévin & Compagnie, that year. The company then began plans for a major upgrade to the wax museum, which was unveiled in 2001. In the meantime, Grévin continued making acquisitions. In 2000, the company added the amusement park Bagatelle, which, founded in 1955, was considered the country's first theme park.
Grévin's insistence on appealing to local culture became one of the company's strongest points in its continued expansion, as it sought attractions with strong local, family-oriented appeal--contrasting with its competitors' attempts to woo the tourist market. Grévin sought to apply this formula beyond France, and in 2001, the company made its first foreign acquisition, that of the Dolfinarium in The Netherlands' Hardewijk, the largest marine animal park in Europe.
The Loire Valley region, France's fourth largest tourist market, became the company's next expansion target in 2002, when it acquired the Aquarium de Touraine and the Mini-Chateaux sites from the failed Durand Allizé group. The company then renamed the aquarium site as Aquarium du Val de Loire, to emphasize its regional roots, and began an investment program in both sites expected to cost as much as EUR 3.5 million. By then, the company's expansion had successfully reduced its reliance on Parc Asterix, which now accounted for just 55 percent of annual sales. The company also had become a year-round operator, boosting its annual attendance totals from just two million at the beginning of the decade to more than five million by the end of 2002.
Grévin continued to look beyond France, however, and in 2002 acquired a new Dutch site, the family park Avonturenpark Hellendoorn, near Amsterdam, founded in 1936. That year, the company moved into new territory, acquiring Ruhr Valley-based Fort Fun, bringing the company into the German market for the first time.
Meanwhile, Grévin itself had become a takeover target. In early 2002, Compagnie des Alpes, the country's leading ski lift operator, announced its interest in acquiring Grévin & Cie. CDA, which had reached the limits of its own expansion, and which remained active primarily during the winter season, was particularly attracted to the potential of extending its cash flow year round. The two companies also shared a major shareholder, C3D, part of the Caisse des Depots et Consignations, which held nearly 54 percent of CDA and more than 30 percent of Grévin.
Despite Grévin's refusal of CDA's initial offer, the two sides reached agreement by May 2002, in part because of CDA's promise not only to keep Bosregon on as CEO of Grévin, but also to inject much needed capital for further expansion of the theme park and attractions business.
CDA proved true to its word, and with its new financial backing, Grévin began a number of new projects, including a EUR 9 million revamp of the Dolfinarium site, expected to be completed in 2005; a complete revamp of Bagatelle, converting it from its somewhat faded Wild West theme to a more locally rooted seaside theme; a EUR 1 million renovation of the Val de Loire aquarium; a number of new attractions at Avonturenpark; and the launch of a new thrill ride, Transdemonium, at Parc Asterix, which opened in 2003 at a cost of EUR 6 million.
Grévin had not merely contented itself with expanding its existing sites. In early 2003, the company announced its acquisition of its first site in Switzerland, that of Aquaparc on that country's Lac Leman. Grévin now boasted operations in four countries and was also able to present itself as a unique entertainment company. Whereas its main competitors, including the Tussauds Group, Disney, Busch Garden, Universal, and others, targeted the international, vacation-based customer, Grévin focused on its local markets, emphasizing local cultural roots, allowing it to offer attractions with strong individual identities. Grévin, backed by CDA, counted on this strategy to help it lead what many observers saw as a coming consolidation among Europe's highly fragmented amusement park and tourist attractions market.
Principal Subsidiaries: Grévin Developpement SA.
Principal Competitors: Busch Entertainment Corporation; Universal Studios Inc.; Lego A/S; Euro Disney SCA; The Tussauds Group; Recreatiepark De Efteling BV; Liseberg AB.