One of the strengths of our company is that we’re good at turning around ailing businesses,” says Håkon Lund, CEO of Lund Gruppen Holding (Lund Group), a family-owned, Norway-based attractions operator. “We’ve become good at taking over and improving destinations which have lost their strategic focus and are struggling with investment and visitor numbers.”
One of the first “turnarounds” the company took on was the Kongeparken theme park located on the west coast of Norway, close to the city of Stavanger. The park was first opened by a group of attractions entrepreneurs in May 1986 with an initial investment of around NOK250m.
It immediately faced issues and was declared bankrupt just months after launch. In the following years the attraction continued to struggle and changed hands regularly. By the time Lund Group became interested in acquiring the park – in 1997 – Kongeparken had gone through three different owner-operators and was under the control of a creditor, a Norwegian bank.
“The park had gone bankrupt three times,” Lund says. “While the market in which it operated was relatively small – around 300,000 inhabitants – there had been significant investments in the park’s infrastructure and we saw an opportunity to develop it into a world-class attraction.
“We realigned it and turned it into a family-focused theme park based on six values – learning, playing, sharing, exploring, magic and excitement. We invested in a number of unique attractions and gradually developed it into one of Norway’s top five most popular attractions.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Kongeparken now attracts more than 260,000 visitors per year and employs around 450 staff. It has won a number of awards for its visitor experiences – including Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) awards for its Barnas Brannstajon (Children’s Fire Station) and Gråtassland (branded tractor ride) attractions in 2012 and 2014.
Today, Kongeparken is one of the main elements in Lund Group’s parks and resorts arm, one of the three divisions which make up the company. As well as the parks division, it has a highly successful festivals and events business, which operates everything from music festivals and cultural events to Christmas markets. The third strand, a travelling fairs businesses, dates back to the foundation of the business.
“Lund Group is a family business currently in its fourth generation,” Lund says. “The company dates back to 1895 with my great-grandfather, also called Håkon, a showman who had travelling shows, but also had parks in Oslo, Berlin and Ireland. He set the company’s focus on providing excellent guest experiences, something we still take great pride in.”
Lund adds that because of the nature of a family business, there are benefits when planning for the future.
“One of the strengths of a family business is that you can think very, very long term,” he says. “We don’t think ahead in terms of quarters or 12-month or even 10-year periods. We work to horizons of 30 to 50 years for each of the projects that we take on.”
One of the projects that recently appeared on the Lund Group’s horizon was Skånes Djurpark wildlife park in Sweden – another destination in need of a turnaround.
First launched in 1952 and located in a picturesque setting in Sweden’s Skåne region, the vast attraction, covering nearly 100 hectares (247 acres), housed an eclectic selection of wildlife, nature trails, play zones and a small waterpark. “It’s a wonderful setting, you are quite literally surrounded by wild nature,” Lund says.
Owned and operated by the non-profit Skånes Djurpark Foundation, the attraction was in trouble and relied on taxpayers’ money to keep it ticking over – mainly due to visitor numbers lagging behind targets. According to Lund, the low numbers were a symptom of a bigger problem.
“The foundation’s main challenge was that it hadn’t really decided what type of visitor attraction it wanted to run – a traditional zoo or a wilderness park,” Lund says. “It was also unsure whether the park should just have Scandinavian animals or have exotic ones too.”
After a particularly bad two years between 2011 and 2013 – when the park lost 150,000 visitors – Lund Group was contacted by the Skåne region’s governor to see if it could help. A feasibility study was conducted and in June 2014 the company signed a deal to take over. Lund Group began operating the park in January 2015.
The first thing Lund Group installed at the park was a clear vision. A decision was made to turn Skånes Djurpark into the world’s largest showcase of purely Scandinavian animals – a conscious choice made with the target audience in mind.
“The location of the park means that if you travel up from Germany or Denmark, it will be the first place you will come across authentic Nordic nature and its wildlife,” Lund says. “The idea is that you can come to Skåne, in the south of Sweden, and you can meet all the animals you would see later on if you would continue to travel to northern Sweden, Finland or Norway.”
As part of the plans to breath new life into the offering, Lund Group looked at adding an intellectual property (IP)-led themed attraction. It was a method Lund Group had deployed successfully in the revival of Kongeparken, where it had installed the €2m (£1.7m, $2.1m) Gråtass (Little Grey Fergie) attraction based on a popular Norwegian TV character.
The concept for Skånes Djurpark needed to be carefully considered, however. “We realised early on that any themed attraction at Skåne – especially a branded one – needed to feel natural in the surroundings of the park,” Lund says. “Not a plastic-fantastic universe, but something that would fit in the picturesque setting. We were very conscious of making sure that any addition wouldn’t create a huge contrast with the rest of the park.
“Our focus was to find an IP that was ‘real’ and to do with animals. We created a list of things we wanted – the animal aspect being a key one – and visited a number of different IP owners and developers. We shortlisted five, cut it down to two and in the end chose UK-based Aardman Animations as our clear winner.”
Famous for its old-school, stop-motion clay animations, Aardman has a burgeoning IP portfolio of animal characters and a decision was made to utilise one of them, Shaun the Sheep, at Skåne. Following an investment of £5m ($6.2m, €5.9m), the family-oriented Shaun the Sheep Land officially launched in June 2016.
Visitors to the attraction are welcomed into a traditional Swedish country fair, where there’s a meet-and-greet with Shaun and a chance to explore his home at Mossy Bottom Farm. Guests take a tractor ride, helping Shaun to find his misbehaving, lost flock before the farmer wakes up and finds out his sheep are missing.
According to Lund, the addition has been a hit with guests. “The feedback has been 100 per cent positive,” he says and adds that Shaun has played a big part in the recovery of the park.
“In the first year since we took over we had a 15 per cent increase in attendance. in 2016, when Shaun was introduced, we achieved a 30 per cent increase. Having a strong story and a strong brand on board as a partner has, I think, proven to be key to the success of this park.”
The turnaround of Skånes Djurpark has got off to a good start, but Lund says there is no room for complacency. “Continuous investment in a destination is key for developing it and that is true at Skåne, too,” he says, adding that there will be new features for guests to enjoy in 2017.
“We are continuing our investment programme and this year we will be looking at the way we introduce people to the wilderness aspect of the park.”
He remains tight-lipped about the exact details, however. “Lets just say that we’re looking at different types of technologies and transport solutions in order to come up with a different way to giving people a nature experience with animals.”