The man in the hot seat on Hong Kong’s biggest fun ride
Ocean Park has suffered its worst year in decades, with a huge deficit and slump in visitors, but chief executive Matthias Li explains why there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic
Veteran executive Matthias Li Sing-chung, 62, took the helm of Ocean Park as chief executive in July last year. The appointment came at a turbulent time for Hong Kong’s tourism industry, with visitor numbers falling and the launch of another Disneyland, in Shanghai, in June.
Ocean Park reported a HK$241 million deficit for the last fiscal year, with visitor numbers plunging by 18.8 per cent to six million. This was the largest deficit since 1987, when the park ceased to be a Hong Kong Jockey Club subsidiary.
Li joined the park as finance director and corporate secretary in 1994, then rose through the ranks to become deputy chief executive and chief financial officer in 2007, and finally chief executive. After serving the city’s beloved theme park for over 22 years, he must now chart a new course to success.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Ocean Park. Will there be a special theme?
The theme is “making memories”. Since the park opened in 1977 it has been a place that grows with Hongkongers. Because of its unique features, Ocean Park has served three functions – recreational, educational and conservational – and has attracted visitors of different age groups.
During these 40 years, Ocean Park has become a place of memories for several generations. We hope to recreate new memories for the future, so when you look back this year, this will become a good memory.
What made you decide to join Ocean Park in 1994 and stay for over 20 years?
I received my education and worked in Canada for some 20 years before I considered moving back to Hong Kong. In Canada I worked in the finance sector and often went on business trips to Hong Kong.
After a few visits the idea of moving back to Hong Kong with my family started to ferment in my mind because I wanted to raise my kids in Hong Kong close to my relatives. I didn’t want them to grow up in Canada without roots or any ties with their Hong Kong relatives.
Unlike many Hongkongers who feared the handover, I had full confidence in Hong Kong’s future. In 1994 during a visit here, I tried to find jobs through the Classified Post of the South China Morning Post. I chanced upon a recruitment ad from Ocean Park for the post of finance director. I thought this might be suitable for me, so I applied for it. On the next trip I stopped by for an interview and then I got hired.
In those days I thought I might move on to other opportunities after a few years at the park. But once I started this job, over the years I have met a lot of challenges and experienced personal growth as well as career growth. I have also been exposed to other aspects, such as conservation. This is not just a business providing fun, but also promoting conservation. And I’ve started to enjoy my job.
You think you will move on within three years, and suddenly you look back and it’s already 22 years.
What special considerations apply when running Ocean Park in view of Hong Kong’s unique culture and environment?
When Ocean Park was founded in 1977, it was ordained as a public recreational and educational park under the law. So the park was designed and operated with a strong mindset that it was a theme park for Hongkongers, one that grows together with Hong Kong people.
Actually during the 70s and 80s there were not many tourists coming to Hong Kong. All along we hold the belief that if we can satisfy Hongkongers and make the park a popular attraction, naturally tourists will be attracted to visit Ocean Park. Therefore all we have been trying to do is to cater to the entertainment needs of Hongkongers.
That’s why over the years we strive to upgrade our facilities and attractions in order to increase our appeal. For example, in 2005 we announced the HK$5.5 billion master redevelopment plan to build the park into the world’s best marine-based theme parks. Also, from 2000 we began to develop annual seasonal events, such as Summer Splash, Halloween Fest, Christmas Sensation, and Lunar Lucky Fiesta.
With all the reinvestments to create new rides and events, we hope to spur repeated visits for the park’s sustainable development. In fact local visitors account for 40 per cent of total visitor numbers, amounting to 2.2 million to 2.5 million visits per year.
What were the biggest challenges of keeping Ocean Park competitive in the face of decreasing visitor numbers, and rivalry from new attractions on the mainland and Disneyland in Hong Kong?
There have been challenges of different sorts every day. Some are uncertain in nature but some are eternal and cyclical.
A typical example of the first type was the challenge brought by severe acute respiratory syndrome in early 2003. Everyone was panic-stricken as we didn’t know when it was going to end. Things were very difficult for us because there were only two or three visitors per day.
The profits over the previous year were all wiped out within three months of the Sars outbreak. Even if our staff were willing to work for free, we still needed to feed the animals. Finally we reluctantly requested our staff to take unpaid leave for one day a week in order to streamline our operation. Luckily in July the outbreak was finally contained.
Another type of challenge is eternal in nature. For example, in 1999 the government announced Disneyland would open in Hong Kong in 2005. This posed a long-term challenge to us that will never end. So we needed to adjust our strategies. We needed to think hard about how to complement each other to have a bigger piece of the action in the tourism industry while keeping our own competitive edge.
That was why in 2005 we announced the HK$5.5 billion redevelopment to double the amount of animals and rides, from 35 to over 80. We will continue to invest in the park to meet new challenges.
Ocean Park reported a HK$241 million deficit for the last fiscal year. How are you going to ride out this storm and navigate a new chapter for Ocean Park?
This is a cyclical challenge for us with its ups and downs. But we believe that we will eventually go back to the upward cycle.
We see that household income on the mainland has continued to rise, the same with those in the whole Asia region. But there have been some changes in their visiting patterns. They start to look for more faraway destinations while coming to Hong Kong for short-haul visits. So Hong Kong has become a short-haul market for mainland tourists.
Now with the express rail link to Guangzhou and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge due to open within two years, traffic to and fro in southern China will be shortened and become more convenient. We see great potential to sustain our long-term development, so we’ll stick to our strategy – building two hotels of our own and Water World to turn Ocean Park into the city’s resort destination.
Locally, we believe with the opening of the MTR’s South Island Line, that widens our operating landscape. It will bring more local visitors to the park from different districts. That’s why we are now considering extending the opening hours to 11pm with concessionary prices at the Lagoon lakeside in the lowland area, which will be transformed into a relaxing alfresco dining spot.
We expect to attract more business travellers as they are too busy for sightseeing during the day. When the two new hotels are opened, I believe Southern District will become a night entertainment hub in Hong Kong.
What are your views of the Individual Visit Scheme?
Since the introduction of the scheme, some people have accused us of turning Ocean Park into a park for mainlanders. But this is a false perception. Actually the ratio of mainland visitors has reduced to 40 per cent from 50 per cent in the past.
In the beginning some mainland visitors were not really that experienced, but now they are getting more civilised. Therefore we shouldn’t have a bias against them. Of course once in a while they still display certain improper behaviour, but many of them are polite with big purchasing power.
As to the extension of the scheme, which is now open to 49 mainland cities, of course we think that the more cities are included, the merrier. I strongly believe that as Hong Kong is a friendly tourism city, there is no need to restrict mainlanders from coming to the city. Under some administrative arrangement, I believe the scheme can be open to more cities without causing much inconvenience to Hongkongers.
You have worked with ex-chairman Allan Zeman and incumbent Leo Kung. Zeman is a maverick who loves gimmicks while Kung is more reserved. How do you complement their different leadership styles in the best interests of Ocean Park?
Actually I am a highly adaptable person. (Laughs). It just happens that at different stages we have had the right leaders with different styles to cater to the development needs of Ocean Park. In 2003 when we needed to revamp the park we had Allan to push forward all the changes.
The timing was just perfect for him as he was so good at promoting the brand name of Ocean Park. He was indeed very creative and inspirational. I really did learn a lot from him. During those days he was really the right person for spearheading the expansion.
Now with the overhauls accomplished, we need to maintain our competitive edge with prudent cost controls to generate more revenue. Then we have Leo who is a good fit for this leader role since he is a banker, very good with figures. As I was originally a banker myself we get along very well.
Halloween Fest is a major success. How did the management come up with this idea?
I am proud to be a part of the management team that has been involved in the development of this signature event, which has become Asia’s largest Halloween celebration event and talk of the town every year. Actually there was a story behind it.
Ocean Park used to invest in large-scaled attractions only with one ride attraction every year. In 1999 we invested over HK$80 million to launch Abyss, and then we became cash-strapped. In 2001 we racked our brains to create something new for Christmas. I toyed with the idea of promoting Abyss, but our marketing director said it was not new any more.
As such, we proposed to invest in seasonal events with a much smaller amount that could be relaunched with new elements every year. As I longed to introduce Halloween to Ocean Park, like the one in California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, we decided to go ahead with it.
However, days before the launch the infamous 9/11 terrorist attack happened. We were afraid that the Halloween Fest would be a flop because this event was aimed at the expat community in Hong Kong who might be in a bad mood. To our surprise it turned out to be very popular with the local community.
Some quirky things ... Your first adventure
In December 1997, I represented the park for the first time in travelling to Chengdu and the Wolong nature reserve, along with some government officials, for a panda gift project. Chengdu was a rather quiet city at night then, unlike what it is now, while Wolong was already very cold. The road from Chengdu to Wolong was rather rugged and it took more than four hours. Wolong is surrounded by big mountains with raging rivers running through, and we travelled to one wildlife reserve. This journey proved to be eye-opening as it allowed me to get up close to so many pandas in the Wolong panda base. The close encounter with the pandas and nature has further enhanced my desire to do more for animal and nature conservation.
Since you came up with Halloween Fest, do you believe in ghosts and feel frightened? I don’t believe in ghosts any more, but I still feel frightened while walking through some of the more scary haunted attractions, because of the design and outstanding performance of our performers.
What should be the icon of Ocean Park?The cable cars because they are the memories of Hongkongers.
Who is your favourite cartoon character in Ocean Park?Whiskers (right) because he is majestic looking.
If you were granted a wish, what would it be? No more garbage in the ocean.
What sort of food do you enjoy most at Ocean Park? The park’s sustainable fish balls are a must-try. These fish balls, springy in texture, are Hong Kong’s first-ever fish balls made from sustainable fish, Pacific Ocean cod, and can be dipped into curry or hot chilli sauce.
Your favourite ride? The Mine Train is my favourite because it takes you on an exhilarating journey amid one of the world’s most unique settings upon a cliff with a spectacular view of the Aberdeen harbour and 85 metres of nothingness below. The ride hurtles you over one crazy peak to the next at breakneck speed, and catches you off guard with a series of twists, climbs and sudden dives.