Interview with Claus Frimand
Vagabond Theme Park General Manager (Ferrari World, Meraas, Disney)
Stefan Zwanzger: Claus, we've known each other for almost ten years. And every time I see you in a different country, you're like the classic operator guy who's like a vagabond moving on from place to place, opening theme parks all over the world. How does this life feel like?
Claus Frimand: Well, you know, it wasn't planned like that from the beginning, but it's kind of when you get into the opening of new projects, you have to move to where the projects are.
Stefan Zwanzger: I remember one day I met you in Vietnam. You were at Happy Land, Vietnam. That was one of these projects that never came to fruition, right?
Claus Frimand: Yup.
Stefan Zwanzger: But you were on the payroll for some time. You know, you were preparing the potential launch or the construction start, and then it just evaporated.
Claus Frimand: Yeah. As we were at the end, there were probably 50 expats, that was from different disciplines that all came together to set up the team there and then boom, the project stopped. And then I stayed on for more time. Used Saigon as the base and worked on projects in China, in Korea, in Thailand at that time.
Stefan Zwanzger: There was also Ferrari World Korea potentially, right?
Claus Frimand: Oh, yeah, no. I mean, I have a list this long of stuff that never materialized, this stuff, the stuff that is still alive. But, you know, projects can take ten years to mature before they find the land, the partners, the sponsorship, the money, get the creatives on board, get the license, IP signed on and so on. So, I mean, I think all of us has worked on more projects that never materializes than stuff that actually opens.
Stefan Zwanzger: You were the general manager of the very first Middle-Eastern major theme park that was Ferrari World and back in 2010, 2011, four or three years or something like that.
Claus Frimand: Yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: So like a pioneer and you trained people like Filipinos and Indians and people in the Middle East who've never seen and operated something like this before. What kind of experience was that?
Claus Frimand: You're absolutely right. As we came out, the very, very first visit to Yas Island at a time, the island was only sand. They were four wheel drives out. And that was how the whole thing started back in 2007. And then it took three years to build to the fit out and [do] the opening. We had some very specific days, because of the race weekend they had to open with the Formula One, Formula One Race. The great thing about Abu Dhabi at the time was, there [were] no proceedings of anything. There was no order. There was-- Wild Wadi existed at the time. You had-- Aquaventure had opened on the Palm. So you had 2 water parks. But there was nothing in the theme park business. So we literally started with a blank piece of paper. We set up the operating company, and we developed all our own HR procedures for how it was going to be done. Recruited very, very wide [rage of specialists]. From the beginning, we were 46 different nationalities. When we opened, we had about 900 staff at the time. So it was a great-- you know, everybody brought their ideas [on] how you [were] going to do this and how this [could] work. And [we were] trying to break them up in groups, as we were very specific with the induction training, it was all levels. I said-- you would have the directors having induction and the initial three-day course along with, you know, people that just came off the plane from distant countries at the time. So they all had to, you know, work it out like that. Many of them [were] first time away from home and staffed for that. And of course, at the time in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it was all, you know, [like] compounds where everybody was living together. So we had to develop all that as well: costuming, the Internet cafes and the bookstores and the little supermarket and all that. So, but on the training side, it was-- we spent probably more time on training than [on] a lot of other projects. And I think that made the difference that we had extremely good feedback on the customer service that we provided at the time when we opened.
Stefan Zwanzger: You just mentioned it had to open in time for the Formula One Race, right? I feel like-- I mean, I'm seeing this industry for the past ten years. I feel like every single theme park opens in a state of panic. Why is that?
Claus Frimand: No, but you know, most of the time you have a deadline that you're working to and for, you know, many, many, many different reasons that then this slips and that slips and something misses a container ship and doesn't arrive there in time. And so the delays, the opening, the installation of the rides and so forth. So it's a multitude of things. And then for Ferrari World specifically, as that was the date, and opening two weeks after the race when everybody's gone makes no sense. So that was why that became very, very urgent, that [opening]. Disney always picks a date and works toward that. And but it's not related to anything other than a date. And they normally meet those dates.
Stefan Zwanzger: How was your time at Disney?
Claus Frimand: It was great. It was my first, first experience. I came from IKEA. I had a retail background, so I really started in shop operations at the time. And then this needs a great-- has great tradition of moving people around. So over the six years I was there, then you, you move around, you know, parking, ticketing, guest relations, attractions, special events and so on. So you get a very, very good-- junior manager, being a junior manager at Disney Park is fantastic because it really opened your eyes to, you know, you get in the control room for the shows and, you know, you see, when they press the button for the fireworks and you're in the kitchens and see how they prepare the food and, you know, all of that. So it was fantastic years. Fantastic years. And it was really-- it was the first new property that opened up in Europe, as you had a lot of the old [ones] as a Tivoli and Efteling and Gatorland and so on. And so under that old European parks, a lot of them started out as family and still a lot of them family operated and so on. But we were really the first school for theme park management at the time. We were 18,000 staff in April ‘92, when we were up on the hotels and the theme park side. But that was as an overdose, six months, it was like D-Day. And you had new recruits arriving on the buses every day, being unloaded and, you know, walk this way, walk that way and rah, rah, rah, rah. And, you know, getting all the paperwork in place with the IDs and costuming and cafeterias and all that. So it's a big machine to open up these places.
Stefan Zwanzger: You're Scandinavian, right?
Claus Frimand: Yep.
Stefan Zwanzger: Danish?
Claus Frimand: Denmark. Yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: So Scandinavians are famous for having a very, let's say, employee empowering management style. I believe that is your management style.
Claus Frimand: Yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: Can you apply this to every corner in the world? Because when you live in all these different cultures, is it the same? Do you apply the same Claus management style to every single country you work in?
Claus Frimand: I apply Claus everywhere. That's the same. But, you know, it's-- [in] some places it's easier. But at the end of the day, it depends on whether you are fully in control or if you have to-- if you are advising, because some of it, [in] some of the projects we only advise, you know, and help them with the training and setting up strategy plans, marketing plans and all that kind of stuff. But for the management style it-- we always work with entry level: first job, 18, 19, 20-year-old kids. It's easier if it's one country where they speak the same language and so forth. So you have some language issues. You have some cultural issues where, you know, a lot of times, you know, the boss is the king and, you know, you can't say anything against or you can't even come up with ideas. So it takes time. The big advantage we had with Ferrari World was [that] we started with scratch. We came - specialists - from four corners of the world, had four directors that came from Dubai. So the experience-- and how do you do this? And we had very, very early on-- we put a lot of emphasis on the empowerment delegation of authority type thing: solve the guest issues as far down in the system as possible and had very, very good response with that. A lot of people say, you know, you cannot make Filipinos and Indians make decisions and then you have to be provocative and say "Says who?". You know, if nobody has ever tried... You know, all he can do is fail. And then we have to go back to a more stricter hierarchy and so on and so on. But it worked like a charm.
Stefan Zwanzger: You got very good feedback from the guests.
Claus Frimand: Yeah. We had an outside company that did-- the auditor was like "Hey, you're doing your own numbers". But, you know, there was the exit survey on all of that. And people actually said they've never at that time seen the response time so quick and how frontline staff was able to solve issues, because otherwise, it's always the "Oh, I have to talk to my team leader who has to talk to the assistant manager who has to talk to the manager, we have to talk to the director and so on and so on, before you get any solutions to any of these problems."
Stefan Zwanzger: So thank you so much for your time.