Interview with Michael Mack
Managing Partner of Europa-Park & Founder of MackMedia
Stefan Zwanzger: Michael, you're the 8th generation of the Mack family in the business of attractions, is that correct?
Michael Mack: That's correct.
Stefan Zwanzger: The 8th generation.
Michael Mack: 8th generation, yes. We did start in 1780. Our company is back in Waldkirch in the Black Forest. So I'm the 8th generation of the family.
Stefan Zwanzger: What kind of rides did you produce in the 1780?
Michael Mack: Well our mother company, Mack Rides, is based in the Black Forest so obviously there's a lot of wood there. We started being the wood producers with the carriages, wagons-- all kinds of transportation, but the origin was back in Waldkirch. So we're a manufacturer of moving things. The fun part was in 1921, we did the first wooden roller coaster, so movement was always something of the history of Mack Rides.
Stefan Zwanzger: 1921, you did the first wooden roller coaster in the world or in Germany?
Michael Mack: We did it in Denmark actually, so let's say [we were first] in Europe but at that time the world was conceived when it came to roller coasters. To Europe, I mean. There has been a couple in America but we didn't deliver to America that time, just to Europe.
Stefan Zwanzger: And you're now the 8th generation. So, you had 7 generations of Macks pursuing the transportation business with no interruption.
Michael Mack: That's correct.
Stefan Zwanzger: How do you make sure that within 8 generations you don't have 1 generation that says like, "I don't wanna do this anymore," you know? It happens all the time in family businesses.
Michael Mack: Well I think it's the area we were based [in]. We're based in the Black Forest, where you step with both feet in the ground. You don't have a big city around, you could not drive [away] your attention to the brand. So you don't have to be a status symbol. You don't need a fast car or being in a posh club. So we're very down to earth in the area we live in. Living close to France, we still have the c'est la vie, the beauty of life, of good food. And you have a burden to carry on from the family history and that's what I was always taught by my predecessors, by my dad and my grandfather, you know? So like we're handing the torch over, you don't want to be the one who screws up the family history. You wake up every morning "Oh it could be me doing something stupid or silly,". So to make a decision whether be it in your roller coaster, whether be it in your attraction you always have to be 120% sure that what you do fits the mark and the needs and you have to convince the rest of the family that your ideas are as brilliant as you think they are.
Stefan Zwanzger: So, it all started with Mack Rides.
Michael Mack: It all started with Mack Rides.
Stefan Zwanzger: Mack, the owner and operator of Europa Park. That was much later.
Michael Mack: It was much later. It was 1993 when my father was the first one in the family history who studied Mechanical Engineering in C--. And it's a funny story because my grandfather was a craftsman. He never understood what [my father] was doing with the computer because he was always working with his hands. So he was asking him after 6 months of studying, "When are you finished?" And my dad said "Well, it takes much longer." It took 2 and a half years or 3 years back in the days. My grandfather never wanted him to be a study professor or anything that doesn't have anything to do with our company. So he asked him right after his studies to come back to the company. Even during studies my dad had to build up rides for the factory so [my grandfather] always wanted to make sure that my father always very connected to the Mack Rides company. When he finished his studies, he said "Okay, show me what you can [do], show me what you have learned in your Mechanical Engineering years. He said, "You're gonna go to Montreal and do wild mouse back in the days and build the wild mouth. He sent him on his own, just one Mechanic with him. My father had to prove that he was able to set up a wild mouth. There was [some] kind of proof or evidence to my grandfather that the studied son could be worthy of running a company.
Stefan Zwanzger: That's very interesting. That's the opposite of what you hear now, right? So your grandfather wanted your father not to be an academic but to prove that he's hands-on.
Michael Mack: That's right, yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: And he did.
Michael Mack: And he did.
Stefan Zwanzger: But how did he get to Operations then?
Michael Mack: It was a dream that they put up a ride in the US or Canada. They were traveling around because they wanted to see what that time Chance Morgan was doing, particularly for Disney, and they wanted to see around, look around what the American competitor was at that time. There was a couple, now there are few, but at that time there was a couple of manufacturers over there. And then there were several parks. And on a beer napkin, they did the first drawings of what the theme park could look like. Because they said "Let's do a showcase for our roller coasters so the people can come and ride our coasters."
Stefan Zwanzger: So that was the original idea?
Michael Mack: It was a showroom and we realized the first year when 250,000 people came that not every single one would have a roller coaster in their backyard. So we said "Okay this is not only customers who do come to Europa Park, it's really a known business."
Stefan Zwanzger: Mhm. So that's how it started, Europa Park.
Michael Mack: That's how it started. In 1973 and 1975, we opened Europa Park.
Stefan Zwanzger: And the year to create different sections for different countries with European history, that was born at the same time or was it just the castle and a few rides?
Michael Mack: I mean if you look at the history, and that's what I think is the DNA of the Mack family and the Mack brand if you wanna call it, it's always to have like the generation conflict in a positive way to evolve your own product. So you see, my grandfather actually was against having this showroom close to the factory and he was convinced actually by a showman because he said like we are the producers and we need somebody operating the park of the Fremont family actually who chimed in as a joint venture but, uhm... He died half a year before we opened Europa Park so we stepped in as an operator. Originally it wasn't planned because my grandfather didn't want to be an operator and was like, "We are a manufacturer, not an operator." So that's how we became an operator. My father being a 24-year-old Mechanical Engineer, coming from university said, "We have to evolve the brand. It can't be just a roller coaster." He needed to find the builder for Macklin, the train manufacturer. He was in Munich but he was 64 years old. He loved the idea of having a playground for children so he said, like I learned with Macklin and my pre-life, that I wanna go on this adventure. He actually owned up to a completely new era of theme parks development which was not really there in Germany so my dad brought it to a new level. My grandfather didn't like the European idea because that kind of doesn't work, because in those days Europe was not the Europe we have today. So it was a visionary idea that came from my father.
Stefan Zwanzger: Exactly, because Europa Park basically preceded the European Union. You could travel within European countries without visas at the time, without borders.
Michael Mack: Exactly, which was kind of a coincidence because the first land we're looking at was a little lake called Europa Lake. It was in Plaisa, at a little village south of Freiburg. We didn't have enough money to actually build a bridge, which was asked by local authorities to go to that area. It was a swarm land but we loved the idea of the Europa Lake. So we took the name from that and said like, Europa Lake, so let's call it Europa Park. The lake is not there anymore but the park still exists. It was visionary, but the thing I wanted to say is that in the generation conflict, the positive conflict my dad convinced my grandfather or his dad that it is the right idea. I think you have to be 120% to get the permission to do so and I think that's one of the DNA and the secrets of our family history.
Stefan Zwanzger: But then for a period of time it was more about Europa Park and about Mack Rides, right?
Michael Mack: I wouldn't say so. I mean if you look at the balance sheet, you could say so. If you're purely a businessman who just sees the numbers. I think it's about heart. I think that's what makes Europa Park and the Mack Rides so strong. It's about "Do you have the heart of loving what you do?" And I think a lot of parks do seek that operational factor. It's not a question of size which really matters. It's about the quality, the passion you're giving to your product. So Mack Rides was always perceived as the mother. My grandfather always said to me when I was a young kid: "It's not size that matters, it's quality that matters." It hurt our hearts when Mack Rides didn't have a great time, you know? Like a rollercoaster, you have the ups and downs but it was very crucial for me entering in 2005 the Mack Rides company. I'm still saying that I'm a ride manufacturer at heart even though I didn't study Mechanical Engineering. But it was kind of an honor to be in 2005 responsible for the company and really bringing it to a new life. I would never say it's the back side or the front side, which belonged together. And that's the most beautiful thing in life.
Stefan Zwanzger: Europa Park gets amazing reviews around the world. My question is why do you never actually expand into other countries and create an Asia Park or Africa Park, you know? Bring this concept to a different part of the world.
Michael Mack: Well, we do believe in quality and my father always said to me if you don't live in the area you're building the park, you can't achieve that quality. I know it sounds a bit weird. Nowadays, startup times really grow fast, I have to grow fast in the digital world. But we do believe that quality needs time. It might be old-fashioned, it might be right. We never know what the future brings but for the time being we're looking into a vast investment and a big expansion of Europa Park with a new water park coming in 2019. So we need to be focused, un-rused because we want to have the best quality available for our water park. So we can't have too many irons in the fire. My grandfather has a very special saying. He says you can't eat more than 1 schnitzel a day. In English, it would be a steak a day but schnitzel's a very traditional food in Baden. He says like literally don't eat too much, you'd be happy if you just have a good meal a day. He says you can't have more, then you get fat and lazy. That was the thinking of the family or dynasty - better do great quality, watch yourself, and don't go too fast.
Stefan Zwanzger: But there is a chance that one day there will be several schnitzels.
Michael Mack: When the family gets bigger. So you have to feed maybe, in the future, 18 or 20 Macks. There might be a need for more schnitzels. But let's see what the future brings. For my decade and generation, I think we have enough of it and were successful enough to feed our own families.
Stefan Zwanzger: And there's another company, Mack Media right? Which you just founded a couple of years ago?
Michael Mack: Yes, right. If you look now at what's the next phase for Europa Park and we've been talking earlier in the interview that my father was the mechanical engineer who actually brought the European theming to the Europa Park and made it into that fabulous brand, which my grandfather never really wanted but he convinced him. It was very hard to convince my grandfather with facts to build a European theme park. I think that's the decade and the generational conflict in a positive way which brings on the brand and makes the brand likely better or bigger. It's the same generational conflict I'm having with my dad and it takes a lot to convince him that the new way is the right way to develop the company. If we wouldn't have been the first Germany doing hotels, we wouldn't be where we are nowadays. We host over 550,000 people a day on-site with our hotels. So we always have 550,000 attendees in the parks through the hotels. The biggest hotel operator in Germany. If we wouldn't have done that, we wouldn't be as strong as a brand nowadays.
Stefan Zwanzger: You are the biggest hotel operator in Germany. The biggest single hotel operator in Germany on German soil.
Michael Mack: Yes. Not talking about the chains.
Stefan Zwanzger: But how many hotels do you have now?
Michael Mack: In total, 5 hotels with approximately 5,000 beds.
Stefan Zwanzger: Wow, that's amazing. So MackMedia is doing VR, right?
Michael Mack: I convinced my dad to really change a little bit of the brand without losing the soil of Europa Park, keeping the European theme. So we said, "How can we integrate IP in a very decent way without changing the brand face?" So what we did the first step with Mack Media was just a company who precedes the history of the past. We did a lot of documentaries about who's been important for the company, and moved on signing the first deal with the Luc Besson. The nice combination of movie, attraction rides, and park theming. We moved on being the first one doing the VR coaster so our old open express you can ride now with VR goggles. We were the first out there on the market where you can ride VR classes. I think the future mix of the park is about storytelling which is incorporated in Mack Media VR technologies, building up brands whether it be in the cinema, TV to go to the next phase of Europa Park and bring out our first cinema movie with Warner this summer: Happy Family from David Sophia.
Stefan Zwanzger: That's gonna be your IP?
Michael Mack: That's gonnabe our IP, yes.
Stefan Zwanzger: So people always refer to Europa Park as an example that you can get a great theme park done without an IP.
Michael Mack: That's totally right, and we still believe we don't want to change the face of Europa Park. We want to keep a European style of the park. But with media being involved in our coasters, we're much more free to show what we wanna show and change it faster and quicker without changing the face of the park.
Stefan Zwanzger: Michael, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it.
Michael Mack: Yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: Thank you.
Michael Mack: Have a good day. Thank you.