Looping Group | plans for Drayton Manor and beyond
Blooloop examines how Looping Group’s three UK parks are working together, highlights a few plans for 2022 elsewhere in Europe, and reveals the company’s post-pandemic acquisition strategy.
Drayton Manor amusement park and zoo near Tamworth, Staffordshire, was founded in 1950 by George Bryan and his wife Vera. Their families previously specialised in the manufacture of slot machines and, in Vera’s case, ran a similar operation in Berkshire.
Initially operating as a boating lake with simple amusements and refreshment facilities, a zoo was added soon after. From the 1980s onwards, larger rides and attractions befitting of theme park status were introduced.
Under the reign of Colin Bryan OBE, George’s son, the park enjoyed a period of investment. This peaked with the opening of Thomas Land in 2008. The themed children’s area paved the way for intellectual property-driven experiences at other parks around the UK. It also accelerated Drayton Manor’s annual attendance to over 1 million for the first time in its history.
William’s son-in-law Richard Pawley and his children Edward and Helen also held management positions at various stages. The third generation of the Bryan family, William and George, took over the management of the park in 2013. It was acquired by Looping in August 2020, when George left the business, followed last November by William.
Drayton Manor’s new family
After its acquisition by Looping Group, Drayton gained sister park status to West Midland Safari Park [WMSP], about an hour away near Kidderminster, and Pleasurewood Hills down in East Anglia. Pleasurewood Hills was one of seven parks acquired from Compagnie des Alpes when CEO Laurent Bruloy founded Looping in 2011. West Midland Safari Park, formerly owned by Ivan Knezovich, was added in 2018.
“We don’t fight for the same customer,” says WMSP managing director Chris Kelly. “Birmingham [the UK’s second city] is such a huge catchment area. A lot of our people come from the west of the city, and as far down as Bristol and Cardiff. But I believe we can grow numbers by sharing some of the people. Some of the offers we are going to be doing this year will be good for guests that like a bargain and are willing to travel.”
Looping Group’s park portfolio
The three UK sites join a portfolio of 13 other amusement parks, water parks and animal attractions operated by Looping in seven European countries. These include local household names such as Bagatelle and Grand Aquarium de Saint-Malo in France, Avonturepark Hellendoorn in the Netherlands, Fort Fun in Germany, Isla Màgica in Spain and Portugal’s Parque Aquático de Amarante.
When it acquired its initial tranche of properties from Compagnie des Alpes (CdA), Looping had a combined annual attendance of approximately 2 million. With the parks it has added since, it has grown to entertain an audience around half the size of CdA’s leisure parks division. The company’s aim is to become the European leader in the regional theme park sector.
Adventure Cove, Drayton Manor. Image credit Owen Ralph
Once all 16 parks are performing again at normal levels, the total group attendance is expected to be around 5.5 million. That means most are receiving an annual attendance in the hundreds of thousands.
Hovering somewhere between 950,000 and 1 million prior to the pandemic, Drayton Manor is now the busiest park in the Looping Group portfolio. Bruloy believes it has the potential to return to the kind of levels (peaking at over 1.3 million) it achieved after the opening of Thomas Land in 2008.
The popular family area based on the Thomas & Friends franchise has been expanded several times. It now features 20 individual rides and attractions.
A new chapter for Drayton Manor
“We think this park has good potential,” says Bruloy. “We will build three new rides for this year and have a very big project for 2024.”
A clock tower by the park’s former main gate is all that remains of the mansion from which Drayton Manor takes its name. With a new entrance set to welcome guests near the Drayton Manor Hotel, and a new general manager arriving in April, now really is time for a new chapter in the history of the West Midlands family fun spot.
The rethemed River Rapids and Shockwave at Drayton Manor. Image credit Owen Ralph
Looping Group’s investment was already evident last summer with the unveiling of a new look area called Adventure Cove. A Zierer Wave Swinger, Tidal Towers play area and a fried chicken restaurant were all fresh additions. These joined existing attractions like Intamin’s Maelstrom swing and a Zamperla Air Race.
In addition, the signature Shockwave stand-up coaster and River Rapids (both by Intamin) and Stormforce 10 flume ride were given full re-themes in keeping with the atmosphere of Adventure Cove, which evokes the spirit of the seaside. With 14 new rafts from Intamin, a new control system and added water, sound and scent effects, the Rapids look and feel like a new ride.
What’s new for 2022?
In total, Looping Group will invest around €30 million across its European park portfolio for 2022. Drayton Manor will be a big beneficiary as another family-friendly area is added just inside the park’s new entrance. The Viking-themed land will feature three new rides from Zamperla, plus a retheming of the existing Buffalo Mountain Coaster.”
Along with Bagatelle, Avonturenpark Hellendoorn is one of the oldest parks in the Looping stable. It will begin the season in April with a new spinning coaster from Reverchon called RidderStrijd.
Fort Fun celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. The park will mark the occasion with a new magic show and new events. For example, Mexican Summer, Family Fun Foam Party and Fort Fear at Halloween.
An Elephant Lodge at West Midland Safari Park.
Looping will also roll out more accommodation to some of its animal parks this year. It will offer the ultimate sleepover to guests at Zoo de la Fléche and Planète Sauvage in France, as well as West Midland Safari Park. The safari lodge concept was first introduced at La Fléche in 2017. This year, it is going one stage further by adding guest houses for family or friends to share together. Residents can expect close-up encounters with animals from their windows or balconies.
Animals and accommodation
At West Midland Safari Park there will soon be eight new lodges – four each with rhinos and giraffes – and four new cottages. This adds to the 10 lodges introduced last year, after Looping abandoned the previous owner’s plans to build a waterpark.
Kelly was previously the short breaks director for the Aspinall Foundation, the operator of Port Lympne and Howletts Animal Park. This means he is well placed to develop this side of the business.
”As soon as we put the lodges on sale last year, we sold out for two years. I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved. Delivering beautiful accommodation to guests, but also upgrading stimulating and enriching environments for the wonderful animals we have in our care.”
It’s understood there may also be some lodge type accommodation on the cards for Drayton down the line. Whether that will be with or without animals remains to be seen. Certainly, Looping Group is planning fresh investments for the zoo to make its animal habitats more inviting.
A place to unwind
There has been a zoo at Drayton Manor since the 1950s. However, it tends to play second fiddle to the park’s other attractions. Nevertheless, it provides a bit of breathing space for families to unwind away from the rides.
Roller coaster fun with an animal twist at West Midland Safari Park
At WMSP, the opposite is true. Here, there are rides and attractions in the Adventure Theme Park at the end of the safari park drive-through. Several feature African or animal-related themes.
The only animals at Pleasurewood Hills are a few sea lions and parrots.
“I’ll send some camels over!” jokes Kelly.
Post pandemic prospects for Looping Group
Last September, representatives from all 16 Looping Group sites across Europe gathered at Drayton Manor for a meeting of the group’s park managers. Some breathed a sigh of relief. Both at being able to travel overseas again, but also for enjoying a fuller season than in 2020.
“The beginning of the [coronavirus] crisis was difficult because there was no aid from government,” says Bruloy. “In 2021, it was easier because we had the support in most countries except Spain. With this aid, we met our budget, and finished the year more secure than in 2020.”
Adventure Cove, Drayton Manor. Image credit Owen Ralph
The Drayton Manor acquisition followed the arrival of Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Capital as a new shareholder in 2019. This replaced Ergon Capital and BPI France. The deal gave Bruloy and Looping General Manager Stéphane Da Cunha joint control of the company alongside Mubadala. Now that the pandemic is subsiding, Bruloy, is ready to go shopping again.
“We like this country, and will try to continue to develop the group in the UK,” he says. However, any new acquisitions look likely to be elsewhere in Europe. “I would like to rebalance our portfolio with more parks in the south of Europe. I would like to find maybe four waterparks in the coming years.”
Would he consider adding any more animal parks? “In terms of strategy it is not a priority, but if there is was an opportunity we would look.”
Pleasurewood Hills: no longer the ‘only child’
Pleasurewood Hills Managing Director Ricky Lark
Founded in 1983 by local entrepreneur Joe Larter, Pleasurewood Hills is now in its 11th season under Looping Group’s ownership. For many years it felt alone. Not only because it was the only British park in the group, but also because of its relatively remote location near Lowestoft on the East Coast of England.
It’s true that WMSP and Drayton Manor, about an hour apart from each other, are more centrally located. However, Pleasurewood Hills general manager Ricky Lark says:
“Since Looping took on West Midland and Drayton, the feeling now is that we are very much part of a UK family. We have worked quite closely together on some things and will continue doing so.”
Lark previously worked for Merlin Entertainments at nearby Sea Life Great Yarmouth and also as a ride operator at Alton Towers. “Our guests are predominantly domestic holidaymakers,” he says. “We benefited a lot last year from staycations as people visited our region because it is so beautiful.”
The family-focused offering at Pleasurewood Hills includes several attractions. The includes the Wipeout (Boomerang), Marble Madness (Wild Mouse), Cannonball Express and Egg-Spress coasters, and the Jolly Roger drop tower. There are also popular staples like a log flume, wave swinger, pirate ship, carousel, bumper cars and more.
Management opportunities within Looping Group
Now that Drayton Manor, Pleasurewood Hills and WMSP have fallen from family ownership and into corporate hands, it’s certainly the end of an era. However, Kelly reflects on the opportunities available within the wider group now that they are under the same umbrella.
“I think one of the things that will probably come about is more movement of people across parks. The opportunities for promotion are there because Looping has this large pool of middle management.”
Images kind courtesy of Looping unless otherwise stated