“We are knee-deep in generative AI”: Scott O’Neil, Merlin Entertainments

Headshot of Scott O’Neil, CEO of Merlin Entertainments

“We are knee-deep in generative AI”: Scott O’Neil, Merlin Entertainments

How the theme park giant is addressing the pressing need for digital transformation that augments its core business.

3 minute read

Scott O’Neil has been CEO of Merlin Entertainments for just over a year. In that time he’s visited 100 of the organisation’s resort theme parks and attractions which includes the London Eye as well as Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and LEGOLAND® Windsor.

O’Neil says visiting such attractions is something he feels lucky to count as work. But touring a business comprising physical assets such as hotels, theme parks and attractions across 24 countries also highlights a challenge Merlin faces.

“It's a phenomenal business with incredible assets,” he says of the organisation - Merlin’s 140-plus attractions were visited by 55 million people in 2022, creating revenue of nearly £2 billion. “But we've been in an era of analogue, and we have to step up in terms of platforms and technology.”

The need for digital transformation

O’Neil says “customer behaviour is constantly shifting beneath our feet” and greater use of data and technology will be critical to quickly creating new routes to value in an industry where building a theme park takes upwards of 10 years.

Earlier this year, Merlin appointed a Chief Digital and Data Officer, Sarah Venning, to accelerate the company’s digital transformation.

“We don’t need to be cutting edge across the entirety of our business tomorrow, but we do need to know where the cutting edge is today.”

“We have to be able to adapt and have the technology in place to be agile, but we’ve pretty much started at ground zero,” says O’Neil.

In juxtaposition, one area the organisation is already “knee-deep” in is generative AI (GenAI).

“We’re using it for productivity, efficiency and creativity,” says O’Neil, citing use cases ranging from analysing employee survey data, aggregating and analysing customer reviews and applying it to the creative process behind naming new rides.

“We’ve been using AI in several ways including AI robots to act as a virtual assistant for guests to book tickets, provide queue times, and order food and drinks,” says O’Neil. “And we are developing AI to entertain our guests through interactive, immersive shows featuring technologies such as robotics, drones, projection mapping and interactive characters.”

But O’Neil believes there is a lot more to come. “This technology is going to change the world,” he says.

Tech-powered change for a changing world

With many households struggling with the increased cost of living, O’Neil says the core audience of theme park visitors in 2023 was “fewer people spending more money”. But he adds that isn’t sustainable.

Tactics to engage more guests include IP partnerships. A recent example was Merlin’s partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which enabled the two companies to co-create the World of Jumanji at Chessington World of Adventures Resort, tapping into the fan base of the successful movie franchise. But change is also needed outside the core business of rides and attractions. As part of its digital transformation strategy, Merlin is looking to make smarter use of data to power innovations from dynamic pricing to virtual queuing to optimise the customer experience.

Putting people at the heart of change

With such a focus on digital transformation, is O’Neil concerned they may struggle to attract the tech talent needed?

“I like our chances,” he says. “We tend to get who we want because we’re a good, fun business and a very diverse organisation with a strong sense of purpose. We have a story, and we can sell it.”

But transforming at speed and scale will require a combination of recruitment and partnering.

“We will have exceptional programmers and engineers. We don't have any currently, but we will,” he says. “But because the company is so big we also need partners who have the baseline [skills and capabilities] we need.”

The scale and nature of Merlin’s workforce, with many employees serving customers on the ground at theme parks and attractions, also creates an engagement challenge. Many of those frontline employees expect clarity on issues such as digital transformation and ESG.

“We have 17,000 members of the Merlin family under the age of 24,” says O’Neil. “They expect the organisations they work for to state their values very clearly.”

“We spend quite a bit of time trying to identify what matters to this team and making sure they're reflected in our vision, our mission, our values and that we're reinforcing and celebrating things that are going really well.”

O’Neil says those values are stated clearly in regular townhalls, but concedes those reach around a third of the workforce. He also sees the value of an outside-in approach, using media interviews and social media as key channels for employee comms.

But he said the organisation has also looked for a tech solution and has been trialling an employee engagement app from Actimo, moving them away from an overreliance on email.

“Younger members of our company don't use email,” he says. “I have three daughters and if I send them an email I'm lucky to hear back in three weeks.”

However, while O’Neil is keen to use such channels to keep staff engaged, meeting teams at theme parks and attractions will always be a welcome part of the job.

“Merlin is a big company and beginning the transformation in 2024 will require me spending more time in our headquarters in London,” he says. “However, I will always put our people first and visit team members across our 140-plus attractions. That’s where the real magic happens.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Alliance Senior Partner, PwC UK & Middle East, PwC United Kingdom

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