Merlin Entertainments: Scream if you want to go faster
There is an old joke about Madame Tussauds where the curator advises visitors to keep moving through the world-leading waxworks attraction because the staff are busy stocktaking. Although apocryphal, there is a grain of truth in the retelling.
As with all Merlin Entertainments venues, a profit protection team that has to carry out regular and often daily stocktakes purely because there are dishonest people who may—and do—try to steal anything from waxworks models to the exotic creatures located in the company’s theme parks around the world. Such antics make the world of Group Profit Protection Manager Lyn Blethyn interesting as she surveys her estate of world-leading entertainment brands—Merlin Resort Theme Parks, Midway Attractions, and Legoland.
The Resort Theme Parks include Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, Gardaland Resorts (Italy), Heide Park Resorts (Germany), Thorpe Park, and Warwick Castle (UK). Midway Attractions include the historic Madame Tussauds, the iconic Eye Brand (including the London Eye) that provides above-ground, 360-degree views of major cities, and Sea Life, which is the world’s largest aquarium attraction with fifty aquariums around the globe providing unparalleled views of 150,000 different species that live below the ocean’s surface.
Legoland is a self-contained, self-explanatory brand offering seven global destination locations for lovers of all things Lego, including one in Billund, which is opposite the main manufacturing facility and, with models created out of more than 65 million bricks, represents the country’s biggest tourist attraction outside of Copenhagen.
Blethyn’s world covers loss prevention across a vast and very public estate where brand protection is also a key factor in driving visitor numbers. Blethyn works closely with Eric Dench, head of security and counter-terrorist expert, and David J. Smith, the business lead on internal audit, to form a holy trinity of protection around the Merlin brand and its 124 worldwide locations. Such high-profile theme parks and resorts are always on high alert for potential terrorist attacks because they serve as honeypots for millions of visitors every year. Profit protection operates separately from the other functions purely because of the specific and different challenges attached to security and internal audit. It is not as though Blethyn would not have enough to do without also having these two other functions reporting into her, as other typical brands on the high street might.
“It’s been an incredible journey for me here—no two days are the same,” said Blethyn, who was the first and only line of LP defence when she joined Tussauds from Sainsbury’s as a consultant in 2003. “It was only supposed to be a six-month role, but here I am fifteen years later still doing a job that I love.
“We’ve had school groups trying to pick up penguins and take them home and a man who successfully kidnapped a squirrel monkey called SpongeBob SquarePants. He realised when he got it home that he was out of his depth and could not look after it when it bit him on the hand. We later received a call from him claiming that he had discovered it at the bottom of his garden. But we had found his glove, and when he came back with SpongeBob, we noticed that he had a newly attached plaster on his hand. Although a funny story on the face of it, it was very serious for the animal who was traumatised by the affair, had to be isolated, and receive a lot of veterinary care. Needless to say, we prosecuted the man and pursued him for civil recovery of the costs.”
Determined and organised thieves have even broken into Merlin attractions and drained pools to steal sea lions because of the high value attached to the creatures, many of which never surface again because of a thriving black market in private zoos and collections.
“We are always on vigil because of the world that we are in. These people are brazen. Last year poachers broke into a Paris zoo and killed a rare four-year-old white rhino to steal the horns. Our security has to be the best in the world,” Blethyn continued.
At Legoland, the models form another kind of attraction to Merlin’s less welcome visitors. “We have had attempts made to steal the models, some of which are valued in the thousands of pounds. At Tussauds, we have people trying to steal the waxworks, which can be valued at up to £100,000 each, which is why the heads and the bodies never travel together.”
Merlin has 124 attractions in twenty-five countries across four continents and has a corporate mission to “deliver unique, memorable, and rewarding experiences to millions of visitors across our growing estate. We believe that we achieve this objective largely thanks to the commitment and passion of our team and the strength of our brands, which will never fail to be distinctive, challenging, and innovative. Our passion is putting smiles (or screams) on people’s faces and giving our customers memorable experiences.”
It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride for Lyn Blethyn in the last fifteen years, fourteen of which have been with Merlin after it merged with Tussauds. “I loved working at Sainsbury’s, but this job is nothing short of incredible. We are not dealing with tins of beans but everything from wildlife to theme park rides to hotels and all of the moving parts that are involved in this kind of hospitality business. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve flipped burgers, I’ve sold key rings in the gift shops, I’ve changed beds in the hotels, and I’ve worked in the front line at the zoo—and all just so I knew and understood every aspect of this business.”
Blethyn has worked all over the world attending the openings of new theme parks, and a typical day will see her involved in a conference call with her profit protection colleagues in Australia at 07:00 UK time and another with the West Coast of the US in the early evening so as to work in sync with her team’s time requirements and those of the attractions in which they work.
“I’m a global clock watcher in that respect,” said Blethyn who has increased the size of the team to twenty-one profit protection field managers in the last fifteen years as the Merlin empire went truly international.
“I have a visit schedule that takes me to Australia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia part of the year, and then on another trip, I visit the US—New York, California and Florida. I spend a week in each location to meet as many people as I can.
“Much of my time is at the closer attractions. I travel a lot to Europe as well, scheduling time in Italy, Germany, and at Legoland, Billund, which is just over the road from where the Lego factory is located.
“Profit protection is really a face-to-face business, and you can’t do it all over the phone, which is why Skype has also made such a huge difference to us,” said Lyn who attended the opening of a new resort in Japan in 2017 and will attend Merlin hotel launches in Dubai and California during the next twelve months.
“Our next Legoland opening is scheduled for Goshen, New York, in 2020, which is to be my last before I retire. It will be a very emotional occasion for me,” she said.
The face-to-face nature of the business is one of the reasons that Blethyn invests in certain types of technology and solutions to help her do her job. Being in a people business, Blethyn needs to understand the human behaviours behind dishonest motivations—whether they are members of the public or staff employed by Merlin who may have issues in their lives that lead them into making bad decisions and betraying company trust.
To this end, she has put all her investigation teams through Wicklander-Zulawski non-confrontational interview techniques training. She has also engaged the services of IntelliQ data mining to understand the numerous and creative point-of-sale scams that may happen at cash kiosks across the estate.
“We did a trial with IntelliQ, and this quickly brought to our attention the antics of a member of our staff who became known as ‘the sprinkles lady,’” Blethyn said. “On paper she was doing an excellent job, never went off sick, and had even won cashier of the year. It was only when we did the analysis that we realised that for every ice cream she was selling at full price, it was only the price of the sprinkles that she was putting through the till. Because guests to our parks rarely check their receipts, she was pocketing the difference. On a good day she was making around £250 pure profit.
“It was only through the analysis that we understood what she did and why she never went off sick. She knew exactly what amount she could remove from the till every day without arousing suspicion and, if we had not caught her, could still have been creaming off the business.
“Another team of twelve at Chessington was charging for fish and chips and voiding the payment so that it only showed the price of the mushy peas. Once again, the system immediately spotted the scam not just as a fraud but also as a vulnerable process. Such was the sale of the scam that we had to close the unit as we had to get rid of the whole team, which obviously had a short-term revenue challenge for us.”
The common denominator in many of these scams is the high use of cash, so under Blethyn’s stewardship, Merlin is currently trialling cashless alternatives following a successful pilot last year at Halloween, one of the group’s busiest periods.
“This year we are trialling the cashless initiative at a number of our parks and resorts because of the benefits that we recognised in terms of reduced physical risk to staff handling cash and the number of employee thefts. Early indications have shown that it has also significantly reduced our operational costs whilst adding value to guests through shorter queues. In fact, we have seen a revenue increase because people like the speed of the operation. As far as rolling this out, we will continue the trial to the end of the year and then report back to the board, but it looks extremely positive, so watch this space.
“You have to be constantly looking at new ways of doing things to increase value to the guests and the business. It’s like a rollercoaster—it has got to keep moving to provide the thrill of the ride.”
Such use of technology is testament to Blethyn’s tenacity to put the brakes on the double-digit shrink that was blighting the business when she joined in 2003.
“The shrink when I joined the business was between 10 and 13 per cent—it was horrendous. When I joined Tussauds before the merger with Merlin, there were five or six different stock and sales systems across the business, and there was no regular stocktaking function. The result of this was that we had no global picture of stock or accuracy.
“I learned early on that we had to do it differently and very quickly. I needed to get everyone on board with a strategy that works, whereas previously people were not getting on board the profit protection train because, for whatever reason, it was not stopping at their station.
“Now, across the global estate, shrink is circa 1 per cent, but I am lucky in that profit protection is supported from the very top of the organisation across the world. This year we invited all our profit protection partners from all over the world to a conference at Chessington. The CEO, the CFO, and three other board directors attended and addressed the delegates—there are few businesses that can say they have that level of buy-in from the executive team.”
The reduction in the shrink figure is also linked to the knowledge that because of different cultural and legal frameworks, a company cannot adopt blanket technological approaches across the world.
“In Europe there are different approaches,” Blethyn said. “For example, in Italy there are regulations around the use of CCTV, and in Germany you have the Works Councils, so you have to try alternative approaches.
“In Italy, we have CCTV in the cash offices and have successfully communicated that the cameras are there for their own protection to prove that they have done nothing wrong, rather than there being any room for suspicion. In Japan as well, there is a strict honour code that impacts upon the way that you engage with colleagues. You can never be directly critical, but they are eager and happy to learn from their mistakes so that they never happen again. By making these simple adjustments in approach, you are more likely to secure the human engagement that you need to run your business as all of the territories and people will be happy to come forward more often.
“We instill the profit protection message early as part of the induction, but trying to train new people on a new park or resort in a different country about profit protection can be challenging because simply raising the issue can be interpreted as trying to catch them out, which is not the way you want it to come across when you are trying to build trust.
“This is why trust and respect of different cultures form an integral part of how we do things at Merlin. As we are opening new resorts and theme parks, it is all about getting everyone involved from the senior management team to the cashiers—they have to understand what we are trying to achieve, so it has to be translated appropriately. Communication is everything because language cannot be a barrier. From a senior management perspective it is about learning all about the culture you are going into long before you open for business.”
Every day is far from a walk in the park for Blethyn and her team, but when she is feeling stressed, that is exactly what she prefers to do.
“If I’m at the office, which is one mile from Chessington, I take myself off and talk to the animals in the zoo,” she said. “I always talk to the monkeys and cockatoos—it makes me feel a lot better to chat to them, and I can honestly say there are no other workplaces where you are actively encouraged to tickle the rhinos.”
For someone who describes herself as a person who does not enjoy the adrenalin rush of theme park rides, Lyn Blethyn has certainly enjoyed the journey so far.
“I don’t like rollercoasters really—I’m the sort of person who would happily hold someone’s bag while they went on. But as I said earlier, I absolutely loved my time at Sainsbury’s. I would love to have that time again and give it over to Merlin because it is such a special and incredible place to work, especially if you have a sense of humour and a can-do attitude.”
Apart from the waxworks of Madame Tussauds, Merlin Entertainments is defined by the number of moving parts on show at any given time. All of them have to work in a specific way to help the company reduce its global risk and exposure whilst at the same time give voice to its dual ambitions to both scream louder and go faster.