Ardent Leisure AGM gives vague hints of reinvestment strategy for Dreamworld

Dreamworld's parent company Ardent Leisure emphasised regaining the public's trust through park improvements and new attractions in an annual general meeting that was light on specifics despite considerable scrutiny from shareholders.

Image: Parkz. Dreamworld owners seem committed yet vague about plans to revive the struggling theme p ark.

It's been tumultuous few months to cap off a disastrous year for Ardent Leisure who own and operate Dreamworld. In little over twelve months the company has had three CEOs, three Chairmen and a series of departures from the heads of the company's divisions that span a range of different leisure operations in Australia and the United States.

Newly appointed Chairman Dr Gary Weiss set a path forward for the struggling Gold Coast theme park that was light on detail, a far cry from his investment company Ariadne's assertive plans to invest $25 million in new attractions when he rallied for seats on the board of directors earlier this year.

In a recent discussion, Dreamworld's CEO Craig Davidson described to Parkz a theme park management team that has a strategy for the future, and suggested that getting the refreshed board of directors at Ardent Leisure on board was their next step. Mr Davidson's four years with Dreamworld makes him one of the company's longest standing senior executives, though he wasn't in attendance at this week's shareholder meeting for "personal reasons".

With his absense and the recent departures of the group's CEO as well as the CEOs of their Australian bowling division and USA Main Event operations, the meeting was a conspicuous display of Ardent's current dearth of executive leadership.

Dr Weiss summed up Dreamworld's future with a bland corporatese: "The board's focus here is to reinvest in the theme park business to reinvigorate customer attendance by offering new attractions to strengthen existing strategic partnerships and leverage opportunities for new partnerships and to continue to explore opportunities to develop the land at Dreamworld."

Befitting the meeting's bland, light-on-detail tone, safety was an message that Ardent seems focused on.

"Our goal is to rebuild trust and confidence and the safety of the park and become an industry leader in safety, maintenance and training standards," said Dr Weiss.

There was mention of a recent trip by boardmembers to "Disney" to study their safety culture.

Director Roger Davis, who is chairman of the group's Safety, Sustainability and Environment Committee, spoke of this Disney outing:

"We went to Disney to inspect some of their kinetic rides. We spent half a day going on rides, seeing the way they manage the risks involved on those rides, making sure that we understood the protections and cost of those protections."

Disney came up elsewhere in the meeting when Randy Garfield, former Disney executive introduced himself ahead of a successful vote to join Ardent's board of directors.

"I've been invovled in the travel and hospitality industry since 1971; 43 years of that fulltime including 20 years as president of Walt Disney Travel and Chief Sales Officer globally for all of Disney's businesses in the hospitality arena."

"I've worked extensively in the guest services side of the business, marketing and sales, and operations. I think the skills that I bring to the table align very well with Ardent's business."

"We had businesses in Shanghai, in Hong Kong, in Paris and Tokyo and to me I think that my skillset aligns well with not only the current business of Ardent but also its future ability to grow and add shareholder value."

Mr Garfield's appointment to the board of directors was met with a vote by investors of 99.69 per cent in favour, the strongest outcome of all six board members.

Geoff Richardson, Ardent's Chief financial officer and interim CEO, was tasked with summing up the company's tumultuous year and the steps they are taking to recover, particularly at Dreamworld.

Mr Richardson noted that Dreamworld recently passed their annual audit by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland without any improvement notices – a low bar if this is how we're now measuring the success of Dreamworld's recovery.

"Pitt & Sherry continue to work very closely with Dreamworld as we maintain our focus on operating the safest theme park in the world. This continuous improvement together with our well advanced refresh program with events, new attractions and rides will lift Dreamworld's performance over the next few years."

"Despite the challenging year, guest satisfaction and feedback at Dreamworld continue to be excellent and we look forward to a strong holiday period and hopefully a boost from the 2018 Commonwealth Games to be held on the Gold Coast."

"The theme park business is currently trading above break even and we expect a psoitive contribution over the remainder to the year."

Asked about whether Dreamworld had insurance in place in the event of such an accident, Dr Weiss gave scant details:

"In respect to Dreamworld there are levels of insurance cover in place but obviously it is a higly sensitive issue and I'm not at liberty to elaborate further."

The topic of surplus land continues to be a theme of Ardent Leisure's plans for the future of Dreamworld. Worlds away from former CEO Deborah Thomas's gentle description of a Disney or Universal style entertainment district, current discussions seem to be focused on any and all possible uses of the land.

"All I can tell you is that I'm very comforted that we have some very valuable land holdings surrounding Dreamworld. There's a lot of development activity as you're probably well aware going on in the vicinity and I think it all augurs very well for the future," said Dr Weiss.

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