Sim Leisure Group taps founder's childhood memories for theme park

Sim Leisure Group's Escape Adventureplay is an outdoor adventure theme park in Penang comprising eco-friendly features and design elements reminiscent of traditional villages in Malaysia. The listed theme park developer and operator's founder and chi
Sim Leisure Group's Escape Adventureplay is an outdoor adventure theme park in Penang comprising eco-friendly features and design elements reminiscent of traditional villages in Malaysia. The listed theme park developer and operator's founder and chief executive Sim Choo Kheng also sees big opportunities for indoor theme parks in malls. PHOTOS: SIM LEISURE GROUP, BUSINESS TIMES FILE
Sim Leisure Group's Escape Adventureplay is an outdoor adventure theme park in Penang comprising eco-friendly features and design elements reminiscent of traditional villages in Malaysia. The listed theme park developer and operator's founder and chi
Sim Leisure Group's Escape Adventureplay is an outdoor adventure theme park in Penang comprising eco-friendly features and design elements reminiscent of traditional villages in Malaysia. The listed theme park developer and operator's founder and chief executive Sim Choo Kheng (above) also sees big opportunities for indoor theme parks in malls.

Frustration usually breeds opportunities for entrepreneur Sim Choo Kheng.

Nearly three decades ago, feeling like a square peg in a round hole and grappling with workplace politics, Mr Sim realised that he had to be his own boss, whatever the cost.

"Being creative, stubborn and fiercely individualistic, and wanting to do things my way without compromise - it was basically a recipe for career disaster," recalled the founder and chief executive of listed theme park developer and operator Sim Leisure Group.

Mr Sim, 54, raised RM14,000 by selling his car and employed his expertise in the leisure industry to offer management consulting services to theme park operators.

"That (was) the best decision I ever made. Sometimes, to succeed, you need to create a situation where there is no option to turn back, only move forward," he added.

Nonetheless, it proved a tumultuous ride: "I failed miserably in the first few years and was forced to look for other jobs to supplement my income. But 27 years later, I have learnt how to emerge a winner."

Over the years, he has propagated the Sim Leisure brand through his involvement in more than 100 key projects worldwide, including Lost Paradise of Dilmun in Bahrain, Legoland in Denmark and Malaysia, and Universal Studios in Singapore.

Sim Leisure, which listed on the Catalist board in March last year, showcases its own Escape theme park brand in Penang that was built over seven years across 29 acres (12ha).

The park welcomed about 200,000 visitors last year, up from 185,000 in 2018 and 112,000 in 2017. It has also been consistently ranked the No. 1 theme park in Malaysia by Tripadvisor.

"When you talk about theme parks, it conjures up images of roller coasters and conventional movie-based entertainment," Mr Sim said.

However, an environmentally friendly Sim Leisure park offers no movie spin-offs or mechanical rides. Instead, there are climbing zones, obstacle courses, zip lines and waterslides.

"It's based on happy memories of my childhood, when I was growing up in the kampung, climbing trees and swimming in the river," Mr Sim said.

"Our generation has gone for broke in the way we live - many kids, as well as adults, are deprived of real play time. We need to engage in healthy outdoor activity and return to the basics."

The Escape concept is focused on optimising enjoyment through low-tech, creative, play-centric attractions, which translate into lower investment outlays and operating overheads.

"Fun doesn't demand an astronomical price tag," Mr Sim noted. "The entire Escape theme park in Penang required capital expenditure of approximately $20 million - a fraction of the cost of a conventional theme park."

Sim Leisure reported a 5 per cent rise in revenue to a record RM21.9 million (S$7.1 million) for the 12 months to Dec 31 last year. Excluding one-off listing-related and other expenses, core net profit - generated purely from its theme park operations - declined 3 per cent to RM5.5 million.

The firm plans to unveil Escape Challenge, an indoor sports centre in Petaling Jaya's Paradigm Mall, possibly later this year at a development cost of $1 million.

"There are huge opportunities for indoor theme parks in malls - many retail landlords are struggling with stagnating sales, and are seeking fresh attractions to pull in the crowds," Mr Sim said.

He is also eyeing South-east Asia, China and South Asia.

"Although Penang is a small island with a population of 1.8 million, we are profitable. How will this concept perform if we export it to larger markets like Guangzhou, Singapore or Jakarta?" he asked.

"With an entry price of $40 per head, we're selling a product that the masses can well afford."

In February, the company signed an agreement with Sri Lanka-listed Elpitiya Plantations to develop and operate theme parks in the nation under the Escape brand.

"I see tremendous opportunity in Sri Lanka," Mr Sim said.

"China is another target market - it has a large middle-class population with high disposable incomes. The potential is immense."

Right now, its biggest challenge is Covid-19. "It's a problem that's not unique to us. Life will not be easy in the near term."

Mr Sim added that the group is using the downtime to spruce up its outdoor theme park.

"Our maintenance teams have been very busy with upgrades - we've not had the opportunity to carry out this kind of improvement works over the last seven years."

He is confident demand will bounce back once lockdowns ease. "Escape is more of a sports and recreational concept than a tourism product - we rely more on the domestic market as 80 per cent of our visitors are locals."

The crunch from the pandemic could also be a blessing in disguise. "It means less competition as parks that are not properly managed will have to shut down."

It would also offer a reality check for investors and operators.

"After a crisis, investors tend to be more cognisant of the value of money," Mr Sim noted. "When money becomes a problem, people turn frugal - they get real."

Still, it remains an uphill battle convincing bankers and potential investors that the Escape concept is viable.

"Most people have a conventional mindset, constantly comparing us with movie-based theme parks. We've been misunderstood for too long," Mr Sim noted.

But the upside is that the firm retains its first-mover advantage.

"We're way ahead of our peers. A competitor building a multibillion-dollar theme park is not a threat to us - we belong to a different genre altogether," he said.

In the meantime, Mr Sim continues to dream big. "My life has a destiny, which is to build Escape into the most successful theme park brand in the world."

He hopes his three sons, aged 13, 23 and 26, will pick up the torch eventually. The older two are involved in marketing and park operations, while wife Silviya Georgieva Georgieva is an executive director.

Mr Sim's mantra to his children is: Always question, and look beyond the surface.

"Young people can be very passive and unquestioning - I don't want my kids growing up with that kind of attitude," he said.

"The world is full of conformists and conventional thinkers. But if you develop an inquiring mind and analytical skills, you'll be able to stand out - and shine."

• This is an excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed firms. Previous editions are on SGX's website.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2020, with the headline Sim Leisure Group taps founder's childhood memories for theme park. Subscribe