Max-Matching Entertainments is a leading developer, investor, and operator of IP-themed location-based entertainment in China. It is also currently seeing a rapid expansion across Asia. In partnership with international IPs, government stakeholders and real estate groups, it provides integrated solutions for IP-themed LBE projects. This includes theme parks, family entertainment centres (FEC), themed retail and F&B, and pop-up visitor experiences.
Max-Matching Entertainments has partnered with top IPs from international groups, including Hasbro, Mattel, WildBrain, Aardman, Crayola and many others.
Owen Zhao, who was named in the blooloop 50 Theme Park Influencers List 2023, is the president of Max-Matching Entertainments. He joins blooloop to talk about trends in LBE in the Chinese market. He also speaks about how the company works with IP partners to help them achieve their goals in this region.
An industry veteran
As a trailblazer in the industry, Zhao is well-placed to talk about the state of the sector right now and give insights into where it may be heading in the future. He has been dedicated to the development, investment and management of themed entertainment and location-based entertainment for nearly 30 years.
Zhao was elected as vice president of the Asia Pacific Division of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) in 2016. He went on to become president of the TEA APAC in 2019. This made him the first Chinese president in the TEA’s 30-year history.
“During my tenure, I have spearheaded the promotion and globalisation of the Asia-Pacific themed entertainment industry,” he says. “I have led Asia-Pacific themed entertainment companies to proactively participate in the global field, connecting them to the wider resources of the international themed entertainment industry, and strengthening TEA’s thought leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Zhao is a former senior management with Merlin Entertainments. Here, he succeeded in elevating the brand awareness and business of Madame Tussaud in China.
Introducing Max-Matching Entertainments and outlining what makes the company unique, Zhao explains:
“Max-Matching Entertainments specialises in two primary categories of IP-themed LBE projects: theme parks and FEC clusters.
“For theme parks, we can create a wide range of theme parks based on the nature of the project. They can feature a single IP, such as Shaun the Sheep Land or multiple IPs from renowned groups, for example, Hasbro theme park or Mattel Adventure Park.”
There is also exciting news on the horizon for the firm as it is preparing to unveil Asia’s first Peppa Pig theme park in Shanghai.
“We are also pioneering the concept of FEC clusters, with the vision to create ‘Mall of America 2.0.’ Like Mall of America, our complex will house a variety of IP-themed FECs and other LBE experiences. For instance, themed F&B and themed hotels. Yet, our innovation will bring new possibilities to the business model.”
This business model from Max-Matching Entertainments has great potential and is eagerly embraced by both visitors and property owners, he says.
“This year, we have introduced our FEC cluster in Zhongshan, Guangdong, and Top Park in Tongzhou, Beijing. Moreover, a dozen more projects in top-tier cities across China will soon be announced as well.”
Artist’s impression of Top Park
Explaining the appeal of this model, where there are several brands under one roof, he adds:
“While IP can provide substantial content for the attraction experience, different IPs can resonate with distinct audience groups, prolong their stay, and fulfil their diverse tourism needs. We can fully leverage this model to achieve a synergy effect. Multiple IPs also enable us to establish a boarder spectrum of projects, such as themed F&B, and themed hotels.
“Consequently, this approach not only broadens the array of choices for visitors but also leads to increased and varied revenue, driven by incremental consumption. This is also the reason why we choose FEC clusters as one of our major LBE categories.”
A boom in China
Moving on to talk about key trends in the region, Zhao says that the Chinese market is experiencing an unprecedented boom:
“China has made a swift recovery from the pandemic but it has altered visitors’ preferences. They are now more likely to opt for shorter trips, both in terms of distance and duration. This further injects dynamism into the domestic market. As a result, we have witnessed a dramatic upswing in the number of IP and LBE projects.”
The Chinese LBE industry is not only expanding in size but also evolving in a positive direction, he explains:
“Years ago, the development was rather haphazard. Many real estate groups acquired lands in the name of LBE. But without the proper understanding of IP or the ample capabilities for the projects.”
Top Park press conference
“However, the current landscape is notably different. With the support of the government, the market is displaying remarkable vitality. The major players are now state-owned enterprises, who started to understand the importance of professionalism and are more dedicated to high-quality projects.
“The challenges they are facing are that they lack IP content and professional operation capability. As a result, professional teams are securing a multitude of projects. Take Max-Matching Entertainments as an example. In the recent period, we have been discussing new projects with our partners around every two months.”
Despite the relatively later start of the Chinese LBE industry compared to the Western market, it is catching up at a very fast pace:
“We have strong confidence that China will soon ascend to the top market worldwide, offering a wide array of distinguished attractions to international visitors.”
The rise of IP
One massive trend in the LBE industry, not just in China but worldwide, is IP. In 2022, the LBE licensing industry witnessed a 67.3% uptick compared to the previous year. Brands from diverse domains, including movies, games, and museums, have proactively transitioned into IPs and embraced LBE licensing.
Such a trend can be attributed to consumers’ desire for a more connected experience, says Zhao:
“While retail has shifted online, consumers still value their physical experience. The pandemic was a catalyst as consumers value even more their out-of-home experience. Many brands have astutely seized the opportunity to enhance their brand awareness and deepen their engagement with consumers.”
Nonetheless, IP certainly does not equal a good attraction.
“Unprofessional moves, such as label-slapping, only lead to brand dilution. Rather, to build a successful IP-themed LBE, we need to understand our audience their increasing needs for interactive and immersive storytelling. A successful LBE attraction thus should seamlessly integrate the IP, offering a comprehensive immersive experience.
“This goes beyond transplanting the existing contents into the attraction, to fully leverage the charm of IPs in every part of the experience and further create new and unique experiences with our partners.”
Choosing the right IP
Not every IP is appropriate for a LBE project, he adds:
“Given the protracted construction and operational timespan of LBE projects, it requires sufficient sedimentation in temporality and spatiality for a good IP to boost the LBE attractions. Temporally, the IP is expected to accompany our audience’s lives and become part of their collective memory. Spatially, the ideal IP should have a wide presence across all channels, spanning both online content and offline retail.
“Therefore, in essence, IPs extend far beyond content brands. Many renowned brands, such as Crayola, are also well-suited for LBE attractions.”
Whether it is a Western IP or a Chinese IP, the key to success lies in the immersive experience, explains Zhao:
“When the IPs have sufficient sedimentations and the attractions transport visitors into the imaginative worlds of the brands, the projects can win tremendous popularity. The Chinese IP industry is still evolving. Some IPs do not have continuous content investment or lack consistent high quality. Therefore, they are not appropriate for the LBE attractions.
“Fortunately, we are glad to see that with the education and support from TEA, many Chinese companies are nurturing and refining their IPs. We eagerly anticipate the emergence of more high-quality Chinese IPs. We sincerely hope to collaborate with them in LBE projects in future.”
Max-Matching Entertainments’ professionalism and the Chinese market
China’s demographics also lend themselves well to the rapid expansion of the LBE sector:
“Without any doubt, the huge population basis and the optimisation of birth policies have given rise to an enormous market size. The rapid economic development of recent decades has further empowered citizens with greater purchasing power and an increasing need for high-quality tourism projects. In the post-pandemic era, there is a notable shift in visitor preferences in China. Now, people prefer to travel in families and opt for shorter trips.”
Nevertheless, this potential market necessitates a higher degree of professionalism to translate it into reality:
“China’s vast geographical expanse is marked by significant variations in every aspect, from climate to consumer behaviour, between provinces and cities. Furthermore, Chinese markets are also known for their fast evolution. The preferences and trends of consumers can shift very quickly. Many foreign businesses, despite their fame and success in their own market, struggle to adapt to the fast pace and often face failure.
“I believe professionalism has thus played a more significant role in China: not only should we have a solid understanding of IPs and LBE, but deep and timely insights into the market are also imperative. Only then can we truly harness the vast opportunities that lie before us.”
What makes Max-Matching unique?
Speaking about what sets Max-Matching Entertainments apart in this competitive market, Zhao says that the company possesses several strengths that enable it to outperform in China and across Asia:
“First and foremost, as discussed, IP plays a pivotal role in boosting LBE. At Max-Matching Entertainments, we have close collaboration with numerous international IP groups. For several brands, such as Crayola and Peppa Pig, we have secured the master license exclusive LBE partnerships in China.”
“Secondly, we can also provide integrated solutions for two competitive project categories – theme parks and FEC cluster – enabling us to cater to a wide range of tourism needs. This strong capability can be credited to our professional team. “
Max-Matching Entertainments is one of the most experienced teams in China. Most of the team members have over a decade of experience and have made significant contributions to the development of the industry.
“This diverse expertise enables us to support our stakeholders with integrated solutions. Our team can support every aspect of the LBE businesses, encompassing design, marketing, operations, and management. Some local Chinese companies lack a sufficient understanding of IP and LBE. But at Max-Matching, we can envision our projects holistically throughout their lifecycle.”
Competitiveness and resources
Furthermore, Max-Matching Entertainments’ knowledge of the LBE and its market insights empowers the team with boundless creativity:
“We are always dedicated to innovation rather than copy-paste. In our collaboration with IP groups, we are thrilled to explore the contents of the IPs together and transform novel inspiration into reality. For example, with our Top Park project, we are proud to announce the world premiere of the PEPPA PIG Ice World.
“I believe it is this professionalism that won us the trust of all partners. While the qualities of the local suppliers vary in terms of design and facilities, Max-Matching Entertainments can leverage global resources to foster innovation.”
“Additionally, we have robust sales channels. Our sales partners cannot only assist us in promoting our projects for the local markets but can also equip us with timely insights into the ever-evolving market.”
Last but not least, the company has a very solid financial foundation:
“Our professionalism has earned the trust of many foundations, with whom we established the Max-Matching Pooled Fund, dedicated to investing in our projects.
“All that being said, Max-Matching Entertainments stands as a unique entity in this market. I am beyond pride to lead such a great team and to spearhead the advancement of the Chinese LBE industry.”
Max-Matching Entertainments looks to the future
In terms of what’s next for the company, Zhao says:
“Max-Matching Entertainments will continue devoting ourselves to two IP-themed LBE categories, i.e., theme parks and FEC cluster. With our partners and solid resources, we are thrilled to innovate world-class attractions for visitors domestic and foreign, including Xi’an, Chongqing FEC cluster and many others to be announced.
“Furthermore, we enthusiastically welcome collaborations with additional IP groups, attraction designers, and facility suppliers, as we endeavour to introduce innovative IP-themed LBE projects and deliver unique experiences to China and the broader Asia-Pacific.”