KidZania is mindful of cultural nuances, says Xavier López Ancona
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New Delhi: Xavier López Ancona believes children around the world behave and play largely the same way. And he knows why. The founder and president of KidZania, the global brand of indoor theme parks or mini-cities which allow children to role play and have their own unique language, money and rules, spent his last year visiting the competition—220 theme parks across the world, to be precise, to see what they were doing. In an interview, he talks about partnering with the private and public sectors, why they are trying to inculcate entrepreneurship in children, and the company’s role in bringing about social change.
How important is this market for KidZania? What’s fuelling the growth?
KidZania has been operating for 17 years, and today we are in 19 different countries, with 24 operating facilities. There are only three or four countries which have more than one facility. Mexico, because that is where we started, has three facilities and one under development. The only ones that have two are Japan, Korea and now India (Mumbai and Delhi). This market is very important for us today and going forward it will be even more significant. There are three markets in the world which are important not just for KidZania but for most companies, which are India, China and the US, especially in entertainment. You have a young country, close to 30% of your 1.3 billion-strong population is our target audience. Also, rising disposable incomes and the increasing propensity to spend, make it an important market for us. Globally, we are in most markets we want to be in. China we still don’t have a local partner and are in the process of selecting one. In the US, we have found a local partner and have determined three markets that we want to be in—Dallas, Chicago and New York.
You have also taken initiatives with the public sector.
The public sector, on most parts doesn’t talk about what they do, their mission. In Mexico, for instance, we have 100 activities, all of them have a partner, 18 of which are government related. At our facility in Cuicuilco, we have programmes to promote good citizenship, which include road safety, awareness of civic institutions, environmental sustainability, and tolerance of difference among individuals and groups. For instance, the government supplies energy, so we teach them where it comes from and how to conserve it. Teach them about taxes, not about paying taxes, nobody likes to pay taxes (laughs), but what it is used for. So we pay them in kidZos (currency at KidZania) deduct tax from their salary, and if they want a rebate, you decide whether you want to spend it on education, health, building infrastructure, etc. So teach them in a fun, interactive and engaging way about why the government asks for taxes. In Mexico, security issues are a serious concern. The government of Mexico City, along with businessmen, hired Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York, as a consultant to help in crime reduction. One of the recommendations he made was to educate citizens, and he suggested we start with children because it’s easier to facilitate change in mindset when they are younger. So KidZania has actively worked to incorporate those recommendations into the programme. We’re also teaching kids about natural disasters, through some simulated activities. In Delhi, for instance, we teach them what to do in case of an earthquake.
There’s criticism that in KidZania, there isn’t much room for independence for children. A supervisor takes them through a set, guided process.
There is a lot of independence, where they make their own decisions. We don’t allow helicopter parenting, they aren’t allowed inside the activities. Here they earn their own money and figure how to spend their own money. Having said that, we have just introduced a (pilot) programme to encourage entrepreneurship. In KidZania, we’ve been very good at teaching kids about becoming professionals, a banker, a fireman, but we never did a good job at inspiring kids to be entrepreneurs and pursue their own ideas. That’s because most of our activities are 20-30 minutes long, which isn’t enough to teach kids about taking an idea, making a business plan, doing market research, right down to the profit and loss statement. So we created a summer programme, where they can spend a week or two learning to do this. The way it’s structured, each day it gives them a few hours to learn about entrepreneurship—about the product, go out talk to clients, do market research, product manufacturing, branding and marketing, which includes registering their brand to protect against piracy, campaigns and slogans, packaging, sales to other kids who visit KidZania and then look at their profit and loss statement, and we audit them. This ends with us felicitating the kids with the best plan. The programme also has time set aside for food and beverage, and some time to play each day as well.
Do kids across the world play or behave differently?
Kids across the world are very similar and tend to behave in the same way. Certain activities such as becoming a fireman, a pilot, or where you manufacture something from scratch, such as a chocolate which you can then take home, are popular across the world. There are some cultural differences, which come through in the behaviour. For instance, if you go to the KidZanias in Japan, it’s very full, they have twice as many customers as Mexico, and yet it seems empty as the kids are not running, shouting or bustling. It’s very orderly. In Japan, we had this issue where children were only queuing up for activities where they would earn something, they just wouldn’t spend their kidZos. In Mexico, kids spend the kidZos right away. Now that we’re going to the US, I won’t be surprised if the kids ask for credit! Culturally also, in the Gulf states, children tend to come accompanied by nannies or drivers. Japan and Korea have the highest percentage of adults, who accompany children. While in Portugal, we have more children than adults. We are mindful of cultural nuances, but are doing our bit to bring change where we can. In Saudi Arabia, the rules don’t allow women to drive. But, in KidZania Jeddah, girls will be permitted to drive cars, a privilege so far denied to their mothers. Moreover, rules don’t allow men and women to work together in close proximity, so there are few opportunities for women to work there. And we were very happy when KidZania selected to be a facility with 100% women employees. For most women, this is their first job! Also, you are not allowed to have music or dancing in public spaces, and we have got permission to include those at KidZania, though the dance is expected to look like a gymnastic routine. So it’s one small step at a time, but it is change.
You have a KidZania passport, which gets stamped each time a child does an activity. That’s a lot of data coming your way. How do you use it?
First of all, all this data is only used internally. Used to improve our services and operations. Beyond the passports we also have bracelets, which were strapped on to kids as a security measure initially. We started putting identification chips in these bracelets, and now we know if the user is a boy or girl, came with their family or on a school trip. This information tells us how well our establishment is doing, what activities are popular, in what age group, how much time are they spending in there. So we get all this information, and with that, the next time we design a facility we incorporate the learnings. For instance, with this information we found that children were looking for shorter activities. The attention span is getting shorter and shorter. When we started KidZania 17 years ago, our average activity was 40 minutes, today that average is 27 minutes and shrinking.
How do you keep a finger on the pulse of what kids want?
We do a lot of research, I don’t like to say it, but we do. Me and my team spend a lot of time talking to our operations people, to see what works well and what doesn’t. I go and see all the competition. In the last year alone, I have visited 220 (theme) parks. You really have to be crazy enough to do it, but I visited those parks, spending 3 to 4 hours in each, seeing their offering, talking to people there. Also, most importantly, we talk to children. Worldwide, we have our congress, we invite 16-20 kids, a panel, five times a year to ask them what they like or don’t, what they would like to see in KidZania but importantly, what’s happening outside. What properties are good, what gadgets are cool, what movies they like or don’t, we really want to hear about them. What’s great is that they are brutally honest. Which is great!