Erecting an empire on enjoyment

Business Standard: Pallavi Aiyar / Madrid August 12, 2010

Twenty years ago, Rajive Kaul, the dapper scion of a venerable Kolkata industrial house dealing in electrical cables, found himself nervously knocking on the doors of Geoffrey Thompson, the owner and managing director of Britains most visited amusement park, the Pleasure Beach at Blackpool.

I want to build an amusement park in India and I need your help, he told Thompson somewhat audaciously. The Englishmans interest was roused. And, while he made clear his inability to assist financially, he agreed to provide Kaul a technical expert to survey the land back in Kolkata and give suggestions on design and safety. The result was Nicco Park, Kolkata s first amusement park, which opened its thrills and spills in late 1991. At the time, the amusement park business in India was in its infancy, with Appu Ghar in Delhi and Essel World in Mumbai the only two large parks in operation for the countrys billion-odd population.

Acolyte takeoff

A decade on, and the empire struck back, with Kaul knocking again on Thompsons door but this time with an offer to, rather than for, help. We felt our technology and particularly our software expertise was better than what was available in Blackpool at the time, recalls Kaul, with a rakish smile and a toss of his salt and pepper hair.

When Kaul first visited the Blackpool Park as a student at Imperial College in London, his favourite was the River Cave ride, eventually replicated at the Nicco Park. By the early part of the 21st century, the Blackpool ride was in need of upgradation from a mechanical underpinning to one using computerised software.

We worked out a much cheaper product in-house and we also had access to skilled artisans in Kolkata , people who work on Durga Puja idols and the like, explains Kaul. So, it came about that Nicco Parks won the contract to upgrade and revamp the River Cave Ride at Blackpools Southport property.

A further decade on, Nicco has expanded into amusement park-related project consultancy and helped design and implement overseas projects in the UK, Japan, the UAE and Bangladesh. In India, it has built and designed six large parks, with an additional one in Dhaka. To the standard stable of roller coaster-like rides, it has added water parks and horror houses, and today boasts an annual footfall of over 1.5 million at its parks.

Great prospects

Kaul is convinced the industry is only just taking off and the future is as bright as the grins on the faces of his young clientele when they disembark from their rides of preference. Nicco Parks turnover has doubled over the past five years.

And, with the swelling of Indias middle classes, 18 million children born every year and the increasing penetration of television with the message it spreads of Go out and have fun, we are in for a boom, he says.

Indias two-decade amusement and theme park industry is tiny when compared to its counterparts in the US and Europe. Disneys parks alone, for example, are worth $10.5 billion. According to Nicco Parks 2008-09 financial report, a recent market survey has shown that only 15 per cent of Indias 120 amusement and water parks can be classified as large.

It is estimated that the total capital investment made in the sector till 2009 was just over Rs 40 billion (excluding investment in land). The annual revenue generated by the industry is approximately Rs 20 billion. Crucially, this number is expected to grow by almost three times over the next decade, at a compounded annual rate of over nine per cent. In late June this year, Kaul was presented with the Indian Business Leader of the Year award at a Global Indian Business Meeting held in Madrid and hosted by Geneva-based Horasis, a networking organisation. I really dont know what Ive done to deserve this award, he said without coyness, looking genuinely astonished when asked to say a few words. Later, a more pensive Kaul leaned back against a sofa. You know, the original business of Nicco was cables and it was all about chasing people to pay bills. Whats great about amusement parks is that you make money from making people smile, not scowl by presenting them with bills.