Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What a world of fun for everyone!

Veegaland, which completed ten years recently, is the most popular and successful amusement park in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever Kochuouseph Chittillapilly, the managing director of V-Guard Industries went abroad for holidays with his family, he would frequently take his two sons to amusement parks in the USA, Europe, Singapore, and Malaysia.

“I became fascinated by the rides, the beauty of the surroundings, and the excellent service,” he says. Then one day the idea dawned on him to try something similar in Kerala, but he faced roadblocks.

“Banks were hesitant to provide the Rs 11 crore loan that I wanted,” he says. “They felt it would a failure.” But Kochuouseph had a gut feeling that it would succeed.

He spent four months traveling to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad to study amusement parks. What he saw was not encouraging. “There was a clear lack of beauty and cleanliness,” says Kochuouseph. “The personal attention to customers was not up to the mark.” No wonder the parks were not doing well. He realised that if he wanted to succeed, he had to avoid the mistakes made by the other parks.

The location was decided by an impromptu purchase, several years ago, of a 10-acre plot of land on top of a hill in the sleepy village of Pallikara, 15 kms from the heart of Kochi. Once the plans for an amusement park became firmed up, he quietly bought plots from several owners nearby, till there was enough land to start a park.

In April, 2000, Kochuouseph plunged ahead with an Rs 22 crore investment. But the entrepreneur made things difficult for himself by pricing the tickets at Rs 250 per person. This meant that a family of four had to shell out Rs 1000, a steep amount for the middle-class in those days.

But Kochuouseph’s logic was simple: “When we go abroad, they charge $40 (Rs 2000) per person as entrance fees,” he says. “I had provided many facilities, and so I needed a good profit to meet the expenses.”

The gamble worked and the people came in droves. Sitting in his palatial bungalow beside National Highway 47 on the outskirts of Kochi, the businessman analyses the reason why. “There are many NRIs who enjoy these activities with their families when they come to Kerala for vacations,” he says.

The state is a consumer-rich society. More number of cars, televisions, washing machines, and air-conditioners are sold here than in other parts of India. “For high quality, people are willing to pay good money,” says Kochuouseph. “The visitors have come from all parts of Kerala to enjoy the facilities.”

On a recent Sunday, because of the summer vacations, there is a huge crowd present in front of the ticket counters. They range in age from toddlers to grandfathers. There is an air of anticipation and excitement.

Half an hour later, with ticket in hand, one enters the park. And the most striking impression is the astounding neatness. It is spotlessly clean. The grass has been trimmed neatly, the trees are aglow with flowers, and the cement paths are well maintained: no cracks or crevices.

And the numerous rides are mind-boggling: The Twin Flip Monster, the Sky Wheel, Dashing Cars, the Balloon Tower and Moon Walker. There is a Balarama Cave, a Musical Fountain cum Laser show and a Wonder Splash. There is a hang glider, as well as several pools, including the wave and family pool.

In the family pool, an unusual event took place. A paunchy middle-aged man felt that he had stepped on a stone. He reached under the water and pulled it up. It was a single tooth denture. The man beckoned a park employee standing at the side and told her to take it to the ‘Lost and Found’ section, near the entrance, but she was hesitant to carry it because it was a denture.

Suddenly, there was a yell. “That’s mine,” said 14-year-old Shashi. “I have been searching for it for the past two hours.” Shashi gave a gap-toothed smile. “It fell off when I dived into the pool,” he said, as he shook the man’s hand. “Thanks very much.”

The wave pool, which sends off waves at regular intervals, is very popular. One side is cordoned off for ladies and children. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of gawking by the men. “It seems as if we are in a zoo,” a woman complained to a supervisor.

Kochuouseph is frank. “Yes, there are instances of eve-teasing and drunkenness,” he says. “But we have numerous security guards, most of whom are in plainclothes.”

They are well-trained and unobtrusive. The moment somebody starts misbehaving, they will be taken out quietly. “Sometimes, we don’t mind paying back the entrance fees to ensure that the person leaves the park,” says Kochuouseph. “We are determined that people should have a high quality experience.”

The park authorities ensure that by constantly striving to improve. “Work goes on 24 hours a day,” he says. “There is a group of employees who do the night shift, to keep the pools clean. The next morning the pools must be fresh and pure because a new group of customers will come in. We cannot say that because of yesterday’s rush we could not clean the place. They are paying Rs 500 per adult and Rs 380 for children on weekends and expect the best.”

Because of the company’s emphasis to provide top-class facilities, the people are coming in large numbers. “In 2009, we had 9.23 lakh visitors,” says B. Jayaraj, senior general manager. “But the crowds come during particular seasons.” The peak time is during the summer vacations for students, Vishu, Onam, and the Christmas holidays.

“The low season is during the monsoons,” says Jayaraj. When asked about the steep ticket prices, he says, “Nobody has complained to us about it. In fact, people are getting value for their money.”

And Kochuouseph is much respected for that. He remembers a recent dinner party that he attended where he was introduced to a student, Ajay, studying in Class four. When his mother told Ajay that Kochuouseph was the owner of Veegaland, the boy had a look of wonder on his face.

Soon, Ajay whispered something in his mother’s ears and she started laughing loudly. Apparently, the boy said, “Uncle is very lucky. He can go to Veegaland every day.”

Buoyed by the success of Veegaland, the company opened an Rs.120 crore amusement park in Bangalore, ‘Wonder La’ in 2006. Located 27 kms from the city, on the road to Mysore, it has also become successful.

Last year, the Wonder-La Holidays Private Limited, which runs Veegaland and Wonder-la, had a turnover of Rs 70 crore and a profit of Rs 12 crore.

“Our future plans include opening a park in Tamil Nadu, on the Chennai-Pondicherry route,” says Kochuouseph. “There are so many tourists from that state at Veegaland that we have become a recognised brand name among Tamilians. So, there is a strong possibility of the park being a success.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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