Escape | Sim Choo Kheng's active entertainment vision – blooloop

As the active entertainment brand prepares to expand into new markets, its founder talks to blooloop about his vision, and why he wants to shake up the industry
Words:  Lalla Merlin
Sim Choo Kheng is the chief executive of Sim Leisure Group, which owns and operates the Escape brand of attractions in Malaysia. This includes Escape Penang and the Escape Challenge in Petaling Jaya. The company is also planning to take the Escape brand to Sri Lanka and is creating the largest Escape park in Malaysia, Escape Cameron Highlands.
The parks feature active entertainment, such as climbing zones, obstacle courses, zip lines and waterslides, in a natural setting.
The Escape parks, modelled on the low-tech, high-fun natural pastimes of his childhood – climbing, swinging, playing outside – inform his vision for the sector, through the lens of endorphins, rather than adrenaline.
The Escape ethos is, Sim contends, a disruptor:
“We feel family entertainment has deviated too far from its purpose of entertainment, into something else. I’m from the last generation that grew up playing in the countryside, living off the land, and having a proper childhood.”
That background has shaped the vision that underpins Escape:
“We have a proper adulthood if we have a proper childhood. That sort of childhood teaches so much, and that learning is missing from today’s childhoods.”
The business of fun has departed too far from what nature intended. Escape is the answer to man’s original quest for fun.  
Children, Sim says, are insulated from nature, from the world, from all the stages of growing up; they are expected to be microscopic adults from the start.
“We have gone from our childhood self-directed play – rolling down hills in a rug, or climbing a swaying tall palm tree – to man-made adrenaline-pumping machines that push the boundaries to go faster, higher and further. In the process, we have forgotten how to create our own fun.”
“While it may not be realistic to have kids today climbing a 30m tall palm tree we must, as far as possible, provide practical solutions where we can mimic the games and activities of old to empower children to create fun as nature originally intended them to.
“What I am trying to advocate is self-directed play; you decide for yourself how high you want to go, how fast you want to go, and how able you are. Today, the trend is (that) you sit on a coaster, you put on the harness; the machine does everything for you.”
The imposition of a narrative and structure can be problematic, too, rather than letting children drive the play themselves:
“The problem stems from a very structured, institutionalised way of doing things. Everybody thinks that there is a formula to success; there is always a structured approach to a problem and the provision of a solution. So many things are missing.”
Escape’s philosophy, he explains, runs deeper:
“It is about reconnecting to and rediscovering childhood, for modern-day children, and for adults, too: there’s a kid in all of us. It’s about reconnecting us to nature and reality. Nature, to me, is reality, but in the entertainment industry, we lose sight of that and indulge in this sugar-coated, colourful, outrageous stuff, where the music is pumped up.”
“It’s orchestrated from the moment you walk in. The aim is to empty your pockets all the way. They fill you with anticipation with the music and colours, then you see all these restaurants and fancy stuff. The kids will start, “I want this… I want that…” Then you go on the rides, and they make you queue up for one or two hours.
“People have been conditioned to think this is normal – unless you buy a fast pass. That’s even worse: you can find a solution if you can pay a little bit more, which means you are depriving those who can’t. It teaches entirely the wrong concept about being fair.”
Escape is very different. Outlining its genesis, he says:
“It happened almost by accident. The first time I saw a plastic toy was when I was around 11. We grew up on a farm. My mother did odd jobs like washing. One of her customers gave us a bag of used toys, and that was the first time I saw plastic toys.”
Throughout his childhood, he made his own toys:
“We made bamboo pop guns, kites and spinning tops. We climbed trees, shot catapults, and made blowpipes, we trapped birds and fish, and we made our own swing. Children are always curious, always competitive. You try to outdo one another: who can make the loudest pop gun? Who can make the kite that flies furthest? It was a fantastic childhood, full of energy and creativity. Even today, I still have kites at home, and a spinning top.”
When he grew up, he got involved in the leisure industry:
“The lightbulb moment came when I moved to Vietnam for a theme park project. This was in 1997 or 1998. I was project managing, and I was going to operate the park. Vietnam had just opened up the country, which was very much insulated from the rest of the world until the nineties. I was living in a village outside what was then known as Saigon and is now Ho Chi Minh City.
“I was there for a couple of years for the project. And, because I was living in a village, I became immersed in the local way of life. I made friends with the locals, and I saw my childhood again. That was the lightbulb moment. I saw the kids playing as I had done. They had these games using a tennis ball, where they were creating the rules. Kids and adults played together kicking balls, and flying kites, playing with spinning tops.”
The park he was involved with, a water park, was thoroughly modern. However:
“I thought to myself, why can’t we apply the original concept of traditional childhood play, and make it into an amusement park? I was convinced that one day I wanted to do this. So, I started collecting notes, taking pictures, and getting ideas. I tried to introduce the idea to every client that I worked with – and nobody bought the idea. Nobody even wanted to think about it.”
“Our part of the world was an emerging market – we are still – and everybody wants a piece of the latest trend. Going back to the traditional village ways is retrogressive; it’s not cool. People want the latest from America and Europe; they want castles and Mickey Mouse.”
He was disappointed:
“But I never give up. I came back to my hometown. The new government at that time called for a tender. They had a tourism vision. One of my friends happened to be a politician, and he said, ‘Hey, you should take part in this.’ I thought perhaps I could showcase my ideas.”
By coincidence, they were embarking on a manifesto focusing on a cleaner, greener Penang:
“I submitted my proposal and took part in a tender for the piece of land. We were up against a few others, one of them a very big global brand. We won because they were looking for something that fitted into their political vision for Penang.”
Sim showcased the idea for Escape, which was not accepted to start with. However, the state government, it transpired, was happy with the idea once he had put his life savings into the project:
“No banks would fund the project. Nobody believed in what was doing. That was in 2011. I had to scale the project down. And I built it.”
The first ESCAPE was centred around adventure play on a large scale.
“On the first day, I nearly died – I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have any customers.”
In fact, around 30 customers showed up on the opening day:
“I thought, this is it, my life is gone. My wife is going to kill me.”
It took a little time for the concept to catch on:
“It took a while for people to understand what this was all about; climbing, trees, zip lines, swings – it was all pretty new. A good few weeks passed before people start to talk about it. But they did, and ever since then the business has been growing, for the last 10 years.”
People found the idea refreshing, he says:
“They never expected a theme park without roller coasters, and they found it interesting. They realized that what we were actually in the business of selling was fun.”
Budget limitations meant there was no room for error, so every decision was carefully thought out:
“We had to be careful, with whatever we designed. I had to focus on making sure that the customers would have a positive experience. They were looking for fun. With everything we designed, I was focusing on imagining, through the eyes of a kid, how much fun you could have, swinging on a rope from this end to that, or whatever it was.
“I wanted to create games that would optimize smiles per hour. That has become the buzzword. If you get a giggle every 10 seconds, you know you’re on the right track.”
This is something that has become ingrained in the concept:
“Any time we design a new game, we start thinking in terms of how many giggles you’re going to get from doing this.”
He adds:
“There is now an increasing demand for humans to reconnect with nature, themselves and each other and Escape provides all of this and more, reconnecting people with nature and allowing them to rediscover childhood play. Escape is a different type of park.”
Expanding on this, he says:
“It’s not like we’re going to showcase the scariest rides, and so on.”
In fact, this is a trend he finds disturbing:
“The family entertainment amusement park started for good reasons, at around the time of the Great Depression. People were looking for a bit of escape, to have fun. There would be a carousel, and a small Ferris wheel – games and activities to release endorphins. Then the concept was taken over by the movie companies. The amusement parks became movie-based and turned into theme parks.
“The rides gradually became the scariest, the highest, the fastest, the most extreme. It’s no longer about endorphins; it’s about chasing adrenaline. We’ve become distorted in our way of thinking. We’ve been conditioned to think that the scariest roller coasters are fun. People come off them saying, ‘Wow, that was great.’ It wasn’t – it was terrifying, and they feel as if they were going to puke.
“There’s a big difference between being happy and being scared.”
The trend has, he feels, nowhere to go:
“When you’re going to these extremes – the highest drop, the most extreme coaster –  you aren’t in the business of fun anymore, and you’re making the business increasingly expensive.
“If you build a park that will cost you a couple of billion dollars, you’ve got to start thinking of how to squeeze more money from everybody. That’s why, with some of the parks in America, families have to save up for a year to bring the whole family.”
“You wait two hours for a three-minute ride, then once it’s over you go to a restaurant with merchandise, and the kids whinge and want the latest superhero toy. Then you need to queue for more rides, with snacks and drinks after every ride.
“What we want to do is address the business of fun. It doesn’t have to have a big budget. We need to understand the original purpose of parks. That’s why Escape addresses the reason why families go to parks. It’s natural for us to have fun – and fun is always associated with nature, outdoors.”
The ESCAPE growth strategy involves extending the concept to new regions. He explains:
“We have already started. Our first project is in Sri Lanka. We have completed the design, and are breaking ground now, in January.”
“We are looking at a few other projects, which we have overseas. There is one project that we are very confident that we should be doing soon, in Hanoi. We have two further projects ongoing in Malaysia. One is in Cameron Highlands, and the other one is in a town called Ipoh, where we have begun construction.”
The plan going forward is to grow internationally.
“We have an ambition for world domination,” he says.
Escape celebrated its 10th anniversary with two new attractions:
“It was partly because of the lockdown,” Sim explains, “I didn’t leave the country for 22 months, so I was getting restless. We built the zip coaster during the lockdown; I’m very hands-on, always in my shorts and t-shirt. Then I came up with another idea. People weren’t allowed to travel, so I thought we’d do something a little bit foreign, different from the local pastimes. So I put in a 300-metre ski slope and built a dead sea pool.”
“It came from memories of travelling and playing in the snow, and being in Jordan – we had some projects there. I wanted people to be able to experience this sort of fun without having to travel to Jordan or Switzerland.”
In short:
“That’s what we did for our 10th anniversary. Other than our world domination plan, we’ve got a lot of things on our plate. We are busy talking to landowners locally in Malaysia, as well as Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. These are the markets we’re looking at. Our immediate plan is to expand the brand to Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East.”
He adds:
“We are selling something affordable, and that’s important. I always say that fun is for the masses, not the privileged few.”
Offering insights into the global attractions sector, he is critical of the lack of innovation:
“As far as the rest of the industry is concerned, I believe we are witnessing the sunset of the mechanical parks. The model has been around for maybe 60 or 70 years, and there has been no innovation at all. Everything just gets faster, taller, more expensive, with different characters representing the ride.”
The attractions industry, he contends,  has not evolved as much as it should have over the last few decades.  The progress made has involved marginal improvements such as the development of rides and attractions that are faster, of better quality and safer, but without major shifts in innovation or product disruption. A faster rollercoaster is still a rollercoaster. A better-looking water slide hasn’t changed its functionality:
“To put it another way, a faster and better-looking fax machine is still a fax machine – something which has already become obsolete.”
Innovation exists among the smaller players, he comments:
“I used to see smaller companies coming out with new ideas, some of them really good. For example, I remember an innovative company called The Bugworld Experience from Liverpool, which did exhibitions with insects.
“Now, I don’t feel we are doing justice to the newcomers and the smaller players. We are not nurturing the industry. We are not nurturing all these new ideas. It’s always the big boys, the platinum sponsors because they make a lot of noise and have a lot of money. When new ideas come out they are being bought by the bigger companies, which guard them, but don’t encourage the pushing of boundaries.”
The industry, he feels, has been dominated by a handful of big players on both the attraction operator and supplier sides, who are always at the forefront of industry development and have not been challenged or disrupted by competitors:
“Typically, the large sponsors of industry events usually secure deals for potential new attraction projects, and there is little room for the competition needed from new players to create significant innovation. It is no longer a level playing field, but one that is dominated by those with the deepest pockets. This is stifling innovation.”
“Another factor has been that many attraction and theme park projects in Asia are developed as anchors for wider real estate developments, or are subsidised by other businesses -gaming, for instance – within developments. So, they have not been sustainable in their own right as stand-alone businesses. This gives the industry a bad reputation and risk profile with financiers and other potential project funders.
“I’d like to see the industry moving forward with new genres and new ideas, rather than the bigger, faster, scarier mechanical rides and escalating project costs.”
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