In an exclusive interview with Tootlafrance editor Conor Power, the famous theme park’s artistic director and chairman Nicolas de Villiers explains how the project’s principles are being applied overseas
Puy du Fou is special. We live in a world dominated by the American model of theme park, with its aggressive sectoral marketing and queuing for brief bursts of adrenaline. With Puy du Fou, however, they’re working towards an “artistic ideal” and nobody can explain that better than Nicolas de Villiers, president of the famous French theme park that was recently named in the latest Tripadvisor Traveller’s Choice Awards as the most popular park in France and the second most popular in Europe. He has been involved with the extraordinary success story of the Puy du Fou since the age of two.
“I started as a young performer on stage, knowing absolutely nothing at the beginning and then I learned as I went along: I became a horse rider and then I became a horse stunt rider. Then I took on the responsibility of one of the shows in the park and after that I was artistic director of several shows… Eventually I became President and Chairman. It was a step-by-step process over time to get to my current official position.”
His father – Philippe de Villiers – founded the park back in 1978, realising a vision he had of simply telling a story through the use of outdoor theatre and technology. The park is based on telling stories that are rooted in the immediate area and what started as a volunteer show has now mushroomed into a world-beating theme park that has re-written the rules of the very concept.
“We don’t try to study the market itself because we don’t do any marketing,” says Nicolas. “The marketing strategy is not our strategy. Our strategy is an artistic strategy, which means that everything comes from the idea: everything starts from the artistic idea itself.
“The key question for us is: ‘what is the story you are trying to tell?’. It’s not the market who leads us, we don’t want to be led by the market.”
Why then, one wonders, does the market seem to adore everything that the Puy du Fou does?“Actually, we don’t give people what they want to see. We give them what they could like; what they would want. Then they discover what we are offering them… and they love it!”
This might seem like a completely backwards way of doing business successfully, but Nicolas is quick to give another example of how such an approach has been successful in a completely different domain:
“If I can take the example of the iPhone (even though you might say that it’s not the most modest comparison!);
when Steve Jobs first thought up the iPhone, nobody had asked for an iPhone. Nobody who was in the pre-iPhone world thought of the iPhone and said ‘I know what I want and I know what it will look like’. Nobody thought about the iPhone and nobody was asking for it. Then he offered people the iPhone and they said ‘it’s great and it’s really useful’, etc. Steve Jobs didn’t follow what the people wanted, he followed his own intuition and this is the same story with Puy du Fou: we just follow our own intuition and the people like it and follow us in our passion and our emotion.”
Right now, the Puy du Fou is in full flight in terms of international expansion. 2016 saw the park break the €100 million mark for the first time on the back of a 21% increase in turnover and it will mark its 40th year of existence with the announcement of a €200 million investment programme (over the next eight years and starting with a €30,000,000 investment this year).
Since 2010, the establishment of Puy du Fou International has seen the Vendée theme park bring its expertise abroad. Now, they are preparing to establish a park in Spain as well as a great leap forward into the Chinese market.“The very beginning of the international adventure for us was thanks to partners who asked us ‘please come to our country and make a story based on our culture and our heritage’. That’s why we decided to organise a team and a company dedicated towards that. We created a show in Holland first with a partner called Efteling (a huge theme park in Holland that welcomes 4.7 million visitors annually). They asked us to make a show for them based on Dutch legends. Then we went to England to Eleven Arches, where we made the Kynren show for them.
“Now, the strategy is a bit different. We’re going to Spain and this time, we weren’t called by anybody. We wanted to go to Spain because we thought: ‘We’ve been able to go Holland and England. Which country would we like to go to next?’ We settled on Spain for many reasons and then we narrowed it down to Toledo, which is where we’re working on our next project. We want to open the night show in 2019 and then in 2020 we’ll open some other shows which will be in the day.”
Another planned project in Russia (near Moscow and not, as reported in some media, in the Ukraine) became a victim of EU sanctions but is still on standby for possible completion in the future. In the meantime, the Puy du Fou has set its sights on China.
“In China, we’re talking with partners who are involved in the cultural and leisure fields. They’re very much in love with Puy du Fou and they want to do something with us. We’ve had some very good discussions with them and we think that probably in 2020, or at least in the 2020s, we’ll build something for sure. It will probably be huge because China has no fear of huge projects!”
One wonders how a project that is so rooted in its local community in western France will translate into a theme park abroad. If the Puy du Fou‘s inspiration came from a desire of people in the Vendée to tell their story, then how can you bring a community in Spain, China or Russia to do the same thing?“The motivation doesn’t really come from the people first – it came from one man at the very beginning. He passed on his passion to everybody and now we’re a community that supports the project.
“It comes from the idea first. It’s not something coming from no particular place in the middle of the people. It’s not magic. The question is: have we got an idea for Spain (for example)? Have we got inspiration based upon their history and their heritage? If the answer is ‘yes’, then we can go there, and we know from the reaction of Spanish people to the Puy du Fou that they love their history and they love the way we make our shows.”
THE SECRET OF ITS SUCCESS
So why has the Puy du Fou worked so remarkably well, particularly when it seems to work on a formula based more on artistic instinct rather than sure-footed marketing strategies?
“I think that Puy du Fou works firstly because it’s a leisure park; it’s entertainment for people. The shows are family-oriented, which means that everybody in the family – from grandpa and grandma down to the kids – can share the same emotion in all the shows. You can see all the shows whether you’re old or young, it doesn’t matter. This is very important because in the classic leisure park, it’s not possible to see everything if, for example, you’re pregnant or too young or too small or whatever. You must choose based on different criteria. But in the Puy du Fou, you can go everywhere with all the age-groups in the family.
“The other reason for its success is that it’s rooted in the history and the heritage of the people. It’s not just leisure – it’s leisure which speaks about history and the glory of human beings in the past. We try to highlight what is great about human beings in a historical context so that we can share all together the pride of being French or of being English or Dutch. So, Puy du Fou is written as a poem or a hymn that highlights the beauty of the spirit of human beings and their actions in the context of their own history. This is why it touches people very deeply. The shows we make speak to people’s soul and to their hearts – it’s not a short emotional thrill. It can be a very deep emotion that people feel. It’s entertainment and roots, which is quite paradoxical because entertainment usually involves you being asked to forget your daily life and the notion of roots means that you’re asked not to forget your past and where you’re coming from.”
ANIMAL WELFARE CONCERNSOf increasing concern amongst many publications and amusement centres of all sorts is the whole issue of using captive animals for entertainment. A vociferous section of society appears to be less and less tolerant of the idea. The Puy du Fou features a lot of animals in its shows – from trained horses to performing birds and even lions. Has it been feeling any backlash against it in this regard?
“We pay a lot of attention to this because it’s very important to take it seriously. Some people highlight the fact that animals in the shows may not be very happy to participate. This is the key issue – are they happy or not? An animal cannot talk so nobody can definitively say whether or not the animal is happy.
“We always pay close attention to this and there are plenty of methodologies to help determine whether or not an animal is at ease doing something for the crowd’s entertainment. For example, a horse losing weight because he’s under stress and unhappy at performing… the way in which they eat or exercise are other indications.
“We don’t want to force any animal to do something that they don’t want to do. For example, the horses do a lot of training over the winter so when they’re performing a chariot race in the (Roman) arena, they’re completely at ease because they’ve done so much training for it. During the bird show (Bal des Oiseaux), there are over 200 birds flying in the sky at the same time. They’re flying completely freely and then they come back home naturally because they feel at ease in their home. If a bird were to leave, it would mean that it wasn’t happy. As I say, it’s something to which we pay an awful lot of attention.”
Having spent all his life immersed in an entertainment project in rural Vendee, does he ever see the day when he’ll become tired of Puy du Fou?
He laughs, before answering: “Puy du Fou is a real passion. That means we don’t do that for money – it’s not our incentive. Puy du Fou makes profits and we don’t receive dividends from these profits. They are all re-invested in the park and in the Puy du Fou project.
“I’ve almost always worked with the Puy du Fou. When I was two years old, I was a volunteer with my mother. All my childhood was spent with Puy du Fou and all of my friends are here – the people with whom I work are not only my colleagues but also include some friends.
“It’s the same for everyone involved in the Puy du Fou. We’re all in love with our job and in love the fact that we can give a slice of happiness to people for a day or two days… it’s important for us not only to entertain people but also to give them a bit more; to feed their hearts, if that’s possible. So, it’s probably the best job in the world. When I wake up in the morning, I feel like it’s the beginning of another great adventure because Puy du Fou can grow in so many possible directions. I won’t be tired for a very long time!”