As general manager of Motiongate, John Hallenbeck is overseeing the final touches to the Hollywood-inspired theme park before it opens on December 16, along with Legoland Dubai and Bollywood Parks, as part of the Dubai Parks and Resorts complex. After doing a course in sportscasting, Mr Hallenbeck took a job as a ticket seller at Universal Studios in Florida in 1991 “to make ends meet”, and says he never looked back. Mr Hallenbeck, 50, was promoted from vice president of revenue operations to general manager in June. The American now manages more than 1,000 employees from over 50 countries.
Most mornings, I try to get a 5- kilometre run in. I like running outside, so I’ll bear the heat. I live with my wife in Downtown so I usually run around Burj Khalifa. I’ll grab a coffee, a banana or a breakfast bar before driving to my office on the park site in Jebel Ali.
I stop in on the folks in the on-boarding department if we have new hires coming in. I let them know that I might be the general manager, but they’re just as important a player in this show as I am. I’m here for the same reason they’re here – to make this place a blast for our visitors. I pride myself on doing things I know the staff will do. Once we open, I’ll be walking round, picking trash up if it needs to be. I’ve had every job you could imagine during my 25 years in this industry. I share my stories with the team of when I was a front line person, and really get a sense of unity from that.
I meet the corporate team from the other theme parks, Riverland (the restaurant area), and also our Lapita hotel. We’re working to ensure the guest experience at Motiongate will be similar to what you’d get at Bollywood Parks or Legoland Dubai, in that any time you enter a restaurant, shop or ride, people act the same way – they appear friendly, answer questions and are able to anticipate when guests might have a question.
I’m on site for a walk around. Every day I see iconic things sprouting up, like the Ghostbusters building coming to life, or the facade of the Green Hornet roller coaster. Putting the attraction inside usually comes last because you need to have the theming done first.
I meet my project team to ensure we’re staying on target to get certain pieces finished. The ride staff and performers have now arrived and everyone is full-blown busy going through systems and testing the rides. To see the rides in motion is a fun time. We’re now doing mock sales to get team members ready to deal with the public. They have to try to be a part of the theme they’re in – so when you enter Hotel Transylvania, you really feel like you’re there.
We recently opened a canteen in our admin building, where I eat lunch. I’ll sit at a table with somebody, introduce myself and talk a little bit, and they maybe think I’m weird – but I look at everybody as being team members. I can be a poster child for career opportunities in this industry. That helps our business, because then people don’t just see this as a job to do for a while and then move on – they see potential career progression and stick with us.
My focus is on Motiongate, but I also visit other areas of the site to see how they’re going. One of my positions a long time ago was in parking, so I like to look at parking lots. That sounds boring, but I see how we can make the entering and exiting process the best it can be.
Time for the mundane details of my job – the financials, the business plans and reports. I like people interactions a lot more. I can’t wait for this place to open because seeing the guests having a great time is really the pay-off for me.
The project and construction team are here 24/7, so if something major happens at midnight, we’ll be there. I try to leave at 7pm to spend time with my wife. But tonight, I take a conference call with a representative from Sony Pictures in Los Angeles. I often liaise with the three film studios whose film brands we base our rides on; Sony Pictures, DreamWorks and Lionsgate. There are approvals and inputs we need to get from the IPs [intellectual property].
My wife’s a healthy cook, so I’ll have salmon and rice, or chicken and sweet potatoes for dinner, followed by bed at 10pm. Most of us in the team are now working seven days a week to be able to open on time. I’ve opened four major theme park projects, so we’re used to it – my wife says she’s a theme park widow at this stage.
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