Warner reins in wild system

Warner reins in wild system

By Paul Goldsmith

Of all the ugly scenarios a company can face, Warner Village Theme Parks on the Gold Coast have a tale that was potentially uglier than most. And it is not just the clowns and animals that go to make up the theme parks.

Comprising Sea World, Warner Bros Movie World, Wet and Wild theme parks and the Sea World Nara Resort, Warner Village Theme Parks (WVTPs) attract around three million visitors a year. The theme parks are jointly operated by US-based Time Warner (now part of AOL) and Melbourne entertainment operator Village Roadshow. During peak season WVTPs employs 3000 staff.

But back to the tale. It is early 2000. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is coming and WVTPs are dealing with a legacy accounting system that just doesn't cut it. Added to this, the system is just eight months old, and was thrust upon them by their then parent company, Warner Brothers.

"The previous system which we inherited (Infinium NT MSFT SQL) wasn't working for us and we looked to replace it with one that had future development opportunities," said chief financial officer for the Warner Village Theme Park Group, Graham McHugh.

The major problem with the Infinium system was that while it was an American product, it was not adequately locally supported. According to Warner Village's finance manager, Ben Graziani, the system was unstable and very raw.

"We struggled with the system for about eight months. It was continually crashing and didn't come with a standard report writer, so we weren't able to generate audit trails and financial reports for a three to four month period," Mr Graziani said. "I think Infinium have dropped the NT SQL line," he added.

A third party report writer had to be brought in to get the reports out but, by then, there was a large backlog of work and staff were feeling the pressure of having to deal with a system that wasn't working well.

"Trying to remedy a situation like this is always difficult because you either have to fix the system if possible or scrap it and start again Ð neither is easy to do and the costs involved are enormous," Mr Graziani said.

Given the sheer number of tourists and scores of divisional outlets from ticketing to merchandising, restaurants and the hotel, Warner Village Theme Parks required a new financial management system that could successfully monitor the company's theme park business.

After discussing the options available with their IT services provider, Dialog Information Technology, Warner Village decided to migrate its financial operations to Navision Attain.

Dialog is the largest privately owned IT services company in Australia. "We wanted a modern Windows based product that had a lot of flexibility and was easy to use. Obviously, it was critically important that it was a robust system that was totally reliable. We also required drill down capabilities that allows you to go from the summary level to details underneath," Mr Graziani said. "We brought Dialog in to help us, and they steered towards Navision. We didn't have the opportunity to look around too much," he said.

By the time the decision was made to install Attain, it was May 2000. With the introduction of the GST just two months away, it was critical to have Attain implemented as quickly as possible. This was helped by arranging for key users and staff from the Accounts Department to form a group forum and identify specific requirements.

Perhaps the biggest headache in the implementation was transferring all the data from the previous system onto Attain. "The only real implementation problems were in this area," said Mr Graziani. "I think Dialog said this would be done in a few weeks and it ended up taking about seven," he said. "Still Dialog did the right thing by us," he added.

Attain went live at the Warner Village Theme Park Group in August 2000, just in time to sort out the accompanying backlog of monthly financial reports. As with most implementations there were some areas that needed to be "adjusted" once installed. "It was just missing certain areas. We had to just go back and tidy up. But there were very few changes to be made," Mr Graziani said.Staff training on Attain was helped that the previous Infinium system was also Windows based product. "So the change wasn't substantial," said Mr Graziani. "The interfaces were similar."

Two years on and WVTPs seem very happy in their decision to go with Navision Attain. "In a general sense we are very happy," said Mr McHugh. "The product is not static, and there is a lot of R&D work happening with the product."

interesting times

In July 2002, Microsoft acquired Navision. Navision is now part of Microsoft Business Solutions which also includes the businesses of Great Plains and Microsoft bCentral. Whilst the takeover hasn't had any immediate effect on WVTPs Mr Graziani says the change will be "interesting." "Great Plains was seen as the enemy, now they are in the same house. We are really not quiet sure what will happen," he said.

Dialog has indicated that it is to be business as usual and that any changes to licensing agreements have not been mentioned.

Meanwhile back at the theme parks, the original implementation of Attain had the three sites running stand alone versions of Attain. In an effort to consolidate the business the three separate systems were combined in June 2002.

Attain runs over a network using Citrix Metaframe "Thin Client" which allows the central system to be accessed by remote users. WVTPs put in place a 2Mbps fibre network link to service the system.

"This has been a great development as it has saved us a lot of doubling up and is very useful for our large number of remote users," Mr McHugh said. "It provided an excellent opportunity for us to integrate our locations."

Future developments for WVTPs include an increasing e-commerce presence. "We have a number of things that we want to do. We are definitely interested in expanding into e-commerce," said Mr Graziani. He said the marketing department was driving this change.

"Our Marketing Division is keen to have an Affiliates type loyalty program developed. Many people don't realise that about 75 per cent of our sales are driven by resellers such as Qantas Holidays, travel agents and motoring associations like the RACQ," he said.

"At the moment, it's all done by pen and paper where they fill out a voucher and the customer later on presents the cashier at one of the admission gates for redemption and entry into the parks. For our credit based customers, the voucher is our authority to invoice them.

"What Marketing would like to do is streamline the above process, use a form of e-ticketing and ideally, have customers (the public) buy tickets directly off our Web sites," Mr Graziani said.

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