Born and raised in England, Adrian Jones has seen a lot of changes in the hospitality industry in his journey to his current role as divisional director of Midway North America for Merlin Entertainments Group, a $6 billion corporation that owns and operates attractions in 25 countries, including The Madame Tussauds and the SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium on Orlando’s International Drive and LEGOLAND in Winter Haven. His work in entertainment and tourism has taken him all over the world. From his first job at Alton Towers theme park in the United Kingdom, he went on to positions in Las Vegas and Hollywood, and finally found himself in Florida, where he was integral in the 2011 opening of LEGOLAND Florida as general manager. He embraced his new community with open arms and a vision for the future, launching several fruitful partnerships with organizations including Visit Orlando and the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. In his latest role with Merlin, which he took on in 2017, he continues to thrive in his adopted community, while still paying homage to his English roots. “My first passion was football, and watching my home team Stoke City. I still play football in the amateur leagues around Orlando,” Jones laughed before admitting: “I refuse to call it soccer.” Here, he talks to i4 Business about his career’s longevity, his adaptability, and why Central Florida is one of a kind.
What was your first job, and what did it teach you?
My first job was working seasonally in the catering team at Alton Towers theme park in the UK selling ice creams, donuts — I was very good at donuts — burgers and fried chicken, as well as anything else I was asked to do. These early jobs helped me realize I enjoyed working with people and I had a love of talking and selling to customers. It also made me acutely aware that not everybody I worked with had the same work ethic or the unconditional drive to always give of their best. That was where I had an edge.
What brought you to your work in tourism? And to your first role with The Merlin Entertainments Group?
After graduating from Nottingham Trent University, I instantly went back to my catering jobs at Alton Towers and was successful in obtaining a temporary role within the marketing team for a six-week secondment supporting the PR team. Fortunately, I was then asked to stay on permanently and become the events coordinator for the marketing team, my first full-time salaried job.
You have been with Merlin for 30 years. What keeps you motivated and excited about your work?
Merlin has incredible brands, people and attractions that bring memorable moments to millions of guests. My various roles have allowed me to meet lots of amazing people in many different places all over the world. This said, my main motivator is still product and people development and watching teams grow. Most of the teams I have worked with over the years have not only developed and grown attractions, but have helped develop people and communities as well. This is hugely motivational and rewarding.
You worked overseas and in Las Vegas and California before your current role. What is unique about Central Florida’s entertainment and tourism industry? What surprised you about Central Florida?
It is the people and the collaborative way we work across all aspects of business. Personally, I never felt this was the case in Vegas or L.A. at senior executive levels. Central Florida has so much to be thankful for, but never rests on its laurels and is always looking to have a deeper business base, despite having the greatest tourist attractions in the world on its doorstep.
What kinds of changes have you seen in Central Florida in your time here?
The sheer scale of investments in attractions, housing and industry in general has been astounding. Incredible growth has created an accelerated need for considerable infrastructure upgrades to service this demand. It is safe to say that Central Florida has its fair share of “growing pains,” but these are “nice” problems to have. Growing tourism’s economic impact and elected officials willing to collaborate have given our community a firm base to build a greater place to live, work and play.
What do you find most visitors to Central Florida are looking for?
Unforgettable moments of family fun that last a lifetime. That sounds like a branding strapline, but this, for me, is at the heart of everything Central Florida has done historically and continues to do. This also underlines why the “family safe, family fun” positioning we have all worked hard to nurture is so precious to protect.
You are very involved in the Winter Haven and Polk County business community. What does that work and the community mean to you?
When LEGOLAND Florida was first announced in 2010, we were struck by the warmth of the Winter Haven community almost instantly. We were given the keys to the incredible Cypress Gardens, and we had an obligation to firstly protect them, build LEGOLAND around them and then develop and support the city as it embarked on a fantastic period of growth. We fell in love with the city and its super-friendly and supportive people, including the elected officials, and we were compelled to give back. Serving on the hugely influential Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce for a number of years and supporting the team, led by the brilliant Katie Worthington Decker, as they realized the ambition of gaining a five-star status, was fantastically rewarding. Leading a committee that focused on a new brand positioning for the city, Authenticity Reimagined, was a project I was very proud to have been involved with. It will hopefully continue
to guide the area’s communication strategies as Winter Haven expands and grows as a community.
Merlin recently agreed to be purchased by a consortium that includes the investment house of LEGO’s founding family, with the goal of taking the company private, as it was before being listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2013. What changes will Central Florida residents and visitors see as a result?
Too early to say really and there is not a lot that I can discuss as the sale is still to be finalized. All I can say is that LEGO (Kirkbi) owned a large stake in Merlin before the floatation, were our largest shareholder when we were a publicly traded company and now own us with a majority stake. So business as usual with the same incredible growth!
You serve as the chair of the Visit Orlando board of directors. What does this role mean to you?
Being a part of the largest and most professional destination organization in the U.S. is an honor and a privilege, and working alongside the most incredible Visit Orlando team is fantastic. Our volunteer board is made up of so many outstanding professionals, and the Visit Orlando team is respected globally as one of the absolute best. We really are fortunate to have them representing us around the world.
What are you most excited about for the future?
Tourism is still the industry to be working within for me. As we enter a phase where everything revolves around social media and mobile devices, never in history have we more needed to escape the digital bubble, move away from the screens and spend quality time with family and friends creating memories.
What have you learned about leading a team in your time within the company?
Integrity and vision are everything. People development and the creation of highly effective, motivated and driven teams are essential. Exciting products and technologies come and go, but people are the lifeblood of what we do in tourism in general, and this is timeless. A clearly defined vision, with motivated, aligned teams, can accomplish anything.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Measure twice, cut once. My dad used this for so many reasons other than cutting wood, to assess a situation carefully before acting.