CMO profile: Bringing digital and data marketing smarts to amusement venues

How this chief marketing officer is looking to combine the best of modern digital and data with in-venue entertainment and engagement

Oonagh Flanagan
Oonagh Flanagan

Few CMOs could claim to have landed their dream job while dressed as Elvis Presley, but Funlab‘s chief marketing officer, Oonagh Flanagan, can.

“About two days before my final interview, the recruiter called me and said there was a small detail, and that I might not like it,” Flanagan tells CMO. “I had to come in fancy dress.”

A Halloween party from several years earlier had left the former Nimble marketing chief with the Elvis costume, complete with cape, sunglasses, medallions, and a trademark quiff.

“I really wanted this job,” Flanagan says. “I took it out, gave it a wash and drove in. I could not find a carpark anywhere, so walked the length of the street in this outfit.

“I walked into the meeting, and saw my CEO dressed as a ketchup bottle, the CFO dressed as Super Mario, and the recruiter dressed as Austin Powers. Immediately, it took away all the nerves and all the formality. I started to do my presentation, and everyone got engaged, and we had this amazing, hugely professional conversation, but with all of us in fancy dress.”

Now, a year into her role as Funlab’s inaugural CMO, Flanagan is tackling the challenge of building out the marketing capabilities of an organisation that operates brands including Strike Bowling, Holey Moley Golf Club and Archie Brothers Cirque Electriq.

“I was just blown away by what they have achieved,” Flanagan says. “This business has grown from one Strike Bowling venue on Chapel Street to 40 locations in Australia. It is a business full of really strong senior women, and a business that is genuinely born out of the desire to bring fun to people and has incredible growth prospects.”

Building data and digital marketing smarts

At the heart of her strategy is the creation of an integrated digital and data marketing capability to tie Funlab’s various properties together and enhance its customer experience.

Flanagan describes the data capabilities she found when she joined Funlab as limited, with data used primarily for choosing new locations rather than for enhancing customer experience, with only basic batch-and-blast email. She’s now negotiated a multimillion-dollar investment in a comprehensive digital and data marketing capability for Funlab, based on Salesforce, with the company’s Sitecore-based websites being redeveloped in partnership with Merkle.

“In the past 12 months, we invested the most significant amount that this business has ever invested in digital,” Flanagan says. “Now with Merkle we will completely replatform our entire website infrastructure.

“[The strategy] is about how a business that is born in bricks-and-mortar can use data and digital expertise to drive growth. We want to make that much more intuitive, and really highlight the fact that we are this world of opportunity when it comes to fun.”

Tying Funlab’s physical venues together into a coherent digital offering requires Flanagan to wrangle a portfolio that has expanded to include eight venue types, including the recent opening of its first Hijinx Hotel in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria. This concept is designed to mimic a high-end hotel, complete with staff dressed as clerks, porters, and cleaners, but with the accommodation replaced by a series of ‘challenge rooms’. Flanagan says Hijinx Hotel is the result of Funlab's in-house innovation program, For Fun’s Sake, run by chief growth and innovation officer, Blaise Witnish.

“For Fun’s Sake runs every year and anyone in the organisation can put forward an idea,” Flanagan says.

With a heritage firmly rooted in physical venues, Flanagan says at this time Funlab’s digital evolution will be tied to enhancing physical experiences rather than exploring the unknown potential of the metaverse.

“We are always looking for ways to augment what we do, but one of the core tenants of this business is around bringing people together and having a social connection,” Flanagan says. “People want to engage with digital technology in our venues, but only in so far as it removes friction, and it makes the functional things better.

“Because a lot of what we do is quite retro and is about igniting the flames of the things you remember, people like the idea that they can go in and put their phone in their back pocket.”

While the focus on physical venues may seem counterintuitive to current trends, Flanagan says Funlab’s call to nostalgia is appealing strongly to its core demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds.

“We are in a phase where people love nostalgia and retro,” Flanagan says. “What is nostalgic now will not be in 10 years, but we have a really strict program of brand renovation, so we are constantly looking at what’s new, what are the trends, and what is coming up.”

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