By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
The Kituwah, LLC will be requesting approximately $31 million from Tribal Council to launch a new partnership project with award-winning French entertainment company Puy du Fou.
Mark Hubble, CEO of the Kituwah, LLC, said that they would be bringing approximately $13 million to the table, and Puy du Fou would be funding another $1 million. He said that the Tribe and the Kituwah, LLC would fully own the $45 million concept that looks to be the latest major attraction to the 407 project in Sevier County, Tenn.
“Puy du Fou contacted us probably a year ago or so after the Buc-ee’s article came out. We’ve had a lot of inquiries from a lot of different companies on that property, but we recognized that it needed something iconic to generate additional interest from other immersive entertainment-type concepts,” said Hubble.
Puy du Fou have developed several different entertainment concepts across the globe. They are a decorated company in Europe and have established theme parks in France and Spain. They have also won awards for their rotating theatre concepts.
“The concept from a return standpoint that works the best with what we have [at 407] ended up being an immersive walkthrough. And they have immersive walkthroughs in both France and Spain. They’re building one in Shanghai right now,” said Hubble.
Puy du Fou offered a presentation to Tribal Council last month, detailing the initial concept they wished to bring to the 407 project. It has a working title of ‘The Cherokee Rose’, and tells the story of Cherokee men and women who served during World War I. The exhibit would walk through boot camp, the boat trip to France, experiences in Paris, and details of the war itself. The exhibit would be completed in roughly 35 minutes.
The French company wishes to tell local stories when they work outside of their home country. Hubble said that all of the information in the exhibit would be vetted for historical accuracy. He said they have reached out to the executive director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian as well as the board of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
“They didn’t want to do things that had already been told and are already told [in Cherokee]. Because one of the reasons you want to do this is you can say, ‘if you want to hear the story of Tsali, go visit the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, North Carolina’. So that you can cross-sell both sides of the mountain.”
This would be Puy du Fou’s first attraction in the United States, a market Hubble said they have had their sights set on.
Hubble said that this partnership has been developing for some time, and that it has not been something they have rushed into.
“I was skeptical. I was very skeptical. Ultimately, it was probably five months before I even agreed to make the trip. Because it’s expensive and it’s during COVID and it’s a long, long flight,” said Hubble, who also said he paid for the European trip himself.
“Once I got there and I toured the Puy do Fou France, I was just shocked. I saw the night show. Their night show is the best show I’ve ever seen in my life, by far.”
He said that after his experience with their shows, he still had to spend significant time working with Puy do Fou on the numbers and how their operation would work with the Kituwah, LLC. This is when they began to consider exactly how the exhibit would look.
“The other thing is a show has starting times and ending times. So, if you don’t happen to be there when it’s within 30 minutes of that show you’re probably not going to wait around. This, you can come in any time. And it was the easiest to benchmark against other things that were there. We have really good numbers on how many people go to WonderWorks each year. We have really good numbers on how many people go to the Titanic exhibit every year.”
He said that they are using the 2019 numbers from the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN as a benchmark. He said that this exhibit is most similar to the one they are looking to produce. He said that they are using the 2019 numbers because it was the last full year before COVID and therefore a better representation of what to expect moving forward. He said 2021 numbers were better, but they can’t expect the post-pandemic surge when their attraction opens. If all is approved, the Puy Du Fou project would not open until 2024 at the earliest.
“First year, we would expect somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 [paid admissions], which are the Titanic numbers for 2019. That return would be about 12 percent. If you fast forward this about five years, you get a return of about 16-17 percent on the cash side of this.”
Hubble said that the financial figures are still in negotiations, but they have a good idea of what the final contract might look like.
“We get the first $4 million per year,” he said. “There’s very small profit sharing on all of it. We get a four million dollar return on our investment, and then the amount above four million dollars is split 50/50 [with Puy du Fou].”
He said that another major aspect of the economics of this project is how much the Puy du Fou brand could increase the value of the rest of the land at the 407 project. Of the 170 useable acres, Buc-ee’s takes up 30 acres. There are about three to five additional acres potentially accounted for, but the remaining land can greatly increase in value with each major attraction they sign.
“Getting Buc-ee’s added 200,000 per acre to that land. All of it. If this adds another 100,000 per acre on another 140 acres. 14 million of that gets absorbed. It just makes the other land more valuable because people will pay higher rents because there’s other things there.”
Hubble said that increasing the value of the land and signing new partners following Puy du Fou’s involvement is critical. He said that they have ‘safety valves’ ready, but they are hoping to bring in other major partners within six months of signing Puy du Fou.
“What we’ve done is we set it up so that if we put this [at 407], it has to be as part of other people putting their own money into it, like Ripley’s or Guinness … if this doesn’t trigger other people to also want to be out there, then we want the option to move it somewhere else where we know it would do really well.”
This is all contingent on Tribal Council, however. With only about 31% of the funding secured, Council will need to decide if they trust the Kituwah, LLC and Puy du Fou with a 31-million-dollar investment. Hubble said that he felt a lot of support at the initial meeting, but that was before they had a clear picture of the final financial figures.
“They applauded. So, it seemed like the great majority were in favor of it on an emotional level … what we didn’t have at the time was what the final numbers would look like and what the performance would look like. So, the next work session would be ‘ok, we’ve seen the emotional concept of it, does it work on the numbers side.’”
A follow-up work session has not yet been scheduled, but Hubble said that it will be a priority in the coming weeks. While the final negotiations are underway, the only other thing left to do is to wait until that meeting with Tribal Council.