We found Mike Fijas, the General Manager of Vana Nava, out and about amongst the many patrons. He was dressed just like one of the one of the many lifeguards with a vigilant eye on what was happening, albeit he is a blue-eyed Caucasian and a little taller (and just a little bit older) than the other staff. It’s likely that most of the playful customers would have been oblivious to his level of responsibility or management role. Being ‘out and about’ is part of Mike’s management style. Of course there are the daily review meetings with his top level staff and the day to day responsibilities of administration to attend, but understanding what is happening first hand is very important to him. Mike is a very relaxed and confident person to interview.
He’s been involved in the Water Park industry since his high school years in 1986, moving from a vacation job through the ranks to management positions of parks and industry consultation throughout the USA. He can discuss any angle of the operations with conviction. He is a New Yorker and as an aside even introduced ‘Buffalo Chicken’ to the parks many restaurants. The city of Buffalo (New York) even officially declared July 29th, 1977 to be Chicken Wing Day! A more important introduction has been a culture of safety with training and an alert approach as the hallmarks.
He talked about how staff members in the USA are typically those who have grown up in this environment and have understood the culture from a young age. In Thailand this approach is brand new, so to bridge the gap Mike has introduced specialist and US accredited trainers to ensure that safety standards are at an international level. It’s easy to understand this focus when you consider his industry role as the Chair of the World Water Parks Association.
Mike is staunch advocate of parental supervision. The policy of the park is to insist that young children not be left alone and that parents accept their supervision responsibilities. He still gets “goose bumps” when he thinks about a particular tragedy due parental neglect he investigated in the USA many years ago. So why the move to Thailand? This was a big decision and commitment by Mike as well as his wife and two children. Not for ‘novelty value’, the move has no time lines and the family is set for the long haul – for them it’s already been “a good ride”. The decision was made after a considered family lifestyle choice with the need to be restimulated and take on a fresh approach to the business of water parks as a strong motivator.
The family is settled with the kids at school, a nearby family home and finding new friends and interests in the ‘outside world’. Mike’s days off are Sunday and Monday. This means the family takes priority on Sunday and Monday is quality time for Mike and his wife. She has chosen to be a fulltime mother with infant children, “we wanted to raise our own children”. Now there is the opportunity to renew her interest and background in biology specialising in marine mammals, perhaps well suited to the Hua Hin environment. Mike’s taking lessons in the Thai language twice a week so well understands ‘len naam’ or playing with water! It’s now been four months since Vana Nava opened. Our visit was at the start of summer and school holiday time.
Mike is happy with the crowds and looking forward to Songkran. The park has the biggest water bucket around, so if you really want the wettest Songkran experience look no further Vana Nava has become much more than a Water Park with entertainment zones outside the ticketed areas (no entry fee) and frequent concerts, DJ’s and corporate events. On 4th & 5th April the Rip Curl Summer Carnival features. It’s easy to check out the weekly events at www.vananavahuanhin.com/events. If you are visiting Vana Nava and see a male staff member with a radio, Vana Nava shirt, broad-brimmed floppy hat and keen blue eyes, that’s probably GM Mike. Say hullo; as we found out, he’s very a welcoming host. Thanks Mike for the opportunity for an easy conversation about your journey to Thailand and the Vana Nava experience.