Pretend for a moment that you have decided to open up your own restaurant in your hometown. You take the right steps getting it open: obtain a business license, rent a space, hire a staff, design the menu, have a big grand opening, etc. For some reason, despite your best efforts in creating a quality restaurant experience, no one shows up. How do you find out why? No answer truly satisfies that question. Aside from getting all the phone books in your local tri-county area, and dialing up every resident and asking them – you’ll never truly know. Imagine having a theme park where you expect tens of thousands of people to show up every day from all over the country and around the globe. If they don’t show, it’s up to you to put together the pieces.
I have spent weeks talking about Hard Rock Park here at Theme Park University. We have discussed why the park was formed in the first place, why Hard Rock was chosen as the brand, and reasons behind it’s unique design. We also talked about one of a kind attractions, clever details that distinguished it from an amusement park and even exciting plans for the park’s future. Years of planning and construction went into the project and the design was carefully thought out. Why did it fail? How did $400 million dollars worth of an investment end up in bankruptcy after many years of careful planning?
If you’re looking for a simple, short and sexy answer you’ve come to the wrong place. Before Hard Rock Park opened to the public I read every article I could and followed the progress from afar. Nearly five years ago, I toured the park with Jon Binkowski – Chief Creative Officer, Stephen Goodwin – Chief Executive Officer, and Dale Kaetzel – the park’s General Manager. While I genuinely loved visiting the park, what truly drew me in was the story of how it got built, the smart decisions that were made in it’s design and just how fresh their approach was.
After it’s closing I, like many fans of Hard Rock Park, was left devastated and confused. How could what seemed like such a slam dunk end up as such a huge flop? Since then, I have come across dozens of design team members, hourly employees, vendors and more. Even after I started writing this series for TPU, employees who were involved with Hard Rock Park from it’s inception reached out to me and shared their stories. I do not proclaim to have the same insight as the folks who put their blood, sweat and tears into the project. After many years of my own research, I’ve got a pretty good handle on why things went South. What follows is based on my own research and what I know not only about Hard Rock Park, but the theme park industry.
Before we discuss why it failed – it’s important to know reasons it DID NOT fail in no particular order. Feel free to disagree.
Reason #1 – Content
Every article leading up to this one has focused primarily on Hard Rock Park’s originality. Throughout this process I have received tons of feedback, in the comments section of TPU, our Facebook Fan Page, and privately. Nearly all of them are in agreement – they loved the park and miss it, or kick themselves hard for never visiting. According to exit surveys of guests leaving for the day, out of a scale of 5 being excellent and 1 being poor – the average guest ranked their visit as a 4.5. More importantly, most customers surveyed had an intent to return in the future.
I have heard many times, including from senior management at Freestyle Music Park, that Hard Rock Park just wasn’t family friendly enough and that’s what scared people away. Perhaps that’s true, but in my opinion, not enough guests visited to be offended in the first place. The primary reason I took the time to write two separate articles focusing on details is most guests that never got a chance to visit, never knew how detailed it was. If an exit sign depicting a chicken shitting bricks comes across as offensive to you, how do you know it even exists unless you visit the park? Yes, there were a few complaints about some edgier elements that you wouldn’t find in a Disney park, but not enough to shut the place down. If more guests came, complained and asked for their money back, or even boycotted I could buy into this – but I don’t.
Lastly, to the fan boys who think that Led Zeppelin The Ride wasn’t a unique enough design or there were too many flat rides in the park, I say, get over yourself. To ride enthusiasts, that stuff matters – not to the average theme park family. Don’t believe me? Without being too creepy, stand at the exit of any attraction in the world that you personally think lacks originality in some way. As guests are leaving, with a complete poker face, ask them reasons why they did or didn’t like the ride – paying particular attention to the children under 12 in the group. If the majority of the answers are “They didn’t put any thought into it’s design,” or “These jokers just bought this thing right out of a catalog,” I will eat my shoes for breakfast. No seriously, I will.
Reason #2 Hard Rock Was The Wrong Theme
This conclusion is ridiculous. Go back to the first article in this series, and you’ll see that Hard Rock International was the only company after September 11th to take a chance and lend it’s name and brand to a theme park in Myrtle Beach. Investors required the park to be branded in order to give Jon and Steven any money to build the park. No money = no park. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a theme park fan. If you had a plot of land, willing investors and a brand that was successful and a check for $400 million to build your park. Would you walk away… or give it your best shot?
Hard Rock is an established brand with international appeal. Walk into a Hard Rock Cafe anywhere in the world and you will see people of all ages. Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando successfully caters primarily to families – the exact same crowd Hard Rock Park was targeting. Probably most importantly – Hard Rock is a merchandising powerhouse. Not only do Hard Rock Cafes, Hotels and Casinos make a ton of money in their own right, people buy the t-shirts. You probably own a t-shirt or a pin yourself. If not, I’m sure someone in your life does own some merchandise. This was also a gigantic selling point to the investors. While theme parks do make a lot of money from ticket sales – the per capita numbers is where the real profit comes from.
“Per cap” is a financial term used to guesstimate how much money each guest spends once they enter a business. When you visit a theme park, you pay for admission, parking, lunch, a snack, merchandise, games and more. The per cap numbers for Hard Rock Park met their projections exactly. Guests ate, drank and bought merchandise. The problem was, there weren’t enough guests entering the park to begin with.
Reason #3: Myrtle Beach Can’t Support A Theme Park
This argument, which I have heard more times than I can count, also makes no sense. If you go back to the very first article I wrote in this series, the main reason it was built, was Jon Binkowski had a theater near the Waccamaw Pottery Mall area that he wanted to expand. The small park idea, ballooned into a branded theme park. Hard Rock didn’t scout out locations, Jon presented that specific plot of land to dozens of brands and Hard Rock. Everyone was on board with Myrtle Beach for obvious reasons.
Myrtle Beach gets around 14 million tourists visiting a year. The goal for Hard Rock Park was to bring in 3 million of those visitors through it’s gates. Was that number a little unrealistic for the first year? In hindsight, absolutely. Most families visiting Myrtle Beach stay between four and seven days. They spend a majority of that time at the beach. However many attractions have thrived for years including Medieval Times Dinner Show which currently costs $51 plus tax and fees. An all day pass to the Nascar Speed Park, will currently set you back $39.99. Ripley’s has a total of five separate attractions in Myrtle Beach and if you want a combo ticket that includes all five, you will shell out $54.99. If you’re looking to open an all day attraction in Myrtle Beach with roller coasters, live shows, a nightly fireworks show and geared towards all ages of the family – do you honestly think a theme park couldn’t compete with go-cart tracks, wacky museums and dinner shows?
As for broader competition, it’s roughly a six hour drive in almost any direction to get to other competing theme parks: Six Flags over Georgia, Carowinds, Dollywood or anything in Orlando. In terms of drivability, there was an entire market who wouldn’t have to drive as far to get their theme park fix in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Myrtle Beach was ripe for a theme park and still is.
I am expecting theme park fans to tell me how wrong I am, and that’s ok. No one will ever know with 100% certainty what happened. When opening any business, there’s always risk. However, put yourself in Jon Binkowski, Stephen Goodwin and the investors shoes while building Hard Rock Park. Based on the successful Hard Rock brand and the market of 14 million people who visit Myrtle Beach, would you think it was doomed from the beginning?
So what did go wrong? What are some of the definite reasons that lead to the park’s demise? Have patience. Any internet dweeb can, and often have, pissed on Hard Rock Park’s team with the tone of “Those fools should have known better!!”. Not this dweeb. In a world of 30 second sound byte answers to very complicated questions, I refuse to stoop to that level. You need to know all the things they did right, which was a lot, before you can understand what they did wrong. There are some great lessons here. Come back next time and we will tackle the nitty gritty into why the park filed for bankruptcy. Beyond that, I recently had a chance to chat with Jon Binkowski - Hard Rock Park’s creator, and got his input on what it was like to put this colossal project together. There’s more to come!