SeaWorld Parks recently made some huge headlines regarding their attendance during the first quarter of 2018. Attendance at their parks was up by 15 percent, which is a huge gain for any theme park because usually, that time of year is the slowest. So does this mean SeaWorld is making a comeback?
I would remain cautiously optimistic for a few reasons. First, it’s important to note that this attendance increase was done under former CEO Joel Manby. Even though he left during the middle of the quarter in February 2018, the initiatives to drive attendance were put into place months in advance under his leadership. In short, the guy who left the company because he couldn’t turn the company around is now gone. This is not to say that all decisions must be funneled through the CEO, but the new (and possibly temporary?) CEO John Reilly was not involved in this particular uptick in attendance.
It’s also fair to note that while attendance was up, revenue was not. Legal settlements and one-time payouts (to Joel Manby as part of his contract) were partial to blame, but so was lower ticket prices. This, in my opinion, is a good thing. Several months ago we wrote an article about how SeaWorld Parks can turn around their reputation and one of the key points we laid out was value. When you’re in a market competing with bigger fish (pardon the pun) like Disney and Universal, you’ve got to come out as the cheaper options as the prices for other offerings continue to climb. You’ll make up the price difference in per caps and actually pull business away from the bigger parks who may enjoy the experience, but can no longer justify the price.
What is troubling is a few comments made during SeaWorld’s earnings call from CEO John Reilly. During the call, Reilly mentioned that SeaWorld was still heavily involved in animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts. More importantly, the company needed to do a better job of communicating that. I cannot stress this enough, while SeaWorld needs to continue their rescue and rehab of animals in need, allocating more than 5 percent of your marketing budget to communicating that message at this point is foolish.
I’ll repeat this over and over… families looking to visit a theme park based on a park’s animal rehabilitation program are the exception, not the rule. Absolutely focus on that while the guests visit all of the parks. Let them discover that and tell their friends. But to drive business, you have to focus on SeaWorld being fun for the entire family. Full stop. Every single marketing dollar goes towards driving home the message that SeaWorld Parks are an affordable and fun day for the entire family.
Use Disney’s Animal Kingdom as an example. When the park first opened, the message not only in the park but also in the marketing was conservation. This is not to say that in 2018, Animal Kingdom doesn’t focus on conservation. They absolutely do. However, you won’t see this in nearly any of their major marketing and it is not a major focus even with new park offerings. You can even use the original genesis of E.P.C.O.T. Center as an example. The erosion of that park’s original vision is largely due to guest feedback. At the end of the day, they are on vacation. They want to have fun. If your message is too heavy, educational or can even come off as preachy, people will start to shut off and spend their vacation dollars elsewhere.
All of this said, I do think we will start to see not only an attendance turn around from SeaWorld Parks but a financial one as well. It’s going to be a slow crawl, but this news shows signs that the public still has an interest in the parks and they can drive attendance even in the slower seasons. Kudos.
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