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Five Principles to Save Your Themed Entertainment Project

Release time:2020-05-12

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Author:Noble Franklin Coker, Chief Simian and Chief Strategic Instructor of APES 


After working with and for many companies that want to invest in Themed Entertainment, whether that be amusement parks, theme parks, waterparks, family entertainment centers or mixed-use resorts; I have witnessed a disturbing and regrettable trend of successful and intelligent people making very bad investments in this industry.


My hope and intent with this message is to share some bits of wisdom that may help prevent some misinformed decisions when it comes to themed entertainment investments, and maybe help people take a fresh perspective to their approach to investments in this industry.


The significant challenge with this industry is it seems deceptively intuitive.  In other words, most people looking at the industry from the outside can easily understand the financials, the sources of revenue streams, the design principles and the obvious enjoyment of the customers.  Because the business model seems so obvious, many investors are deceived by its seeming simplicity into making a significant investment and only finding out when it is much too late how complex of a business it is under its simplistic façade. The following five principles may seem very obvious, but I have seen each of them violated many times resulting in poor products, poor experiences and always…terrible investment returns.


1. Revenue Doesn't Come from Designers, It Comes from Customers


This seems very obvious. Tickets and secondary spend always comes from the customers that enter your facilities; however, in many cases, an investor will try to find the best creative talent or best architect to design their facility. The focus and emphasis is on the construction of the facility and appeal of the design. The implication is that a themed entertainment location is like an office building, or a residence. If it is visually appealing, it will get recognition and demand a premium.


The analogy isn't completely wrong, but the approach definitely isn't right. Creatives and designers (usually) have never operated a facility. Their success hasn't come from selling an ice cream cone to a child, or marketing a new entertainment event, or selling a ticket at a turnstile. They are not intimately familiar with your customer. They need to be given direction, and that direction needs to be based on the customer you are targeting, but they don't know your customer. Asking a creative to propose a design for a facility without giving them customer guidance is like asking an artist to paint a picture of your daughter, but never letting them see the child. If the artist is very skilled, they will paint a beautiful picture, but the picture won't be your daughter! The point has been missed entirely, just like most themed entertainment designs miss the mark when they are not properly informed from customer and business operations perspectives. You must know your customer first, and this leads to my next principle…


2.50-60 Year-Old Men Are Not Your Customers!


Again, very obvious, right? I can't think of any themed entertainment attraction where the majority of the people I see walking around are men between the ages of 50 to 60 years old.  Yet, typically, the people making decisions on what is a 'good' design, or a 'good' marketing program, or 'good' content inside the facility are 50 to 60 year-old men.  No wonder the facility isn't attractive to the customer!  50 to 60 year-old men like to build big coasters, they like loud music, they like big explosions and they like scantily clad women dancing around (we have to honestly face the problem if we want to fix it).  But if your target customer isn't 50 to 60 year-old men, then they probably aren't as attracted to these things.


More likely than not, your target customer is 30 to 40 year-old women because they decide where the children and the extended family go for a break, and they don't like a single item listed above. The investors, designers and decision-makers have to accept that they do not understand their target customer, so they need to take the time and spend the money to both identify and to understand the target customer so that the design and business model of visitation and repeat visitation can be based on what the customer is actually looking for.  This then leads to principle #3…


3.If Your Business Model Is Based on Just Getting Everyone to Visit Once, You Have Already Failed


How many times have you heard this statement: "If we can just get everyone in the area to visit once, we will be busy for years!" Again, deceptively simple. You look at a geographic area, assess the population, then assume a penetration rate, and Viola! You have a successful business! It NEVER works that way. Especially in our modern business environment. 


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Yes, a themed entertainment location can get good visitation for a year or two with snappy marketing or aggressive pricing, but then that initial surge dies off.  Why?  Because the product isn't repeatable.  After people have visited, they share through social media what they thought and then no matter how aggressively you price, or how great your marketing is, you can't overcome the 'collective boredom' of the social media crowd.  The facility wasn't designed with the customer in mind and with an idea of how or why the customer would want to come back.


If the facility and business model isn't built on a foundation of very high levels of repeat visitation, the business is destined to failure because if a significant number of people aren't willing to come back then, thanks to social media, an even larger number of potential customers won't be willing to come even once.  That means flexibility needs to be built into both the design and the business plan that will allow frequent additions and refreshes so that the target customers are looking forward to coming back to see what's new.  And that leads us to principle #4…


4. Deciding on Content That Brings People Back Isn't Like Shopping in a Grocery Store


The following is a discussion I had with a senior leader in a company that was building a themed entertainment facility:

Me: "So tell me, how did you decide on the equipment and content that is inside your facility?"

Him: "We chose the most popular equipment."

Me: "How did you decide what was the most popular?"

Him: "We visited five different parks and we recorded every attraction they had.  Then we selected the attractions that appeared in most of the parks."


The is a real conversation about a facility that this organization was spending hundreds of millions of US dollars on. This leader had gone around to other parks, made a list of attractions based on what the other parks had chosen, and then went out "grocery shopping", or basically going to ride vendors and saying: "I'll take one of those, and one of those and two of those" until his list was complete. Now, besides this violating every other principle that I have listed above, besides ignoring the need for differentiation to set his product apart, this also highlights the belief that attractions are just something to do, and have no business value. 


The reality is each attraction has a target customer and a business purpose. Maybe that purpose is to increase length of stay so that secondary spending will increase. Maybe that purpose is to promote a particular character to increase merchandise sales. Maybe the purpose is to appeal to teenage boys to broaden the demographic reach.  Regardless, every piece of content and every attraction must be researched and specifically positioned to support the success of the overall business model.  This is key to repeat visitation.  This and how people "feel" when they are in your facility.  And this is my final principle…


5. Customer Comfort Is Determined by Culture, Not by Rules


It's interesting that when you survey people after they leave a themed entertainment facility, they can rate the attractions as enjoyable, the food as good, the cleanliness as impressive, but when asked if they intend to return, they will say they probably won't.  You can then dig into the data, and consistently find that they rated "feeling welcomed" or "safety" as very low.  It's easy to understand.  If we don't feel welcomed in someone's home, we don't return.  If we don't feel safe in driving with someone, we avoid driving with them again. You can see this in many themed entertainment facilities around the world.  They have spent heavily on the "hardware", but they missed the mark on the "software" and their business suffers because of it.  


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This failure of making people feel welcomed or safe is typically due to an assumption that procedures and rules can define behavior.  This isn't true.  Procedures and rules can define boundaries for decisions that the operations people can make, but they don't define their behavior.  That is why the front-line people can follow every rule, and still the customer doesn't feel welcomed or safe.  What defines behavior is culture, and what defines culture is purpose.  Meaning, typically organizations spend a significant amount of time defining and training their teams on the rules, but rarely to they spend an equal amount of time defining and educating people on their purpose.  Why are we doing this role?  Why are we working here?  Why are you a leader?  What does it mean to be a leader?  These are the kinds of questions that if well understood, will define the behavior of an organization and by extension make customers feel welcomed and safe when they are with you.


Making Investments Fun Again


Looking back, most can see how obvious these principles are, but hindsight isn't valuable if the mistake has already been made.  I hope this can help some that are making decisions now to make some simple adjustments to ensure a much better experience in investing in themed entertainment.  By remembering these five simple principles:

1) Don't assume you know your customer but spend the time to identify and understand what they are looking for, 

2) Feed that information into your decision-making instead of relying on other 50-60 year-old men,

3) Build your business models and designs on repeat visitation,

4) Make sure every part of the content of your facility has a purpose and is aligned with the business model,

5) Make sure that people feel welcomed and safe by investing in helping employees and their leaders understand their purpose as well as procedures and rules; we can end the waste of time and resources that has too often defined the new investments in our industry…and then we can all get back to having FUN!

Source:Asia Attractions.



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