SeaWorld Orlando has come off a very rocky year. Last week it reported a loss of over $24 million dollars for 2014, and attendance once again dropped. While many are looking at Blackfish as the cause, there seems to be more in play than just the Anti-SeaWorld film. In response, SeaWorld has announced that they plan on a massive marketing campaign that will not only remind you why you fell in love with SeaWorld in the first place, but get more people in the park. Will it work? We’re not exactly marketing analysts so we can’t say for sure. As a consumer, however, and also as someone who watches the theme park industry there is a lot that they can do differently that may help get people in the parks, and reclaim what it was that made SeaWorld an inspiration and theme park destination.
Some of the biggest problems that have plagued SeaWorld in the past few years have been attendance, in park spending, and plummeting stock prices. It’s because of the falling stock prices that many are looking at things like Blackfish, but let’s look at it a little deeper here. Before Blackfish, attendance wasn’t exactly booming. We can go as far back as 2008 and see the effects. For arguments sake, we’ll look at the flagship park-SeaWorld Orlando. 2008 attendance was around 5.9 million. It fell to 5.8 in 2009, 5.1 in 2010, then rose to 5.2 in 2011, 5.3 in 2012 and fell again to 5.0 million in 2013.
Blackfish did come out in 2013, but it didn’t have a huge impact on the way people saw the park until October, when it was broadcast nationally on CNN. In fact, to say that in 2013 Blackfish had any impact on the park would be ill informed. The 4th quarter of 2013 saw the release of Blackfish, but attendance for that quarter were also up.
So what made 2013 such a dismal year for SeaWorld? The biggest can be blamed on their own parent company-Blackstone. Blackstone took the company public, offering stocks well before the company was ready. Stock prices rose, and then fell. Blackstone then showed how confident it was in their own company by selling off the majority of the stock. The other major problem of 2013 was the opening of the major new attraction, Antarctica:Empire of the Penguins. The ride was promised to be a hit, but when critics and audiences felt it missed something, it gained bad word of mouth and drove riders away. Then of course there’s the ever popular ticket price increase. SeaWorld Orlando did it twice in 2013, at a point when they should have stayed where they were. Sure, Disney and Universal did it, but keeping up with the Jones’s isn’t always the best move. Those reasons, more than anything else, were the reasons that attendance in 2013 fell as dramatically as it did. Attendance reports for 2014 are not out yet, but if the early indicators are correct, attendance looks as if it fell to under 5 million visitors, for the first time in almost a decade.
How can SeaWorld get attendance back to where it was, and get the public opinion back on it’s side again? To know that, let’s take a look at the things that they do right, and the things they need to work on.
What they do right
- Animal Connections-SeaWorld does an amazing job connecting guests and animals. The whole reason why I loved SeaWorld as a kid was because it gave me a better understanding of the ocean, something that I loved but was afraid of. They showed me the wonder of the sea, and that there’s nothing to be feared…but respected
- Local appeal-All of the SeaWorld parks do things that are amazing for locals and passholders. They have some really amazing passholder appreciation days, and some great things they do to get locals in the parks, such as their Bands Brew BBQ, Viva La Musica,, Spooktacular and Christmas events
- Merge education and entertainment-Attractions like Manta, Shark Encounter, and Wild Arctic do an amazing job at walking the line of entertainment, all while educating you. It doesn’t shove the education or conservation efforts down your throat like a zoo would. And let’s be clear, zoos are important, so very important. We are not discounting the work they do at all, but they are more about educating through education, where SeaWorld has been educating through entertaining since they were open. SeaWorld merges the two better than zoos, and generally see more people annually. While zoos have been progressively making amazing changes, you’re not going to see a coaster at a zoo.
- Great Deals-SeaWorld Orlando has some amazing deals on ticket prices. You can pay for a day, come back all year. It’s huge for families on a budget
- Rescue, Rehab, Release-SeaWorld parks have rescued over 23,000 animals and counting. Not because they have to, because they don’t. They do it because they can, and honestly they should. That message is there-when you can do something good, you should take that chance and do it. SeaWorld has a dedicated staff who are ready 24 hours a day to go at a moments notice. They work with government agencies, and are usually first on the scene.
Where they need improvement
- Conservation Overload-In recent years, SeaWorld has just reached an overload of conservation. Conservation is great, and very important, but it needs to be spoonfed or it turns people off
- International appeal-While they do great bringing in locals, it’s the tourists that the chain needs to draw in. In areas like San Diego and Orlando, there are stiffer competition between parks. When the tourists see the big new rides at Disney or Universal, they tend to leave SeaWorld out. There needs to be a HUGE reason to get people into the park, and a huge new reason every year.
- Ticket prices-While the deals are great, they are aimed at locals. There needs to be a happy medium. Too many great deals, and you’ll feel like the Walmart of theme parks…Six Flags already has that distinction. Yet, if they do not raise prices, there can be a bit if backlash, making the park look as if they are afraid to raise prices. There’s got to be some place in the middle
Strengths and weaknesses are the key. In order for SeaWorld to get to the top again, they need to overcome the weaknesses, while focusing on the strengths. They also need a solid plan on luring guests into the park.
So how? Here’s some things that analysts recommend, as well as our own observations.
- More diverse attractions-While 2013 saw the opening of Antarctica, it was seen by many as more of an animal habitat than a huge attraction. If you look at that logic, the last MAJOR attraction was Manta in 2009. While coasters are great, it seems that SeaWorld has two extremes-really thrilling, or really not. The park would do well to get some great middle of the road attractions that appeal to everyone.
- More subtle conservation messages-Turtle Trek is a great example of how SeaWorld has gone overboard with the conservation message. Yes, we need to protect the animals, and SeaWorld does an amazing job at doing it, but every time you turn around in the park these days, there’s yet another reminder that “YOU ARE AN EVERY DAY HERO!”. That’s great, but the reason why SeaWorld inspired generations of people to be an every day hero, is because they did it in a fun way. The shows, the rides, the attractions all were fun and all had that subtle message. Most times it wasn’t visible on the surface, but you walked away with a greater understanding of the animals, and more appreciation of the world without even knowing. Too preachy, and the message is ignored.
- Big attention grabbing attractions-Yes, it’s great to have some small and middle of the road rides, but how about something you can lay claim to a record with? SeaWorld is long over due for an all new coaster. Maybe a coaster that is small by today’s standards, but still huge for Florida. It wouldn’t be hard to get the “Tallest Coaster in Florida” with something like a coaster that extends over 200 feet. You could almost knock out two things in the same attraction, by adding a huge coaster, but make it tame enough that families can also ride it.
- Appeal to Foodies-One major area that SeaWorld doesn’t utilize enough is their culinary department. They roll them out for special events to make great treats, but other than that there is really no stand out restaurants. Sure, Sharks Underwater Grill is okay, but it needs some attention. One restaurant also isn’t going to make a difference. The thing that other chains like Disney and Universal excel at is giving food it’s own voice and character. SeaWorld could take that lead and become a top food destination by either making several huge changes to existing restaurants, or even building new and uniquely themed restaurants. Bring in different chefs, different flavors, and therefore people from all different cultures who just want to pay to get in so they can eat at your restaurant
- Lure in the International crowd-SeaWorld does great at getting locals, as we said, but where’s that International crowd? In Orlando and San Diego specifically, there is a huge melting pot. So how do you bring in not just locals, but also tourists from all over? We think it lies in the attractions that appeal to everyone
- Find a brand, or develop your own-One reason why Disney is hugely popular is because of the films that the rides are based off of. Frozen had a huge draw for crowds at Disney parks over the past year. They built their brand. Universal used someone else’s brand to bring in huge crowds when they opted for Harry Potter, Transformers and Simpsons. They are also building their own brand with Despicable Me, but right now it’s all about the Potter. SeaWorld needs to either attach themselves to a huge brand and make rides, attractions, and play areas based on that brand. The other option is just to create a brand, and base attractions on it. They already play with “Superheroes” revolving around animals, why not build on that?
- Get a new owner-Blackstone seems to be a huge thorn in their side, though they have deep pockets. It would actually be beneficial for them to cut all ties with Blackstone, and be their own company, or get bought out by a larger company that will let them do their thing. Being a publicly traded company right now is not going to help.
SeaWorld has a great park, and has touched millions of lives in their 50 years. They will play an essential role in getting people interested in the environment over the next few years, something that is going to be vital. Still, it’s going to take a lot of work to undo the damage done by both Blackstone and Blackfish, but it can be done.