Great Wolf Resorts has always been proud of its amenities as an indoor waterpark destination for families. With large-scale indoor waterparks in tranquil settings, spas for parents, shopping, family restaurants and other great features, there was no doubt that people would have lots to do during their stays.
But as the economy began to affect the travel industry, including resorts, people began to think twice about spending on such lavish features.
What became more important, market research showed Great Wolf, was that people were choosing quality over quantity. Customers wanted to leave a vacation with memories of an excellent experience rather than souvenirs. This shift in market perception changed the communication for Great Wolf, which began tapping into the new value proposition immediately.
“We did find people were still willing to make room for affordable indulgences,” says Steve Shattuck, corporate director of communications for Madison, Wis.-based Great Wolf Resorts. “They still wanted to travel with their families and create memories, but were choosing to scale back.”
In other words, people were taking shorter trips closer to home.
Great Wolf Resorts consists of 12 indoor waterpark resorts across the nation, with a greater concentration in the Midwest, a location in Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and one in Canada. Each features a woodsy-themed resort with upscale family suites, a large indoor waterpark and other amenities for the whole family.
Last year, as companies and individuals cut back on travel spending, hotels and resorts felt a huge snap. “The entire industry held a collective breath because nobody knew what to expect,” Shattuck remembers. “2009 was an uncertain year for everyone because we didn’t know how consumers would react. It was a new economic reality.”
Cool, rainy weather in the Midwest and East coupled with a recession hurt many waterparks. But even though its waterparks are located indoors, the economic downturn shook Great Wolf as well — though not as badly as it feared. “We budgeted to be down 10 percent vs. the prior year,” Shattuck says. However, the drop was only 6 percent compared with the 20 percent fall of the overall lodging industry. “People were reeling back on huge indulgences and everything became a scrutinized purchase.”
Leisure and business travelers wanted to know exactly what the value of a dollar meant at the resort, Shattuck says. Communicating the message of Great Wolf as a well-spent dollar meant maintaining the marketing budget.
The resort then altered its marketing tone. “We would change things in radio and television advertising ever so slightly to make sure the value proposition was front and center,” he says. Commercials talked more about the experience at a Great Wolf Lodge rather than just feature selling. “We focused on the experience, which was how fun it is for your family.”
Great Wolf began to create packages at all its locations. Breakfast was included with room purchase, and the fact that waterpark passes were good for each day a guest was there, even if he or she only stayed one night, was strongly communicated.
“You’d think that would be self-evident, but not so in some of our newer markets who were unfamiliar with the indoor waterpark,” Shattuck says.
The resort also offers a “Paw Pass,” which is a package that includes the resort and amenities for one price — but the amenities were discounted nearly 20- to 30 percent off the a la carte price. Such amenities and programs include activities in the children’s room and MagiQuest, a live-action adventure game. Shattuck says there was a very large increase in purchases of the Paw Pass, which showed evidence that people were “truly looking for that value,” he notes. “We wanted people to know they had options.”
This type of thinking also applied to the group market sales. A few years ago, Great Wolf Resorts had identified a target market: the conference center. Attaching meeting spaces or building onto existing convention spaces allowed a huge influx of group sales. The move not only drew in families during the regular holiday seasons, but it also brought those families in at mid-week while parents attended meetings and conferences. It allowed the resort to function year 'round, all week long, and became an important part of the business model.
When companies began to scale back on travel spending, Great Wolf went through “the biggest downturn” in its group market. In response, the organization maintained a fully devoted group sales team at each resort, which continued to communicate with potential, past and existing clients.
Shattuck says the resorts also have become “much more flexible with our pricing options” in a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all attitude. Catering, for example, now will create custom menus to accommodate budgets.
Communicating the message that Great Wolf is a worthy investment with flexible pricing translates into loyalty, referrals and free word-of-mouth advertising. “That was a portion of our business we didn’t want to sacrifice, especially in the dawn of social media,” Shattuck says. “They have become our brand advocates.”