It’s no secret the economic downturn — the worst since the Great Depression — has affected waterparks. To put it in water slide terms, most parks’ business is on the final curve, headed for an unknown splash pool.
“Assuming we pull out of this within a year, we will look back on these two years as kind of the ‘lost years’,” says Dan Martin, managing principal at Market and Feasibility Advisors, LLC, in Chicago. “There’s not a lot of money sloshing around in our economy, and very little that is going to waterparks.”
That said, not all waterparks are lost in this economy. In this annual Waterpark Issue, we profile four facilities that are finding their way. We call them “Survivor Waterparks,” and what they share in common are strategies to endure the recession — and, often, even capitalize on it. In many ways they embody the ups and downs, trials and rewards, the entire waterpark industry has been going through this turbulent year.
Overall, the state of the industry depends heavily on the category in which a facility falls and its location. Destination markets are struggling more than the public sector, Martin says.
In California and Nevada, where the state economies are performing very poorly and residents don’t take advantage of hot summers, waterparks are choking. New England has been faring decently in comparison, but the Midwest has struggled. In Texas, on the other hand, the parks have enjoyed increased attendance. Texas’ economy has been relatively stable compared with other states.
Weather has played a crucial role for many parks as well. Last year’s unseasonably cool and rainy temperatures in parts of the East and Midwest resulted in low attendance and therefore lower revenues. Though 2010 so far has shown promising recuperation across the nation, parks started strategizing early to bring those figures up.
Indoor waterpark resorts have been experiencing a slowdown in expansion, according to a survey by Hotel & Leisure Advisors, LLC. At least six of the 142 indoor resorts foreclosed or declared bankruptcy in 2009 or 2010, all located in the Midwest. But properties that succeeded generally fared better than the national hotel occupancy average. Great Wolf Resorts, for example, was down only 10.4 percent compared with the national hotel average of 16.7 percent decline in 2009.
Parks align themselves with family travel and believe because they are closer to home, or cost less than a travel vacation, people will choose them instead, Martin observes. But when it comes to family activities, waterparks actually fall in the middle of a cost lineup. Measured against a two-hour movie ticket, a waterpark can provide an entire day of active entertainment. Thus, the cost of “fun per hour” is better valued at the waterpark, Martin explains.
For that reason, discounting is a good strategy and it’s something many waterparks are doing. But it should be done sparingly, with coupons and deals, not reducing prices at the door. In addition, discounting should not be the only strategy. In some cases, it may be better to emphasize a waterpark’s affordability and its value instead.
In the end, the economic downturn will cycle itself out, and parks need to position themselves for that eventuality, Martin says. “There are two possible futures,” he says. “In either case, we’ll have the same attendance as we did a few years ago, or we will begin to climb.”