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    Credit: SCHLITTERBAHN WATERPARK RESORT; GRAPHICS DENISE BAKER, TIM BOBKO

Bienvenidos!

On four different Sundays last summer the tropical South Pacific-themed Magic Waters celebrated Fiesta Days. Guests at the Cherry Valley, Ill., waterpark enjoyed free Mexican food from a local restaurant, Latin music and activities, including piñata. A local Spanish-language radio station sponsored one Fiesta Day.

The reason for all the south of the border fun? To attract the growing Hispanic/Latino population.

“We pay really close attention to the demographics in our community and as we see the Latino population growing, we want to make sure we’re reaching out to every sector,” says Jessica Steinberg, director of Magic Waters.

With Fiesta Days, Steinberg and her team focused on attracting a segment of the community that has not regularly visited Magic Waters; and in today’s market, for waterpark operations to survive, that strategy is crucial, experts say.

In the past, building a new ride might have been enough to attract visitors. Undoubtedly, new attractions are still a draw, but such an undertaking necessitates significant capital expenditure, requiring funding for the project as well as any additional staff members a new ride may require, along with physical space in the park.

And thanks to increasing competition from other waterparks and leisure activities — such as video games — operators can no longer count on the “build it and they will come” phenomenon to ensure return on investment.

“What we’ve considered our competitive set is no longer relegated to just our industry, says Steve Shattuck, corporate director of communications at Great Wolf Resorts, based in Madison, Wis. “It’s anything that competes for families’ leisure time and precious discretionary incomes.”

What’s more, waterpark audiences are constantly growing older and developing new interests, so that perfect patron who fits your target this year, may not be interested in your waterpark next year.

All told, waterparks trying to grow, and those that just want to maintain status quo, need comprehensive plans to attract new customers — now more than ever.

New faces

So where do you start when it comes to finding new markets? Experts suggest there are a number of ways to approach it.

  • Geographically speaking. Is there a new community in the surrounding area that you haven’t targeted before? Do new highways or public transportation hubs make accessing your waterpark from an outlying city more convenient?
  • Demographics. An evaluation of your public may reveal new or emerging segments that would spend money at your park. New demographic groups might include those with special needs, or perhaps there’s a senior community you haven’t paid attention to in the past that would visit with their grandchildren.
  • Group think. Group visits are a great way to introduce people to your waterpark who may not otherwise visit. It’s also a great opportunity to “roll out the red carpet” and wow them with top-notch service that will make them want to come back on their own.

To determine which new markets might be a good fit for your park, there are several points to keep in mind.

First, take time to really understand what motivates the customers you already have. Who are they? How often do they come? What do they do when they visit, and why?

It’s a question of “Where in the pond can I find more fish like the fish I’m already getting?” notes Jeff Coy president of JLC Hospitality Consulting in Cave Creek, Ariz.

You’ll also want to take a hard look at what you offer and where you fit in the market. Are you a local attraction or a destination park? Do you have a family-friendly mix of amenities, or are your attractions more specific? There may be a huge teen segment that you could be targeting, but if your waterpark is more

focused on small children and doesn’t have enough thrills to excite teens, developing a campaign directed toward that group would be a waste of time.

Second, once you understand what drives your patrons, determine when you want more customers to come. If you’re already very busy on weekends, then targeting a market likely to visit your waterpark at that time may not be the best plan.

Consider times of the day, and days of the week,” marketing expert Tom Bergman says. “Figure out when you might have downtime. You don’t want to bring in more people when you’re crowded, which could end up resulting in diminishing returns.” Bergman, the president of Lake Geneva, Wis.-based Bergman Communications has worked with waterparks for close to 30 years.

Also pay close attention to evening hours, suggests David Sangree, president of Cleveland-based Hotel & Leisure Advisors. For many waterparks, that’s when business tends to taper off. Year-round operations also need to consider business patterns from an annual perspective.

Finally, make sure your price point is right for the audience you want to bring in. For example, if you’re trying to entice seniors, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your senior citizen discount.

Get out there!

“Some waterpark [operators] are out there who may still believe their audience is anyone who has a swimsuit, but once they start targeting, they quickly realize the benefits of focusing their efforts to those customers most likely to purchase,” says Shawn Bowman, the Dyer, Ind.-based president of IdeaSeat Marketing and Advertising, LLC | Waterpark-Marketing.com, who has specialized in waterpark marketing for nearly 15 years.

The fact is, the industry has matured to the point where different waterparks will attract certain types of audiences depending on the specific character of the park.

Just as the waterpark market has matured, so has communication technology. Between traditional media and online opportunities, there are so many channels to reach people that it’s more important than ever to pay close attention to where you’re spending your marketing dollars, especially when it comes to attracting new customers.

Different markets will likely need different information, Coy says. So you’ll also want to focus carefully on the messages you’re putting out there.

For example, if you decide to reach out to fire/rescue agencies to sell your facility as a place for them to conduct training, they’ll naturally have different needs than a family with children.

In developing a campaign focused on reaching new customers, perhaps the best place to start is online via your Website, social media and focused advertising.

Your Website is one of the first places that anyone is likely to go in seeking information on what your waterpark offers, and online platforms allow for a very targeted messaging strategy, which is ideal for reaching specific audiences. For instance, highlighting all of your ADA-compliant features and amenities for those with special needs is much easier on a Website or Facebook post than it is in a 30-second commercial.

“Social media as a whole has helped us get our brand out there,” says Stephanie Hee, marketing specialist at NRH2O Family Water Park in North Richland Hills, Texas.

Social media, such as Facebook, is unique in that it gives new guests a chance to ask questions directly to you, and your regular patrons.

In today’s economy that’s key, Shattuck says. In the wake of the recession, many people are likely to be less trusting of corporations and are turning to friends and other networks for answers, information and advice, he adds.

Another online tool that can be particularly effective in enticing budget-conscious newbies to try your waterpark is the group-buying concept. Every day, sites such as Groupon and Living Social feature local deals that are sent out via e-mail to their subscriber lists. Once a number of subscribers purchase the deal, it becomes “active” and those who purchase the deal redeem it directly with the business, plus they can promote it to friends and family via social networking.

A Groupon promotion was successful for The Beach Waterpark in Mason, Ohio. “We’ve reached out with a season pass offered on Groupon, says Kate Storch, executive marketing manager. “People who had never considered a season pass to the waterpark bought in.”

According to a report from Local Offer Network, a daily deal aggregator, group buying market gross revenues could grow as much as 138 percent to $2.7 billion this year. Looking ahead, smartphone apps and other new technologies will likely enhance and change the model even further.

“It’s the first marketing tool local businesses can use to harness the power of the Internet,” says Chad Nason, a spokesman for Groupon. And even those who don’t purchase the deal are still exposed to your message, he adds.

With the explosion of things such as Groupon, and the other free or low-cost marketing opportunities available via the Internet, it can be tempting to forgo traditional advertising, but resist the urge.

Waterparks need to advertise in the media outlets that their potential customers are utilizing, and that still includes print, radio, TV and billboards, for some groups more so than others, Sangree says.

Recently, Bergman’s clients have gone to more outdoor advertising, and that has helped them avoid media saturation. One well-placed billboard has a daily viewership of more than a million a day, he notes.

Another way to reach new customers may be with carefully placed marketing “experiences” and partnerships.

For summer 2011, the team at The Beach created an interactive marketing vehicle, transforming a Chrysler PT Cruiser into a tricked-out classic Woodie complete with a TV and Nintendo Wii gaming system. By June it was booked to appear at local events all summer long.

Creative partnerships geared toward attracting new guests might include teaming up with a hotel, Sangree suggests. This is a great option if a new market you’re considering is farther out.

Look inward

Ultimately, a stellar campaign attracting all the first-time visitors you can handle will fail if they don’t have a good experience when they show up. With today’s technology, they can tell everyone they know via text message and Facebook within minutes. That means once you’ve put your message out there, it’s more important than ever to wow your guests from the minute they pull into your parking lot.

First, make sure your actual experience matches what you’re selling online. For example, if you promise free inner tubes, you need to have enough available to serve your patrons, even during high-attendance hours.

Second, find ways to make the experience at your waterpark special and memorable.

“We’re surprised at how many people want to be treated special when they get here. They’ll pay for luxury,” Storch says. “Even small changes go a long way to enticing people. We’ve added a whole bunch of cabanas with waitress service.”

It may sound counterintuitive in an economy of cutting back, but for today’s consumers, the best value isn’t always about the cheapest price. Treating your guests to a little luxury can go a long way toward enticing them to establish the kind of connection that leads to long-standing traditions and relationships.

When it comes to new patrons, in particular, think carefully about what might make the experience ideal for them, then figure out ways to provide it. For example, if you decide to follow the lead of Magic Waters and begin advertising in a Spanish-language newspaper, do you have Spanish language signage, or Spanish-speaking staff members to serve those with limited English skills when they arrive?

In some cases, simply providing a new experience may be enough to attract some new groups of patrons — and that doesn’t have to mean adding the biggest, tallest, fastest new slide.

“We’ve done a lot of things to attract people who maybe aren’t comfortable hanging out in a bathing suit,” Storch says. “We added a putting green in the picnic grove. We’ve given those corporate groups one more option.”

Programming is another way to offer a new experience. Have you considered starting an evening water-walking fitness program in your lazy river? What about early morning swim lessons?

Ultimately, the right strategy for your park will be an individual one, but there is one universal truth. It all boils down to “hitting the target” Coy says. “Reaching the right person, in the right place, at the right time with the right message, using the right media.”