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    StrategyThe company invested in key areas to maintain its parks’ images and give customers a feeling of value and an oasis from the recession.ResultDespite the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, business is up this year across the nation.

When the recession first hit, cutting spending on upkeep was not an option for James Judy. If anything, he thought this was a good time to spend even more on upgrades, expansions and new features.

“We want our park facilities to be top-notch,” Judy explains. “So instead of getting into cuts and discounting, we’re trying to improve our perception.”

He knows how a nationwide financial pinch feels. The vice president of operations at Palace Entertainment and the owner/ operator of 10 waterparks in the U.S. and several theme parks as well, has been observing changes in consumer spending habits at the parks in the past few years across the country.

“Economic conditions aren’t great, but people are coming out to the park,” Judy says.  However, he adds, once they get there, they close their wallets when it comes to spending at the gift shops, concession stands and food counters.

Palace Entertainment operates 10 waterparks across the country in seven states: California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Its parks include Wet’n Wild Emerald Pointe in Greensboro, N.C.; Splish Splash in Long Island, N.Y.; and three Raging Waters in California (its most famous location, San Dimas, doubled as “Waterloo” in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). Despite some downturn in areas also due to poor weather last summer, Judy says business is actually picking up this year.

But just because there’s a downturn in the air, he points out, doesn’t mean the park needs to reflect what’s going on out there. Instead, it should be the place people use as a getaway or minivacation from their economic woes. So Palace Entertainment focused its efforts on keeping up the parks and giving people hope that not every business is hurting.

The company’s first steps were to examine how to increase the value and perception of the facilities. Even though each of the 10 parks is different and branded individually, similar changes were made across all of them.

“From an attraction basis, we’ll look at [putting in] the same attraction on the East and West Coast parks, and we have the same marketing plans,” he says. “Guests seem to react to [waterparks] similarly so we don’t really have to gear anything to them too much more.”

Specifically, Palace Entertainment invested heavily in upgrades to ensure the parks’ images were still well-kept and rang with their brand recognition. That included things as complicated and expensive as adding a new ride or attraction to things as easy and cost-effective as adding coats of fresh paint. Judy says the firm also upgraded the landscaping and changing rooms in the facilities.

Such changes are exceptionally important for visitors who might not have returned for a year or two, he explains. “It’s very important to give something new to market and put in a new feature.” Typically, the parks undergo maintenance, repainting, expansion and building during winter months. These past two winters have been no exception. If anything, they were an even bigger focus.

Making such upgrades and changes still cost more than a company may be willing to spend, so Judy’s team re-evaluated its expenditures. For example, landscaping was always outsourced. But because landscaping is regular maintenance, the firm brought landscaping in-house to cut prices and make equipment available on site. Buying equipment and adding the service was a high initial cost, but he says the overall savings was worth the price.

Small items also were renegotiated. Those that boost perception, such as employee uniforms, can be maintained without overspending, he points out.  It was still very important to retain professionalism and presentation in these areas as well. The company aggressively hunted for a better price for large bulk items such as employee uniforms, blank ticket stock, even chlorine for the pools. Judy says companies were “very eager” to renegotiate pricing. “We were able to save money on the same volume of purchases we made over the past few years,” he says.

Some amenities that would generate more revenue were expanded or enhanced. Locker rooms received an upgrade, and more lockers were added to several facilities. Family lockers, a popular item, were added and a higher fee charged. Even the cabana sections were expanded as a guest enhancement and a way to generate more revenue.

Where the differences do lie among the parks, other than physical layout, is in the weather. On the East Coast, people head to the waterparks regardless of whether it’s exceptionally hot or just a regular summer day. Visitors even come when it’s cloudy, Judy notes. On the West Coast, however, people are more picky about the weather. Another aspect is the differences in school calendars. For those situations, regular marketing channels still are relied upon to draw people out and maintain that the park is still up and functioning, despite the economic situation.

“There is not one magic switch we can pull that does everything,” Judy says. “We really have to take a look at everything across the board and assume that we’re running the parks well.”