Most waterpark operators believe guests are willing to pay for high-quality experiences, so they’re ready to invest in new attractions, amenities, refurbishment and maintenance to generate that extra revenue over the next several years.

Those are just some of the findings in The Waterpark Benchmark Report 2014-2015 from the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. The report covers trends, operator concerns and  industry expectations. It was last published in 2011.

“Guests willing to pay for a higher-quality experience” was the hottest trend, with 66 percent of operators identifying it.

“People aren’t just looking to go down a slide or eat a meal,” explained Nicole Van Winkle, an account executive at Counsilman-Hunsaker who used to serve as waterpark manager for The Cove and the Drop Zone waterparks. “They’re looking for a cohesive experience.”

Knowing how to provide that experience will be key to success going forward, agreed Mark Moore, general manager of Gulf Islands Waterpark. “There’s no question this is a growth area,” Moore said, comparing a waterpark to a restaurant. “When you walk out the door, you’re aware of the money you’ve spent, but what you’re really evaluating is, what value did you get for what you spent? We’ve got to understand what customers value most.”

The answer to that question depends on the market and competition, said Moore, who’s also on the World Waterpark Association’s board. “Every park is going to be different,” he said.

He tasks managers with talking to customers to find out what they value most about the park.

A large percentage of operators — 42 percent — said they believe those needs and wants include adding a more extreme, thrill-oriented attraction to the park. That was especially true in the Europe/Middle East/Other region, where 65 percent indicated a plan to add extreme attractions.

But Van Winkle and Moore caution that adding a thrill ride alone isn’t enough in today’s market. Indeed, Moore described the extreme ride trend is an “arms race that will never end.”

Both agree that it boils down to the complete guest experience. “How does [the thrill ride] fit in with the rest of the park?” Van Winkle said. “It really depends on what that park already has and what the competition has as well.”

The report showed the attractions most likely to be added were the following by percentage:

Water coaster: 9 percent

  • Other: 9 percent
  • Speed slide: 8 percent
  • Family raft ride: 8 percent
  • Surfing simulator: 8 percent

Along with their ride mix, operators said they’re also concerned about guests relying more on review websites, such as TripAdvisor, for their information about parks. Overall, 44 percent marked such sites as a concern, but that number shot up to 69 percent in the Australia/New Zealand/China/Asia region.

But these websites can be valuable tools for improving guest experiences, Van Winkle said. “If you have a trend of specific things people are complaining about, that’s an opportunity to fix it and say, ‘Hey, we fixed it. Thanks for your feedback.’ As an industry, we could be more responsive to these sites.”

When it comes to investment plans, park operators of all sizes expect to invest in new attractions, guest amenities and repair, maintenance and refurbishment. A full 60 percent plan to spend on repairs, maintenance and refurbishment. Almost the same number (57 percent) will put money into guest amenities.

The focus on repair and maintenance reflects an industry still recovering from the recession. But it’s also just a sign of a maturing field — and another example of how operators are focusing on the guest experience, Moore said.

“Our challenge will always be how to provide something guests can’t turn down,” he said. “Waterparks are very much in the consumer mind-set, and they want us to continue to grow and become part of their community.”