FECs - Apex Parks Group - November 2017

APEX PARKS GROUP
FEC_logoThe Path Ahead

After CEO Al Weber’s unexpected passing, Apex Parks Group carries on his legacy 

by Mike Bederka

For several weeks, Gregg Borman could not believe the news—let alone focus on the day-to-day tasks of work. His longtime friend and close colleague, Al Weber Jr., the president and CEO of Apex Parks Group, passed away unexpectedly last November while vacationing in the British Virgin Islands. Weber, the 65-year-old industry leader and innovator, had just finished a snorkeling trip with his wife, Bonnie.

“It was quite a shock,” says Borman, senior vice president of operations for Apex. “Al was such a loved and respected person.”

Borman and Weber founded the Aliso Viejo, California-based company in 2014 after clicking at Palace Entertainment, where Weber served as CEO for a time. The two saw a hole in the family entertainment center (FEC)/water park/small amusement park market and jumped at the chance to acquire much of Palace’s portfolio.

“We always thought there was tremendous opportunity in this segment of the industry,” Weber told Funworld in late 2015. “It’s an under-tapped and under-capitalized area, and there hasn’t been a buyer in this space for quite some time. Having worked for Palace for a number of years, we all knew the parks and their management teams well. We thought the business was running below pace, so we believed we could step in and put a concentrated focus on the FEC side.” (See sidebar for more excerpts from this interview.)

John Fitzgerald delivered the news of Weber’s death to Borman. Fitzgerald, too, called Weber a tight colleague and friend after spending years working together at Paramount Parks.

“We talked about work, hiking, our private lives, health issues,” recalls Fitzgerald, who would frequently vacation with Weber. “I wouldn’t say we spoke daily, but it was pretty darn close to that.”

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FROM LEFT: John Fitzgerald, CEO of Apex Parks Group; Scott Cooper, general manager at Boomers Fountain Valley; and Andrea Page, director of finance at Indiana Beach. (Credit: Apex Parks Group)

A Bittersweet Beginning

The difficult process to find Apex’s new CEO began after several months of mourning. With emotions still running high, company Chief Financial Officer Brenda Morris and Vice President of Marketing and Sales Rebecca Tortorelli, along with Borman, all recommended to their partners that Fitzgerald be on the short list for interviews.

Along with his close bond with Weber, Fitzgerald had an impressive industry resume, including general manager and executive at several theme parks and, most recently, president of Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Jackson, New Jersey. (Prior to forming Apex, Weber was the interim CEO of Six Flags Entertainment Corp. and the company’s COO for two years, so their work lives crossed there, as well.) In addition, Fitzgerald served as a consultant to Apex on strategic initiatives. Apex announced Fitzgerald as the new CEO this past March. 

“If anyone on this planet had a sense of the direction where Al wanted to take this company,” Borman describes, “it was John.”

“We had many great times together,” says Fitzgerald, fighting back tears. “In all honesty, it’s bittersweet. There are constant reminders of him as I walk in the door. I sit in the same office as he did.”

About a year has passed since Weber’s death, and the Apex team continues to carry on his legacy while remaining focused on the path ahead. Fitzgerald says it would be hard for him to stray too far from what Weber hoped to accomplish with the company. After all, they share many of the same beliefs on priorities for the industry and how to create successful facilities—namely by having proud, satisfied team members who aspire to create fun and memorable experiences for their guests, Fitzgerald says: “At the core, that’s who are and what we will remain.”

An Active Pipeline

On the FEC end, Apex’s current portfolio includes eight Boomers locations in California, one in Boca Raton, Florida, and one in Houston, Texas, as well as the go-kart-centric SpeedZones in Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California. For water parks, the company has Sahara Sam’s Oasis in West Berlin, New Jersey, and Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park in Destin, Florida. The amusement resorts Indiana Beach in Monticello, Indiana, and Fantasy Island in Grand Island, New York, finish off its collection.

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Terrance Trotter, general manager at Boomers Livermore, (left) and John Fitzgerald, Apex Parks Group CEO (Credit: Apex Parks Group)

Fitzgerald is relatively tight-lipped on future acquisitions, except to say Apex has an active pipeline with a couple possibilities in the works. However, noting how Apex’s most recent acquisitions are gated properties (Indiana Beach in September 2015 and Fantasy Island in May 2016), he says the company may be interested in amusement parks in strong residential markets, especially if they have an attached water park; even standalone water parks could be on the radar. Any new FECs would have to fit easily within its current two brands—the all-ages Boomers or the high-adrenaline, teen/young adult-friendly SpeedZones—for smoother management and marketing from a corporate standpoint. 

“Our portfolio is diverse,” Fitzgerald explains. “What it comes down to is we want properties in good shape, but with our expertise and game plan in place, we can generate more incremental revenue and value for the customers. We’re not interested in parks that require a lot of tender loving care and would take a long time to get turned around.”

1711_Al_weberFrom the Archives

For the March 2016 issue of Funworld, we sat down with the Apex team to discuss, in part, priorities for the then relatively new company. Among them was a refocusing on the company’s core values, tenets that still stand true today. Here is what Gregg Borman and Al Weber Jr. said back then:

• Safety. “It’s about hiring the right people and giving them the best training we possibly can,” Borman said.

• Team. “We’re all-inclusive,” Borman said. “It’s not corporate pressing down on them.” Weber added, “We have created an organizational culture that collaborates on key strategies together. When you do that, good things will happen.”

• Integrity. “The management team has clear expectations,” Borman said. “They know the benchmarks and how they will be measured. Then, they can work toward achieving these goals.”

• Quality. “Everyone does their part,” Borman said. “Employees pick up every piece of paper they see on the ground and touch up the restrooms when they go in there.”

• Guest Satisfaction. “It doesn’t cost you anything to smile,” Weber said. “That makes a huge difference to the guest.” Borman added, “If you give everyone who walks in a memorable experience, that makes them want to return three, four, or five times a year. Then, you have success.”

To read the full March 2016 Funworld profile on Apex Parks Group and Al Weber, visit www.IAAPA.org/Funworld.

New Plans

When Apex debuted with a splash in 2014, it began a series of partial or full refreshes on its newly acquired properties, Borman says. The amount of investment at each facility varied based on the exact needs. For example, the Boomers in Santa Maria, California, received a $300,000 boost, while the one in Boca Raton benefited from a sizable $1 million jolt. Work ranged from fresh coats of paint and new carpet, tile, and counters, to resurfacing and restriping parking lots, to more games, rides, and attractions. 

“These refreshes increased guest satisfaction, revenue, and profitability across the board,” Borman says.

Next up for heavy investment will be the two SpeedZones, where among other things, Apex plans to grow social media integration and gamification elements to better cater to today’s tech-savvy guests, Fitzgerald says. “We’re constantly spending funds on updating our properties and bringing them into the 21st century.”

The company also will expand its successful season-pass package—a rarity in the FEC world—to SpeedZone this fall. The passes will be valid for all-day, everyday entry to the park. Plus, the company announced a season pass purchased at one location can be used at any other Apex facility.

“We’re constantly spending funds on updating our properties and bringing them into the 21st century.”
— John Fitzgerald

Along with the growth of its venues offering the season pass, Apex just added a new exclusive dining pass for pass holders to purchase at Indiana Beach, Fantasy Island, and Boomers in Modesto, California. The specific menu items included vary by location, but all pass holders receive a meal and snack at each visit.

“We’re committed to the season-pass program,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a great value message for our customers. They’re getting a lot of fun out of it and come back frequently. At the same time, it opens the door to incremental spends.”

A couple such add-ons Apex hopes resonate are the recent introductions of souvenir drink bottles and snack buckets, where guests get free refills for the year after purchasing the premium containers for a nominal price, Fitzgerald says.

Rounding out a busy few months of guest-focused developments, Apex extended the season’s end at Indiana Beach and Fantasy Island from Labor Day to October, adding Oktoberfest and Halloween celebrations. 

The company made some significant staff-facing upgrades, as well, such as launching a cloud platform for business spend, software to manage business license and permit compliance, and technology to help management better see and understand all the data that flow in, says CFO Brenda Morris.

“We’re marching in a direction where we provide parks with more robust systems to allow them to be better at what they do,” she says. “We don’t want them to be hamstrung by access to information.”

Morris joined the Apex team in October 2016, coming out of semi-retirement at Weber’s request. Morris only worked side by side with Weber for about a week, but he left an impression on her, nonetheless.

“He was an amazing, charismatic, and compassionate man,” she says. “He loved the amusement park industry. He had a vision for Apex, and we plan to continue to execute his plan. It was tragic that we lost Al, but we couldn’t have asked for someone better to take his place.”

Vice President of Marketing and Sales Rebecca Tortorelli, who has worked at Apex for almost two years and spent a great deal of time with Weber during her decade at Palace Entertainment, also experienced a “huge void” after Weber’s passing. However, she, too, feels like the Apex team has done justice to his memory and legacy.

“I think he would be proud of where we’re going,” she says.