The meeting was not going well. People gathered around the conference table were “grumpy,” and if there’s one of the seven dwarves Matt Ouimet cannot abide, it’s Grumpy.
So the newly installed president of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company called an abrupt halt to the proceedings, saying, “That’s it. We’re going to go ride ‘Top Thrill.’” He was referring, of course, to Cedar Point’s “Top Thrill Dragster,” the 420-foot-tall launch coaster whose yellow spires loom over the company’s headquarters along Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio.
What better cure for what ails your team than riding a roller coaster together at 120 mph? Ouimet tells the rest of the story this way:
“So we left the office, and as we were walking there was this woman who was probably in her early 20s who came up to me and said, ‘Hey, can you get us to the front of the line?’ And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I can.’
“So we took her and her friends with us to ‘Top Thrill,’ and we went to the front of the line. We rode the ride and she said thank you and everything, and then said something I’ll never forget: ‘Guys in ties don’t usually talk to people like us.’”
That scene is Matt Ouimet in a nutshell. He is an executive as comfortable strolling the midway as he is in the boardroom. He gets just as much joy from giving a couple kids free balloons as he does implementing a successful capital plan.
“We need to remember we’re in the fun business,” he says with an intense exuberance that never seems to leave his voice. “We get caught up sometimes in labor schedules and other things, but it
comes down to a basic human instinct—being treated a little special when you don’t anticipate it. I probably learned that from Disney. You just want to exceed expectations. You’re going to remember you got two free balloons.”
Ouimet made his name in the attractions industry during 17 years with The Walt Disney Company, where he went from executive general manager of Disney Vacation Club to president of Disney Cruise Line to president of The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, a title he held until 2006. During that run he helped shepherd Disneyland’s yearlong 50th anniversary extravaganza in 2005, a marketing and operational program so successful it continues to have ramifications today.
In June 2011, Ouimet became Cedar Fair’s president as part of a transitional period between himself and former president and CEO Dick Kinzel, who retired Jan. 3, 2012, after 40 years with the company. Now fully up and running as president and CEO, Ouimet takes over a company that just delivered its second consecutive year of record attendance, entertaining 23.4 million guests across 11 parks in North America.
In this wide-ranging interview the 53-year-old executive shares with Funworld why he took the job, his assessment of Cedar Fair as he enters his first full season as its leader, and the initiatives he’s putting in place to pave the way for the company’s future.
What led you to Cedar Fair?
When Dick announced his retirement, I got a call from a headhunter and I originally passed—this was in December [of 2010]. But then I got a call in January [of 2011] from one of the board members, and he gave me the vision of the board, which helped me understand there was an opportunity here that I could have an impact on. Then I came out here and met the team, and when I sat with the team I got a sense of their chemistry. They liked each other, and that’s not always the case.
After leaving Disney you went into the hotel business and then higher education. Did you always want to get back into the attractions industry?
I have a heart for it. The people in this business, their DNA is around hospitality, and they get psychological satisfaction from helping others. These are the same people who open the door for somebody or help their neighbor with the groceries. I missed that, but there aren’t many opportunities for someone like myself to have a platform of scale like this. So it was a pretty unique opportunity.
What part of your background is particularly applicable to your new role with Cedar Fair?
The large part in all of this is paying attention to the details and trying to see the experience—the emotional response—from the eye of the consumer. We will make mistakes along the way, but we’ll never open late. We’ll never compromise safety. We’ll always try to be walking the midway with our ears open. Disney taught me attention to detail.
You obviously love to be out in the park, getting the feel for both your employees and your guests.
[Disney Legend] Marty Sklar taught me very early on that we’re in the fun business. We forget that—not infrequently—in corporate America. I get reinvigorated walking through the park and like to catch [employees] doing things right. Lots of times in organizations it’s about trying to make sure the boss doesn’t see you do something wrong; I love being out there and seeing somebody go the extra mile. Fortunately, Cedar Fair does a lot of that.
You had a unique opportunity to transition into this role over the last six months of 2011. What was it like sliding into your new job?
I learned I had to temper myself, in terms of pace, because I’m not good at sliding—I’m more the cannonball-off-the-diving-board type. But what it let me do, most importantly, is spend time with my team and get to know them as individuals. Everybody’s motivated a little differently. So the biggest thing was getting to all the parks, spending time with the general managers, talking through things. We have the strongest GMs in the industry. Period.
It’s been a fascinating past couple years for Cedar Fair, where it faced investor relations issues all the while delivering record returns. Can you assess where the company is right now as you head into the 2012 season?
The company is very healthy, both from financial and transition standpoints. That being said, in the past couple years the company’s done the right thing in response to some criticism. The catalyst for some of the decisions was a little uncomfortable, but they weren’t the wrong decisions, necessarily. So I give the board enormous credit in acknowledging that and moving in the right direction.
We just need to have a great operating season. All of our investors—large or small—benefit if we have a great year, and that’s about execution.
Can you talk about the changes and adjustments you’ve made to the Cedar Fair leadership team and executive structure?
Sometimes when you come into these situations there’s a cause for more dramatic change in an organization. But what I was very pleased with was the quality of the team we already had. I have brought in a couple new people, but they were in positions that are either sales, sponsorship, or marketing; those are areas I believe we underinvested in, traditionally, and where we needed some people who have experiences outside of Cedar Fair.
You’ve said you want to market your parks as well as you operate them. Can you expound on that?
It’s not enough to make the guests happy when they’re here; it’s important to remind them they need to come back. The industry does not compete, necessarily, with itself but with every other discretionary entertainment dollar. In that regard, it’s about: Does my message resonate with you so you’ll choose to come back to one of the Cedar Fair parks versus all the other options you have?
It wasn’t something that was a priority for the company before. So I believe we have a huge opportunity there, and that’s where we’ve added some resources.
The company’s new “Thrills Connect” marketing campaign seems a plan to blend Cedar Fair’s traditional thrill-seeking audience with a broader, more family-oriented market. What can you say about this approach?
The best example for me is “Top Thrill Dragster.” There are bleachers there for people who aren’t riding the ride. That’s a shared experience that is “Thrills Connect” in the best way.
And then, I don’t care if you’ve never met the guy sitting next to you, when you go over the top of “Top Thrill Dragster” at over 400 feet, by the time you get done the two of you are smiling at each other and there’s a connection there. You do a rollback, and you’re probably best friends for a decade.
I’ve learned over time that marketing—particularly with all the noise that’s out there—needs to hit an emotional nerve. “Thrills Connect” reminds you everybody can still have fun here, even if you’re not brave enough to get on “Top Thrill.”
You’d been fully on the job only a few weeks when you held an investors meeting in New York City this past January, with some of the biggest financial institutions in the world represented in that room. Can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish there?
Cedar Fair had a need to tell its story. We didn’t have a history of telling our story broadly, so when we got into a bit of a challenging period, people didn’t know who we are, what we stand for, and where we’re going. So that’s what we tried to accomplish [in New York]. We’ll continue to get out there and tell our story.
It says a lot about our leadership team, because I would not have been comfortable doing that if we didn’t have the right people in the right places to start with. A lot of what I presented in Times Square were ideas and initiatives that were here when I got here. They may have been incubating, but they were here.
THE IN-PARK EXPERIENCE
Cedar Fair’s hallmark historically is its high-thrill coasters. What is your vision for the mix of attractions throughout the chain in the future?
It’s different for every park, but we have to continue to find ways for families to experience rides and attractions together. What Disney has done particularly well is highly themed rides that families ride together. It’s a challenge for the rest of the industry because it’s so costly, but we have to continue to look for those opportunities. It’s just so hard to do it at a rational level for regional amusement parks, to pull it off in an acceptable way. The log and mine rides at Knott’s work really well, but those are legacy projects you probably couldn’t even afford to do today.
But I want to make sure a family can come here and feel like everybody had a great time. So there will be a few more flat rides; our Planet Snoopy [children’s areas] have worked really well. The attractions menu and how we spend our capital is one of the best parts of the job, but it’s not perfect. You hope along the way you get a couple of good surprises.
Cedar Fair has not used licensed IP in its attractions in the past. Do you see that changing?
I don’t think you’ll see heavily themed attractions. I don’t think the economics of those work for us. I’d like to find more interactive attractions, where when you’re riding the ride something’s happening that you can participate in.
What do you mean when you say you want to work “hand in hand” with manufacturers?
What we’ve generally said is, here’s a piece of ground … what can you do? I would like to say, here’s my infrastructure … what can you do? How do you reprogram rides? When do you take an existing asset and change it so it’s both marketable and more fun for the consumer? The industry got caught a little bit in “the coaster wars” or whatever, but we cannot continue to build coasters that just cost more to go higher and faster.
Creativity happens when there are limitations. The idea is that within this framework and land constraints and marketing objectives, let’s create the best coaster we can.
What should manufacturers who want to work with you and your team know?
They need to partner with us to find great attractions and rides that are affordable and highly marketable. It’s math. The best surprises are when something works really well and doesn’t break the bank. We have 11 major parks; if we break the bank on any individual park, something else gets starved.
How do you want to change the way frontline employees interact with guests?
[For employees] it starts with respecting value and appreciating everybody, and then encouraging them to participate more in the fun of the guests. Safety is number one, but once you’re assured of safety you do see a difference in terms of certain people working certain rides. Some people are having fun with it, and some people are just doing a job. You ought to be able to help the guest have a better experience. It’s a better job when you get a little bit of freedom to put your personality into it.
So to summarize, what is your overall vision for what you want the guest experience to be like at Cedar Fair parks?
It’s the takeaway: I’m glad I spent my money here, and we have to do that again. They pull out the photos when they get home, and that’s the visceral, emotional reaction they have. We have to do that again. In this complicated world, if I can get people to laugh and smile, we’ve done something important. That’s a good day, and there’s not as many good days as there used to be. When I walk the park, that’s the juice I get.
Funworld Senior Editor Jeremy Schoolfield gets juice from walking parks, too. Contact him to come walk yours at jschoolfield@IAAPA.org.
Cedar Fair’s New E-Commerce Platform from Accesso
Ouimet has a favorite saying: “Before they grab their keys, they grab their keyboard.” Thus one of his first major moves was to bring in Lake Mary, Florida-based Accesso to overhaul Cedar Fair’s e-commerce and mobile platforms, in conjunction with brand-new websites for every park.
Implementing Accesso’s new Shopland 4.0 technology (for more, see the January 2012 issue of Funworld) allows Cedar Fair to upsell and cross-promote products and services in a way it hasn’t before; Cedar Fair will begin selling parking and meals ahead of time, while Ouimet envisions season pass sales becoming a subscription model similar to a cable bill. Meanwhile, Shopland also provides instantaneous statistics that Ouimet says will allow his team to better adapt to customer trends.
“From our standpoint, we get real-time data on a daily basis, so if something’s working particularly well or not we can respond to it. And then we’ll also have better information about the consumers themselves: where they’re coming from, how much they book, how far ahead of time they book, etc.,” Ouimet says. “Most of the world has been doing CRM—customer relationship marketing—for the better part of the last decade, and our industry has been a little bit behind on this.”
One of the core changes Ouimet is implementing is dynamic pricing across the Cedar Fair chain.
“It’s done well in the hotel industry and the cruise industry, but our particular industry has never thought of pricing in the same disciplined way,” he says. “We’re hiring some people internally to spend 100 percent of their time on pricing.”
Ouimet says Cedar Fair has already been dipping its toe in these waters with peak pricing during its annual “Halloween Haunt” events. He will also make sure the absolute best deal customers can find on a ticket is via the company’s own websites. Overall, he believes it will take a full two years to put his pricing strategies in place, but he’s committed to making dynamic pricing work.
New ‘Fast Lane’ Ticket Upgrade
In 2011 Cedar Fair’s Kings Island park in Mason, Ohio, debuted a front-of-the-line ticket upgrade called Fast Lane. It allows guests who purchase the option (developed and managed in-house) to jump onto any ride they choose, all day long, without waiting in any lines. Prices vary, but Kings Island advertises the program as costing as little as $30/person every day but Saturday.
Cedar Fair has toyed with similar options over the years, but the results for this iteration at just one location were overwhelmingly positive, Ouimet says, so now it is going into every park for 2012.
“This is a feature for the benefit-oriented consumer that helps us make more money so we can keep the other prices down,” he says. “The biggest change from the rest of the industry is we’re going to be very constrained in how many we sell. It only works if you sell just the right amount so the people that buy it get a good experience, but it doesn’t negatively impact the people who don’t buy it. I don’t want to get greedy. With these types of products, there’s a risk if you’re not careful.”
Increasing Food Quality Across the Chain
Heading into 2012 Ouimet pledges the quality of food at all Cedar Fair parks will be upgraded, specifically saying they will only sell fresh, never-frozen hamburgers. Cedar Point, meanwhile, is going back to its original french fry recipe, which was jettisoned about a decade ago during a labor shortage (the recipe is rather involved and takes about 20 minutes to complete). And Ouimet’s going to do all this without raising prices beyond normal industry standards.
“Food will always be more expensive in amusement parks than it is outside, but you should enjoy it. Whatever you decide to buy here, you should feel good about it. If I buy a $9 hamburger and it’s not great, I’m thinking, ‘I just got ripped off,’” he says. “What we’re actually doing is protecting our pricing. If you don’t have a quality product, then I’ll make a choice and go back to the parking lot and grab a sandwich. At many of our parks, there are fast-food locations across the street.”
3 Questions for COO Richard Zimmerman
Richard Zimmerman has more than 20 years’ experience in the attractions industry. He was GM of Kings Dominion when it was purchased by Cedar Fair in 2006 and has climbed the executive ranks since. In October 2011 he was named Cedar Fair’s chief operating officer.
You’ve had quite a range of experiences in your career, working under several dynamic leaders. What have you taken away from the various places you’ve been?
You stay in this business because you love it, and you try and learn something from everyone you work with. But it always goes back to the same thing: Take care of your customer. We love walking the midways and giving our guests more. The challenge is how do we do that year after year?
What are some specific experiences you bring to your new role as COO?
You have to pay attention to all the details, focusing on your customer and your employees. The better experience we can make it for our employees, the better experience our customer is going to have.
You’ve mentioned that you want the Cedar Fair parks to make an “opening statement” at the front gate. Can you give me some insight into that initiative?
We want to look at the first impression guests get when they walk through the gate, and also the last impression they take with them as they leave at the end of the day. One thing that’s worked for our “Halloween Haunt” events is bringing the monsters up to the entry area, interacting with our guests right away. We’re coming up with ways where we can start that guest experience the moment they hit our entry; the challenge will be different site by site, but we want to create an experience where our guests know they’ve arrived.
3 Questions for CFO Brian Witherow
Brian Witherow has been with Cedar Fair for 17 years in finance and investor relations. In January he was promoted to chief financial officer.
What’s important to Cedar Fair’s continued health and growth?
In the last year or so we’ve been looking at the consumer a little differently—more segmented. Back in the heyday of amusement parks, you could look at the consumer as more of a monolith; everybody was the same from A to Z. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
There’s a segment of our market that’s value oriented—they’re looking for a deal. And then there’s a segment of the market that’s benefit oriented, looking for the perks—Fast Lane, premium parking, those kinds of things. For us to continue to be successful we need to provide both segments of the market with what they want.
What does it mean to Cedar Fair to have its debt restructured and stable?
In 2010, we were successful in putting in a new debt structure that allows for operational flexibility, distribution payments to our investors, and, most importantly, has allowed our management team to get back to focusing on what’s most important, and that’s running the parks.
You’re looking to start expanding the scope of your corporate partnerships now?
Yes. In the past it’s been regional and sporadic; we’ve never made it a high priority, other than the pouring rights (Pepsi/Coke). Now we’re looking to bring partners in who want to get in front of our 23 million visitors.
3 Questions for EVP Phil Bender
Phil Bender has been with Cedar Fair since 1971, starting as a seasonal employee at Cedar Point. He is a former GM of Worlds of Fun in Kansas City and former regional vice president before becoming executive vice president of operations for the entire company in November 2010.
You’ve been with Cedar Fair since before it was even called Cedar Fair. What’s it been like to watch the company grow and evolve over the years?
Well, I guess I’ve been through it all. Prior to the Paramount acquisition the company was dominated by Cedar Point. We were highly dependent on how Cedar Point performed. The Paramount acquisition changed a lot of that and balanced our portfolio. It is a lot easier when you are managing a diversified portfolio versus being dependent on one park.
Can you talk about the initiatives you have for this season in food service?
There are two goals: We want to improve the quality and presentation of our food, and also change the perception of what our guests think of our food. We all had labor issues back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and everyone cut back on what they were doing in food service to make it as easy as they could. That’s changed for most of us—most of the parks do not have issues at this point hiring employees—yet we didn’t change our menus back to reflect this. If people think they’re getting a better value for their food, then they’re going to have a tendency to stay in the park longer and hopefully increase their spending.
What have you observed about Matt Ouimet to this point?
He’s fast-moving. Matt has a lot of great ideas, likes to bounce them off people, and likes to hear discussion on those ideas. That’s great. But he’s always moving a mile a minute. It’s a true team effort with Matt.