Turn Ship - January 2017

Joel Manby sees 2017 as a key year in reclaiming SeaWorld’s image

by Jeremy Schoolfield

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment as we’ve known it is no more.

There may be some vestiges of the old company hanging around for a little while longer, but by and large this is a new day—a “50-year-old startup” looking to remake its image and rehabilitate its relationship with the public.

President and CEO Joel Manby joined SeaWorld in April 2015 amid the darkest period in the company’s history. It was reeling from “Blackfish,” a 2013 film that eviscerated the company’s care of orcas in captivity. Regardless of the accuracy or fairness of SeaWorld’s portrayal in the film, the ramifications were as black and white as a Shamu plush toy: a large segment of consumers abandoned the company. Revenues and attendance levels dropped, several corporate sponsors fled, and the stock price plummeted.

In his nearly two years on the job, Manby’s made many sweeping changes: he largely overhauled the C-suite; he laid out an entirely new company mission built around “experiences that matter”; and in December he enacted a restructuring and cost-savings plan that meant the elimination of jobs.

The highest-profile move of all, though, came on March 17, 2016, when SeaWorld announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States that included an end to the company’s orca breeding program. That decision is already having an effect on the way SeaWorld thinks about its future; as this issue was going to press, the company was preparing to make a major announcement about a new project in the Middle East that will be the first SeaWorld park without killer whales.

The international venture is just one example of how Manby feels he’s finally paved the way for recovery. There is still a long way to go, but this will be a big year for SeaWorld as it rolls out one of the largest capital investment lineups in its history ($175 million in total). These new rides, shows, and other experiences are a way to redefine the company, he says, and bring back those customers who washed away in the wake of “Blackfish.”

“The vision is to help inspire people to protect wild animals and their habitats,” Manby says. “As people become more concerned about the environment, that’s going to be the rising tide—to be a purpose-driven company.”

In this exclusive interview, Manby talks about why he took on such a challenging task, how he attacked the problems the company faced, and why the new SeaWorld is so different.

It’s been nearly two years since you took this job. To go back in time a bit, how did you make the decision to leave your post as president and CEO of Herschend Enterprises and join SeaWorld?

I loved Herschend. It’s a great company, and [co-founders] Jack and Pete [Herschend] are like second fathers to me after my own father passed away. There was absolutely no issue of me being there or them not wanting me to stay. But I had been there 15 years, and you don’t want to stay too long. And I was really excited about the challenge at SeaWorld. I’ve known the company my entire life—the first theme park I ever visited was Busch Gardens Williamsburg when I was a teenager. I’ve always loved the SeaWorld parks, and I wanted to be part of a turnaround because I thought they were getting a bad rap.

You came to the company at probably the most challenging point in its history. How prepared were you for what you’ve faced thus far?

I’ve been part of a number of turnarounds in my career, so that piece of it I felt very well-prepared for. Being the CEO of a public company … I had a lot of learning opportunities in my first six months. It was more about that than it was facing a tough challenge. I knew I had to come in and assess the situation quickly, and come up with a 100-day plan. When I interviewed for the position, I’d put together a 10-point thesis for what I thought needed to happen. I shared that with the board before I ever joined the company. I told the board this is a three- to five-year turnaround. The damage that happened to the brand—legislative issues, “Blackfish,” changing sentiments toward whales in captivity—it takes time to turn that ship. But we’re on track, and we’re going to get there.

What was your initial assessment of SeaWorld’s situation in 2015?

The quality of the parks is incredible, so it wasn’t an operating problem. We had a whale issue—something that was blocking the company from being able to tell our conservation and rescue story. I just had to get the truth out and get people to understand what the company is. Unfortunately, the whale issue was probably bigger than I thought, and the blocking of our truth was more difficult than I thought. That’s what led us to the decision [to end the orca breeding program].

What can you share about choosing to end SeaWorld’s orca breeding program?

It was the single toughest decision I’ve ever been involved with as a businessman. It was the ultimate paradox, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it: The number-one thing we’d built our brand around—Shamu—became the biggest reason people weren’t coming. The research was clear it had moved beyond just activists and became the mainstream thought for a lot of people who weren’t coming to the park anymore.

Will orcas continue to be a featured part of the SeaWorld experience? How will that change from the Shamu shows we’ve known?

We ended the orca breeding, but the whales will still be with us for 50 years or so—we have a long time to figure out how to pivot the business. We’ll transition the shows from entertainment focused to a live documentary-style presentation. The whales will still splash, for instance, but why do they do that? And what can you do to help protect them? That will start in San Diego in 2017 and then Orlando and San Antonio by 2019.

Since we made that announcement, our favorability ratings across the country improved 8 to 1. On a 5-to-1 ratio, people’s intent to visit us went up. Attendance is a lagging indicator, but we are seeing progress in California and Texas. So far, so good, but we have a lot of work to do.

Is your aggressive lineup of 2017 attractions meant to capitalize on those changing guest opinions of the parks and the brand?

Absolutely. In the near term, there’s a heavier emphasis on rides. We want to add more breadth of experiences at the SeaWorld parks. We’ve opened up a road here where we can tell our story and people will listen. What we do has a connection to conservation, but it’s still a lot of fun. That’s the needle we’re trying to thread.

During your time at Herschend, one of your primary objectives was ensuring the company was a good place to work and employees were proud to be there. Have you brought any of this with you to SeaWorld?

Everyone I’ve met here is passionate about animals, so that was here already. They just needed belief in themselves again because, unfortunately, we were under attack and some of them felt badly about working here. They’d show up at a grocery store or a softball game in a SeaWorld shirt and people might say something based on misguided information.

With our new mission of creating experiences that matter and focusing on our rescue brand, once that word is getting out, the company’s favorability rating is improving. With that comes a new pep in the step for our employees. They want to feel proud about who we are again, and that’s happening.

As we approach your two-year anniversary at SeaWorld, what’s your assessment of the company now?

I’m certainly not pleased with where our results are yet.  However, I’m really pleased with how much we’ve accomplished in a year and a half. I feel good about the progress on our five-point plan, the brand shift, and our new products for 2017. But we have to grow the business, and I firmly believe that’s going to happen.

2017 Attraction Lineup Delivers on ‘Fun and Meaningful’ Promise

In September 2016, SeaWorld announced a swath of new rides, shows, and other attractions debuting next year at its properties across North America. These offerings mark a new beginning for the company, officials say, and are emblematic of what the industry can expect from SeaWorld in the years to come. Here’s a brief look at what’s new this year:

Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster

SeaWorld San Antonio

This multi-launch coaster will send guests out over the water in custom jet-ski vehicles, re-creating an animal rescue.

Ocean Explorer

SeaWorld San Diego

This new realm geared toward younger children will feature a mix of aquariums and rides. The signature attraction will be “Submarine Quest,” an interactive experience where guests will compete to find the most data about deep-ocean creatures as they move through a physical and digital environment.

Electric Ocean

SeaWorld Orlando and San Diego

This new nighttime program will add lights, live entertainment, and other special entertainment across the park, changing the atmosphere once the sun goes down.

Kraken VR

SeaWorld Orlando

The park’s floorless roller coaster will be retrofitted with virtual reality headsets built into the train vehicles. The VR content will feature mythical creatures from the deep sea.

Orca Encounter

SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld will transition from the “Shamu” entertainment shows of the past to a “live documentary” presentation, highlighting how orcas behave in the wild. This more educational experience will spread to SeaWorld San Antonio and Orlando by 2019. 

Dolphin Nursery

SeaWorld Orlando

The park’s dolphin care facility will become more interactive, with large acrylic windows offering better views of the dolphins.


Busch Gardens W­illiamsburg

The park’s first wooden coaster will feature a 70-foot drop, nine airtime hills, and a 46-inch height requirement.

The Wildlife Docs: Live

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

This is a live version of SeaWorld’s Emmy-nominated weekly TV show, featuring live animals and presenters along with video presentations.

SeaWorld’s New Deep Blue Creative Team

One of Joel Manby’s new initiatives is the Deep Blue Creative team, a group of divisions within the company charged with developing “experiences that matter.”

“Our big picture is not to necessarily think of ourselves as a theme-park company, but as a company that can help guests connect to animals and the wild wonders of our world,” says Chief Creative Officer Anthony Esparza, who joined the company in 2015 after 12 years with Manby at Herschend Family Entertainment. “We are charging ahead and not looking back. The new attractions are the beginning, but the moves we’re making internally to rebuild the DNA of how we’re organized creatively is a big part of the future.”

Deep Blue Creative encompasses six divisions:

  • Theme Park Development, U.S.A.—new attractions
  • Theme Park Development, Global—new business opportunities beyond existing parks
  • Resort Development—new resorts, hotels, and other hospitality experiences
  • Events and Entertainment—live experiences and year-round special events
  • Media Enterprises—film, television, and music
  • Expedition X—long-range thinking, experimentation, and prototype development

It’s this last division that particularly excites Esparza: “Expedition X is where you can connect with us if you have something great we should know about. It’s a new time—like a 50-year-old startup company.”

Joel Manby’s 5-Point Plan for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

1. Establish a new mission statement: “Experiences that Matter”

SeaWorld is moving away from a purely entertainment strategy by better educating its customers that the money they spend with the company helps fund its work on behalf of animals and the environment. “The millennial generation, especially, wants to feel like they’re changing the world for the better when they support companies,” Manby says. “As you support SeaWorld, you’re supporting a broader mission.”

Incorporated into the brand shift is a new media campaign dubbed “Real.Amazing,” meant to better tie SeaWorld’s animal rescue program to its parks.

“This is the first time in a TV spot the company’s ever communicated our rescue operation alongside our park experience,” Manby says. “We show the release of sea turtles and sea lions back into the ocean. That is part of our mission and company history, but we never talked about it before.”

2. Deliver “fun and meaningful” attractions

This year marks SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s largest lineup of new attractions in the company’s history. A combination of roller coasters, live shows, nighttime entertainment, and more, these new attractions align with the company’s new mission.

“These are incredible thrill rides, but they also have a conservation message attached to them,” Manby says, citing “Wave Breaker” at SeaWorld San Antonio as an example, which is themed around the company’s animal rescue work. 

“We want to share information by touching your heart and sparking your interest through a thrilling roller coaster,” adds SeaWorld Chief Creative Officer Anthony Esparza. “We can’t just tell you about our rescues—we have to show you how rescuing works and why it’s important.”

3. Address challenges head-on

Prior to Manby’s arrival, SeaWorld had largely not responded to criticisms from the animal-rights community. In November 2015, Manby said: “We’re not going to be quiet anymore.” While the company’s new branding efforts lived up to that promise, the most important instance occurred in March 2016 when SeaWorld announced it would end its orca breeding program. Manby calls this the most difficult decision of his career, but says it was necessary to help the company move forward and change consumer perception of the brand. In addition, a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States includes conservation and education work on such topics as ocean health, shark finning, and the commercial killing of whales.

4. Find organic and strategic revenue growth

“We’ve done a lot in this area—simplified pricing models, better pricing ladders, and making sure we’re priced appropriately by market,” Manby says. “We need to prove that we’ve stabilized and we’re growing the core business again.”

In fall 2016, SeaWorld announced its plan to reduce and eventually suspend dividends to shareholders. Manby says this will allow the company to buy back what he believes are undervalued shares and increase available capital. He is also looking at expanding current facilities with additional gates, and is exploring potential resort accommodations at SeaWorld parks.

5. Emphasize financial discipline

“That’s focusing more on our margins, doing more with less capital, and ensuring everyone in the company is focused on growing revenue,” Manby says.