Water Parks - Offseason - November 2017

WET N WILD TORONTO1711_waterpark_logo

Make the Most of Your Waterpark's Offseason

Careful planning and forethought can set up a profitable next year

by James Careless

To the casual observer, a water park’s offseason is a quiet time when the facility is closed and nothing is happening. But to the professionals who run these parks, the offseason is a busy time where they fix problems encountered last summer, and get ready to shine when the gates open next year.

“The offseason is a critical time for us to prepare for the upcoming year,” says Matt Eckert, president and CEO of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana. “By the end of the current season, we have operating budgets, capital budgets, pricing, and HR strategies in place to set the stage for a successful season the next year.”

Effective water park managers employ a number of strategies during the offseason. Here’s how they do it.

Step #1: Review Last Season’s Successes and Challenges

You can’t use a road map effectively if you don’t know from where you are starting. In water park planning terms, this means reviewing what worked and what didn’t during the just-past season, so changes can be made to do things better next year.

“This is why we do an end-of-season recap as soon as the park has closed down,” says Jordan Leach, operations manager at Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “We get everyone together to go over the successes we had in 2017, and identify opportunities for improvement before we reopen in 2018.”

“We have weekly directors meetings during the offseason where the team comes together to discuss issues that need to be addressed,” says Eckert. “Many times, it is during these meetings we are able to develop changes in policies and procedures to make improvements.”

Step #2: Identify and Handle Maintenance and New-Construction Issues

“After the park closes is when you work out the details for starting con-struction as soon as you can, ideally so the ride is ready to go when the park opens next year.”—Nick Guevel, Silver Dollar City

The time when guests aren’t in the water park is the time to find and address maintenance issues so everything is ready to go next season. It is also the time to store rides, winterize pipes, protect landscaping, and do whatever else is required to minimize winter damage.

This said, it costs money to conduct maintenance, and no water park has a bottomless bank account. So, before anything major gets done at Wet’n’Wild in Toronto, Canada, “maintenance submits a list based on needs and wants,” says General Manager Steve Mayer. “Then a vetting process begins, with top priority being assigned to the most pressing repairs.”

The offseason can also be the time when new attractions are scheduled to be constructed. “The time to research, select, contract, lay out, and then install a new ride can take up to five years,” says Nick Guevel, director of operations at Silver Dollar City Attractions in Branson, Missouri. (Silver Dollar City operates the White Water water park in Branson.) “After the park closes is when you work out the details for starting construction as soon as you can, ideally so the ride is ready to go when the park opens next year.”

SILVER DOLLAR CITY ATTRACTIONSStep #3: Time to Make and Execute Big Plans

The water park season is a day-to-day affair, with managers constantly responding to the latest issues that arise when the gates are open. The offseason is when everyone can catch their breath, step back from thinking in the short-term, and then collectively reflect on what happened and what can happen to make their water parks better.

The water parks interviewed for this story all reported using the offseason to hold extensive planning meetings, both on a departmental and park-wide basis. At Wet’n’Wild Toronto, “we start with an analysis of the season past, looking at attendance trends, customer surveys, and the water park’s needs and opportunities,” says Mayer. “Then we go through a couple rounds of planning for the season to come that include capital considerations, marketing, attendance forecasting, pricing, and expense budgeting.”

One area that demands pre-planning is hiring new seasonal employees, largely drawn from local high school and college students who live around the water park. “We start running ads for new employees in January,” says Dollywood’s Leach. “We used to rely on the newspaper help-wanted ads, but these days we tend to reach out on social media and the web—because how many 16-year-olds do you know who read the newspaper?”

Another area that requires offseason planning is ticket sales, especially season passes that bring income into water parks when their gates are closed and admission revenues are not being collected. “We make a real effort to do pre-sales not just to bring in revenues earlier, but also to make life easier for our customers,” says Leach. “So we pre-sell water park admissions, parking, and anything else the guests need to make their arrivals at Dollywood hassle-free.”

Staying on Top of Trends

1711_offseason_2Given the level of competition for the consumer’s entertainment dollar, it is vital for water parks to stay on top of the latest trends in rides/attractions technology, popular food and beverages, and innovative merchandise.

Much of this intelligence can be gleaned from publications such as Funworld and industry events like IAAPA Expos. “We always like to see what’s new and different on the trade show floor, and what might work for our park,” says Silver Dollar City’s Nick Guevel.

Adding innovations like a vertical-entry system to a water slide can be the result of offseason brainstorming. (Wet N Wild Toronto

Another way of staying on top of things is by “talking to other water parks, and visiting their properties,” says Dollywood’s Jordan Leach. “The advantages of doing so include finding out what works and what doesn’t, and what unexpected issues may arise in setting up a new ride.”

Sometimes good trends advice can be found closer to home. A case in point: “Since we cater to families, I am able to gauge the interest of some items from my own kids,” says Matt Eckert of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. “For example, this year, fidget spinners were the craze. We offered those at the park and, quite honestly, could not keep them on the shelves. They sold as fast as we would stock them.”

This said, there is a danger to investing too quickly in new trends, namely when they turn out to be expensive flashes-in-the-pan with no long-lasting consumer traction. This is why a bit of caution is called for when deciding which trends to spend money on, says Wet’n’Wild Toronto’s Steve Mayer. “Don’t necessarily be the first mover,” he says. “If it’s a long-term winning trend, it will be there even if you’re not first.”

Step #4: Monitor Progress Constantly

The best planning process will fail if the plan isn’t executed on time. To monitor the plan’s execution effectively, its stages need to be mapped out with date-defined goals. 

“Date-defined goals allow managers to gauge whether the plan is on schedule or not, and to respond quickly if a delay is detected,” says Guevel. “Without such markers, you could find yourself behind schedule and running into the on-season, with everything being finished in a mad rush. That’s not the way to get things done.”

One final point: Make sure all departments know what the others are doing during the offseason, so unexpected conflicts don’t occur later on.

“By the time the offseason ends, we want to make sure that our rides and attractions look shiny and new and are operating at optimal performance,” says Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari’s Eckert. “In addition, we want to make sure our 2,000-plus hosts and hostesses are fully trained and ready to greet each and every one of our guests with smiling faces and welcoming words.”