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CEO Speaks - January 2017

CEOs Agree: Every Experience Really Does Matter

by Michael Switow

“Every experience matters” is more than just a tagline for IAAPA Attractions Expo 2016—it’s a way of life for attraction operators in the 21st century, according to corporate leaders participating in a “CEO Speaks” panel discussion.

“Today we’re blessed in this industry that we have a generation that values experiences more than possessions,” Six Flags President and CEO John Duffey told attendees. “The downside is that their expectations are much higher than they ever have been.”

As a result, every single touchpoint—starting with the experience of buying a ticket online, through parking, entry, and in-park queues—needs to be a positive encounter, because guests are likely to remember, and talk about, the bad experiences the most. 

“Sometimes we get a little bit wrapped up in making sure we got some great new ride that we go out there and aggressively market, but there’s so much more that goes into the guest experience,” said Duffey, who became Six Flags’ CEO in February after serving as the company’s CFO for more than five years.

Success starts by knowing what your guests want. “We do millions of surveys every year.  We get a lot of data back; we react to that data quickly,” Duffey added.  “It is a changing industry. We’ve been adding sports bars and healthy food options. You never would have seen that 10 years ago.”

Six Flags also conducts random surveys on a weekly basis with its employees, many of whom are also among its shareholders thanks to a corporate stock-buying plan. “As a public company, it’s important to get all our employees to think not just about how they can enhance the guest experience, but how we can continue to increase shareholder value,” Duffey said. “It’s funny, when I go to a park and a maintenance person will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea. It will save us X amount of money and I’ve calculated it out and it would add like a quarter-cent to the share price.’  You know when you hear that, you’re like, ‘Wow, they really get it.’”

Ensuring effective communication throughout a company—via town hall meetings, CEO e-mails, and social media—is another key to success, though nothing beats a walk through the park.

“The people furthest from the guests are the least informed about who should be making decisions related to guest service,” said Eli Stovall, CEO of Icon Attractions, which develops and manages observation wheels. “Many times, we’ll be wrong if we’re not actively talking with the frontline staff.”

“In this industry, it’s all about people and, breaking it down further, it’s all about the team,” agreed Chris Deere, the chief executive of Rainbow’s End theme park in Auckland, New Zealand. “If we get that aspect right with our team, then the guest satisfaction and profitability will flow from that.”

Articulating a clear vision and having a strategy that’s easy to understand, the executives agreed, are essential steps for effectively engaging employees and running successful attractions.