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The Reward of Reviews - November 2016

How guest feedback can (and should) influence positive change at your attraction

by Keith Miller

Attractions are often lauded for entertaining and engaging rides, shows, exhibits, and adventure experiences. But, behind the scenes, there is a key component to their success that doesn’t often receive much attention: How well they gather, evaluate, and act on feedback from guests.

Whether customer reactions are gathered through face-to-face contact, formal surveys, website reviews, or social media polling and commentary, much can be learned from how thriving facilities process feedback and execute a response. Funworld asked four attractions—The ScareHouse, Alton Towers, Hannover Adventure Zoo, and Kennywood—to talk about how they gather, manage, and respond to guest feedback. 

The ScareHouse, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Unlike many other attractions that have operating seasons ranging about five months up to a year, The ScareHouse, which attracts a remarkable 40,000 guests, is open only two to four nights a week for about six weeks during the Halloween season. So its staff doesn’t have the luxury of spending weeks or months analyzing feedback.

“Every season we will change at least 50 percent of our experience and sometimes radically rebuild and rebrand two of the three attractions,” says ScareHouse founder and Creative Director Scott Simmons. “So right from the first night, we conduct quick surveys as customers exit, paying particular [attention] to feedback on the new experiences. We continue to tweak and alter our attractions weekend to weekend during the first few weeks of our season, using that initial customer feedback to drive our creative decisions.”

Following each operating weekend, Dr. Margee Kerr, ScareHouse’s in-house fear researcher and data analyst (and Funworld contributor in 2015), presents the results, along with her recommendations, to the two attraction owners and core members of the design, marketing, and customer service teams. Decisions are then made concerning changes to be carried out before the next weekend.

Simmons provides two insightful examples of how such guest feedback uncovered surprising opportunities for beneficial change. The first involves a new clown character introduced this past season; surveys and social media reaction revealed he was striking a chord. “We had never really intended for him to be our core, icon character,” reveals Simmons, “but the data didn’t lie—there was much more interest and reaction in his character and his scene, so we updated all of our marketing imagery within just a few days.”

The second example offers an interesting glimpse into guest perceptions. In 2014, ScareHouse produced an attraction filled with “shadow creatures”—actors in blackout suits that allowed them to hide in the shadows, create strange noises, and appear only briefly. Simmons explains the problem this created: “The attraction featured the same amount of cast members as in previous years, but initial guest feedback was consistently criticizing us for ‘cutting back on actors.’ Guests were experiencing a disconnect. They needed to sense performers in the attraction to feel as if they were getting full value for their admission. We adjusted some costuming and performances so it was more readily apparent that actual performers were generating the scares, and the scores improved considerably.”

When the season ends, the haunt conducts a more substantial online survey, which Simmons says is crucial because guests have the opportunity to think about their experiences. The surveys drive the decisions made in the offseason.

Alton Towers Resort, Staffordshire, England

To gather guest feedback, this Merlin Entertainments flagship park uses touchscreens or tablets located throughout attractions or at the exits, in addition to specific questionnaires for special events. Results are available to anyone across the company to view the park’s feedback and compare it with other Merlin sites. The company’s product excellence team monitors and evaluates these responses, as well as feedback from channels like TripAdvisor. Results, categorized by the areas to which they relate, are distributed weekly via e-mail throughout the organization, highlighting key pieces of feedback and areas of focus for the coming weeks.

Wayne Burton, head of product excellence and customer insight for Alton Towers, is responsible for carrying forward any comments or suggestions from guests and says the park constantly takes actions based on guest feedback. He gives a specific recent example of when the park responded in a big way.

“Following our Halloween ‘Scarefest’ in 2014,” he recalls, “we conducted a large-scale piece of research with guests and whilst the event scored very well overall … it showed that the repeat visitors to the event were starting to think it was becoming too similar each year and wanted changes. In 2015, we made significant changes to the event, including two brand-new scare mazes, two new scare zones, and [better] lighting, all of which improved the guest experience and the scores for repeat visitors.”

Hannover Adventure Zoo, Hannover, Germany

Every day, the Hannover Adventure Zoo distributes information sheets to 125 visitors asking them to participate in a survey addressing their visit. The guests can log onto a terminal in the zoo’s retail shop or complete the survey online at home. The zoo’s communication department tallies and processes the responses using what it terms a “special survey tool,” and then evaluates the responses.

Management has access to the survey tool and can access the results daily. Otherwise, responses are provided to department heads and other managers in a condensed version every four months; if a comment or suggestion—positive or negative—is deemed “outstanding or demanding,” it’s distributed immediately.

On a more personal level, the zoo offers guests the opportunity to visit its service center and write down their thoughts. Guests provide their mailing addresses, and the zoo’s service team personally answers the comments quickly.

Recent feedback has led to several additions by the zoo, according to Dr. Simone Hagenmeyer, the zoo’s press officer: “Guests told us they had difficulty finding the way to ‘Gorilla Mountain,’ so two years ago we altered the way leading there. Also, some guests said they’d like to read more about specific species, so we’ve been gradually expanding the signature and building edutainment points, giving information about zebras, antelopes, lions, caribou, and snowy owls. Another edutainment point for elephants will be opened next summer.”

Guest feedback has also included requests for special zones of rest—quiet areas for recovery between adventure experiences. Hagenmeyer says the facility constructed such spaces in 2016.

Kennywood, West Mifflin, Pennsylvania

Kennywood employees go face-to-face with guests to regularly conduct in-park surveys on iPads throughout the summer season. The park’s corporate office then tallies and ranks the results. The park also engages in secret shopper surveys approximately twice a month, and, in 2013, retained a research firm to conduct an in-depth survey. Nick Paradise, Kennywood’s director of public relations and social media, says his department also receives and responds to an enormous amount of feedback through social media—primarily Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Yelp.

Comments worthy of response and possible action are shared with management. Paradise says this is seen as crucial and is often handled by the park’s general manager and assistant general manager, or by the specific department heads to which the comments relate.

An ideal example of the park’s response to guest feedback involves a renovation of its “Noah’s Ark” attraction in the 1990s. At that time, its large whale-mouth entrance tunnel was removed, which prompted guest reaction. “This decision was unpopular with guests,” Paradise says, “and the cry to bring back the whale’s mouth has only grown over the years, with T-shirts in support of the idea and much social media conversation. Based on that feedback, last offseason’s major project was another overhaul of ‘Noah’s Ark,’ with the top priority being to rebuild the whale’s mouth entrance that generations of visitors knew, loved, and missed dearly.”

All of these attractions agree that in the future, electronic media of all types will play a greater role in the gathering and management of guest feedback. But ScareHouse’s Simmons emphasizes the need to maintain personal contact with guests: “It’s vital the customer knows we’re listening to them … and even if we can’t always give them what they want, more often than not they appreciate that we took the time to answer and can explain when something goes wrong. I think the key is to remember that surveys can help you with future planning and larger decisions, but it’s the customer service staff on the ground who need to be as empowered as possible.”

4 Tips to Solicit Effective Guest Feedback

Amusement Advantage Inc. provides mystery shopping, guest feedback, and guest experience management services to the attractions industry. Advantage President and General Manager Scot Carson gives four tips for using guest feedback:

1. Always solicit feedback and don’t be afraid of complaints

Track the percentage of feedback you receive compared with your total attendance and constantly seek to increase this percentage. When guests complain, they are providing a gift. They’re taking the time out of their day to provide meaningful information that can improve your business.

2. Document, document, document

It is vitally important to collect as much demographic information from guests as possible when they submit feedback so you can track trends over time and also prevent a “repeat offender” that might be taking advantage of things.

3. Always give them something

It doesn’t have to be a refund and it can be small. If it results in repeat business and positive word of mouth, it pays for itself.

4. Deliver compen­sation that generates ­revenue

Service recovery tools should be designed so the guest has to return and continue spending. Giving free return admission to an unsatisfied guest results in revenue through ancillary expenses such as parking, food and beverage, games, and retail.

Carson makes one final point that’s perhaps a bit surprising: “To a large extent, the attractions industry is failing to capitalize on [guest] satisfaction. When a guest walks out satisfied and we don’t do anything about it, we are flooring the gas pedal while the car’s in neutral.

“We need to do two things specifically: The first is to ensure they return … planting the seeds so the guest has a strong desire to continue patronizing the business. Second is that they help generate new business. Attractions need to be pushing guests to be posting positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp, along with being incentivized to introduce new guests to the attraction. Guest loyalty is achieved when satisfied guests become ambassadors of the business.”

Contact News Editor Keith Miller at kmiller@IAAPA.org.