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Water Parks - October 2016

Funworld gathered water park leaders from around the world to provide their perspectives on today’s hottest topics

by James Careless

Looking for the latest and greatest attractions, becoming more environmentally friendly, and dealing with potential security threats: These are just some of the trends and issues confronting the world’s water parks today.

So what do general managers think of these challenges and the myriad others that confront them daily? To find out, Funworld talked with leaders from around the world for a discussion of the biggest trends and drivers in today’s industry. Join Bob Cordier, general manager of Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park in Destin, Florida; Casper Bonavent, director of operations for Legoland Malaysia Resort; Chris Swartz, general manager of Wild Wadi Waterpark in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Frederic Bouvard, president and CEO of Splashworld Provence, France; and Marcos Bittencourt, marketing manager at Thermas dos Laranjais in Olympia, Brazil, for a discussion on today’s successes and tomorrow’s promise.

What are the biggest trends—economic, social, marketing—driving water parks today?

Marcos Bittencourt: In Brazil, turbulence in the political and economic areas throughout the year 2015 brought crisis to companies and consumers, including Brazilian tourists. Even with all this, the water park managed to stay first in Brazil and among the five most visited water parks in the world and in the Top 20 of the Themed Entertainment Association/AECOM 2015 rankings.

Frederic Bouvard: I believe the biggest trend is to turn green. From an economic standpoint, it translates into higher CAPEX, but also turns into possibly significant lower OPEX, which is great news as the first metric used to value a park is based on the EBIDTA. So it is economically worth investing in eco-responsible systems.

Chris Swartz: I have noticed regionally that consumer behavior has changed, and they are looking for packages and discounts designed to drive value. This trend has provided both opportunities and challenges to moving the business forward.

What kinds of new rides and attractions are you interested in adding, and why?

Bittencourt: The developments that we see coming are new attractions that will further increase the adrenaline and enjoyment of visitors, in addition to being able to enjoy the beauty of the park. They include “Mountains Water Blaster,” “Enchanted Lakes,” new water slides, and more.

Casper Bonavent: Looking for new attractions that involve learning elements, fun, and promote new ways of playing is a constant, ongoing process. We see great responses to more interactive play, especially among the target group of our water park. It’s important to have a range of activities for the entire target group, as each age group is looking for a specific thrill level, play elements, and ways to spend time together.

With that, we recently launched the “Build-A-Boat” attraction at the water park where guests (young and young at heart) can enjoy building their own boats to race down the ramp. Apart from just fun, this attraction helps kids and adults be more creative and use imagination power to win the race. At the end of the day, it matches our main objective to create a fun-learning environment at Legoland Malaysia Resort.

Bouvard: Globally, we are interested in attractions, which create repeat visits and/or are visually spectacular. To be specific, we are looking at adding a giant surf pool, a water 5-D cinema, and a high-tech slide featuring programmable light effects over the coming years. The technology is not yet there—it just started on roller coasters—but we would be very interested in adding virtual reality to our slides and are keeping a close eye on the technical developments in this field.

Bob Cordier: We just installed a four-lane ProSlide Kraken Racer that we call the “Kowabunga Racer.” Since four riders can go at once, we felt it fit our family demographic very well. Future improvements will also focus on family rides, either tame or more exhilarating, to meet the needs of our target market.

Beside new rides, what technological upgrades have you made/are you planning to make?

Bittencourt: The park is developing a Wi-Fi system, a new website, mobile applications, attractions maps in 3-D on TVs, and modern turnstiles.

Bouvard: We have an RFID-based cashless system, which we are planning to develop by implementing RFID readers at each attraction entrance. This will allow us to precisely monitor our crowd movements. All this data will help us define strategies to better serve our guests in the same fashion that cookies in the web industry sell focused advertising spaces.

Cordier: Like many places, we are growing our online ticket sales and adding on ancillary items to increase per caps. We are also using geo-fencing this year. Geo-fencing allows us to target specific messages to online search engines based on where the searcher is located. For example, we will offer a discount if a guest makes an online purchase while they are at home or in the area, but we will not offer the discount if they are sitting in our parking lot while searching.

Swartz: We are completely revamping our website and online purchasing engine. As our park hosts guests from all over the world, the ability for us to communicate with potential guests on their schedule and in their own language is crucial. We want our presence on the web to not only allow guests to find out all the information about the park, but to be an economic driver for the park. It is still a work in progress, but we are very excited about the potential outcomes.

What steps have you taken to improve the guest experience at your water park?

Bittencourt: New entrance gates [for] ticket sales and tour operators all improve the quality of reception services for park visitors.

Bouvard: The most important key to improving guest satisfaction is to have engaging, caring, professional staff. It is totally useless to offer the most amazing attractions or an incredible themed environment if the service is not good. Maybe the most significant feature of our company is that absolutely all our staff (including the seasonal employees) benefit from a comprehensive three-week training program called the Splashworld Academy. It teaches them the fundamentals of the hospitality business in addition to the specifics of their job assignments.

Cordier: Abundant shade. This simple feature will extend guest stay and increase per caps. Guests do not want to bake in the sun all day. They don’t want hot sidewalks and they don’t want hot queues. Providing umbrellas is great, but we always work to plant trees and other vegetation to provide natural shade whenever possible.

What have you done to improve revenue generation at your park?

Bittencourt: Investment in opening a major attraction each year, several promotions, and working to realize the great potential of marketing.

Bouvard: We offer a large variety of in-park spending opportunities. We have implemented a cashless system, and [teach] selling strategies in the course of the Splashworld Academy.

Cordier: More cabanas. We now have 27 and could probably rent out 10 more on many days. All cabanas have servers, private lockers, and other features.

How has social media affected your marketing/promotion, and staff hiring/supervision procedures?

Bonavent: At Legoland Water Park we’ve seen great responses to our shared social media channels. Our recent update of adding a roof to some of the attractions has received comments from guests appreciating the initiative [that was made based on customer feedback], stating it will be a reason to come back to the park. Social media also allows us to take direct actions on any areas of improvement, and gives guest another way to give us a chance to improve.

Bouvard: Social media is an absolutely critical marketing/promotion tool, but, contrary to popular belief, it is not free. There is no magic to social media. To do it right, you need to invest significant resources. It’s a great tool for building an attractive image and keeping it alive, which contributes to making our operation a “sexy” place to work, and, in turn, attracts more potential employees than we actually need. It is also a great way to communicate internally—via a private staff group on Facebook, for instance.

Cordier: Without question, social media has made us better operators. It not only provides us with a new means to advertise and promote our parks, but it has made us more conscious of guest concerns and desires. The suggestion boxes we used in the past let us hear from a small segment of the population that took the time out to find the box and fill out the form. Nearly everyone uses social media and we are sure to hear very quickly about an issue. We have to be ready to respond to or correct any issues our guests bring to us.

What safety advances has your water park undertaken recently, and why?

Bonavent: As safety is the most important aspect in water park operations, we are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve. Having a global brand with high expectations, it’s important we deliver our service standards across the globe: in Asia, our two locations in the United States, and soon in the Middle East. Safety in the entire resort is the highest priority, and with constant revisions of all standard operating procedures and drills we make sure our parks are as safe as possible in all situations.

Bouvard: In France, the official lifeguard formation program does not address the specific need of water parks, so we complement the basics, such as lifeguard rotation and in-service programs, within our Splashworld Academy.

Cordier: Our focus is always to improve and reinforce seasonal training and continuing education for our full-time staff. We all know every year we have a brand new staff, but even returners need refreshers. Having a strong initial orientation, followed by individual departmental training, is the norm. Ongoing cashier audits, in-service training, morning meetings, and daily checklists all work to keep our employees focused and bring problems to our attention. Most facilities have worked out the structural safety issues. It’s the young seasonal employee who loses focus for a minute to talk to a friend that causes the most problems. You have to keep the continuing training fresh and relevant to keep the employees’ attention.

Swartz: Safety is and will always be our top priority. This is one area where compromise is not an option. Building on a very strong existing program, recently, we have begun developing better data analysis methodologies to spot small things before they become operational challenges. This supports our overall goal of preventing incidents before they can occur.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges your water park is facing going forward?

Bittencourt: The park is very committed to the following themes: environment, quality, sustainability, and water treatment—all while maintaining effective growth. The Brazilian crisis in 2015 was a key factor in the country’s economy, leveraging losses in all sectors, yet the park has grown and has been working hard to reach the top of the world rankings of water parks. Our project is being developed to meet about 35,000 visitors daily.

Cordier: From the tourist side, we are constantly facing new activities in the area that might pull potential guests away from us. For example, five years ago there were a few rental pontoon boats or wave runners in the area. Now there are multiple outlets that have a combined fleet of hundreds of boats. Their primary target is families. This is direct competition for us now that basically didn’t exist a few years ago.

On another note, we are always facing burnout. Locals and tourists visit year after year. What do we have to offer that is fresh and new that and will keep them interested and coming back year after year?

Bouvard: Our biggest opportunity is the potential to become a global leader through the development of other venues in France, Europe, and even [internationally]. Our goal is to create a worldwide chain, which will set the standard in terms of safety, staff courtesy, environment quality, staff efficiency, and entertainment value. Our belief is that by focusing on quality, the bottom line will follow.