Sip, slurp, gulp, guzzle: The sounds of guests drinking soda, bottled water, iced coffee, and smoothies at amusement parks can mean big profits for operators.
“Beverages are an essential part of the park experience,” says Jon Vigue, assistant general manager of Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut. “[Operators] have gotten much more creative with their beverage programs, and the biggest reason is that it’s a great item from a profitability standpoint; there’s low cost and high markup.”
Creating a successful beverage program requires more than increasing cup sizes, stocking the trendiest drinks, and posting marketing materials around the park.
The Value of Value
When it comes to setting prices, Ken Whiting, president of Whiting’s Food Concessions and chair of IAAPA’s food and beverage committee, has some advice: Free sells.
“We emphasize free [soda] refills on all of our POS (point-of-service) materials,” explains Whiting, the concessionaire for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California. “As simple as that might sound, it’s yielded tremendous growth in unit volume.”
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of a number of parks selling souvenir bottles with discounted refills all season long. As an added incentive, the park decided to include a coupon for one free refill with the purchase price; additional refills are offered at 99 cents all season. Whiting admits park operators are often concerned about offering souvenir bottles with free refills, worried that families will purchase one bottle to share, instead of buying multiple nonrefillable drinks.
“It just doesn’t seem to happen—at least not at a level that’s impacted overall growth,” he says. “In fact, the opposite is true. In most cases, each member of the family gets their own [souvenir cup].”
Lake Compounce took its commitment to value to the extreme when the park began offering free soda to guests with the price of admission. It set up self-serve kiosks in 2003 and began promoting the value of the program.
“It’s expensive to drink all day long at the park, and our guests immediately see the value,” Vigue says. “If you’re charging $4 for a drink, you will get it but you won’t get it a lot. In other words, guests won’t keep going back and opening their wallets to spend $4 on a bottle of water because it’s too expensive. Here, guests can keep going back for free soda, and that kind of value is a big selling point for us.”
It’s not enough to offer great deals; parks also have to market them. Promoting specials on websites, brochures, and radio and TV advertisements allows guests to know about beverage values, but location matters, too.
At Adventureland Amusement Park in Farmingdale, New York, kiosks selling souvenir cups are located directly inside the front gate. According to park manager Bob Amoruso, guests are more likely to see the value of free refills at the beginning of the day. Placing those kiosks toward the back of the park means guests won’t see them until their visit is almost over.
“A souvenir cup with refills loses its value as the day goes on,” explains Amoruso.
Giving beverages their own locations will also help increase demand. For example, a kiosk that sells bottled drinks such as soda and water as well as iced coffee, smoothies, and Icee drinks will be less successful at attracting guest attention than a kiosk with a brightly colored, prominent sign advertising just one drink.
“Different beverages should be featured in different locations around the park, signed and promoted individually,” says Whiting. “Beverage sales are often based on impulse, and it’s impossible for guests to take in information about too many different drinks at once.”
Additionally, service is often faster at beverage kiosks and concession stands that specialize in a single product compared with those where multiple kinds of drinks are offered; that enhances the guest experience, according to Whiting.
The right signage is also essential for increasing beverage sales. The best price should be the most prominent, which means signs should advertise 99 cents for refills with the initial purchase price of the souvenir cup in smaller print, for example. It’s important not to waste space on irrelevant information.
“You don’t need to put the name of the park on the sign; people already know where they are,” says Amoruso. “Use that space to market the product, not the park.”
Vigue says he was skeptical about introducing a self-serve station for Icee Mix-it-Up drinks. The park had been offering Icee drinks in its concessions for quite some time, and the frozen beverages didn’t sell well. Something happened when the stations were transitioned into self-serve kiosks in 2008: Sales skyrocketed.
Letting guests mix and match colors and flavors turns the machines from simple beverage stations into park attractions. Enhancing the guest experience is just one of the reasons park operators like the do-it-yourself beverage stations: Letting guests help themselves to beverages also helps decrease lines and increases the speed of service at concession stands.
“Moving the soda and Icee stations outside of our food locations increased the speed of the food lines drastically and decreased our labor costs because we didn’t have one person dedicated to filling beverages,” says Vigue. “Over the last eight years, we’ve noticed an increase in food sales because we’re no longer serving soda [in our concessions].”
In 2010,WildWadiWaterpark in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, introduced a branded drink called Wadi punch. The drink—a mix of grenadine syrup, lemon juice, 7-Up, and ice—was a hit. Ralph Fernandes, the food and beverage manager for the park, attributes the success of Wadi punch to its one-of-a-kind appeal.
“We wanted to try it out and see if guests would be willing to try something new,” Fernandes says. “I think guests thought, ‘If you are at Wild Wadi, why not try a Wadi punch?’ It was a novelty.”
Wild Wadi also hosted a milkshake festival in 2010, setting up special kiosks throughout the park. Fernandes hoped offering a specialty drink on a limited basis would increase sales; it was also a test to decide if sales warranted adding milkshake kiosks throughout the park on a permanent basis. Sales were decent but, according to Fernandes, “We could have done better.”
Challenges of Choice
Offering several different kinds of beverages, either on a temporary or permanent basis, provides operators with one significant challenge: space. In addition to needing enough real estate to introduce kiosks and concessions, storing beverages is also a challenge.
With limited storage space at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Whiting had to negotiate with vendors. Instead of one large delivery each week, he works with vendors who are willing to make several smaller deliveries.
“The cost is nominal,” he says. “It definitely takes more staff time to manage inventory, but we had no choice because we just don’t have the space to store larger deliveries.”
While other parks were selling souvenir bottles with discounted refills, Whiting wasn’t convinced that lowering the price of soda refills at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was a good idea. As the trend continued, he decided to give it a try.
“When we finally lowered our [refill] prices seven years ago, we saw tremendous growth,” he says. “I learned that if something is working for another park it will probably work for you.”
Vigue learned a similar lesson when he introduced iced coffee at Lake Compounce last season. Other parks had been serving iced coffee for several years and reported strong sales, but Vigue questioned if park guests would be willing to pay a premium for the drink, especially when soda was free. After much debate, he decided to give it a shot.
The concept was so successful Lake Compounce decided to introduce an entire concession stand devoted to iced coffees this season. The food and beverage team is also exploring options for introducing a souvenir cup with a refill program specifically for iced coffee.
“On a good day, we’re selling 400 iced coffees! The sales numbers are great—and it prevents people from drinking free soda all day,” Vigue says.
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and frequent contributor to Funworld.