Preparing for the Next Meltdown
Even though it’s only been a few years, 2019 can feel like a lifetime ago for attraction owners and operators.
Going through an event as seismic as the COVID-19 pandemic severely altered the professional lives of those in the attractions industry.
“It was a record year for us, so we were very optimistic and hopeful for 2020,” shared Eric Anderson, president of Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Connecticut.
Victor Danau, director of operations and development for the Asia-Pacific region at Ripley Entertainment, recalls, “2019 was a great year. Everything was bustling. Everybody’s complaint was that you can’t get a coaster for years because everybody’s booked three years out.”
However, the global shutdown in March 2020 ended the era of good feelings.
For Danau, a two-week trip to a site in Australia turned into a seven-month sojourn. His wife had work to do on the Gold Coast as well, but the couple had the foresight to bring their son along for the mid-March trip from their home base of Vietnam.
“We started kind of seeing what was happening in China, and we said, ‘Let’s bring our son, Dexter, with us.’ We were okay to go,” Danau recalls. “We were actually at the Sea World Resort hotel in Gold Coast. And I’m talking to my parents in New York, who say the city is shutting down and cases are exploding.”
The rest is history. Business ground to a halt for the entertainment industry, shuttering attractions large and small, and stalling orders for manufacturers and suppliers.
“It was very bizarre to have every location around the world closed at one time,” Danau says.
Everyone in the industry worked to manage the situation—through government-imposed shutdowns, phased reopenings, and prolonged shutdowns for some.
Nicco Parks and Resorts Promoter-Director Rajive Kaul says his group’s attractions in India endured another extended closure because of the Delta variant of the virus.
“In March 2021, we were closed for four and a half months the second time around,” Kaul says. “None of us had in our risk register a thing called pandemic. We had floods, we had fire, we had earthquakes. Now, of course, we realize pandemics are a big thing.”
Surviving Another Shutdown
The cold reality of what occurred in March 2020 was that no precautions or preventative measures taken by a company could have prevented what occurred. The spread of COVID-19 led to governments enforcing mandatory shutdowns of nonessential businesses.
The last global pandemic occurred in 1918. Kaul says it would be wise to prepare for the next one much sooner than 2120.
“Things are being compacted. I don’t think there’s going to be 100 years between this pandemic and the next one. So, I think we have to be mentally prepared,” Kaul believes.
No matter what happens in the future, a similar event will lead to similar results: No guests means no income.
For those anxious moments when revenue drops to zero, operators believe that they’ll be better prepared for that reality—a contingency that was unthinkable prior to the pandemic’s emergence.
“One of the big things we learned is to keep a healthy cash balance,” Kaul says. Financial experts stress that individuals and families should keep a certain amount in savings for a rainy day—cash to handle a loss of a job, major home repair, or health issue. Attractions should be no different so it can withstand another indefinite shutdown without having to endure mass layoffs—or worse.
Adrea Gibbs is a seasoned creative consultant for attractions looking to grow. She says adjusting budgets to squirrel a large amount of money away isn’t easy but necessary to insulate your business against a potential crisis.
“Sadly, a lot of businesses in our industry closed because they just didn’t have the ability to be able to continue forward when there was no revenue coming in,” Gibbs says. “Certainly, many have contingencies built in for things like capital improvements or repairs, but sometimes, it’s not enough.”
This philosophy is vital for seasonal parks. Matthew Blumhardt, vice president and chief operating officer at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana, says his business was used to spending on a line of credit in the offseason, then having positive cash flow during the operating season.
Surviving the height of the pandemic caused a shift in philosophy for Blumhardt, who already ran what he felt was a conservative approach.
“I think parks might be a little reluctant to get back into big-dollar spending, at least for smaller independent parks, because I think COVID-19 taught us that … all of a sudden, the unthinkable takes place and you can’t operate the business,” Blumhardt tells Funworld. “We need to invest in the park. We need to put new rides in, but we also need to make sure we’ve got a nice big rainy-day fund in case something like this was to come out of left field again.”
Relying on Continued Technical Innovation
Operators will use lessons learned when emerging from COVID-19-related shutdowns to incorporate not only into future pandemic plans, but in day-to-day operations as well.
Anderson explains Quassy Amusement Park did away with discount days and promotions like 50-cent Friday nights when reopening since the park was forced to limit attendance. The change brought on a surprising result.
“When we were told we only had a 25% capacity, we eliminated all discount programs and basically went full price, which I think in the end proved to be the biggest eye-opener for us as a business. We literally matched what we were doing in 2018 in 2020 with the 25% capacity because we didn’t give everything away,” Anderson explained.
Kathleen Maher is the executive director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her decision to hold virtual events turned her local business into one with far wider appeal.
“You’re now serving anybody on the planet that wants to enjoy your programming,” Maher shared. “It was a mistake for some businesses to let go of the hybrid model. Lean into it; let’s not be afraid of this. Let’s really be a global community that we always talk about. Now, we really can act on it. Technology is not just something for fun. It is something that is going to be an applied tool to the way we exist in the future. It’s going to have more of a place in our daily work lives.”
Danau believes technology was also a great tool to help with the staffing issues the industry saw once businesses started opening up in 2021.
“It’s clear that I think people are not looking for those minimum-wage jobs where they’re working three jobs to stay afloat, so that means we’ll have to innovate and change those jobs,” Danau says. “In the future, it’s either going to be technology-driven or it’s going to be a student or some sort of a guest working program [filling those positions].”
Operators believe the bounce-back we’ve seen is a testament to the importance that attractions large and small have on everyday life.
“People are beginning to realize that entertainment and the arts industry has a huge place in society in terms of keeping people feeling uplifted and joyful and given that little bit of escapism,” Gibbs states.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that rebounding from a catastrophic event is possible—perhaps even likely. The key in the future will be taking the steps to endure shutdowns so that attractions can relish in the rebound.