Feature Article - September 2011
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Riding the Wave

Keeping Waterparks Afloat in a Choppy Economy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Whether you're aiming to be a regional day-long destination or a daily cooling-off spot, do an independent feasibility study, she suggested. Ideally you'd do this before you build the waterpark, but if you already have one, you could certainly get input from community stakeholders before you plan to expand or as you're determining the best direction for the future. "You have to have buy-in," she said. Be sure the community is excited and on board with your plans—especially if they're going to help pay for them.

"You definitely have to listen to your customers," agreed Magic Waters' Steinberg. "Feedback is critical to us." This park gathers input every year by surveying season pass holders, general admission visitors, and those who use their facility for private events or who come as a group. They also have a "Tiki Team" of about 40 season pass holders who indicated they'd be willing to be part of a feedback group. The park hosts special activities to get them involved, they've even spoken at staff meetings to provide a customer's perspective on how operations are going, and they've helped with mock emergency evacuation drills.

The staff also keeps a daily eye on their e-mail account, Facebook and Twitter, as well as a few travel Web sites, in case feedback is left there. "You have to base your operations on what your customers want," Steinberg explained. Each of the upgrades they've done at the park the past few years—from family changing rooms to a new waterslide to a more pleasant parking lot—can be traced back directly to comments they received from customers. "It's a really great feeling to be able to go back and say 'Here's what you said you wanted, and here's what you're getting,'" Steinberg said.

She's also a big fan of special promotions, particularly those conducted via the Internet, so there's no real advertising costs. Magic Waters encourages all their visitors to find them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter, and they reward them for doing so. Last year they had a one-day sale of discounted tickets, which was publicized for one week via Facebook and Twitter only. When the day arrived, they sold almost 2,000 tickets. In addition to jump-starting their season's sales before the park was even open, "it was a good way to check and see how many [online] followers we had out there," Steinberg said. Keeping these followers excited and involved, even in the off season, really builds buzz and makes sure they line up to get in when your doors open.

So, now you're armed with an array of ideas. Pick and choose the suggestions that seem most appropriate for your water-based setting, then get started. Even if the economy has made fun in the sun a challenge these last few seasons, with creativity as your guide and inventive marketing as your trusty sidekick, you'll soon be set to make a splash.