Riding the Wave

Keeping Waterparks Afloat in a Choppy Economy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Lots of people out there are lamenting the economy these days, but if you're in charge of a waterpark, you don't have to be one of them. Sure, the general lack of extra money in the coffers may have put your expansion plans on hold, but that same dearth of funding is probably keeping many of your would-be customers closer to home. So, don't despair. We've compiled this guide to help you maximize the cash you do have and grow your fan base through some creative fun with your community. From simple fixes and easy upgrades to inventive programming, plus marketing your every move, we've got an array of ideas to help you float to the top. Get ready to ride the (economic) wave. Hang ten!

Fast Fixes

Even if the latest and greatest new water roller coaster isn't in the budget, you can still spruce up your existing equipment and the park that contains it.

For the 2011 season, instead of anything new, the Magic Waters Waterpark, part of the Rockford, Ill., park district, did some renovating. Its tube waterslides had been in place since about 1988, but a new gel coating made them "like brand new," reported Jessica Steinberg, director of the waterpark and Rockford's aquatics department. They did some behind-the-scenes work on the pumps and motors as well.

If your park includes a pool of some kind, you can add interest inexpensively by bringing in some new activities. Things like basketball goals and volleyball nets can generate new interest in an older space, suggested Jeff Bartley, a principal at Water's Edge Aquatic Design in Lenexa, Kan. And there are even less expensive options in the world of waterslides. "A lot of manufacturers have a lower-priced deck-top-style slide," he said. "Large waterslides can be $100,000 on up, but if you're looking for a deck-top series, it might be in the $10,000 to $20,000 range."

But, some communities are completely strapped for cash at the moment, acknowledged Melinda Kempfer of the business development department at Water Technology Inc. (WTI), a Beaver Dam, Wis.-based aquatic design firm. If you happen to be located in one of those communities, "walk into your facility like you don't work there," she suggests. "Look at the entrance—is it inviting? Is there garbage everywhere? Does it need a new paint job?"

Many fast fixes, from a new coat of paint to a little landscaping to a general cleanup, do not involve the waterslides at your park. "Little facelifts can really brighten your facility up," said Toni Nigrelli, also of WTI.

Perhaps there's no money in the budget for frilly items like a giant water-dumping bucket on a pole, but safety will surely get your city council or board members' attention. One of the hottest trends in the waterpark world has nothing to do with zipping teenage boys faster and faster down a water chute. "There's a focus on water quality and treatment," Bartley said. "Safety and security for patrons is the most recent trend." He suggested adding a UV system to enhance your chlorine's disinfecting power and prevent even more waterborne illnesses.

Kempfer added that regenerative-media filters are another way to improve water safety, and they improve efficiency and reduce water use as well, which means they fit into another popular and endlessly sellable category: green.

"Everybody wants to be green," she said. And there are lots of ways of doing so that enhance public safety and your bottom line, as well as caring for the earth. Consider a high-efficiency boiler, if you happen to need a new one, or variable-frequency drives to help regulate your machinery's electricity usage.

How to Sell It

Whatever you're able to renovate, improve or add to your facility, be sure you let your users and would-be users know about it. Have a program or activity coming up? Get the word out in advance!

"We've designed a lot of UV water systems in the past years, and a big factor is advertising and being able to tell community that you have the system in place to help prevent illnesses," said Water's Edge's Bartley. "A lot of UV systems are added for public relations."

As part of its tube-slide renovation project, the management at Magic Waters Waterpark held a naming contest and invited customers to get involved. The winner? Paradise Pipeline, which fits perfectly with the park's tiki theme. "Do your refurbs in a way that unveils something new and exciting and adds marketing buzz," Steinberg said.

Partnering with other groups and organizations in your community can also generate interest, as well as accomplish tasks that might be too expensive on your own. "If you can't afford landscaping, call the master gardeners group [in your community] and have them come in," Kempfer said. "Or talk to a greenhouse and see if they'll provide and maintain some flowers in exchange for a sign advertising their business." Then be sure they also put up a sign at their location urging the public to check out their work at your waterpark.

Having a presence at other community events can also be a boost. "Partner with local celebrations [so when people] buy a ticket, they get a free swim," suggested Bartley. If they enjoy your waterpark for free, they just might come back.

Easy Upgrades

If you are in a position to actually add something—which Randy Mendioroz with the Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif., said you should do at least every four years—you can still do it in a budget-friendly way. Prepare to become the most resourceful version of yourself.

Your goal is to attract more guests, keep them interested longer, and encourage them to return. So your first consideration might be whether you're reaching all ages and all aspects of your community. "From a philosophical standpoint, it's multigenerational design," Kempfer said. "Grandparents, teens and tweens, kids—gotta keep everybody happy."

Putting in a "sprayground" or splash pad that includes plenty of interactive water toys and fountains, but little or no actual standing water, will definitely please moms and tots (as well as save you staffing dollars because without standing water, no lifeguard is required). The latest water play areas include toys and sprays with special universal mounts so they can be "hot-swapped" from place to place, Mendioroz explained.

His firm recently did a project for a municipal client that wanted five different splash pads in various places around the city. "We designed each fairly similarly with the same number of elements, so now they can remove the sprays and pole elements and rotate them from one park to another like musical chairs," he said. "You get a fresh set of toys in each park." If you have a sprayground more than five years old, it may have toys not built with this interchangeable system. "It would be worth the investment to upgrade to swappable anchors," Mendioroz said. "It gives you a lot of flexibility."

Adding additional shade structures and providing more lounge chairs can be a great way to make your visitors more comfortable and more likely to stay put. WTI's Nigrelli even suggested putting some benches in the water to create a "social pool." Making sure there are plenty of in-park food options is another great way to encourage customers to hang around. The pros at WTI also suggest free wi-fi access, dry play areas, and spectator stations for those just interested in watching the action as ways to lengthen visits.

Another attention-grabbing trend is what Kempfer referred to as "skill-based attractions." In other words, something you really stink at on the first few attempts, so you have to come back again and again to get better. This could be something like a climbing wall in the pool or a wave machine where visitors can learn to surf. "This breeds competition between siblings and friends, and then it becomes a spectator attraction," she added. "Place that wave machine next to the concession stand where you've got everyone walking past."

At the upper end of the waterpark spectrum, Mendioroz reported that waterslides are becoming more and more like water-based roller coasters. Not only do they fling riders at faster speeds and through loops and drops and turns (to the tune of $1 million or more), but they use LED lights and special effects to enhance the experience. "They've got lightning, fog and video projection," he reported. "Crazy stuff." But who's to say you can't get crazy, too? Remake an existing slide or interactive play area by adding lights and sound. "Add special effects to get impact on the cheap with what you've already got," Mendioroz said. "Put the lipstick on the pig."

This can be especially effective if you tie your new elements in to a larger theme. Transforming your municipal waterpark into Pirate's Cove or Shipwreck Island or Monkey Jungle can provide lots of ways to add color and excitement and get your guests involved. Magic Waters Waterpark in Rockford has been building on their tiki theme for years now. This year's renovations included a new look for the Tiki Island interactive play area: They re-created their existing dump bucket as a giant pineapple.

Programming Power

It's true that having super-fun slides and the splashiest play areas is a big part of making your waterpark a desired destination. But don't stop there. You can increase repeat business, attract new customers, and get guests to actually plan ahead for a visit to your park by offering creative programming and special events.

And, before you call in the event planners, maybe just have a look around. "Capitalize on a benefit you already have that the public may not know about," Kempfer suggested. "Maybe you have water aerobics in the morning. Advertise that to doctor's offices or healthcare professionals."

If there's a point in the day when the guards are looking at an empty waterpark, that's when you need an activity, she explained. "Sometimes we forget what we have and how good it is," she said. "Toot your own horn!"

When the budget is stretched thin, think about "operational features," suggested Magic Waters' Steinberg. This waterpark introduced their "Tiki Tribe" of mascots in 2008, and they've been adding costumed staffers to interact with the kids since then. "Something as small as that can be new and exciting," she said. Magic Waters has also had great success in hosting special events, which create and promote a family-friendly environment, she explained.

On a recent Pirate Day they buried an array of inexpensive "treasures" in the sand volleyball court for kids to dig up. The staff and visitors both look forward to Christmas in July each year as well. "We really play it up," Steinberg said. The whole park gets decorated, Santa comes, and the staff has a snowman-building competition that's judged by the guests. "This creates something special for customers—a way to enjoy their day with family and create memories." And while Steinberg said a little investment of money up front can pay off big with an event like this, you may need to spend less than you think. "No one is using the Christmas decorations on July 25 except the waterpark," she said with a laugh. Perhaps your city or park district has some you can borrow, or the staff might even chip in theirs from home.

The Falls aquatic center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has benefitted from offering water exercise classes in the park's lazy river. People can walk either with or against the current, depending on how much resistance they want. Their park includes a regular rectangular swimming pool, so they also have a swim team and hosted the largest outdoor swim meet in the Midwest—with 670 swimmers—this past July. "While the meet was going on [in one pool], in the other two pools we had over 5,000 open-recreation swimmers," said Bruce Verink, Recreation Division manager for the City of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

"We do everything we can to reach out to different facets of the community," he added. "We get them there the first time and hope they'll come back on their own." These "outreach" events include a "doggie dip" at the end of the season. After the pool is closed to the public and the chlorine levels are being reduced, dogs are invited for a day of water fun. Last year 340 dogs and 700 people attended.

"Imagination is your only limitation as a facility operator," Verink said. "You can always find reasons not to do something, but good PR is worth it." Case in point, during a heat wave this past season, the water temperature in The Falls' zero-depth pool climbed to 92 degrees. Not so refreshing. After hours the staff emptied all the ice in the park's ice machine into the pool, but the next day the water was warm and bathtub-like all over again. This time, rather than raiding the ice machine, Verink put on his PR wizard's cap. After 6 p.m., anyone who brought a bag of ice with them could come into the park for free. The staff loaded up the ice in a wheelbarrow, then dumped it in the pool full of swimmers. "Think of the photo ops and how neat the kids will think that is," he said. "Yes, you give up $5 per youth in revenue, but by the time we try to cool the pool, we might have to dump 150,000 gallons of water. That goes unnoticed and has a cost as well."

Quick Tricks for Fast (and Inexpensive) Fun
  • Host a "dive-in" movie. Just hang a large sheet or find a blank, light-colored wall and project the movie there while viewers watch from the pool.
  • Have a "UFO night" where teens and adults can bring all sorts of (soft) throwable, flying objects to play with for a few hours in the pool.
  • Arrange an adventure race. Concoct a crazy course using all the elements of your park: zip down the waterslide, run against the lazy river's current, hop on the deck wearing flippers—anything goes! Then keep time and may the fastest fish win.
  • Create a new sport. The Falls is contemplating an "underwater hockey league," Verink said. After the park is closed for the evening, the puck would drop to the bottom of the pool, and players would use masks, snorkels and special short hockey sticks to play.
  • Offer a Guitar Hero or other sort of onsite competition, even if it has nothing to do with the water. Once the teen set sees what you have to offer, they may be back, and next time they'll bring their suits.

Rental Revenues

Ensuring adequate shade and space for all your patrons is a key to fostering goodwill and making your waterpark widely appealing, but if you have those bases covered, start to think like a commercial venue and take it to the next level by offering VIP rentals. (Your income will follow!)

If you don't already, one of the simplest ways to add revenue is by making your facility rentable for private events, from birthday parties to corporate gatherings. And don't just think evenings. The Falls has been rented by a local senior center on several Saturday mornings for everything from lazy river water-walking to lap swimming to grandkids day at the waterpark.

Once you've mastered the after-hours rental, look at your options during regular operating hours. Magic Waters in Rockford now does a thriving business with rentable cabanas. They began with a test run a few years back using three backyard cabanas Steinberg purchased on clearance at a home-improvement store. "Most indoor waterparks and resort waterparks have cabanas, and I thought it was a cool idea," she explained. They set up the cabanas in some unused space by the wave pool, and they sold out every day. "We had a waiting list and people were fighting over them," Steinberg recalled. So, she sent her staff to every home-improvement store in the area to find more.

Since this initial success they've also added some Las Vegas-style luxury cabanas, which come with TVs, a mini fridge stocked with water, and a lockable cabinet. They've also added rentable private "island patios" for larger groups, and "blaster bungalows" near their most popular ride, the Splash Blaster. These bungalow packages come with a "fast pass" that scoots the holder to the front of the line for that slide.

People love having a private space to use as their home base and meeting point, she explained. But the park is also very careful to provide plenty of free lounge chairs and shady spots for visitors, and they control the number of "fast passes" issued to be sure they aren't creating horrific waits for those without.

Economic Impact

You're probably extremely in touch with the economy's impact on your own operations, but here's a look at what some others are reporting. Whatever is happening, you're not alone!

Jessica Steinberg, Magic Waters Waterpark, Rockford, Ill.: "The economy has definitely made a big impact on our revenue stream. Over the past three years, we've seen decreases in revenue, particularly for groups. We still have organizations and businesses that are coming to the waterpark, but maybe in the past they used to come five or seven times a season. Now they've cut their budget and only come once or twice. We've also seen a decrease in businesses able to provide private events for employees. Or some of them are still doing private events, but they cut something out, like the catering."

Bruce Verink, The Falls, Cedar Falls, Iowa: "The economy here in Iowa really hasn't had a negative effect on our business per se. We still have lots of people coming here to vacation. At our recent swim meet I saw about 30 out-of-state cars in the parking lot."

Melinda Kempfer, Water Technology Inc., Beaver Dam, Wis.: "The economy is bad in the sense that there are a lot of stopped projects, but it's good in the sense that everybody's wallet's a little thinner. [People may not] have $200 a night for a resort or $25 a head for commercial waterpark, but when municipal waterparks start operating like commercial centers, they can attract people who want to do something fun. You can capitalize on that part of the market. Everyone is looking for affordable family entertainment."

More on Marketing

In addition to making sure your community knows all the good stuff you have to offer, you'll maximize your marketing power when you get a firm grasp on just who your community is, and when you use social media tools to create a community online.

There's another waterpark in the Cedar Falls metro area, according to The Falls' Verink. "It's a great facility," he said. "I take my own family there once a season." But, that's the difference: once a season. That park may be a spectacular destination, worthy of a whole day and perhaps even some planning ahead, but The Falls wants to be a more frequent place for customers to visit. "We realize our niche is not to be a big, commercial waterpark. We're meant to be a facility where you come four or five times a week—or even twice a day," he said.

And that knowledge is a great guide for Verink when it comes to everything from ticket pricing to activity planning. It costs much less to get into The Falls than the other park, and they sell a lot of season passes. They focus most of their marketing on the local community, but that doesn't mean word-of-mouth (the best marketing of all!) and events like the swim meet they host don't attract visitors from farther afield. "I got a call yesterday from a camp about 90 miles away, and they were coming," Verink said. "We've gotten a lot of press from the off-the-wall type programs we run. When the swim meet was here, the press ate that up."

Another way to know your audience? Talk to them. "If you build it they will come may work for baseball fields, but not this," Kempfer said. "You can have the greatest rides and neatest, most colorful stuff, but if you don't cater to your audience…"

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.

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