How theme parks can increase guest spending: Better breakfasts
Written by Robert Niles
The recession is hurting theme parks, no doubt. Profit is down at almost all the chains, and Six Flags is running in the red, according to recent financial reports. Deep discounts have helped minimize the losses at the front gate, but that's cost parks even more on their bottom lines, as per guest spending has plunged. (Which makes sense: People coming to the parks on deep discounts spend less to get in - obviously - and tend to keep spending less once inside.)Tweet
So how can theme parks turn the corner? As fans, we want to see financially healthy theme parks. Discounts are great, but world-class new attractions, well-maintained parks and experienced employees are great, too. And we get those only when parks are making money over the long term. A profitable industry also encourages competition and the construction of new parks and park expansions.
Starting today, I'll be sharing some of the ideas I've had about what parks can do to increase in-park guest spending, based on what I've seen on my cross-country roadtrip this summer. None of my ideas will involve soaking customers, simply to wring more cash from us. (Ultimately, I write for the customers and am on their side.) My ideas are designed to suggest ways that parks can provide extra value to us, value that some (if not many) of us would be willing to pay a little extra to get.
Let's start with the beginning of the day.
Suggestion #1: Theme parks ought to offer more and better breakfast programs
A recent Theme Park Insider vote of the week found that just eight percent of theme park fans eat breakfast in the park. The plurality, 40 percent, ate at their hotels - many of which, presumably, offer free breakfast with the night's stay. But 21 percent of readers reported eating at an off-site restaurant. That's money that the parks could be, and should be, getting.
But to do that, parks have to provide more value than the outside restaurants do.
Here are two ways to do that:
1. Let breakfast eaters get in the park early. I love the program that Legoland California has offered. For an extra charge, visitors get an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the park's underrated Sports Cafe, as well as early access to all the rides in the park's Imagination Zone, including the Technic Coaster. Think of it as Disney's Early Magic Hours, but only for people who buy breakfast in the park.
Given that our number one piece of advice at Theme Park Insider is to get to the park early, how many more people would choose instead to eat at the park is that guaranteed them first crack at some of the parks' most popular attractions? Plenty, I'd bet.
2. Give breakfast eaters a unique interactive experience. Plenty of parks offer character breakfasts. While those provide great options for families with kids, parks shouldn't limit themselves to that segment of the market.
Breakfast with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego
Park managers should ask, with whom else might visitors want to have breakfast? The SeaWorld parks offer a popular Breakfast with Shamu program, where visitors eat a buffet while listening to and talking with the parks' killer whale trainers, who lead a show with the whales. Visitors sit next to a tank beside the main show tank, where they can get much closer to the whales than they can during the regular park performances. That's huge value (pun very much intended) for Shamu lovers.
You don't need killer whales to do that program. Parks with high-quality live entertainment could do a breakfast with the performers, offering both performances in a more intimate setting and a Q&A with the artists.
Oh wait, here's a third:
3. Do both. My biggest problem with character breakfasts and the like is that they leave me in a restaurant while other parks visitors are bagging rides with the shortest lines of the day. I love when parks offer an earlier option, where I can finish the breakfast before the park opens and... they let me ahead of the crowd at the rope drop to make my way back to the top rides. (FWIW, parks could double their money by offering a second run of the breakfast at park opening time for later arrivals.)
Granted, these programs tend to be more expensive than a regular breakfast, even if the extra expense is justified by the value delivered. But parks could do better in attracting dollars from visitors who don't want to spend anything extra, beyond the typical cost of a restaurant breakfast.
4. Offer more variety and higher quality at the front of the park. Visitors should be able to choose from a traditional full breakfast (eggs, waffles or pancakes, meat, etc.) or lighter fare, such as yogurt, fruit, cereal and pastries. Park managers should scope out what hotels at their visitors' price points are offering and replicate that. I'd love to see a theme park with omelette and waffle stations, in addition to heat lamp and refrigerator case selections. (Bonus points for egg white and soy options, too.)
And whatever choices a park offers, put them at the front of the park, in front of the rope drop, so that early arrivals can finish their breakfast before entering the park.
I've saved my biggest suggestion for last, though. If parks do nothing else to better serve potential breakfast customers, they should do this:
5. Get a decent coffee vendor. On our entire roadtrip, my coffee aficionado wife reported getting exactly one decent coffee drink in a theme park.
At the Starbucks on International Street in Kings Island.
For all the great food we had otherwise at the two Busch parks we visited, the coffee was consistently lame. Either spend the bucks to install a fancy machine and lure some good baristas to run it, or contract out to a firm like Starbucks, Peets or Coffee Bean. Spring for high quality beans, tea, milk (including soy) and syrups, too. Instant coffee and flavored artificial creamers don't cut it anymore.
So... what do you have to say about theme park breakfast options? What would you like to see?
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