How theme parks can increase guest spending: Free water (or even free drinks)
Written by Robert Niles
Huh? If you're giving people something for free, how does that make them spend more?Tweet
Lemme back up for a minute, to answer that question. The biggest factor affecting how much someone spends in a theme park is how long that person stays in the park. So if you want your guests to spend more money, you've got to find a way to keep them in the park for more of the day.
In my first piece on this topic, I wrote about improving breakfast options in the parks, as a way to get more people into the parks earlier in the day. Free water is designed to keep them there later on summer days, when heat and dehydration combine to force many visitors to seek relief with an early retreat to their hotel, or, worse for the park, home.
Pretty much all parks do offer free water at their restaurants. If you ask. Or you can always stoop over at the nearest water fountain. I'm suggesting that parks get much more aggressive about it, to dramatically increase the percentage of people taking advantage.
Do like Dollywood, and line up cups of ice water on the counter, free for the taking. Or better yet, do like Holiday World, and place open drink cells throughout the park, so people can have all the free water - and soft drinks - they want.
Free soft drinks, I can hear you ask: Am I insane?
Soft drinks are among the highest margin items that theme parks sell. Giving them away surely would cripple the per-guest spending that we're trying to increase, right?
Maybe not. Free drinks not only encourage people to stay better hydrated, allowing them to last longer in the summer heat, they change people's mentality about the park.
The free drinks we got at Holiday World affected the way we thought about our money while we were in the park. By not having to spend two or three bucks a drink, we felt like we could more easily afford souvenirs and extra snacks later in the day. I'm convinced that we ended up spending more at Holiday World because of the free drinks than we would have without them.
For further proof, let's talk about our trip to Kings Island, later the same week. Spending three bucks per Coke left us feeling ripped off after the Holiday World experience, and helped convince me to keep the wallets shut when the kids started looking at souvenirs. The hassle of asking for water also led to us getting less than we did at Dollywood. So, when we were wavering in late afternoon about whether or not to stay longer, feeling tired and hot, we made the easy decision: leave.
Would we have chosen differently had Kings Island more aggressively offered free water, or free drinks? Probably.
Again, the key to higher guest spending is a longer day in the park. If giving away a three-dollar Coke (which actually costs the park pennies, if anything, giving pouring deals), helps keep guests there so that they can buy a $20 dinner or souvenir later in the day, that initial loss pays for itself.
When I attended the media day for Terminator: Salvation at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I saw Six Flags employees offering cold bottled water to every park employee and media rep at the ride. Park President Jay Thomas encouraged everyone to take one, imploring people to "stay hydrated" in the California desert sunshine.
Every park should be that aggressive in offering water to every guest when the temperature exceeds a certain mark. Even if a park decides against offering free soft drinks, it should put free cups of ice water out on all its food service counters and set up freely accessible water drink cells throughout the park, for people to refill their water bottles. Gross old water fountains don't cut it anymore.
Happy, healthy park guests spend more than cranky, ill-feeling ones. Providing cold drinks to everyone is a small expense for parks to take when compared to the money that they can make if more people stay, eat and shop in the parks later in the day.
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