How theme parks can increase guest spending: Improving food service throughout the day
Written by Robert Niles
While I sometimes enjoy buying souvenirs in theme parks, I spend far more money, overall, on food and drinks when I'm inside the parks.Tweet
So any discussion about increasing the amount of money that people spend must focus on in-park food service. Again, to bring infrequent readers up to speed, I've been writing several articles about how parks can help themselves by earning more money from each visitor spends in the park during this recession. But my suggestions are designed not to lead to more nickel-and-diming, but to show parks ways to increase the value of what they offer, so that we will want to spend more money, and will get better deals in return.
I've already written about breakfasts, and why parks should offer better options to lure visitors earlier in the day. And we've gone over why it makes sense for parks to offer free drinks to their guests in the parks.
Today, I'd like to talk about lunches, snacks and dinners. Here's my top advice:
Offer well-themed food and drinks
What's your favorite meal of the year? Mine is Thanksgiving dinner. Which is why I was completely captivated by the idea of a restaurant in Indiana's Holiday World that serves Thanksgiving dinner year-round. Not only does it fit the park's theme perfectly, it sounded just delicious.
And it was. (Though, as I mentioned at the time, I really would have loved the addition of a fresh cranberry sauce. Please, Mr. Koch!)
Theme park food should enhance the theme of a park. Holiday World's ongoing Thanksgiving feast does this, as does SeaWorld Orlando's Sharks Underwater Grill and Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Festhaus show. And Epcot's Future World provides the strongest example of dining as themed entertainment.
Such restaurants become additional attractions, ones that encourage visitors to dine in the park and consider those meals a benefit of the day, not a hassle.
Chain restaurants and snack stands not only fail to add to the theme of any park, they remind visitors of the world outside the park, on (literally) a gut level. People who are not mentally immersed in their theme park visit are far more likely to cut their day short, resulting in less in-park spending.
The fussier, the better
If there's one word I could use to describe what a theme park experience should be, it would be "special." Every experience you have within the park should be something that you can't easily or wouldn't frequently replicate outside.
When I worked in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, the longest line in the area often wasn't for a ride, it was for the Turkey Leg wagon. I rarely visit Legoland without stopping for a serving of apple fries. And who doesn't like to ogle the French pastries at Disney's Epcot?
Part of the appeal of a theme park snack also should include a moment of individual service to the guest, beyond handing you food-on-a-stick and taking your cash. Part of the appeal of getting cotton candy is watching the person twirl the cone in the bin, building your treat. That "specialness" is lost when parks sell cotton candy in a bag.
Let's put omelette stations in for breakfast, and crepe stations for snacks and lunch. Offer hand-dipped and fresh-fried corn dogs and only hand-pulled cotton candy. The more moments of individual service that a park can provide a guest, the better that guest will feel about the park, and the longer they'll stay. And that means more money for the park and more value for the guest.
Prepackaged snacks and meals look better on the park balance sheet in the short term, but only because those balance sheets don't account for real cost of lost service to park guests - less spending, lower satisfaction and fewer visits.
Lower calorie snacks
Few people think "theme park" and "healthy food" in the same thought. And, as I mentioned in the point above, theme park food should provide a special experience, outside of one's normal, daily diet.
But there's a practical reason why parks should offer more lower-calorie snacks, and it's the same reason I keep coming back to throughout these posts: parks should be doing whatever they can to encourage visitors to stay longer in the parks.
People who load up on high-calorie snacks are less likely to want to go on certain rides, limiting the number of attractions available to them throughout the day. They're more likely to want to either skip or minimize dinner, which can be both a lucrative meal for parks and an enticement to keep visitors in the park through the afternoon. High-calorie snacks and heat don't mix, either, leading to sick-to-their-stomach guests who don't enjoy their stay in the park and don't make plans to come back.
So push the popcorn... and the free water. Offer frozen fruit. Reduce snack portion sizes (and their prices). Forcing meal-sized (and priced) snacks on visitors in mid-afternoon leaves too many of them feeling fat and fleeced, not fun and refreshed for a longer stay in the park.
Offer less expensive options at lunch
Same principle. The idea is to keep the guest in the park until dinnertime (and beyond). A less-expensive lunch keeps money in their pockets for later in the day.
When we visited SeaWorld Orlando, we had lunch at Sharks, one of the most expensive restaurants in the theme park industry. We enjoyed it, but when dinnertime approached, we high-tailed it out of the park for a cheap pizza dinner back at grandma's house.
If the high-priced Sharks hadn't been open for lunch, we'd have eaten somewhere else in the park for that meal, then stayed for dinner at Sharks. And SeaWorld would have made more money from us. If Sharks had offered a lower-priced lunch menu, we still might have eaten there for lunch, but we'd have been more likely to stay in the park for dinner, too, since we wouldn't have blown so much on lunch. SeaWorld probably would have made more from us in that case, too, as we'd have stayed longer in the park, eating two meals rather than one.
Change the menu at dinner
If parks go less expensive for lunch, they should pull out all the stops and offer guests the option of larger, fancier entrees at the dinner hour.
That not only plays to Americans' (and others') cultural taste, the addition of dinner-only entree options rewards visitors for sticking around until the end of the afternoon. You can't get this good stuff at lunch.
When I first visited Disneyland's old Big Thunder Barbecue, I enjoyed the barbecue chicken I had for lunch. But I also noticed that it offered grilled trout and steaks for dinner. So I came back the next day to see if they were as good as the chicken. (They were.) Had Big Thunder BBQ offered the same menu at lunch and dinner, I wouldn't have returned, and with one fewer restaurant option in the park for that second day's dinner, the odds would have been greater than I might have left the park to eat elsewhere.
Again, I offer these suggestions in the hope that they will help both parks and visitors. Parks need money, but we demand value. There's plenty of room here for a mutually beneficial deal. But to find it, we need parks to quit looking so much as the short term and instead look for options that keep visitors in the parks longer, even if they cost park a little bit more upfront.
I think that parks will find that a little bit of patience can pay.
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