Will activists targeting SeaWorld end up helping it instead?
Published: December 16, 2013 at 10:41 PM
SeaWorld's long been Enemy Number One of PETA and other organizations that want to end the practice of holding animals in captivity. As the world's leading brand in marine mammal parks, SeaWorld's a high profile target — one that established a practice of not fighting back against, and often, not even responding to, PR attacks. That allows anti-animal-captivity activists a free shot in news media, which they've been taking in launching a PR campaign against musical acts booked to play SeaWorld Orlando's annual "Bands, Brew, and BBQ" concert series.
Depending upon the count, seven or eight acts have pulled out so far, following change.org petition campaigns directed against them. Here's some perspective: Online petitions are probably the laziest form of activism imaginable. It takes next to no effort to gather "signatures" for an online petition. In fact, it's trivial to gin up an infinite number of "sock puppet" accounts to pad a signature total. If you want a better gauge of a movement's strength, look at its ability to put feet in the street or money in the bank.
On those counts, the anti-animal-captivity activists' campaign against SeaWorld has been a dud. Despite dozens of stories promising mass protests of SeaWorld's float at the Macy' Thanksgiving Parade, no significant number of protestors showed up — not enough to generate any major news coverage. SeaWorld beat Wall Street's estimates for the most recent quarter, and analysts have been upgrading the company's stock. With no feet on the street, and no ability to keep SeaWorld from putting money in the bank, all the activists have been able to do is drive bands away from the parks.
And even that, ultimately, might play into SeaWorld's favor. Concert series are one of many gimmicks that year-'round parks use to pump attendance during traditionally slower times of the year. In the summer and at Christmas, fans pack the park, without much need for special promotions. But when school's in session, theme park resorts turn to concert series, food festivals, merchandise events, conventions, and sports events to attract locals and tourists to the parks.
Among these, concert series featuring big-name acts might be the least cost-effective way to drive income in the parks. Participant-driven sports events, such as Disney's various half-marathon weekends, bring in thousands of visitors who pay their own ways to the resort. Conventions do the same for resorts with on-site hotels. Food and merchandise events are the best money-makers, though — attracting visitors looking to spend extra on food, drinks and souvenirs, which raises the park's all-important "average guest spending" number. But with big-name musical acts, the parks have to pay big appearance fees, and more often than not end up attracting visitors whose primary focus in on the band — and not necessarily spending money on extra stuff while in the park. It's nice to fill the park on what would otherwise be a lackluster attendance day, but companies would prefer to fill their parks with freer-spending guests if they could.
If the band boycott prompts SeaWorld to change the event's focus from the "Bands" to the "Brew & BBQ," the activists could be doing SeaWorld a huge favor. If SeaWorld can attract more fans who are coming to spend on food and beer, the company would be better off financially than it would be attracting fans who simply want to see a band. That helps boost park income. And if SeaWorld can keep the park filled while booking lesser-name or no-name musicians to complement the atmosphere, it will save on booking fees, too.
As usual, Disney provides the template. Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival helps pack that park during the otherwise-slow autumn months earning the company millions in additional food and alcohol sales, on top of the increased attendance. When Disney books musical acts to supplement the culinary entertainment, they're almost always no-name cover bands. The test for SeaWorld, therefore, is this: Can it earn more money with a event that skips big-name musical acts in favor of one that emphasizes money-earning food and alcohol sales, instead?
(Let's also pause a moment to note the irony of bands turning their back on SeaWorld over animal rights issues after initially agreeing to play a barbecue festival. That ain't tofu SeaWorld and its restaurant partners are cooking at this event.)
If SeaWorld ends up money ahead after this boycott, not only will it further embarrass the activists, it might also encourage more theme parks across the industry to reconsider the practice of booking big-name bands and celebrities in favor of other types of in-park events. Why spend money on something to promote your park, when you can promote your park with something that earns you money, instead?
Update (Dec. 20): On the animal care issue, SeaWorld finally has responded.