Is Six Flags' new Membership Rewards program a game-changer?

August 16, 2018, 11:03 AM · Six Flags yesterday announced the launch of a new Membership Rewards program for park visitors. Like an airline frequent flyer program, Six Flags Membership Rewards will reward customers for visiting and spending in the parks with a variety of perks, including free park tickets, Flash Pass line-skip passes, and special in-park and VIP experiences.

The program won't be open to all Six Flags visitors — only to those who have the parks' membership passes. Memberships at Six Flags are like seasonal passes that automatically renew, in perpetuity. Think gym memberships... but where your "exercise" is airtime. The Six Flags Membership Rewards program is open to all Gold Plus, Platinum, Diamond, and Diamond Elite membership owners over the age of 12 who live in the United States and opt in to the program. (The last three are legal requirements for rewards programs.) While the program launches officially on January 1, 2019, Six Flags is opening a beta-like "early access" period on August 30, as it tests the program.

The program is points based, using the Six Flags app, with the following earning schedule:

Six Flags also says that it will offer members points for other activities including taking surveys and signing up for newsletters. No word yet on how many points will be needed to redeem rewards. I suspect that will be one of the big things tested and adjusted during the early access period, as Six Flags learns how quickly visitors will be accumulating points.

It's obvious from the schedule that the big points here are for spending money in the park. A $20 meal would earn you 500 points, dwarfing the points you could earn simply from visiting and checking in all over the place inside the park. So forget about the idea of truly "free" rewards. Like with most commercial loyalty programs, if you want the extra stuff, you will end up at least indirectly paying for it.

So why is Six Flags getting into this business? For the same reasons that any hospitality business starts a loyalty program. Six Flags wants to drive its visitors toward buying memberships instead of daily tickets and annual passes. Memberships provide the company with income stability, protecting it from declining attendance due to bad weather and other external factors. Once you buy that membership, Six Flags has that money and will keep getting it, going forward until you cancel.

Loyalty programs also provide companies like Six Flags with an enormous amount of data about their customers. With a membership rewards program, Six Flags now can correlate guest spending with specific visitation patterns. It will know when its highest-spending visitors come to the park and which rides and shows they frequent. That information is immensely valuable to the company in deciding which types of attractions to develop in the future, as it now will know for sure which ones drive the most spending elsewhere in the park.

Loyalty programs also help introduce customers to upsells that they might not have paid for in the past but decide they might like to pay for in the future, once they've tried them via a rewards freebie.

From movies to online content and now theme parks, many companies in the entertainment business are trying to move from a price-per-service model to subscription-based ones. (Think about Moviepass, Netflix, and now Six Flags.) If this works for Six Flags, will other chains in the theme park business follow with loyalty programs of their own, just as the airlines did?

Replies (11)

August 16, 2018 at 11:59 AM

It's the rewards-chasing effect: people will visit more and stay longer to accumulate more points and get more rewards. This has been extremely effective in pretty much every industry most notably the credit card companies where people psychologically think they're taking advantage of credit card companies but in reality they are getting screwed in every hole and the companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

I am not part of any rewards programs anywhere and pretty much ignore the whole thing because I know the vast majority of time it passes the point of diminishing returns in regards to the amount of time and money spent compared to value you are receiving. However, companies exist to make money and will do what makes money, so it doesn't bother me too much.

There is only one thing that I don't like about it and that is Flash Pass. If there is one thing the world does not need more of it's telling people that their experience will suck unless they pony up more $.

When the queue skip systems first appeared it wasn't so bad, it was a nice way to make some ancillary income to help with the costs of maintaining the park. They were sold far fewer and were strict about not selling any more when they sold out so that way the normal experience wasn't altered too much.

Nowadays they have become huge cash-cows and are totally out of control. Parks don't limit the amount sold anymore or have raised the limit every year in order to make more money. The executives/sales people have put the operators in a huge pickle because if a ride breaks down or loses capacity due to maintenance or staffing issues then you have swaths of people who now paid to skip the line and are demanding compensation, and the people who didn't buy it are basically SOL. When I went to CP earlier this year I was amazed to see that they had Fast Lane wait time signs.

The absolute worst i've ever seen is Horror Nights at Universal Orlando. They don't manage those sales at all they will literally jack up the price and just keep selling more and more until everyone has one. They literally have queue houses setup for Express Passes.

August 16, 2018 at 12:39 PM

Points systems with rewards can give a feeling of ownership. Annual pass holders often have a feeling of ownership with their pass. I'd love to hear how some of the big Six Flags fans feel about this.

August 16, 2018 at 1:06 PM

I HATE HATE HATE silly Memberships. When Six Flags and Sea World/Busch Gardens started moving to them, I began to cringe. The whole concept of a "season pass" is for guests to invest in a park from the beginning of a season and so the park had capital "in the bank" to operate and maintain the park for the entire season. Whether you got your money's worth out of the pass was up to you, but generally less than a handful of visits over the course of the year, and you were even. If the park didn't add anything new for the following season or if park operations declined at the end of the season, pass holders could choose to not renew their passes for the following year. It felt like pass holders had a voice in the direction of the park, and some parks (BGW in particular) were receptive to the ebbs and flows in annual pass purchases, and would make adjustments to prices, pass benefits, or park offerings.

Now with these monthly memberships, parks are trying to protect themselves from their own stupidity/mismanagement. They lock in guests to paying a monthly fee (even during months when their local park is not open) that rises at the whim of the park (just like daily admissions and season passes), taking the annual decision of whether you should renew for the following year based on the previous year's performance and future additions off the table. The monthly costs are minimal (just like Netflix and gym memberships), but when added up over the course of a year, end up being quite significant, and frequently more than what it used to cost for a season pass. Similarly, what appears to be a minor increase in the monthly membership cost (say from $15.99 to $16.99) would be perceived as a major increase from a season pass holder perspective, thus it allows parks to slowly jack up the price virtually unnoticed as managers hear the Ka-ching of the cash register grow louder and louder with every passing month and a few more cents added to the membership price here and there.

Like other memberships and subscriptions, the hope is that guests will simply forget that they're paying $XX.XX/month, or that they don't fully calculate how many visits per month are needed to break even (often because it's fractional equal to a visit every other month or every 6 weeks, not once or twice a month, or what was 4 or 5 times per year based on an annual commitment).

Now they want to muddy the waters even more by introducing a "rewards" layer to this. "Rewards" and "Loyalty" programs are the biggest rip-off in the digital age. The companies offering these programs derive far more value in terms of data and information than they ever give up in costs (even including administering the programs). This is especially true of programs like what Six Flags is proposing, where the rewards given to guests don't necessarily have a specific monetary value (like a single ride Flash Pass, ERT, or special members only events). So the park wants to charge people more than they currently do for season passes, track their every move in the park, offer extra rewards points to do their bidding (spend money in the parks, do surveys to give them more data, and come to the parks more frequently, in turn spending more money), and bill them incrementally every single month to the point that they're so numb to the recurring charges that they forget they're even paying them, just so they can avoid a few lines, visit the park when it's closed to regular guests, and maybe get a bucket of popcorn after a year of building up point??? NOPE, sorry...I'll keep my season pass thank you, and they will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands if they want me to invest in any silly Membership Program.

August 16, 2018 at 1:14 PM

I likewise hate memberships. So many people I see at SFGADV are walking around with their membership tags on lanyards and many others, on FB, are extolling the perks of membership. No thanks; you can keep it. Apart from not wanting to identify myself as a member, I don't want to be billed monthly and end up paying more in the long run than I would for a season pass. Unless they substantially increase the price of a season pass I'm staying with it. One-time payment of $87 (they tend to run promotions around Labor Day and Xmas holidays) for unlimited access to all Six Flags parks is good enough for me. I don't need any frills.

August 16, 2018 at 1:34 PM

Because I'm grandfathered-in with SeaWorld I keep that $12/month going for my 15 year old platinum pass. It's not as if I don't get my monies worth !! Other than that I get my annual passes on a year in year out basis. I too would not be interested in any perks, just too gimmicky for my liking. Only today Cedar Fair sent me the option to renew my pass for 2019, with the dangly carrot of a number of incentives, but for me it's just that I can get it at a good price if I book early, so I will be renewing.

August 16, 2018 at 3:37 PM

A couple of notes on the Season Pass that a there seem to be some mis-conceptions on above:
1. The way Six Flags does it, the price doesn't go up. Part of the intention of the pass is that you're locked in (I got a great deal a couple of years ago, and it hasn't changed).
2. The price is usually cheaper than the equivalent season pass, and is often more cost effective than even the cheaper season passes, especially when you factor in that the currently available memberships all include parking and discounts on food/merch in the park (much more so than normal passes/older memberships).
3. If you don't flash the card, you don't identify yourself as a member. Wearing the lanyard is optional...
4. Not all parks are seasonal now (Magic Mountain is open 365 days/year now).
5. One thing to note is that there is only a 1 year commitment, you can cancel anytime after (and Six Flags makes it pretty easy to cancel online).
6. A season pass bought in the middle of a season is only good for the rest of the season/year. A membership will be valid into the next season/year (so you're never paying full price for a partial year).

August 16, 2018 at 6:56 PM

I work a lot with marketing on the projects I'm involved in and rewards programs make people crazy. If they execute it well, I think it will be a good move for them. They'll have to be smart, because rewards programs can build up a huge liability. On-selling points to things like Rewards credit cards and other businesses is a huge earner for airlines in Australia also, maybe it will evolve that way too, at least in a limited way.

August 16, 2018 at 8:40 PM

I think it speaks to the fact that there are really two different kinds of theme park customers: those who are really invested in their local park and who really enjoy the idea of becoming "Members" so they can receive special value, unique experiences and exclusive events -- and then there are those who really aren't interested in any of these things and just want a season pass that lets them through the turnstiles.

The people in the first group are going to find the Six Flags Membership appealing, while the people in the second group will likely be happy to go with the cheapest ticket/pass available.

I appreciate that there appears to be a place for both types of guests: the company has said that they have no plans to eliminate Season Pass. But...much of the new benefits and features will go into the Membership program.

Perhaps that is fair -- Season Passes haven't changed much over the last twenty years, and I don't think anyone believes that all of these new benefits would have gone into Season Passes if they weren't being introduced as part of Membership.

The loyalty program is an interesting addition to the Six Flags Membership program. While some people question whether it maybe intended to drive visitation or in-park spending, I get the impression that it's true purpose is to serve as a fun diversion that that simply adds value to becoming a Member and maybe make guests feel a little better about their monthly payment. While most people likely won't earn free cabana rentals or private VIP tours, who doesn't want to occasionally get a free special something just for doing what they were going to do already?

Meanwhile...those guests who do visit a lot, and those who spend significant amounts of money in the park, will finally be recognized and rewarded in ways that they never were in the past. Honestly, without a program like this it is very difficult for a company the size of Six Flags to keep track of who "deserves" free funnel cakes and free ticket every once in a while (because they spent hundreds of dollars at the park) vs. those once a year visitors who may not.

At present, the park website has a lot of details about the program. However I'll be honest -- there is a lot more information we need to see before we can really judge if this program is good for the guest. We'll also need to see how well it is actively managed (contests, bonus coupon opportunities, etc) to know whether it is worth the trouble to participate.

Although that does bring up one final point: so far, all Six Flags has done is extend the brand by offering additional tiers of passes (which they called Membership). They don't seem to have taken anything away from the "old" tiers. And while the new rewards program seems to add even more value to the new levels, I'm failing to see how any of this hurts those who choose to stick with the regular Season Passes. So far it seems like all they've done is introduce additional choice.

Which is to say, anyone who ignores the Membership marketing, the Membership signs and the Membership cards hanging around people's necks can continue to enjoy their Season Passes exactly as they did before the new program was introduced -- hopefully at the same cost. Those who want to pay more in exchange for new benefits can choose to do so. Which in my book appears to be a win-win for everyone.

August 17, 2018 at 12:14 AM

I was initially pensive about memberships; they have existed for several years as a budgeting tool for families that could not front a huge sum all at once for season passes. That was never a factor for me as I have no children, and therefore never had a need for a membership.

Fast forward to this year and SF is suddenly adding tiers and value to memberships. Yes, I bought Diamond Elite passes but I will say right now I am getting my money's worth, hands down. Memberships are not for everyone but in my case I ran the numbers over a year and the perks far exceed the annual total I am now paying.

My biggest complaint about this program has been the sloppy rollout and execution. There are many staff members that do not even know how to handle the membership process. When I converted my existing 2018 season pass to a membership, it was a nightmare working out the details. In the end all was well as I was given full credit for my 2018 SP even though it was May and I have really enjoyed the perks. Truth be told, SF should have waited another year to roll out their new membership program. And now we have a rewards program coming....

August 17, 2018 at 1:06 AM

For Six Flags, this is actually a really good idea. One of the biggest issues the chain has is getting guests to spend money in the parks, and by offering a reward to those that do it may increase revenue and lead to more investment in the future. The main downside is that this may lead to fewer discounts on other options Six Flags currently offers at a really good price (particularly the dining pass), as guests who buy that are far less likely to buy food in the parks.

As for the membership idea as a whole, I've always been pretty neutral on it. I've currently got a regular season pass, but am considering switching to a membership for the next year (we'll see what the sale prices are this year) simply due to convenience and because I've got a feeling it will eventually replace season passes completely. It's not a model that would work at most other park chains, but when Six Flags builds their business on repeated visitation and low entry prices (with everything else as an upcharge) it isn't a bad model.

August 17, 2018 at 12:18 PM

I enjoyed my SFMM membership the 4 years or so I had it. Price only went up once in that time by around 25 cents. It was a great bargain if you went to the park just 2 or 3 times a year (especially because it included parking). The loyalty program is pretty an interesting idea, but I'd bet the rewards will be lackluster. If they think it'll coax me to spend more money in the park they're wrong. Their food service is so abysmal we make it a goal to spend no more than the cost of a bottle of water from a vending machine.

What I DIDN'T like was cancelling my membership. Because it turns out that you have to give a 2 week notice to your 30 day notice to cancel. Meaning they will always siphon off one extra month of membership fees out of you unless you read the fine print in the fine print. 2 weeks notice to give 30 days notice? Just say six weeks notice up front. Whatever, they got their extra $6.85 out of me.

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