Things may be looking up for SeaWorld on paper, but whether or not it returns to its former strengths has more to do with changing consumer sentiment than competition or its own marketing efforts.
Repairing a brand’s damaged image requires a trusted network, a lot of time and, in SeaWorld’s case, $15 million — a sticking point for an ongoing reputation campaign that the company says it likely won’t increase in 2016.
CEO Joel Manby told investors and analysts during the company’s third quarter earnings call Thursday that SeaWorld will likely get creative with how it funds its reputation campaign rather than increasing that spending.
“I think in 2016 we are hoping – I don’t want to commit that we can do more with less, but I would say if we spend the same amount of money and apply the learnings, we will be even more effective in 2016 through our spending,” said Manby. “So I think even if we keep those expenses the same at a broader level, I do think this company – we have opportunities on the cost side elsewhere and we will try to apply that; even if our reputation spend’s flat we have to find efficiencies elsewhere in the company if that continues.”
“We’ve learned quite a bit about what works in this regard and believe that going forward we can be more effective at relatively equal spending levels as this year. So big picture we definitely see things stabilizing. Has it completely stabilized? No, but it’s definitely heading in the right direction and we do have plans to keep spending on our reputation campaign.”
SeaWorld’s Texas and Florida theme parks were disadvantaged by hurricanes and strong rains in the third quarter which impacted attendance and operations, but Mother Nature isn’t the only factor Manby blames for ticket sale losses. Among other missteps, the theme park is still reeling from the Blackfish documentary that revealed questionable practices at its three marine parks in San Diego, California; San Antonio, Texas; and Orlando, Florida.
“We did have some marketing missteps, I think, that we are correcting,” said Manby. “We not only had [bad weather] in the spring, which really hurt our season pass sales and our Fun Card sales in the spring, and when you sell predominantly in the spring and you have huge weather issues, that hurts you the rest of the year. We are basically moving to an advance purchase philosophy. Making it best price, buy early and save, fairly typical strategy.”
“I don’t think our greatest opportunity is raising price as much as increasing our yield and being more sophisticated and stable and straightforward in the way we market and the way we try to get people into our season pass products, our bundled products, multi-day, multi-park.”
Manby also discussed the company’s struggle with attracting international visitors and combatting competitor offerings that have stronger reputations.
“We have admitted in the past and I think the data would show that we are losing some share in international to our competitors,” said Manby. “However, at a broad level we think it’s because, frankly, in Orlando, it’s Harry Potter for the most part. We are going to continue our efforts there, and it is broadly about 15% of our business.”
“[We want to] make sure we maximize and fix our issues on the 85% of the business that’s local, drive and overnight and domestically first, and then we’ll have more specifics to fix any issues that remain in international.”
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Photo credit: Visitors are greeted by an Orca killer whale as they attend a show featuring the whales during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California March 19, 2014. Mike Blake / Reuters