Coming soon to a Six Flags near you: a loyalty program where points can be earned by riding a roller coaster or taking in a show.
The regional theme park operator announced the Six Flags Membership Rewards program this week, with a rollout scheduled for August 30, when 2019 passes go on sale. And while members can amass points in unorthodox ways like checking in to rides or posting on social media, they get far more for visiting and spending money in parks.
“We didn’t want to create something just about spending money, because that’s not what we are,” said Mark Kupferman, vice president of insights and interactive marketing at Six Flags Entertainment. “Our experience isn’t buying stuff. Certainly we sell stuff, but our experience is really about riding rides and having amazing experiences, and so we wanted to wrap our loyalty program around those types of experiences.”
The program is only available to guests who have enrolled in the company’s membership program, which means they pay a monthly fee for access to parks and certain perks, depending on which tier they’ve paid for. That takes the place of a pass that a customer would buy once a year at a higher price point — a shift Six Flags is eager to encourage. A couple million people have such membership status, and they will all be eligible for the rewards program.
Kupferman said the goal of the loyalty program is to keep those members engaged and retained.
“We’re looking at offering them as much value as possible, basically making it so they don’t want to cancel,” he said.
Theme parks court loyalty from fans in a variety of ways. They generally deliver extra benefits — including discounts on food and merchandise, free parking, and access to special events — to guests who buy season or annual passes. Disney also has a couple of co-branded credit cards.
While the new Six Flags loyalty program isn’t the first a theme park has tried — the company even introduced a version several years ago that awarded points based on number of visits — Kupferman believes it is the most comprehensive thus far. And observers say the kind of program that Six Flags put together is unlike anything offered before in the industry.
“I was just talking to somebody about a month ago and I said, ‘You know, it’s time for theme parks to develop frequent flyer programs for their guests,'” said Dennis Speigel, president of the consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “And this is exactly what this is. It was just a matter of time.”
Kupferman said the company surveyed tens of thousands of guests about what they would want in a loyalty program. Discounted food, drinks, and merchandise were high on the list, as well as access to rides and in-park experiences.
And, Kupferman said, the team examined a variety of reward programs including those for airlines, hotels, Starbucks, and American Express.
“We tried to come up with something that would be uniquely Six Flags,” he said. “We tried to stand on the shoulder of giants and then add our own unique element to it so we could have what would be a signature program both for us and our industry.”
Rewards include everything from cotton candy to free tickets for friends, lunch with a park president, and VIP park tours.
“It’s not like 100 points and a churro,” Kupferman said, though a churro is on the list of awards. “We are trying to include items on the list that are unique experiences which really don’t have a price attached.”
Redemption details haven’t fully been worked out, but the company expects that visitors will earn enough points in one day to redeem for a low-level award the next time they visit.
As members earn points by checking into rides on the Six Flags mobile app, making purchases in the parks, and reading newsletters or taking surveys, Kupferman said the company will have access to more information about how guests use the parks, which rides they go on, and how they spend.
“I don’t think we’re expecting people are going to spend more money or visit more because we are offering them these points,” he said. “You’d have to offer a lot of points. It’s just not the purpose of the program. It’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be a game, it’s supposed to be something our guests can enjoy and feel good about. It’s not supposed to be work.”
Speigel called the program “a proper plan based on the stage of maturity that our industry is at,” especially considering how much of Six Flags’ attendance comes from what the company calls its “active pass base” of visitors who have season passes and memberships. That base made up 63 percent of visitation in 2017.
“You have to do something to maintain it,” Speigel said. “They’ve got to keep enticing and bringing them back.”
In a note this week headlined “It’s All About the Members,” Oppenheimer analyst Ian Zaffino wrote that the membership count of more than 2 million guests was up more than 20 percent since June of 2017.
“The membership program is the key to higher customer retention and better pricing,” he wrote. “Price increases are easier with members, and the company is able to migrate customers to ‘premium tiers.'”
Martin Lewison, an assistant professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York who studies theme parks, said in an email that the new loyalty program is a perfect fit with the membership model.
“The ‘Members Only’ loyalty program enhances the perks of membership and makes the offer that much more attractive,” he said. “It also gives members incentives to visit the parks more often, to spend more time in the parks (which is tied to higher in-park spending), and engage more with the parks online.”