With the busy season in the rearview mirror, we asked five adventure park and zip line operators about key marketing ideas and developments.
Q 1: Adventure Park Insider: What is your unique selling proposition? What differentiates you from your competitors?
BODHI OGLE: Our biggest focus has been steered by our location and the nature of the terrain we operate on. We are a day’s drive from half the country, and our local area receives more than 13 million visitors annually, but at the same time we are in a very competitive environment with at least 15 operations in our direct area.
Since our terrain never allowed us to have the longest or highest of lines—which in our area seems to be a draw—we had to find ways to accentuate other strengths. For my company, we have focused on what we can control: Exceptional training for our guides, uncommonly found amenities, and second to none customer service.
BRAD LEE: Trinity Forest Adventure Park was the first of its kind in Texas. Since there aren’t many viable trees in Texas, that is one of our selling points. Our park is based on the Swiss model versus the French, and we use smart belays. Since we compete with family entertainment centers as well as another adventure park, we promote the outdoors and our natural setting.
JULIE BAROSS: Gatorland is all about Florida and its natural habitat and wildlife. We offer the old Florida charm and tradition in our exhibits and entertainment, which the mega theme parks in the area do not offer. Our employees and guides are extremely well educated about the animals and habitats we feature. Many of our employees started their careers with us—we have several who have been here more than 15 years.
DREW FORMALARIE: We sell our experience based on our staff. We aren’t a theme park, we are an experience. From check-in, to gear up, to the adventure—we do everything. Some of our competitors just hand out gear and you are on your way. We bring you through a tour.
DAVE FIELDS: In the Utah market, Snowbird has one of the largest offerings of summer activities available on one pass: the Tram, Peruvian chair- lift, Mountain Coaster, Alpine Slide, Mountain Flyer, bungee trampolines, climbing wall, inflatables, and ropes course. The single pass makes it simple for the day visitor as well as people on a lodging package that includes activities.
Q 2: What percentage of your overall revenue are you putting into marketing? What media do you put this into, and why?
BODHI: Generally, we put between 5 and 10 percent of our gross profit into marketing. Of this percentage we place approximately half into web-related activities (SEO optimization, blogging, Facebook, videos), and the remaining budget goes into print materials (brochure distribution: 50 percent; coupon books: 40 percent; and local fundraising/charitable donations:
The biggest producer by far, though, has been our work with TripAdvisor. It has a great ROI because it’s free, other than the time you commit to it.
BRAD: At inception, our percentage of marketing/advertising was extremely high, in the 25 percent range, utilizing Groupon, Living Social, and various local parenting monthlies. As our customer base has expanded and our marketing efforts have matured, we hope to see that amount drop to 10 percent or so. We rely heavily on Facebook and have seen that it is the most effective for us because of the “word of mouth” factor. Another major vehicle for us has been human-interest stories in the local media. The best part about that? It’s free advertising.
JULIE: Our annual marketing budget at Gatorland is dedicated to TV and radio campaigns, online advertising and marketing, attending trade shows and events, social media, newspaper and magazine advertising, and billboards. These efforts account for approximately 10 percent of our annual revenue. Our marketing efforts are used to reach key markets in the UK, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, not forgetting the U.S domestic market and local Florida.
DREW: Not sure of the percentage, but we put a lot into Facebook and TripAdvisor. It reaches a lot of people, and with shares and recommendations we get more guests. Guests can also join our email list where we send out specials and news.
Q 3: What are the demographics of guests that visit your park? Have these changed at all since you opened? If so, how?
BODHI: We recently opened a new course with different weight and age limits, which slightly modified our demographics. Originally, 5- to 7-year-olds rode tandem with a guide, and anyone 8 years old and up, and 60 pounds or more, went by themselves. With our new course we have curbed the practice of riding tandem, but increased our maximum weight limit from 250 to 275 pounds. We are accommodating a similar range of participants, but our more accommodating weight limit has bolstered our numbers. People seem to be eating better these days—myself included.
BRAD: Families. We are hoping that it is expanding, since we have added two children’s courses for ages four and five years old.
JULIE: Mostly families with young children, extended families with children and grandparents, senior citizens who take advantage of the seasonal photo passes. They come from virtually everywhere, both drive-to as well as international fly-in markets.
Gatorland opened more than 67 years ago, so our visitor demographics have changed over time. In the beginning, we were just a roadside attraction serving the local and drive-to community. Now people from all over the world visit us, with our reach growing as more and more new markets discover the allure of Orlando.
DREW: We get everyone from eight-year-old first timers to 80-year-old first timers. With four different tours to choose from, we can accommodate just about everyone. We have reduced our minimum weight for our lower course to accommodate more families. That just took a little tweaking operationally. We have been working hard to expand school and corporate groups and programs, which really helps in shoulder seasons.
DAVE: Our summer demographic is much more local than our winter visitors, who come from all over the world to ski Snowbird.
Q 4: Are we, as an industry, succeeding in the goal of introducing more people to the outdoors? Who is being introduced?
DAVE: Our single largest factor in introducing people to the outdoors is the Tram. Thousands of people every summer ride the Tram and get to experience the views and unique environment at 11,000 feet. Our new building at the top of the Tram, The Summit, has made it easier for everyone, including people with disabilities, to enjoy the experience, because they now have a place to sit down and enjoy the view.
DREW: I think so. I have definitely seen growth over the years. When I started, people had no idea what zip lines were. Now they are on everyone’s bucket list. There are the “adrenaline junkies” who seek out adventure, and there are also the regular folks that we get out of their comfort zone.
JULIE: Yes, I think we are. There are more tours and experiences opening in central Florida that introduce people to nature and the state’s environment. There are airboat tours, walking tours, birding tours. But we need to keep expanding those opportunities to continue to educate people. That’s our goal at Gatorland. Not only do we provide a variety of experiences to learn about the alligators and crocodiles in exhibits and shows, but we also make sure it includes the wild birds and other animals in and around the park. Our Screamin’ Gator Zip line has been a huge success in offering a brand new way to experience our park and its animals in a fun and adventurous way.
BODHI: In my area we are seeing many more people participating in the outdoors. I see my company competing not only with other zip lines, but also new activities including alpine coasters and zip coasters. One of my favorite new groups we have seen is active seniors.
Q 5: What are guests commenting on and asking for? Have those comments changed since the park first opened? Is there a common theme?
BODHI: We have repeatedly seen requests for the biggest, the highest, the fastest, and longest lines over the years, which we have tempered with superior customer service. Recently we have seen an increase in questions about “how safe is your course?” and “what kind of inspections do you undergo?” Between the old course and the new course, we consistently hear that our guides made the trip great. People also love the new course, so we’ve seen many more comments on that, too!
BRAD: We are being asked for “teambuilding,” which was unexpected. We were being asked for something for the younger kids. We have responded by building a continuous belay children’s course. The common theme has been more inclusivity for the whole family.
JULIE: Our guests love that we have been open for many years and that, as families, they have grown up with Gatorland and have happy memories of visiting with their parents. Many are now returning as adults and introducing their families to Gatorland.
DAVE: Guests like the simplicity of the single pass. They would prefer no lines, but we haven’t solved that problem yet.
Q 6: How much repeat business are you doing, and how do you track that? Do you offer a frequent climbers card or other perks to encourage repeat business?
DREW: We do a lot of repeat business. After each tour, guests are welcomed into our Repeat Rider Program. This gives them 10 percent off their next trip. It is tracked through our reservation system.
JULIE: We see a lot of repeat business, especially from Florida residents. Gatorland is an extremely affordable family outing. A whole family can visit for less than the price of a single day admission at some of the larger parks. We also offer annual passes, which has been very well received.
BRAD: Yes, but there can always be more. We track that through our reservation system. We offer a frequent climber pass—four punches and the fifth climb is free.
BODHI: It feels like we do a solid 10 percent repeat customer base, which we push through the use of frequent zipper cards. Honestly, in the past we haven’t done a very good job of tracking this. But now that we work with FareHarbor, I’ll be using some of its tools, and I feel I can very soon offer a more accurate answer to this question.
Q 7: What trends in features, new activities, reservations, or other facets of the industry do you see developing?
DAVE: Zip lines are exploding right now, and have been very popular at every destination I’ve visited. This is a great way for people to have a high-adrenaline experience in the mountains regardless of their abilities or skill set. I’m very intrigued by Jackson Hole’s new via ferrata. This is something we considered years ago and didn’t pull the trigger. I’m excited to get up to Jackson and try it.
BODHI: Begrudgingly, the strength of online reservations cannot be overstated. I am also seeing the addition of more features, including controlled descents, belays, drop features, etc. I see a trend toward automation and safe belay systems as opposed to more traditional guided tours, which is a huge labor saver. But I believe it takes away from one of the greatest strengths of our activities, which is that person-to-person interaction.
BRAD: We like the advent of the “human coaster,” i.e. AvatarOne, Cloud Coaster, etc., which seems to give more throughput, as well as more excitement.
JULIE: We see a huge trend in travelers who want to use social media to show, track, and share where they have been, what they recommend, and where they will go next. Pokémon Go trainers come here often now, and we have activated lures here to make sure we are part of this international trend. Travelers from all over the globe are engaged in it, so we have to be, too.
We also make sure we have lots of other experiences to offer, apart from general admission. You can get up close to feed the alligators at Adventure Hour or come back to the park at night and do our Gator Night Shine experience. We also offer a more intimate and exclusive experience with our Trainer For a Day program.
DREW: We are partnered with a new aerial park, Candia Springs Adventure Park in Candia, N.H. We helped build a great aerial park with some new features. A lot of the features were built as an aerial park, but we introduced a fitness aspect to it. Instead of going to a standard gym, people will be able to come to the park and get a full-body workout. We are looking to build a similar program at Alpine.
Q 8: Are you thinking about expanding? If so, what are you going to add, and what audience will you serve?
DAVE: We visit other resorts every summer and also attend the IAAPA convention every few years to see what’s new and what products are targeting certain age groups. It’s critical to provide activities for each age group, so one child in the family isn’t sitting around with nothing to do.
JULIE: Yes, we are. We plan to offer a new Swamp Buggy Ride starting the summer of 2017. More details to
BODHI: We have experimented with several different canopy tour sizes and options throughout our company’s existence. If I were to expand again, I do see a market for a smaller “kids only”-type zip line tour. My other area would be a more passive system—maybe an aerial walkway course through the forest, part hiking, part aerial trekking, non-belayed, bomb-proof construction, high throughput, low equipment needs, self-guided, low ticket price, low labor need. Good help is getting increasingly hard to find.