Picture this: You’ve just endured countless hours (or has it been weeks—months, maybe?) of creative charrettes, late nights of design revisions and updates to the proposal for your next big guest experience project—and now you’re ready to get organizational buy-in. One of your key stakeholders—and most critical partners—is the marketing team. Sure, it’s their job to market whatever is ultimately built, but not every attraction concept is created equally—or equally marketable. Once the attraction design is final, the marketer’s job begins—and it does not end until long after the attraction has opened to the public.
As Vice President of Marketing for SeaWorld San Diego, I marketed the largest expansion in the park’s history. As Vice President of Marketing for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, I opened more than 400 shows per year, including smash Broadway hits like Hamilton, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen.
Over the course of my two decade career in entertainment-based marketing, I introduced and marketed hundreds of new guest experiences, with more than thirty theme-park-specific attractions, including whole new parks, themed lands, rides, shows, and seasonal events. Here are five things every marketer will look for—or ask for—in your new attraction design.
1. Your attraction builds the brand
A brand is so much more than a logo, a set of colors and approved corporate fonts. According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchasing decisions are subconscious and driven largely by emotion. That emotional connection is created through brand experiences—the many touch points a consumer has with a brand over the course of a lifetime. Great brands take years to anchor into our sub consciousness. For location-based entertainment, the bar was set high by mega-brand IP (intellectual property) deals like Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge and Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. So it is no surprise that today, the consumer expectation is exponentially higher than ever before.
As a designer, you are tapping into your organization’s brand story to create the perfect guest experience. Marketers are looking for ways your attraction design will, in turn, build the brand. Marketers always put the brand first to ensure that everything in the guest experience stays true to the brand. More importantly, that it does no harm to the brand.
What do I mean by “no harm”? Every brand touch point that doesn’t meet the brand promise is inadvertently harming the value of the brand. Let us use SeaWorld Orlando’s Manta as an example. At the start of that project, we knew the park needed more active, thrilling experiences. Our consumer research confirmed that guests were looking for a great coaster. It would have been really easy to build just that—a great steel coaster with no context or backstory. While the ride would have met the guest expectation—thrills, speed, adrenaline—by not building the brand, we would have hurt it. SeaWorld’s brand promise is about connections to the sea and sea life. So everything about the ride design and backstory became grounded in the idea of going from seeing to being—of seeing rays up-close and then of moving and soaring through the sea like a manta ray.
2. Your attraction fills a void to drive a new consumer segment
Marketers know all too well that their brand design shouldn’t be all things to everyone. They hone in on their core target consumer. They create products and experiences tailored to that consumer segment. The goal? To continue to grow market share. So, while guest experiences that support the core consumer targets are always a big win—we can make pretty certain bets that our core visitor will come—a marketer’s core function is to also grow the consumer base. This means the marketing team is looking for gaps in your attendance mix. Who is not currently visiting? It could be a specific age group or a whole new geographic market or demographic segment. Marketers are looking for tailored experiences that will allow them to market to a new audience. This is a good time to make a note about cultural relevance—authenticity is key not only to your brand, but to those you are trying to reach and influence to visit. It can’t be overstated—don’t be what you’re not. Be what you are—as a brand.
Here’s an example: Southern California theme parks have long embraced cultural celebrations centered around Lunar New Year. Check out how Disneyland, SeaWorld San Diego and Universal Studios Hollywood (Mandarin-speaking Megatron, anyone?) make the Lunar New Year celebration both culturally authentic and brand-customized. Another example: recently, a major announcement from Disney touts a new relationship with Translation, most well-known for its ties to the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. The partnership aims to connect with more diverse consumers.
3.Your attraction has an “est”
Marketers will immediately look for all unique features of the new attraction. This really boils down to an ownable competitive differentiator. Is it the tallest, fastest, steepest, longest, first-of-its kind? Has it never-been-done before? What new technologies are being used? What firsts in the industry are being pioneered? What makes it unique to your brand and special in your overall product mix, in your city, your state, your region, the world? If you pay attention, you’ll see how marketers craft “ests” out of seemingly ordinary design elements. One of the best ways you can support this process is by simply providing access and information. How many feet of track on the new coaster? What really moves those “trackless” cars? How many individual LED bulbs power the screen? How does the RFID tech enhance the guest experience? How many people will be able to experience the attraction in an hour, a day, a year?
Marketers will take these details and craft marketing messages, all to build buzz and create excitement leading up to opening day and beyond. After all, there’s a lot of time between the design process, construction walls erecting (pardon our dust) and grand opening day. So marketers will want to squeeze every bit of juice out of that time to help build anticipation, sell passes and secure advance bookings. By far, the best attraction “ests” are those that don’t need them because they’re so unique in and of themselves. Is it the only place to experience the world of wizards, everyone’s favorite furry characters, and galactic rebels? Immersive worlds are a marketer’s dream.
4. Your attraction makes the guest part of the story
Immersion is not a new word in our industry and simply put, it’s the consumer’s expectation. And who doesn’t want to be a hero, after all? Making the guest the hero in your story not only feels good as part of the guest’s experience, but it also provides yet another communication angle for your marketing team to pursue. We’ve already explored the bar-setting Disney and Universal immersive land examples, but making the guest part of the story is possible even on a smaller-scale. Some examples include the old classic EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth, with the customization to build your future, or Disney Cruise Lines providing Mickey Pirate bandanas in the cabin, so even those guests who didn’t come prepared with their pirate gear, can be part of the Pirate Night experience.
5. Your attraction delivers
Here we are, on opening day. For months, your marketing team has touted the new attraction. All those “ests”, all those key milestones, the “making-of” content, the media sneak peeks—all of the lead-up buzz is culminating on this day. The absolute best case scenario is this: Your guests are blown away. Everything the attraction promised to deliver… it delivers. The media headlines say exactly what you wanted, the social media reviews are through the roof—and now those turnstiles are clicking (or biometric screeners screening. You get the reference). The worst case scenario is just the opposite: That the marketing message over-promised and the experience under-delivered.
I can point to a personal experience that sadly under-delivered—SeaWorld San Diego’s Submarine Quest, the signature ride within the Ocean Explorer realm of the park. During the design and construction process we, the marketers, really bought into the idea that this kid-friendly experience would be an immersive submarine underwater journey to see some of the ocean’s most mysterious creatures.
Here’s how we marketed it:
And here’s what the San Diego Union Tribune said on opening day: “The biggest disappointment is the heavily promoted Submarine Quest. SeaWorld is touting it as a high-tech trip through the ocean ecosystem, but it turns out to be a slow-moving track ride past a few animated animals on video screens. Fortunately, your young riders will be too busy punching buttons on the sub’s interactive dashboard to think, ‘I stood in line for this?‘” About a year after opening, the ride closed permanently.
An example of an experience that over-delivers is the “whistle while you wait” queue line at Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. While guests wait to ride, they can try their hand at jewel sorting and barrel-turning, which transforms the space with a special surprise visit by Snow White herself. Disney Imagineers removed one of the most painful parts of the guest experience—the wait—and gamified it. Parents everywhere, yours truly included, were delighted and grateful. These examples underscore that all-too-important collaboration between your team and marketing, from the design process forward. Keep your marketing team informed, keep them honest and encourage them to save some of the hidden gems (no pun intended) hidden until the guests are delighted by them.
So, back to your big pitch. With the marketing team advocating for your side, your organization should have a high comfort level. Not only is there a high likelihood that the attraction is “cool” from a design perspective, but it’s also highly marketable. The bottom line? The partnership between marketing and the design & engineering process is important for the overall success of your next guest experience. These five “must-haves” are sure to create major anticipation and excitement for your new guest experience and build the value of your brand.