The WTO's outlook for 2023 isn't great. Scott and discuss what that means for the attraction industry, plus takeaways from Eastern State Penitentiary.
The WTO's outlook for 2023 isn't great. Scott and discuss what that means for the attraction industry, plus takeaways from Eastern State Penitentiary.
Philip: OK, from our studios in Los Angeles and Tampa, FL, this is Green Tagged theme park in 30. I'm Philip and my co-host is Scott Swenson of Scott Swenson Creative Development. Hello, Scott.
Philip: Hey, Philip. 'Tis the season. You know, we're in the midst of the Halloween season, and both of us are still awake, so I think that's a good thing.
Philip: Well, I'm not sure if I'm awake, but we'll try and get through this.
Scott: We'll see what the show brings.
Philip: This might be a dream. OK, well we're going off this week with the big news from the economic market and I think, in our show fashion, we'll talk about how that relates to our specific niche. The big news this week was that the WTO sounded warning on global trade. I'll read the excerpt here from Axios.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) today said it expects a sharp slowdown in global trade growth next year as higher prices and higher interest rates weigh on output and demand.
The WTO expects import and export volumes will grow 1% in 2023 — a whopping 2.5 percentage points less than they expected in April.
Philip: So, I think the takeaway here, the macro trend of how that kind of trickles down into impacting individuals is, of course, that lower-income families are more impacted by the interest rates because of borrowing. Lower-income families, if you are borrowing out there, the interest rate impacts the monthly payments that you have for items that you have loans on, right? While people that have cash, they can buy stuff outright, they're not impacted all by the interest rates getting higher because they're just buying it, so you're not taking a loan for it. Or they have enough income where they're not impacted as much because the percentage of what they have to spend is not as much going into monthly payments, basically.
Scott: Yeah, I think you really hit the nail on the head there, I think that the reason it impacts lower-income families more is because the percentage of interest that they're paying is a larger percentage of their overall income than it is someone who has a larger, more flush income. It's interesting, because when everything starts to skyrocket and people start to close down on buying things or investing in things, the ultra-rich, oddly enough, like Maseratis and Jaguars sell like hotcakes during a downturned economy. That's because those people who are incredibly wealthy aren't buying an island, but they feel bad, so they buy a Jaguar, you know? So, that is their way of cutting back.
I think it's similar here in the fact that the reason it impacts the lower income folks, is because 1% of interest rate is significantly more impactful to the overall income of their household than it is to someone who is in a higher income. So yeah, I think that's interesting, and I think it's something that we should definitely keep in mind as we move forward. So, if your target audience for whatever your attraction is in that lower income bracket, or even mid to lower income bracket, you might want to just be aware and see if you can come up with some clever ways to either do more in-park, or in-event upsells and purchases, or maybe flatline your pricing for next year. I don't know. I just want to make sure that everybody recognizes this so that they don't end up scaring these folks away and making it so that nobody can come to your event.
Philip: I think there are so many dimensions to think about this on and, as you know, Scott has talked about quite frequently I think, it's really about making a plan and thinking through these different situations, talking about it with your team, and looking at the data that you can gather about your guests and where they're coming from, and having the conversations, sitting down with the guests if you can. A lot of attractions do have those focus groups, so they have those guests where they can talk to. I would say this is a thing to kind of talk about their prospects.
When the WTO made this announcement, they're looking at it based off of the potential higher energy prices. They're looking at everything collectively and they're making this announcement, but those are all going to be a little slightly different situations, right? But what we do know is, again, it's all going to impact lower-income folks more. So, it's kind of the same things we've been talking about, but to a little bit more of an extreme. If gas prices go up even higher again, just think about your families and even another dimension too, is your workers. Thinking about these dimensions, you have workers, you're paying the minimum wage, so you can kind of calculate how much they're taking home monthly. Then you look at an increasing gas will cost them this amount, this percent of their budget, and then, if the interest rates keep going up, they're not going to be able to get a new car or take out loans to get items they might need for work or things like that. So, I think that not only are you looking at it on the dimension of your customers, and if you are in a market where you're really targeting lower income, there's going to be a bigger impact on your customers, but you're also looking at it on your staff and what your staff can afford and the pressures they're going to have on even getting to work.
Scott: On a slightly different side of the same coin, Philip, with Gantom you're probably more in tune with this than I would be, but is this also going to impact supply chain even worse than we already have right now? Mainly because of, as you said, rising energy costs which in turn will be rising transportation costs. We're already in that situation where supply chains are tenuous, I won't say they're shut down, but they're getting better, I think, but they're still kind of iffy. Is this going to block that in the future, if it does indeed come to pass?
Philip: I think it's one of those things where it's kind of like a trade almost. So, we were hoping that we would see component costs kind of decrease as more supply of them becomes available. That's been the hope for a while. Now we're seeing, already, even prices for transport, even freight, ocean freight, rise significantly, much less like air freight. So, what that does of course is, maybe the component costs are getting cheaper, but then you know it's outweighed by transportation costs or whatever. Then also you have to look at well, if you don't want to increase sharply, sharply, then you're going to have to go ocean freight, which will add three weeks of lead time to products getting there. So, you're kind of timelining out three weeks. So, I kind of feel like we're back in the same place that were.
When we started the show, it was like pandemic and we were like, make backup plans, analyze all this, talk to your staff, ask them how they're doing, X, Y, Z. Then it was the COVID and that kind of stuff. Now we're back to the same thing, look at your supply chains and come up with a possible secondary option. If one of your suppliers is going to have issues with getting things here due to having to ship to ocean freight, or their shipping is going to be five times the price so they're going to need to up it, look for local stuff. Also go back to your team, make sure your team is OK because depending on their individual situations... That's what makes this so puzzling, is to your point, Scott, if they're more well off and they are maybe in a higher income bracket, they're not going to be nearly as impacted as folks that are going to be... It really just depends on your individual mix whether or not you are trying to get a new lease, you have something where your interest rate has gone up, how much you pay on gas, if you don't commute that far, and there are so many of these little elements where you could be completely fine or you could really have your monthly disposable income decrease. So, I feel like we're back in the same place.
Scott: I just want to jump in the Wayback machine for a moment and say, in the very early sessions of this show we talked about having parallel paths, making parallel plans, and sort of an if-then scenario. Talk through those because even though we may be easing out of the pandemic, with this announcement, there may be other challenges ahead. If the post-crisis training that I took during the pandemic told me anything it was, the only way to be prepared is to stay prepared. So, just make sure that you're continuing to have those discussions with your internal team as well as your external customers.
Well, I think we can pivot now into some of the takeaways from reporting that I've done recently because there are quite a few attraction operators and owners that I've been talking to that are thinking about these types of things. I think it's interesting to look at the concrete ways that they're doing it. I always think it's important to look at the concrete examples, right? I think it's important to look at your attraction, at your guest mix, and think about it in terms of the guest, right? If they're having to spend XY more on their car payment this year, milk has also gone up, and gas has gone up, then this is how much budget they have left, and then looking at what they're what they would need to sacrifice to pay your $30 ticket or whatever. I think it's equally useful to look at what individual attractions are doing in that same way to get granular about it. So, I think the first place we'll start is Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary and I had a fantastic conversation with Brett Bertolino there. That is available, if you want to listen, on our Haunted Attraction Network podcast feed. It's a great conversation, kind of ranging all over.
But overall, to give context to the listeners first, Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary is the rebranded version of the Halloween event there, previously was called Terror Behind the Walls. With Terror Behind the Walls, it was a linear experience that was definitely scary. It was much more in the classic haunt linear experience you go through, I think it took a while to get through, but it was a long experience, it was linear, there weren't any breaks in it, and it was all scary.
The transition that they have been doing for the past two years now is transitioning from a linear to more of a Halloween festival-type atmosphere. So, they have really leaned into the concept of adding themed bars and lounges to haunts They've also, you know, broken it up, so they've added physically a lot more space. They've opened up more space in the Penitentiary to allow for holding more people. So, they've taken the same amount of "haunts" or haunt spaces, but now they're individual haunts that have their own queues, and they've added more themed bars and entertainment to the main areas. They've really tried to make it a festival.
So, they widen the footprint to allow for more people to stay on the property at the same time, but they've also widened it. Essentially, there's just been some really, really interesting takeaways from Brett. He said he thought that people really needed time to decompress and to think about it, and he's noticed that their visitors really do enjoy the themes and having something that makes sense. Like it doesn't all need to be one story, as long as it all fits together. So, the vampires can have their area, as long as that makes sense. So, everything should make sense, and people like to see multiple things, but he's seen at least they notice that it makes sense.
What was really interesting is when I talked about the motivation behind it. You know, it's kind of everything we've been talking about. People need time to decompress, you want to capture them instead of them going to a bar, and spending money offsite afterward, you want to capture all of that. Then the really interesting piece was that he noticed that, basically, they were almost too scary, like they hit a ceiling in terms of scariness. They were deterring people from their market because Terror Behind the Walls was perceived as too scary, and there are some people who didn't want scary. So, they're trying to make it a little bit more general. There's still scary, the mazes are still as scary as they were previously, but now you can choose if you want to go into the maze or if you just want to hang out. So, everybody can show up and then you can decide if you have some friends that want to do the scary stuff, and some friends that want to watch the entertainment. So, it's really been this play, kind of like a strategic play, of moving it more into an event where you really can bring a whole group of people and they can kind of choose the intensity level that they would like to do.
They're still working on the balancing of this event, he said last year they had two areas that started off as more theatrical, I would say, or more immersive, or more not scary, not as scary, and guests didn't like it. They wanted the mazes to be very scary. So, he had they had to go in and they had to retool mid-season to adjust for guest feedback. So, a lot of really interesting takeaways, I think, that kind of, you know, tie into this to these plans of really talking to your guests and really examining what they're looking for, really thinking about bringing in a wider swath and what that would entail, and velvet ropes, and just it's a great example of everything we've been talking about for a while.
Scott: Yeah, it's interesting because I've known Brett for a long, long time. Back when I was at Busch Gardens, he always had this vision for many, many years of taking the Eastern State Penitentiary Halloween event, whatever name it is at any given time, and making it more theme park-like. He always liked the fact that there were opportunities to incorporate merchandise, to incorporate culinary, to give people that breathing time. Even if you're just doing a haunt, you have to have those moments of decompression or suspense, because if you're constantly yelling at people through the whole thing, because even if it's a singular scary haunt, it becomes white noise. So, when you have that time to decompress, to digest, to build up your courage to go do the next one, it makes the whole overall experience more exciting.
I will say I did not get a chance to experience Eastern State Halloween Nights this year, I did however get a chance to experience it last year. The thing that I loved about it is, he and his team were able to take the multiple individual themes and add a bar to it, add a show to it, and add... So, it wasn't just random Halloween throw up, it was, "here's a section that's all about this, and here's a section that's all about this, and here's a section that's all about this," and there were transitioning areas in between.
One of my favorite bars was in the VIP entrance of the Vampire House. They did a full vampire bar, and it was great. Then we went straight, you know with the VIP, and I don't know if they're still doing this velvet rope thing, but with the VIP we went straight into the haunt queue from the bar. So, in essence it was queuing in the bar and then straight into the haunt itself. Which I found remarkably pleasant because I could go and have a cocktail, and when I felt like it, I could enter on into the haunt. It was really neat, and it was thematically very interesting. It's expanding the haunt outside of the winding walls, you know? I think that was really neat.
To be honest, there were people there who were just hanging out in the vampire bar, because it was darn cool. So, it gives a much broader experience for the guests, I would guess, I don't know this for a fact, but I would guess that it would increase guest's stay. So, it's not something you do and then go somewhere else, it becomes an entire evening worth of entertainment. I would also imagine that it would make the group sizes larger because, as you mentioned, sometimes there's somebody in your group who doesn't want to go through the haunt. So, they'll go watch the stage show and grab a bite to eat while you're going through the haunt, and then when you come out, you grab a cocktail, and you all go to the next one. It makes an awful lot of sense.
I will say that this season, in general, I'm seeing this sort of pendulum swing to either more family-friendly or more party-oriented. Because I think we got to a point where nobody was coming up with anything more over the top. You know, "now with even more blood!" You know, you only get to a certain point. I'm not going to say that's going to stay that way, I think the pendulum will eventually swing back and we'll go to the unique extreme opportunities. I'm seeing that as a trend. In the haunts that I'm working on this year that are family-friendly, they are doing gangbusters. Like Undead in the Water here in Tampa, since this is its second year of having moved over to Sparkman Wharf, which is a food, beverage, hangout place, it's got a bowling alley there, it's a big open space, it's got a bunch of different food truck style restaurants that are all in shipping containers because it's on the pier. They have done so much better in that location because, yes, now make it a full evening. The nice thing about Eastern State is they're able to do that exact same concept and keep it all within the walls of the prison. If you've never been to Eastern State Penitentiary, it's gigantic. I mean, it's huge, and there's a lot of space that you can play with. I still think there's some space that's not being utilized just simply because it's either historic content or whatever, but it's an amazing location and it's a lot of fun to go, check it out if you're in Philly, it's amazing.
Philip: There are a lot of parallels, I think, between it. I think, in essence, moving over to that model is kind of like what we've been talking about, kind of just thinking about your backups and having different revenue streams. Also, what it does is it also, basically, gives the guests kind of more perceived value, and maybe more actual value for their dollar, which kind of helps. Again, when you're thinking about the individual customer and they're making their decision, do I want to bring my friend group, my family, you know, am I going to this event, or this event? They're looking at it and it's like, well, if this now is a whole night, it's a whole evening where they can come and you can do them at your leisure, you can go through the different five different experiences plus hang out the bars, watch the shows. I mean it's a much longer evening. I think that that factors into that decision a lot better than if you're going to just go one and done. You go to a physical haunt, you just walk through, and then you leave. Then what do you do? This is kind of giving them a longer perceived value.
Then to Scott's point previously about making sure you did have those things available. The ticket price is, I think, relatively low effort for this event. It's $34 to $49 depending on the day. So, there's budget-friendly times you can go, definitely, but then there's also the velvet ropes, there's plenty of them. There's the food you can buy, there's the bars, there's the VIP you can buy, there's the merch. I mean there's different levels. So, if you want to go and you are in the higher income bracket, you bring a whole group of your friends and you buy them VIP and you have your own experience. Versus if you are a family trying to save a little bit, then you can go on the budget night with your family and spend the whole evening, hang out, wait in the lines, do the whole thing, take public transit, because remember this is located in the middle of the city area. So, you can take public transit, you don't have to pay for parking, I mean you can take transit. So, I really think that this is, this is a good strategic move that's kind of put them in a better competitive position for, potentially, what the WTO is talking about.
Scott: Yep, absolutely. It's diversification. In that market there's really nothing like this.
Philip: Correct, that's the other thing.
Scott: So, if it's not already controlling the market, it will soon. It makes total sense.
Philip: I kind of dropped that to him and he didn't take the bait. He's a smart one, smart cookie. He did say something else too that I thought was very interesting, where he says, if you get scared and it doesn't appear on social media, did you really get scared? We haven't talked about that in a while, the concept of making it social, but that was another big element, they're consciously creating photo moments. Because, of course, when you have a linear haunt experience, you're not going to put a photo moment in the middle of the haunt and kill your throughput, right? So, this also allows them to do a lot more photos. I thought that was a cute little line.
Scott: It's interesting because that's so true, and not just in the scary stuff. If you have a good time at a family-friendly Halloween event and it doesn't hit social media, did you really have a good time at a family-friendly event? All of my clients, I have photo ops all over the place, and I always encourage them to make certain that they have, and its basic stuff, but people forget it, make sure that you have a logo of what your experience is, and this is true in Halloween and Christmas in just daily theme park operations. Also, put the year on it, because then it becomes an ongoing collector stamp. "We always get our photo taken at this particular photo spot, and I get it with a year." To change a year sign costs nothing and it just kind of guarantees, or reinforces, repeat visitation. We even looked at ways to make it so that there are posting scavenger hunts throughout attractions, so that again, it hits social media.
Philip: I want to add to that, having gone to a bunch of events and being there as a media person thinking about photos constantly, right? Make sure it is lit, and make sure that people understand. It's kind of a little bit like improv, give them the tools to have fun as well. Step and repeats are fine, you know, some of these things are fine, but you kind of need people need to know what they could do with the area. One of the best photo op zones I have seen is actually from Fear Factory, and they have a whole zone that's just photo ops. They are scenes, there's six of them, that are well lit, they have nice flattering lighting, you know, that you would have in like a bathroom kind of flattering lighting, but they're all scenes. So, one is like a bathroom scene where it's like a gross bathroom and there's toilets, and one is characters you can pose with. So, there's different options for people, but also you can there's things they can do where they can walk into it and they can make their pose and do their unique thing. That's just so much more interesting for the guests than just standing there in front of a step and repeat, not knowing where to look, and there's no light.
Scott: There are companies out there that are providing these, they're just making these off the shelf. I mean, there's a shooting a zombie in the back of the head, where all you have to do is walk up and take hold of a gun and it looks like you captured the moment where you shot a zombie in the back of the head. That was the buzz of the Transworld show a couple of years ago, everybody was talking about it, and everybody got their picture taken with it. So, incorporate those, and I think Philip hit the nail on the head, make sure it's something they can do, not just stand in front of but actually do.
Philip: Yeah, that was actually one of my big complaints with the Hauntoween. That event, the entire premise is that you are bringing your family, and really what it's for is for parents to bring their kids and put their kids in different situations to take pictures of them. That's really what it's for, and there are a lot of areas that are not really lit conducive to taking photos. They're lit to look cool, which is different than lit for taking a good photo. So, I'm just going to leave it there.
I think the next one that to talk a little bit about is SeaWorld San Diego. This year is the 2nd year for SeaWorld San Diego, and they have definitely come in and change the event up a little bit from its original inception. I think the two big things they've done is they've cleaned up the scare zones with scripts this year. I know because I actually know the show writer for that that that came over, but I think, again, I thought it was noticeable where... Again, I think there are little things, right? Like just having a script for your scare zones, giving them characters, giving them sample lines to say, and things to do. Those are the little things that make a big difference with the guests because the scare zones are where people spend their time, it's where they take the photos in, like we're just talking about, it's where they have the time to decompress, and that's when they have time to pay attention to the story. It's not when they're screaming through a thing. So, I really thought that that shone through, especially with their La Llorona area, having the weeping women actually weeping, having them have lines, having them singing lullaby to the baby, there's lot of pieces in there that they work really well. This year they added bars into the mazes, which is the thing that we've seen you know for a while, the kind of bars inside of it. I think, again, it's that velvet rope thing, you're trying to make an exclusive piece of content to put a bar inside of a maze itself. I just think that in this case, I think the operations were little not great on it. It was done in a way where, maybe they'll figure it out, but operationally it wasn't quite working. The other thing is, the "hidden bar" was just a room made of flats inside of the maze. Which is not as impactful... Basically, you need a way for other people to see that these people get into the secret bar, so that they look cool, and then the secret bar, it needs to be cool. It can't just be like a broom closet, you know? Then, ideally, also inside the ball you can spy out or look out or somehow like see the maze, you have to feel like you're in the middle of it, right? So, you kind of need that way to make it work.
Scott: Yeah, you don't want to step out of the experience. It has to be an enhancement to the experience you're already in, it's not escaping the experience so then you have to ramp up when you get back. It's interesting because I don't know about SeaWorld San Diego, but I will say that in many, many theme park settings, when you start to do something like that, things that involve multiple departments quite often require a lot more planning than anybody ever anticipates because you have to make certain that it works as a bar, so you have to get your culinary folks in there, and you have to make sure that it works as an entertainment experience and nine times out then, one of those sides will just turn it over to the other to execute it, and it doesn't have the amalgam of the overlap of multiple departments, which is what it really needs. You also need to get the Operations Department involved because it does impact throughput, it does impact flow in the haunt. So, you have to be able to make sure that when they merge back in it doesn't create yet another problem. When you're trying to identify them and pull them out, it doesn't create another problem. So, it is a multi-departmental issue, but once you get everybody talking the same language and kind of drinking the same kool-aid, then you can create something pretty amazing, and it can be an awful lot of fun. So that maybe something that SeaWorld San Diego is learning, and I certainly hope so because I love the idea, and as you say, we've seen other parks do it. So, hopefully they can continue to build on this change this year.
Philip: The last one I can fit in here right at the end is a Delusion. Mainly, the takeaway there was he told me in the interview that he was thinking of how they can adapt their stories they've already written, but shoot them later for film, to kind of have this extended universe. That's, again, a little bit related to what we're talking about in just that you already have this asset, we've talked about before reusing your assets, you've already written the script, you've already put the work into the story, if you shoot it for film then you can make it accessible for a wider audience. Which, in theory, could help, just like the Disney model, where they have the IP they're building. Again, whether or not it's going to pay off, because Disney has a much larger engine, so whether or not it's going to end up making you money for being a small venue like that, and whether or not the IP is going to be strong enough to kind of push demand, those are to be determined. But I thought it was an interesting concept of, we've already all written scripts already, right? He's already been in film his whole career, so kind of just adapting it to film.
Scott: Yeah, I think that this goes back to what we've said over and over again, if you can't afford buying someone else's intellectual property, create your own. To your point, if it's strong enough, great, if it's not, all you have to do is earn your money back by attending four or five film festivals, getting it out there, if you make your money back, it's free advertising for your haunt, so it's potentially a win-win scenario. You just have to make sure you're making the film on the appropriate budget.
So, my friends, that is the end of another Green Tagged Theme Park in 30. Thank you again for listening, let us know what you think, we hope you continue to enjoy us rambling each week. On behalf of Philip Hernandez from Gantom Lighting and the Haunted Attraction Network, and myself, Scott Swenson from Scott Swenson Creative Development, we will see you next week.
For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.