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April 11, 2022

The Staffing Balance

This week we explore stories of staffing, acquisition, diversification, and breaking the 4th wall.

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This week we explore stories of staffing, acquisition, diversification, and breaking the 4th wall. 

Stories this week:


Philip:From our studios in Los Angeles and Tampa, Florida, this is Green Tagged Theme Park in 30. I'm Philip, I'm joined by my co-host Scott Swenson, of Scott Swanson Creative Development.

Disney is developing affordable housing, look at that! Disney is setting aside close to 80 acres of land on which to establish a brand new affordable housing development. The development, which will be in the Southwest Orange county, near the Flamingo Crossings Retail and Service Area, as well as nearby schools, will be available to qualifying members of the general public, including cast members. The goal currently is for the neighborhood to consist of over 1300 housing units.

Scott:Well, so, I mean, I know they've obviously been working on this for a while, but I do find it very interesting that they didn't quite get the jump on Universal, who had announced the same thing that we talked about last week. Also that they announced their, we won't call it affordable, their higher-end housing development. So, it's like, what are big theme parks doing? They are expanding into the world of land ownership and property management. It's a great form of diversification, I suppose. But we were talking a little bit before the show, and I think the real reason, and probably one of the most beneficial reasons here, is this helps them with what? Staffing. That incredible staffing challenge that we've been talking about since the beginning of the pandemic, and now coming out of the pandemic it's actually even worse, I think, because people have decided to move on to other things. So, it sounds like this just might be another way for Disney to entice people to work for them. What Disney has always done very well, which I kind of call the company store mentality that, yes, you make money from Disney and then you pay it back to pay for your housing. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I think it's very interesting. I will be curious as it pans out, I'll be curious to see how many of the units are actually lived in by people who are not affiliated with the Disney parks.


Scott:We'll see.

Philip:Yeah. I would say I'm sure that that Disney wrinkled over having the narrative taken from them, because they always like to control the narrative. Universal definitely took the narrative away from them, but it's their own fault.

Scott:Well, they could have, I mean Disney could have flip flopped, their announcements too.

Philip:Correct, yeah.

Scott:To be completely honest, there's nothing in Orlando that is secretive to people who are working in the industry in Orlando. So, there were people who knew about this before the announcement, there always are. No matter how hard they try to keep it secret and quiet, there are so many people who are invested in, involved in, or hired by multiple parks in the city of Orlando that, usually, this kind of information comes out. Let's assume that this was planned, that they wanted to see what's going to happen to Universal when they announce, just in case there was going to be some sort of negative blowback. I could see someone saying, "look, here's a multi-billion-dollar company that's coming out as say, as a slum lord." You know, I could see that there could have been a really negative take on this, and I don't think we heard any of that, or at least I wasn't aware of any with Universal. So, who knows they may have done it intentionally.

Philip:Yeah. That's possible.

Scott:I guess in a way they were controlling the narrative.

Philip:I think, overall though, it's still back to the staffing issue, or that's how I read this. This is not their first community like this, of course, and of course that is an integral part of the Disney college program as well; their subsidized housing. But I see it much more as a staffing issue, and I see it as a direct through line, because right now the housing market is very difficult and one of the places that is difficult is in Orlando. It's very difficult, the prices are high, the demand is low, et cetera, et cetera, it shows every sign of just getting worse. Now with interest rates going up, the mortgages for new homeowners are going up. So, you need significant wealth already built up to really be able to do home ownership. To me, this is Disney's counterweight to that, which is that they have a lot of staff that needs a place to live. So basically, when you're looking at your staff pay rates and your affordability, one way is to pay the staff more so they can afford to live, and they can pay stuff. The other strategy is to take the expenses that your staff has and lower them. So, you can try either way, right? That's the idea of subsidized benefits like this. So, this seems to be a shot at that angle.

Scott:I just think we need to clarify, this is not specifically for Disney cast members.

Philip:Sure. It's not for Disney cast members. Remind me who lives near Disney?

Scott:Well, I mean...

Philip:Wait a minute, how many cast members do they have in that immediate area? 60,000?

Scott:No, don't misunderstand me, I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I think that's exactly what they're thinking. I just think we need to clarify that I could also see--also living in the I-4 corridor, at one end of it--that this would be very appealing to the not so wealthy Disney-philes who would love to be able to just say, "yes, I write my rent check to Disney." I think that would be something that would get them really excited. So, I'll be curious to see how this pans out. Like I said, I want to see how much of it ends up being Disney employees. Because, to be completely honest, when Celebration first opened, it was mostly populated by Disney executives. So, is this celebration 3.0? We had Celebration, we had the new curated housing area that we talked about two weeks ago I believe it was, and then this one now. So, who knows? Like I said, I'm curious. They're not saying you can't live there if you're not a Disney employee, but I'm curious to see how it pans out.

Philip:Well, our next story is also in the staffing realm.

QUOTE - the Columbus Zoo is raising their minimum wage. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium parks will be raising the minimum wage for 95 percent of its workforce beginning immediately. The wage will increase to $13 per hour at the zoo, The Wilds, the Safari Golf Club, and Zoombezi Bay. The goal is to have the minimum wage up to $15 per hour by 2024.

Philip:The increase is over the state's minimum wage, and the state's minimum wage is $9.30. In the statement the zoo said, "the increase will benefit 95 percent of the parks’ current seasonal employees." The zoo is also looking to fill 1700 more seasonal positions. Imagine that.

Scott:So, let's see, let's break this down. The state minimum wage is $9.30, they've put their minimum wage up to $13, but up to $15 by 2024, and they're doing this to benefit the 95% of the Park's currencies and employees. Oh, by the way! We're looking to fill 1700 additional seasonal positions. Yeah, you know, they got to do something. They got to do something and everybody's in this same boat. Everybody's having this same challenge. They need more people to get things done, because again, the floodgates have opened and things are coming back stronger than they were when the pandemic shut everything down. So, you got to find ways. It's interesting, because I think that this is actually leading us to a place that we probably should have been edging our way towards before the pandemic, where we should have been thinking long term, looking down the road, going, "you know what? We're going to need people."

Scott:It's getting more and more difficult to get people who aren't eager to be their own bosses, who aren't eager to be entrepreneurial and work remotely, and then I think it's just proven to everybody that they can all work in different ways. I think everybody's found that out through the pandemic. So, it didn't really change anything, it just accelerated where we should have been going anyway, which was trying to figure out how do we make people want to work for us. Which I think should always be a company's goal.

Philip:Yeah. Attractions need people, and those people need places to stay, and they need to be able to afford rent to work for the company, basically.

Scott:And the places to stay, back in my days at Busch Gardens, had multiple opportunities to bring people in from other countries actually, who in their own countries, they were having trouble finding work. While I was there, they did two different huge influxes of folks. They provided them with housing, they provided them with compensation, they provided them with travel to get them over here and provided them with travel to get them back home again. So, you know, this is the same idea, only not shipping them from another country, they're just trying to draw them in from somewhere, hopefully close by, here in the US. All though, I could see if the package was sweet enough, that frontline people would be coming in from a little further away than normal, let's put it that way.

Philip:Yeah. Some updates that we didn't have in the show notes, because they're not quite yet, but they are related to what Scott said, is that IAPPA is, of course, still lobbying for the Visa program to be kind of opened up, which we have talked about as being a little bit of an issue for some attractions that rely on that workforce coming in. Also, hey are also still lobbying for a relief fund for smaller attractions like this to still do payroll benefits from post pandemic. So, that stuff is still not passed yet, but they're still working on it in a larger sense, because this is a complicated problem. As we mentioned, many weeks ago, the entertainment sector has not quite seen as much inflation as other pieces of the economy. A big question mark for that is going to be, again, the supply/demand thing as demand increases as we get into the summer and into the fall month, if supply does not increase--as in, if there aren't enough staff to create more supply when that demand increases--you might, again, see a sharper rise in the cost that we're having to charge people. A big piece of that is, are you going to be able to get in enough staff members to increase your capacity, and how much are you going to have to pay those staff members? That's all going to potentially lead to an increase in the cost of inflation for the entertainment sector. But we don't know, because it's a complicated problem, it has all these elements to it. The elements of, how much is housing for your frontline staff? Which is how much they then need to make, which is then how much you need to pay them. But then also the Visa program, how many people are coming in to be able to fill low wage jobs? And are you able to put them up in hotels? Each attraction almost has a little different piece of this puzzle.

Scott:Yeah. I was just going to say, the idea of bringing people in from outside the country really only affects the very top.

Philip:It's not everybody,

Scott:It's the very top tier of the parks. I mean, you know, FECs, they couldn't even think about bringing people from Micronesia, that's just simply not going to happen. I think that the bottom line, the true bottom line is, something's going to have to give. Either the floodgate are going to have to open, so that all of a sudden, you have more people, or everyone is going to have to start paying, or compensating. I won't use necessarily just pay, but you're going to have to find ways to compensate, whether that is in quality of life, whether that is in finance, whether that is in housing, or you're going to have to limit either the product or the number of people you let in. I mean, we go back to, well, I won't mention it by name, but there is a Florida attraction that for years, for years and years, has been notorious for having the same people operate one area of the attraction, as another area of the attraction, as another area of the attraction. They basically just follow the guests around and open things as they go. So, what's going to end up happening is, if you obviously don't have enough people, you're either going to have to limit the number of guests you can bring in, or they're going to have to limit the amount of offerings you have at your park. You're going to have to rethink how you do things. It's not unusual for the entertainment side to have show times, there may also be windows of operation time for large attractions because they don't have people to run them. Everybody's been talking about this with staffing at the airport, with airlines, and every time you see a flight canceled, some of them, right now, may have something to do with weather, but I would venture to say that if they were fully staffed, there would be significantly fewer cancellations. What usually ends up happening is, yes, its weather related, but it means they're trying to get a crew in from somewhere else, they're jumping around from attraction to attraction, they can't get that crew in time because of weather, so that means that the flight that was going out with that crew is no longer going out.

Scott:So again, we have to continue to... Don't lock in how you're going to do things yet, keep exploring how much further can we go? What are the other ways we can do it? And as Philip said, it's different for every single park. Some parks it's much more important to bring in people from outside the country. Some parks it's much more important to offer a high pay rate so that they can be more competitive in their own local market. And for some folks it's very important for them to offer housing. So, I don't think we're at a point yet where it's wise to say, "this is our only track. This is the only thing that's going to make a solution." Because I still think there's some change that's going to happen, and I still don't think anybody knows exactly what that one magic bullet is yet.

Philip:Yeah. I just wanted to underline, of course, that it is underlyingly, this is kind of the definition of a supply and demand issue. Even though, maybe we don't see it that way from being inside the industry. You know, we see it as, "we need to get staff members." But when you take a step back and look at the whole entertainment sector, it's a supply demand issue. Because if our supply is our capacity, our ability to bring in guests and more guests through the experience, that's our supply. Our supply is impacted directly by the amount of staff that we have. We have less staff, we have less capacity, that means that we have less supply. If you multiply that over everything that people do for entertainment, it's a big lack of supply. As we've talked about, the demand is there, and it's going to be strong. So, that that's really Scott's point, each person has to figure it out, and figure out how they capitalize it. But just overall, that's kind of what I wanted to point to.

Scott:Absolutely, and if you take supply and demand and turn it on its head, the demand as park owners, as attraction owners, your supply of incoming staff is low. So, the demand, you need X number of people to run your attraction. So therefore, what happens when there is a low supply and high demand? Prices go up. That's exactly what we're seeing here; by providing housing, by increasing wages, by increasing quality of life options, those are the kinds of things that we're talking about. So, it is exactly what Philip is saying. It's supply and demand, but it's supply and demand in a way that we don't normally look at it. We're not talking supply and demand for your company, we're talking supply and demand for you and your staffing.

Philip:Yeah, exactly. Well, another big trend that we've been talking about recently, of course, is the acquisitions. This is another, I guess, a big macro business trend that maybe we're not seeing it as such in the industry, but if you, again, look out and widen your lens, you do see that in changes, whenever there's economic turmoil like there is now, you see the pendulum always swings back and forth. You see companies that purchase other companies to get bigger, to get higher advantages, and then sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't; cough, cough Oak Island, right? Then that kind of creates smaller opportunities, so you get boutique shops as you get people that are honing in on getting larger. So, a recent example from this past week is, Dave and Busters is on track to acquire Main Event Entertainment for 835 Million. Main Event Entertainment has 50 locations nationwide offering entertainment such as state the art bowling, laser tag, arcade games, et cetera, cetera. So, basically, Dave and Busters is going to acquire the FECs of another company, but that company also operates at some theme parks. So, that company is going to sell off its FECs to Dave and Busters, and they're going to use that money to make their theme parks more competitive. So, essentially it's the same example that we've been seeing in other places, but just in our space of someone leaning more into their offerings, becoming more and more of an FEC expert, and somebody selling off their FECs to hone in on becoming a better theme park provider.

Scott:I call it the garage sale concept. I mean, I'm sorry to make it so base, but when we need some extra cash, what do we do? We look at what we have, figure out what we need to sell off, or what we can sell off--whether that is hard goods or stocks, or whatever it is--how can we liquidate our assets so that we can get that cash flow to focus on what's really important to us? For me, it happens every time I change a hobby. It's like, "okay, what can I sell off from the last hobby so that I can finance the next one?" But that's exactly what's happening here with, with Dave and Busters and Main Event. Just to build upon the pendulum swinging back and forth, what ends up happening is it looks great and things just get bigger and bigger and bigger, and then they get to a point where they're too large to handle, so they start collapsing and get smaller. Then other people look at it and go, "oh, well, I can swipe that up, because that's a great property there." And they get bigger and bigger... And so it's an ebb and flow, and this seems to be a time when there's a lot of flowing, I guess, not a lot of ebbing. But we'll see, we'll see how it all goes. You know, Six Flags has done this too. You know, you mentioned Oak Island, and Six Flags went bought up a gazillion little tiny parks, and then ended up either selling off or redeveloping, some of those properties; I'm thinking of like Geauga Lake and those kinds of smaller parks.

Scott:So, this is, again, nothing new. It is interesting to see it in the FEC realm. I think this actually kind of makes sense ,because if Main Event's true desire is to focus on their theme park holdings, why not sell off their FECs to one of the companies that is clearly the one of the leaders in the FEC world, and that way it's a win-win. Dave and Busters can grow, and Main Event gets the money they need to focus on their next new hobby, if it were me.

Philip:Yeah, again, like Scott said, we'll see. I think to underline here is just that, more of this is going to come in the next year-ish. In a few years you're going to see more acquisitions, we'll just underline that because that's kind of the trend right now. Nobody should be surprised. So, our next story is kind of also about a little bit of diversification from attractions, and that is that the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has launched a new travel venture.

QUOTE- "San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has a new way for allies to connect with wildlife and explore exotic locations around the world, while helping save species and support local communities at the same time. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Adventures — a new sustainable travel business — provides opportunities to visit some of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet, guided by top conservation scientists, wildlife experts and photographers. Each adventure supports the nonprofit organization’s critical conservation work to save species — and every trip is 100% carbon neutral..." "Each adventure includes unique, authentic accommodations. All meals from the first day through the final day are included, as are most gratuities, activity and entrance fees, taxes, permits and service fees."

Philip:So, not a new concept by any means, but essentially it is a zoo that is creating a travel program for their top fans, I assume, that agree with the mission of the park, and they're creating creative experiences. This is not a new thing, but it is something worth highlighting, because it's a concept that Scott and I have talked about before. That is that, you as attractions, we each have our zone of expertise, and this is a way for someone to use that zone of expertise and to diversify into it. So, that's something every attraction can do. We haven't talked about this in a while, but while everyone is looking at ways to diversify, this is a good example. We saw examples of this from the pandemic, but I think we kind of forgot about it as we're trying to get back to business as usual. Other examples are the Knotts Berry Farm Boysen Berry Festival, their expertise is in the Boysen Berry because they started as a farm, like an actual farm, like a farm stand making Boysen Berry pies. So, they are selling Boysen Berry trees and doing Boysen Berry classes on that. That all makes sense. It makes sense because it's within their zone of expertise. I think where attractions can go wrong on this is by thinking their zone of expertise is one thing when it's not actually that thing.

Scott:Yeah. I think that can be a challenge. Like you said, Philip, this is nothing new, zoos and aquariums and museums have been doing this for a very long time. I think where it actually helps them the most is, it gives them something to talk about from a marketing standpoint. I think the percentage of guests who go to the San Diego zoo, the majority of guests, this is not something they'd be interested in. They want to go and have a good time, get their basic knowledge of the zoo and its experiences. I think this is for a very small percentage up on the top, but I love the fact that they are offering something for that tiny percentage. This is their Galactic Star Cruiser. This is the same thing that Galactic Star Cruiser is for either the upper echelon of Star Wars fans or the upper echelon of Disney fans. So, it gives them something to talk about, it gives them another velvet rope, and hopefully it, as you say, diversifies their product a little bit. Who knows, it could take off and they may find ways to make it more affordable. I will tell you, and we talked about this at a different attraction, but when it comes down to having zero carbon footprint, that takes effort, that takes effort on the part of the people who are actually participating in it. People who want to do luxury tourism and eco tourism, they don't necessarily understand that. So, I'm curious to see how that pans out. I hope it works out for them well, because it's something that I definitely agree with. But I find that I, myself, do not have a zero emissions carbon footprint, because it's an awful lot of work. So, we'll see where it goes. Like I said, I'm not dissing them, I'm just trying to have a little dose of reality here so that people will recognize going, "that's great. Why doesn't everybody try to do this?" Because it's hard work is why. So, I hope that this, again, gives them something to talk about, gives the zoo a shot in the arm when it comes to generating the right revenue, and generating revenue in the right way. So, it's another unique way of diversification.

Philip:Well, our next kind of set of stories, it depend on how many we get to, has to do with new openings and other diversifications of audience. The big news, of course, this week was that the Cosmic Rewind at Epcot has an opening date, and that opening date is May 27th of this year. So, in a little bit over a month, which is sooner than I anticipated, but I suppose it does make sense with the whole summer crowd thing.

Scott:Well, and who knows how long it's actually been ready, ready, you know? There have been many openings that have happened post-pandemic that we're actually just, "well, we don't really need to open anything right now because we are all ready doing really well cause people just want to get back outside. So, we're going to delay the opening a little bit more." Who knows. But great. Yay, a new attraction at Epcot. Yay.

Philip:And again, just kind of underlines everything we've been talking about. It's them moving their IPs, you know, kind of taking pieces of the old concepts and just leaning more into IPs, and bringing more attraction style to the other parks and blah, blah, blah. So, it's same old hat. Area 15 also is expanding to Orlando in 2024. This was an older story, but we didn't get to cover it yet. So, we'll try to today.

QUOTE - "The purpose-built facility will feature distinct attractions, interactive art installations, and ground-breaking technology, along with unique retail, bars, and dining outlets. An ever-changing roster of live concerts, limited-time art exhibitions, and shows that push the boundaries will also be highlights at the venue."

"Area 15 was built for today's social dynamics," said Winston Fisher. “Sophisticated consumers are gravitating toward artful new forms of entertainment, where the lines between commerce and experience economy blur. Area15 Orlando is the ideal city for our second location, providing an ecosystem where innovative design, best-in-class attractions, integrated storytelling, monumental art installations, extraordinary technology, and distinctive retail thrive together.”.

Philip:I think he's the former CEO, I'm not sure, but sophisticated customers, Scott! I'm sorry.

Scott:So it's sounds like you're running for office now, Philip.

Philip:I can't, but this guy's running for office.

Scott:Yeah, exactly. Well, I mean it's clearly market speak. But again, I don't think there's anything wrong with this. This is, despite the extended hyperbole here, I think that it's important to recognize that everything right now is leaning towards... you know, we only thought that we were leaning towards "immersive entertainment." The one phrase that I do like is, "blurring the lines between commerce and experience." I think that is something that, again, not a new idea, it's just becoming the norm now, it's becoming what is happening. Just kind of eliminating, using theatrical terms, we’re eliminating the fourth wall. We're not making it, "so here's where you sit and watch something." I tell this to my clients all the time, I'm trying to design experiences for my clients where the guests don't sit and watch something, but instead they do something, they interact with something, they participate in something, they are an integral part of something.

Scott:I think that we've seen this, obviously in grand scales like Area 15, but like if you've watched any of the award shows recently, just the simple change in set design. If you watched either the Oscars--no, we're not going to talk about that, way too many people have talked about that, the slap heard around the world, we're not going to talk about it. Anyway, whether you watch the Oscars or the Grammys or whatever, they've eliminated, basically, the stage, and they're making it so that, they're at least creating the illusion that, those people who are in the "audience"--granted they're all the A-listers--aren't sitting in seats watching, they are literally steps away, there is no separation by stage. I thought the Grammy set design was brilliant in the fact that it was just a series of steps. So it's like, "oh, I can go upstairs and I can be standing up there next to John Legend." Actually, John Legend was right in the middle of the tables. So, the idea is breaking down those barriers and those walls so that everybody feels as though they are part of the action, they are integral to what is happening, not watching. So, they're no longer passive bystander, they are now active participants.

Philip:Yeah. I would just add that, again just underscore the pendulum thing, this is a pendulum it's been swinging in this direction for quite a while. In fact, this press release, I think a more accurate way would have been to say, Meow Wolf brings standard of entertainment to a different place. As in, there's actually nothing here to say, like, this is normative now. I don't know why they're blah, blah, blahing it to make it sound like it's something new. It's not something new, it's been happening for years, and I'm just going to say, in like five, 10 years, it's going to go back the opposite way. In five, 10 years when everything is "immersive" and there's no fourth wall, you're going to see "new, innovative ways," Scott of interacting with people it's called the fourth wall. Have you heard of this thing? In 10 years we're going to be like, "Scott, there's a new wall. There's four of them now. And you put it up and then people don't have to be stressed anymore about knowing what to say to an actor, they can just sit and relax! You know, there's this new thing called sitting in relaxing for entertainment, and it's crazy."

Scott:Well, yes, and I actually think we've got a long way to go before we get back to that. Cause I think the next thing that's going to happen is, "Hey Philip, here's the entire cast that's going to perform the entire piece just for you." And so, you know, it'll be even more...

Philip:In the metaverse

Scott:In the metaverse and who knows? Who knows? Well, again, that means that we've got gobs to talk about in future shows because right now we are out of time for this one. So, we hope you've enjoyed listening to us yammer on, and we hope that it has raised more questions than given you answers, because that's really the point of our show. I hope you've enjoyed the show. I hope you tell everybody about it. Until next week, on behalf of my co-host Philip Hernandez with Gantom Lighting and the Haunted Attraction Network and myself, Scott Swenson with Scott Swenson Creative Development, this is Green Tagged Theme Park In 30, and we will see you next week.


Scott SwensonProfile Photo

Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

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.