• Waterpark industry trends
• Potential to increase attendance
David J. Sangree, MAI, CPA, ISHC, President, Hotel & Leisure Advisors, LLC, is no stranger to the world of waterparks. As a nationally recognized expert, he’s completed more than 400 studies of waterpark resorts and was named one of Aquatics International magazine’s “Power 25.” As one of the pioneers in waterpark research his expertise makes him the go-to consultant around the country! Midwest Meetings had the pleasure of speaking with him to learn about insights and trends in the waterpark market.
David Sangree: I went to Cornell University for hospitality and worked in operations with Westin Hotels after graduation. While working with US Realty Consultants I was asked to do a study concerning a waterpark resort in the late 1990s. I took my family, including my toddler son, with me to Wisconsin Dells where we had a wonderful time! I thought that the waterpark was a great idea for families. This study turned out well (done for Great Wolf Lodge) and prompted me to do more studies. This led me to begin speaking at World Waterpark Association events, which I’ve been doing for over a decade.
Our firm has collected the most financial data for waterparks of any firm in the country. It’s fun to be an analyst in this neat industry! Plus with my own family, I have direct experience on how different ages respond to different parks, rides, and attractions. I love a family resort and personally enjoy swimming so it’s very interesting and fun to be a specialist in this field.
MM: What are the most impactful insights you are finding in the waterpark market?
DS: Like the hotel industry in general, the waterpark resort market was also affected by the recession in 2009 and 2010. It wasn’t hit as hard as other segments and it has definitely come back.
Performance figures show RevPAR up 4.5% in 2014 performance compared to 2013, which is also happening in the hotel business in general. When trying to secure locations, meeting planners are finding that prices are not as low as they were.
The difference in waterpark resorts is that they are more aggressive in pricing midweek and more interested in having groups and meetings come. Using a waterpark resort midweek can be a good thing for groups and the hotel. On weekends when families are interested in coming to stay, the room rates are typically much higher.
Among bigger resorts we’re seeing that the continued focus is on what new attractions they can add. For example the Wilderness at the Smokies Waterpark Resort and Family Adventure Center in Tennessee, which is attached to a convention facility offering 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, added a family entertainment facility. When the kids get tired of the waterpark they can go and play games, offering another entertainment option. Each year waterpark designers come up with new rides and attractions. It’s an interesting industry because of the innovation happening.
DS: I think there is a trend in not just waterpark resorts, but amusement parks in general to add new attractions. The customer has an expectation for new things happening every year or two. This is different than in the traditional hotel industry, planners expect hotels to be kept up nicely, but not that they will add a new attraction every two years. The hotel industry averages a renovation every five to seven years to stay in good shape and compete well within the market. With top tier waterpark properties, there is this greater expectation, as in, what have you added this year? There is an enhanced demand for families and for groups coming (since they often bring their families).
MM: How do waterpark resorts compete in today’s market, specifically within the meetings and convention industry and not just family and leisure markets?
DS: There is definitely a growing trend toward waterpark resorts targeting groups and meetings. The Kalahari was a pioneer in this area, with their multiple locations in Wisconsin Dells, WI, Sandusky, OH, and they are now opening another location in the Pocono Mountains. Their approach with offering a large convention space has shown that they can attract a lot of groups for fun traditional activities, but use demand to fill in slower times when families are not available.
Other waterpark resorts are adding and increasing meeting space to better compete because a number of them couldn’t due to their lack of space. For example, two new resorts in Pocono have substantial meeting space and can attract groups of 500 people and up because they realized having more space allows higher occupancy.
There is a lot of potential for waterpark resorts to work with the meetings and events industry, the challenge is the supply. Only 133 resorts in the US qualify as indoor waterpark resorts offering a minimum of 10,000 sq. ft. of waterpark space. Only about half of them have larger meeting space facilities. Everyone has a little, but not 7,000 sq. ft. or more of meeting space. There’s a wide range of property types out there so it’s hard to generalize when there are large ones like Kalahari and others that don’t meet the threshold of space and quality,
Having the waterpark allows you to market to families and group guests can bring them (family) along at little or no additional charge (not the case for all waterparks). For many groups the waterpark is an amenity, but not used as much unless they bring their family. For some groups it is an advantage. I believe Kalahari cites that they get a 20% increase in meeting attendance because of their amenities. Some very business-oriented groups might first think, why would we want to go to a waterpark resort, but in many of these cases the meeting space and waterpark are at completely opposite ends. Ultimately it comes down to deciding if the meeting space and price fits the meeting planner’s requirements.