When Birthday Party Programs Sink

How Frustrations Hamper Party Business Growth at Amusement and Waterparks

By uncovering the top 10 frustrations of a large amusement park or waterpark birthday program, you’ll find out why a party program falters.
In almost all family oriented recreational business entities, the birthday program is one of its strongest revenue sources.  It’s a program that gives current patrons a reason to come back, as well as introduces new customers who have never visited.
What remains unclear to the amusement park and waterpark industry is why their party programs rarely get off the ground. Birthday University has taught the business of profitable birthday parties to commercial family entities for the past 12 years, and looking back, the same issues that weighed down the amusement park/waterpark industry’s ability to grow this program in the year 2000, continues to be the weight that sinks it to the bottom of the pool today.
Amusement and waterparks should be like all other family entertainment businesses and boast about the success and profitability of their party programs. They have more space, more attractions, more variety and more food options as well as a greater depth of offerings.  The demand for out-of-the-home parties is at an all-time high. The ability to charge for unique, higher quality party offerings, results in very favorable profit margins. Then why have most large park programs failed?  “Sure we do them, but it’s not our focus and our staff hates them. They are a lot of work and we don’t have enough people to handle them.”  These were comments that came from a mixed marketing panel of large park operators at a recent IAAPA seminar on marketing.
Listening in on the typical revenue development meeting of park executives, department heads, and owners, it might go like this. “The economy has shrunk revenue to an all-time low, we need to get creative to grow it back.  Marketing suggests; “What about stepping up our party program; it gives a reason for guests to return to our property and while they are there, they will buy more if we market it correctly.”  Operations balks at the idea; “We have tried it before, it’s a lot of extra work, besides we lack the manpower to organize and effectively pull it off.  We have thousands of general admission guests to service; the last thing we want to worry about is a bunch of small groups of 10 running around the park.”  Either stymied or instructed to move forward, most of these programs start out destined to fail from the start.  At the next development meeting, instead of debating the same issues, unify from within and then look to solve the root cause of the problem.  The answer is wrapped around this single concept – Your market shrinks, when frustrations grow.
These frustrations are evident from all perspectives, not just the guest.  At the park management level, marketing sees an opportunity to grow park revenues, but is frustrated with operations delivering a half-baked effort. Operations is trying to run the park and is frustrated with marketing, because it can’t handle or doesn’t have the time or labor to add one more new responsibility.  The front line staff has the greatest frustration; they face the guest’s expectation of a smooth, quality experience, without the tools to make it memorable.  Let’s look at why the typical large park party frustrates the heck out of guests.  Only after understanding these concepts and eliminating them will you discover why your potential for birthday parties is so small, as well as why word of mouth buzz and repeat parties are low and thus why you have very few.  Take a look from the top down:

  • 10 – The fear that the party will not be good and they will disappoint their child. Parents lose two things when they decide to have a birthday party out of the home, control and the ability to add their special “TLC” (tender loving care).  One of the greatest hidden fears of parents is to avoid something happening to their child, which happened to them as a child and caused great pain.  Parents will do anything to evade this.  When they give up their control of the outcome, they are very anxious, especially in a large environment where even more things are out of their control.
  • 9 – Worry about the weather. Indoor party concepts do not have this concern.  Parents tend to worry about those things they can’t control, and that puts a great amount of anxiety on their decision.  What is the contingency plan if there is bad weather?  If they were hosting a party at home, outdoors, they would simply move it inside.
  • 8 – Bringing the food, cake and party supplies. Party concept designers that think parents want to bring their own food, cake and party supplies, because they want to save money, must not have kids of their own.  In today’s family, time is the new currency and parents with children don’t have any. You can maintain flexibility for special requests with options, but giving parents what they really want, “the best result,” with the least amount of frustration prevails over paying a lower price every time.
  • 7 – Not organized, having to run the entire party. Parents do not care how many parties you have booked or how busy the park is with general admission.  They are concerned with their group, how it’s organized and who keeps it that way. This is especially true in large park environments, when it feels like chaos and no one is there to keep the group intact and take care of their needs. When they are responsible to corral the group through each component of the party, dealing with the heat and crowds, it won’t be long before major frustration sets in.
  • 6 – Events that last all day. The ideal children’s birthday party is two hours long.  The longest a party should be ever is three hours. Eighty percent of commercial birthday parties are for children between the ages of 4 and 10 years old. How many parents do you know would volunteer or pay to stay all day with a group between that age, especially in a very large environment.  You might think they want their money’s worth and want to stay as long as they can, but think of the frustration they’ll inevitably encounter throughout the day.  All those negative feelings will be attached to your party concept.   The invited guests’ parents, who have their entire day interrupted, feel compelled to stay to watch their child or simply need to kill time until it’s over, also feel the pain.  Wonder why there are few younger-to-mid-age parties booked at your park?  Wonder why many parents never book a second party at a large park or waterpark?  Most parents cringe with even the thought.
  • 5 – Waiting in long lines. Let me set this one up from your own perspective.  Picture you and your family waiting in a ride or waterslide line, on a hot, sunny, busy day, for 45 minutes. How many of these lines is your threshold, before you begin to feel enough pain and explode?  Now picture it with 10 to 12 kids, excited, on their own agenda with little focus and way too much energy.  Get the picture?
  • 4 – Keeping all the kids together. The main reason this party is happening at your park today, is to celebrate a child’s birthday.  If not for the child having a birthday, these 10 kids would not be there at all.  With this in mind, it’s crucial to highlight the birthday child and make sure they are the center of attention. This only happens when their friends and family are facilitated to surround them throughout the event, so they know everyone is there for them.  In the case of a large park, it has an even greater significance.  Party parents get very anxious about the size and potential dangers of a large park and get very frustrated trying to keep the entire group together.
  • 3 – Keeping all the kids happy. Attempting to make everyone happy, when each child wants to do something different, is hard enough for the average parent to maintain amongst their own family.  Add 10 kids to the mix, along with the desire to avoid a party flop, and there is even greater pressure. Invited guests have different swimming skills. Some may not meet the height requirements of certain attractions.  Others may not be as daring.   Party parents get very frustrated trying to overcome the different needs of invited guests, especially when they realize, they can’t make everyone happy.
  • 2 – Safety concerns. Parents feel responsible for the welfare of the group.  In a large park or waterpark, the perception of danger is very real.  In all the survey and focus groups Birthday University has done over the years, safety is always the number-one concern of party parents in all commercial birthday party environments.  In a large park venue, it is multiplied by the size or acreage of the park and the potential hazard of the water.  If the perception of safety is not present in your concept at the start, or if the responsibility falls entirely back on parent’s shoulders, they will be frustrated in the end, trying to make sure everything remains safe.  Here lies a major reason why most large park party programs have a very small market population from which they draw.  When parents are not comfortable and confident with the image or your park’s party program, they simply will not put themselves in the position to have to endure the pain.
  • 1 – Not enjoying the experience with her child because they are so frustrated. You get only one chance at a memorable birthday party per year.  There are no do-overs.  If you want guests telling the story of the wonderful experience they had at your park for their child’s birthday party, eliminate their frustrations.  Ninety-eight percent of large park birthday party programs actually create frustration.  Just think of how unique your concept would be and how quickly it would grow if you were the exact opposite.

The best party concepts create a competitive advantage by eliminating their customer’s frustration.  It’s a unique strategy that sets you apart, increases the market size and also the number of potential bookings.  It’s not because of your tangible attractions, but because you have eliminated the feeling that all humans, hope to avoid, which is frustration.
Just think if 12 years ago your development team remained focused, and you built and lived a sound party program based on what all guests are searching for.  You would be reading this article with a smile, enjoying steady revenue growth, instead of that same perplexed look and reason you give when someone like me calls you out and asks why?  “Yes we do them. We don’t do very many of them.”  “We don’t like them and aren’t very good at them.”
(Frank W. Price is the founder of Birthday University and the FL Price and Associates training firm. Reach Price at www.birthdayuniversity.com or (919) 387-966.)

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