Exclusive: Six Flags bids to stem slide, recast image

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Theme-park operator Six Flags, trying to reverse a two-year attendance slump, is set to launch a $100 million global ad campaign, national promotions and a "guest experience" upgrade that includes making it easier to purchase tickets and sprucing up restaurants and restrooms.

The goal is to broaden its positioning beyond thrill rides by appealing not just to kids and teens but to their parents, with a focus on the shared experience and escapism of theme park visits.

"We've looked at the business top to bottom to see how we can get it growing," said Six Flags CEO Kieran Burke. "We've been through a difficult period, as has the entire leisure sector, where we've struggled with a lot of external factors."

The sluggish economy, weak consumer confidence and post-9/11 travel wariness conspired to depress the industry over the past few years. Park attendance overall fell by 1.6% last year, according to Amusement Business magazine. Six Flags, the second-largest theme park chain (the largest is Walt Disney Co.), saw a 4% drop. The company was especially hard hit by bad weather in much of the Northeast and Midwest.

But the picture seems to be brightening for 2004, analysts said with parks stepping up media spending and opening new attractions.

Six Flags' ad campaign, its first from independent Doner, Southfield, Mich., features a disco-dancing octogenarian and carries the tagline, "It's Playtime!" Seventy percent of the media budget will be spent in the U.S., and the remainder in international markets. In a switch for the theme-park operator, most of the U.S. buy will be in national rather than local or regional media, since the chain now has 31 parks across the country.

Six Flags will also advertise in supermarkets and movie theaters. And it plans a separate Spanish-language effort aimed at the U.S. Hispanic market. National promotions are being weighed with various marketing partners, including Coca-Cola Co., Frito-Lay, Nestle and Dannon Co. Six Flags also purchased two customized buses and will use them for event marketing.

sensible approach

"It makes sense for [Six Flags] to appeal to families because there's a higher guest spend for those groups," said David Miller, an analyst with Sanders Morris Harris. "The thrill-ride fans will still come because the parks are already known for that."

Six Flags could fare better than destination parks such as Disney World because "it's an impulse purchase," Mr. Miller said-a day trip rather than a pricey weeklong vacation.

The ad campaign breaks this week. It sprang from Doner research that showed families are overscheduled and overstressed. Spots show an 86-year-old man driving up to a neighborhood of suburban tract houses in a bus that's been tricked-out with Six Flags logos. He gets out and starts dancing, beckoning families who are mowing lawns, washing cars and painting fences to a mini-getaway. A Spring Break spot has the dancing mascot showing up at a school.

"We wanted to express this concept of release-release from work, release from school, release from the daily grind-which we believed was a basic fundamental thing that everybody desires and requires," said John DeCerchio, Doner's vice chairman-chief creative officer.

"When we talked to kids, they were very desirous of making playtime because they feel overscheduled," said Alan Kalter, chairman-CEO of Doner. "Even fun things are about responsibility. It's not liberating, it's something on my list, so this is about getting away and going crazy for a day."

Because the chain has few head-on competitors, research also showed it could differentiate itself from more passive leisure-time options such as pro sports and zoos. "There are very few entertainment options that are as involving and visceral," Mr. Kalter said.

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