Universal Studios Looks for Image Boost

Enlists Retail, Restaurant Vet to Draw Crowds

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Theme park Universal Studios Hollywood, a mainstay in Southern California in need of an image and traffic boost, has brought on a retail and restaurant veteran to help pull in the crowds.

Mark Mears, whose background includes stints at Blimpie's sandwich chain, JC Penney and ad agencies Leo Burnett and Bozell Worldwide, recently became the park's senior VP-marketing and sales.

'Entertainment capital of L.A.'
Mr. Mears joins Universal as the theme park launches a $10 million marketing campaign this summer under the tagline, "The entertainment capital of Los Angeles," from ad agency David & Goliath, Los Angeles. It's the largest promotional campaign in years, intended to buff the park's image and emphasize its breadth of offerings. The theme-park complex also houses Gibson Amphitheater, which hosts live concerts, an Imax theater and a multiplex and CityWalk, an outdoor mall with restaurants and shops.

"It's an ambitious brand-positioning campaign and the most the park has spent behind a new positioning campaign since '96," Mr. Mears said. "We're looking to steal market share from our competitors."

The park's sponsorship executives also are stepping up their quest for partners, particularly in high-tech areas, looking for the boost that co-promotions can give. Sponsors include Volkswagen, Coca-Cola and Chase Bank.

Attendance in decline
Universal Studios Hollywood, known for attractions such as "Jurassic Park: The Ride" and "Back to the Future," has seen its attendance drop in recent years in the shadow of better-known competitor Disneyland. Last year attendance was down 6%, when fewer than 5 million people visited the park, according to Economics Research Associates.

The theme park, which is 44 years old, has depended on hit properties from its sibling divisions such as NBC and Universal Pictures. Some, like "Fear Factor," have inspired strong theme-park attractions. Others, like Universal Pictures' "Van Helsing," disappointed at the box office and didn't create much excitement at the park.

Aging stars
Many of Universal's attractions are aging, like "Backdraft" and "Terminator 2: 3D," and there have been few launches to draw in consumers.

This summer, park executives have been working on that problem. The back-lot tour has been revamped, and Whoopie Goldberg signed as a celebrity spokesperson who narrates the ride via video displays. Also new on the tour: sets from recent hit movies "War of the Worlds" and "King Kong" and an attraction themed to "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

"It was important to polish the studio tour as our crown jewel," Mr. Mears said, "and to provide some new news."

As opposed to destination parks such as Walt Disney World or Universal Studios Orlando, the Hollywood theme park draws much of its traffic from a five-county area around Los Angeles. Mr. Mears said he'll focus much of the marketing efforts locally and "look to use data on our guests to be more surgical about who we reach and how we reach them."

Squeezed by high gas prices
Competing with an array of family entertainment options, as well as high gas prices and squeezed pocketbooks, theme-park executives said they are looking for inventive ways to lure in fans.

Halfway through the summer, Mr. Mears said executives are pleased with the campaign and the park traffic, though he didn't give specifics.

The Southern California theme-park industry is in transition at the moment, with the new executive team at Six Flags considering selling Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor, located just north of Los Angeles.
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