SeaWorld Says It’s OK to Have Fun Again

James Geiser has had a tough job the past six months: He runs marketing for SeaWorld.

Anyone working in advertising during the Covid-19 pandemic had to drastically recalibrate. That proved especially true for Geiser when he joined SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.—owner of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens amusement parks—in October.

SeaWorld Says It’s OK to Have Fun Again

The company had already been through the worst of the pandemic, after revenue plunged 96% last summer. Geiser didn’t miss the collapse, though. He worked in marketing at rival Six Flags Entertainment Corp., which experienced a similar deterioration in its business.

Bloomberg recently spoke with Geiser about the past year and how the company plans to lure back visitors during a pandemic that is far from under control.

Take us back to March 2020 when the pandemic arrived in America. What was it like to work for an amusement park company?

It was very surreal. In a lot of our markets, we were in the middle of spring break. We had great crowds coming out to the park and people didn’t feel it yet. It was happening somewhere else. Then the country shut down. It was just an abrupt stop.

Like so many businesses that relied on drawing crowds, amusement parks were hit hard. Shares of SeaWorld sank 60% in March. After the initial shock of the shutdown, the company overhauled its marketing and showed attendees in masks. What was the thinking behind that?

People couldn’t picture themselves wearing a mask on a roller coaster, thinking: ‘How’s it going to stay on?’ But you know what? It stays on just great, and it feels wonderful with that rush of wind blowing in your face.

OK, so you showed people masks can work on a ride. Another hurdle had to be dealing with the various state Covid restrictions. For example, when Virginia cut total capacity limits to 1000 people, how did Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which can hold 38,000, deal with that?

Rather than just remain closed, like others had at the time, we developed a session concept: 1000 people at a time, almost an exclusive experience with food packaged in, admissions and a portion of the park open. And then we would have two or three sessions a day, so it made sense from a cost perspective.

The company’s recent commercial asks: “Are you ready for real?” What’s the goal there?

What we’re trying to do is make people aware that it’s OK to have fun again.

So far, investors are betting that Americans are going to come back, with SeaWorld’s shares up almost 60% this year. That triples the gains of companies selling tickets to concerts (Live Nation Entertainment Inc.) and movies (Cinemark Holdings Inc.). How bullish are you?

It’s going to take a little time for people to realize it’s OK to get out there, especially as we continue to see the country recover from Covid. We’re very optimistic about the future. Spring break is here, and we’re seeing a great response already.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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