Experts from the Attractions Industry, Including SeaWorld CEO Marc Swanson, Participate in Annual Conference Focused on Recovery and Resilience in 2021.
By Exec Edge Editorial Staff
The Global Association for the Attractions Industry (IAAPA) hosted its annual conference April 7-8, 2021. Given current restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, IAAPA opted for a virtual event. The annual meeting, which is typically held in Orlando, FL, achieved its mission of educating industry professionals on current amusement trends, laws, operations, and industry methodology.
Following a year of economic hardship for the attractions industry, the 2021 IAAPA Virtual Conference provided expert insight into how industry professionals can focus on recovery and resilience by implementing “new strategies for managing [their] workforce in uncertain times.”
Marc Swanson Talks About Navigating Through the COVID-19 Crisis
Newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Marc Swanson was a keynote speaker on day one, which focused on industry recovery. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment currently operates 12 parks across the United States. Each location faced unique challenges and was impacted by evolving closures and operational limitations in 2020. Swanson shared details about how the company has navigated these challenges.
A Company Focused on Growth
In 2019, SeaWorld achieved its highest adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) in history, according to Swanson. With this momentum, led by the company’s management team, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment stood poised to manage the pandemic’s difficulties.
Swanson reported: “What we did over the ensuing days, weeks, and months between the shutdown, shoring up our balance sheet and liquidity, and the gradual reopening of our parks not only allowed us to get through what could have been a devastating stretch but [also] prepared us to emerge a much stronger company. Smarter, in many ways. More efficient. More thoughtful in our approach and with an understanding, encouraged and underscored by our board, that our willingness to make bold, creative, and fast business decisions [was] key to our survival — and then our success.”
Reliance on a Strong Management-Board Partnership
Unlike other companies whose management team and Board operate separately, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment relied on collaboration between the two entities to promote a positive recovery during the pandemic. Their ongoing communication prompted creativity and nimbleness, allowing the company to adjust accordingly and make decisions to “address an unthinkable and unprecedented reality.” Swanson identified the role Scott Ross, Founder and Managing Partner of Hill Path Capital and Chairman of the SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. Board of Directors, played in their recovery. Swanson touted, “Having a large investor on the Board allowed us to align goals and move even more confidently and decisively.”
Swanson elaborated, “That collaboration allowed us to address our operational costs and maximize our financial flexibility, giving us some breathing room to make difficult decisions with some degree of confidence.” He continued, “We moved quickly to eliminate or defer non-essential expenses and substantially reduced or deferred all capital spending by postponing the opening of most of our new rides. “
Prioritized Health and Safety
Both guests’ and employees’ health and safety remained a priority while the company navigated the pandemic. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment implemented strict new practices early in the pandemic to meet government-imposed restrictions.
“Our operations teams worked closely with health experts and state and local governments to develop strategies and protocols designed to keep everyone safe. We developed COVID-19-specific training for ambassadors. We established comprehensive safety standards across the board,” reported Swanson.
Currently, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment operates numerous customer-focused attractions within its parks, including food festivals, live concerts, educational experiences, and ride attractions. Modified in-park experiences ensure guests’ and employees’ safety, using new cleaning requirements, social distancing practices, hands-free systems, etc.
Helping the Community
In addition to reintroducing customers to its numerous entertainment and educational attractions, the company wants to promote community engagement by offering guests an opportunity to participate in activities missed during the pandemic.
For instance, SeaWorld Orlando recently announced its plans to host Grad Night 2021. In the hopes of bringing back a traditional senior-year experience missed by many due to COVID-19, the park has invited high school seniors to participate in a night of fun. Swanson shared, “We’re doing this not just because it’s good for business. We’re doing it for the seniors who’ll [get to] experience at least one once-in-a-lifetime event that won’t get canceled.”
The Overall Impact of the SeaWorld Management Team
Swanson reflected on events spurred by the pandemic and touted SeaWorld’s strategy during this time. Speaking to the collaboration between the management team and SeaWorld’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, Scott Ross, Swanson reported, “Our partnership with our chairman and our other board members allowed our company to adjust and move forward with more creativity and nimbleness than we had before. We were all in this together, and having our leadership team and board members in constant communication certainly allowed us to address this crisis head-on.”
Swanson revealed that the past year was not a total loss. “[Instead], we’ve increased our operating efficiency, [we’ve] found greater financial strength, and most importantly, we’ve discovered that we have one of the strongest teams in the industry.”
Keynote Speakers at the 2021 IAAPA Virtual Conference
Marc Swanson was one of many industry professionals who spoke at the virtual conference. Presenters relied on their own experience to educate others on leveraging the past to fulfill their 2021-2022 economic goals.
President of Oxford Economic Industry, Adam Sacks, delved into how the pandemic has impacted tourism, specifically, “the mindset of travelers and [the] expectation for how and when they will fully recover.” Meanwhile, Tracy Lanza, senior vice president for integrated marketing, Brand USA, Hal McEvoy, ICAE, president and CEO of IAAPA, and Amanda Thompson, OBE, ICAE, chairman and managing director of IAAPA, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, participated in a panel discussion focusing on leadership and adaptability to change. Panelists shared their experience on how they “overcame challenges, addressed accelerating change, and continued to equip themselves to navigate and lead to a better future for all.”
Additional events on Day 1 included a Panel Discussion focusing on “Safety First, Fun Second,” led by Moderator Linda Freeman, Entertainment Industry Specialist, Rockwell Automation. The discussion was presented by Panelists Anthony Palermo, Co-founder, Connect&GO, Dr. Marc Allan Tack, DO, Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine, and Jason Freeman, Corporate Vice President of Security, Safety, Health & Environmental at Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. Day 2 of the IAAPA Virtual Conference began with a keynote presentation titled “The Power of Human Connection,” led by Leon Logothetis, Global adventurer, author/creator of the book, and Netflix show The Kindness Diaries.
What is IAAPA?
Founded in 1918, IAAPA is recognized as the most significant international trade association for permanently situated amusement facilities. IAAPA offers training and education to industry professionals, including workshops, on-site seminars, videotapes, manuals, and webinars. The organization represents a variety of location-based entertainment facilities, such as amusement and theme parks, zoos, science centers, etc., as well as industry equipment manufacturers, distributors, operators, industry suppliers, and service providers.