An Interview with Norm Doerges
A pioneer in the theme park industry and co-founder of Apogee Attractions, Norm Doerges previously shared with us his insights on how and why we got to where we are today in terms Design Program Concept. Below are the particulars of a Design Program and why it is critical to the success of a theme park.
Q So where do you begin?
Doerges Attendance. Everything is based on attendance. Once we realize this, we begin working on a methodology that will help us better understand attendance patterns. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen the same way throughout the year, although you wish it did. If you had the same number of people attending your park every day of the year, that park would always run at maximum efficiency. You’d always have just the right capacity on rides and attractions, always the right capacity in restaurants and shops; everything would correspond exactly to meet your projected service levels. Your capital investment would be spent in the most efficient way possible. But the facts are that it just doesn’t work like that. It’s all about patterns. Weather patterns, school attendance patterns, vacation patterns – all these things affect how people attend a theme park.
In some cases parks will close during the winter because they don’t have enough attendance to support the operation. But then they become overwhelmed in the summer time. This is particularly true with regional parks. They build as much capacity as they reasonably can to accommodate the influx of summer guests, but they really don’t make a good return on investment because for half the year that investment is just sitting there doing nothing.
So we decided that if we were going to build more parks, we’d first need to take a look at attendance patterns and see where we could get as level an attendance rate as possible. How do you level the attendance rate? You start by looking at the geography, specifically places where the weather is good year round. You want a location that is conducive to outdoor entertainment, a location where the marketplace is already visiting for the climate. You also want a place where people have year round discretionary income. This combination is exactly what Walt and his executive team found in Florida . Florida had a constant stream of tourism almost all year round, even before we showed up. Before Disney, approximately18 million tourists were coming into the state every year for the sun. Disney recognized this, and knew that if they put a park in the middle of this existing market and raised their hand, people would be there. That’s all they did in the beginning.
Q In analyzing patterns and locations, is there such a thing as perfect attendance?
Doerges Mathematically, .0027 would represent perfect attendance. When the various patterns and influences are calculated for Florida , Florida achieves about .0032, California around .0045. When you start looking at other parts of the world, it gets much “peakier.” For example, most of Europe goes on vacation in July and Aug – you end up with dramatic peaks and valleys of attendance. Hawaii actually turns out to be probably the best of any place in the world. Their problem is that their two primary markets – Japan and North America – really aren’t that big. Consequently Hawaii doesn’t draw the large number of visitors that you see in California or Florida . Japan , on the other hand, has less tourism, but they have so many people in Tokyo and Osaka that parks operate almost totally on the local markets.
Q All this discussion about attendance may seem to wander from the idea of design programming, but in fact it plays an integral part. Is that an accurate observation?
Doerges Absolutely. For a design program to be effective, it’s essential that you have a thorough understanding of the marketplace, as well as a high level of confidence that you’re going to attract a specific level of attendance. Of course when we run the program, we try to strike a range. A small parks program might run at 1.8 million, 2 million, and 2.2 million. If it were a large park we might run it at 8, 10, and 12 million. It all comes out of the market research.
You can’t build a church for Easter Sunday
Q Your market study has given you some basic numbers – you know how many people will be coming, when they’ll be coming, where they’ll be coming from. Where do you go next?
Doerges Once you understand how big the market is and what its seasonality is, you’re able to establish what we call a peak day. This is the average of your projected top ten busiest days; the days your market research tells you you’ll have the highest attendance numbers. Of course you can’t build your park based on peak day – that would be like building your church for Easter Sunday. Not only would you not be able to afford it, the place would seem empty most of the year. Too much space and too few attendees dilute the guest experience. The theme doesn’t carry through well at all. It’s not intimate and it’s certainly not a very exciting place to be. In addition, you find that, out of necessity, you have to close certain attractions, restaurants, and shops – you end up having to shut down a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense to operate during those slow seasons. All of this negatively impacts the guest experience.
Q So if you’re not designing to your peak day, what standard should you build to?
Doerges That’s where your design day comes in. One way of viewing the design day would be to think of it as an average attendance day, but it’s actually much more involved than that. You arrive at your design day based in part on certain service criteria, the most important being how long will people wait. By this I mean how long will your guest wait before they become frustrated. From this data comes a series of considerations: at what point in time will your guest start to think, this isn’t worth the money? When does the perceived value of their experience start to go down? And most important of all, at what point does your guest not only think their experience wasn’t worth the money, but that they’re not going to come back.
Q You’re essentially measuring price value.
Doerges Yes, but you’re also measuring the intent to return. In the theme park business, it’s all based on repeat visitation. This applies to both the visitor and the local market. It’s essential that you capture repeat visitation. You want people to want to come back and you want them to feel like they had a fair value.
But let’s return to the wait time. It’s actually a very fine line that you’re walking – too long of a wait time and you lose your guest; too short and you’ve over-invested. What we’re trying to do is control capital investment, trying to obtain a decent return without sacrificing the guest experience. Once we’ve determined our projected attendance and have chosen an acceptable wait time, we can calculate the required capacity. This capacity informs everyone on the team as to what they’re going to build. It’s a combination of understanding operations, engineering, economics, and human behavior. At the end of the day, all of the methodologies and calculations are a tool that helps us build a program that meets the needs of the guest.
Q All of this seems like it would be a real leap in thinking for most clients. When they say, “I want three roller coasters” they probably don’t anticipate all the complex considerations involved in economically justifying those three roller coasters. Do you find yourself having to educate them in design programming?
Doerges Absolutely. Most clients often think that because they’ve been to theme parks and have seen the end product that it’s a simple process. We know of a development currently under consideration in a colder climate. If you look at the seasonality, the average temperature during the winter months is around twenty degrees. Yet they want to have a year-round Disneyland-like park. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll get attendance during the winter months. Not to mention that such a severe cold season wouldn’t be conducive to maintaining landscaping. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to meet these kinds of client expectations.
But it’s not just clients that struggle with design programming. Operators, designers, and management have been known to disregard this concept as well. And when they do, it costs them dearly.