Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

Freestyle Music Park – Steve Baker speaks

In February, FPI-MB Entertainment bought the former Hard Rock Park, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for $25 million (€18m). Built at a cost of $400 million (€285m), the park costs its original investors dear after it went bankrupt last September. But now, FBI-MB president Steve Baker and a team of leisure professionals think they can make a fresh start. Here Baker (pictured right) shares some of the challenges he faces at Freestyle Music Park.

We considered many names for the park once it was determined we would not be moving forward with the Hard Rock name. We decided to go with the “Freestyle” name since Freestyle Park International is the parent company of FPI MB Entertainment LLC. There are several Freestyle parks planned for development throughout the world and since we wanted to retain this park’s music theme, we agreed on Freestyle Music Park. We have received a positive response from guests about the name and look forward to building the awareness and brand equity.

We have a Russian Freestyle Park very similar to an indoor ski project in Dubai. It is a shopping centre anchored by a major ski slope. It features an indoor waterpark and children’s science centre and hotel, plus hundreds of thousands of square feet of shopping. The Russian park was the first project for the Freestyle brand, but when they were developing it, they had no inclination at all about purchasing the park in Myrtle Beach. The flexibility of Freestyle makes us comfortable to have many Freestyle parks around the world. Some will be very similar to Myrtle Beach, but traditionally they will be indoor sports themed parks. Overall, Freestyle parks will be an interactive, participatory evolution of the theme park experience.

If we look at Myrtle Beach, I don’t think it is ever easy to establish a new name. It’s a marketing challenge and it’s a communication challenge. You need to have sound advice and a solid team to be sure that awareness is at its highest and you must work very hard to establish recognition. I don’t think Myrtle Beach is a harder market than any other market. It’s a confined market. I think it would be harder to establish it in New York City or even Orlando because there is so much clutter and competition. Here it is easier to get your arms around. I like to say “fish where the fish are” and we certainly know where the fish are in Myrtle Beach. It’s a big challenge but one that we would have with any new name.

Smooth Transformation

Several changes have been made in the park since last season, the largest being the re-theming of our major rides. The Time Machine is the former Led Zeppelin coaster (by B&M), the Iron Horse is the former (Vekoma) Eagles Life In The Fast Lane and MonStars is the former Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin dark ride, now re-themed by ITEC Entertainment. The majority of the shops, restaurants and other attractions were also re-themed prior to this season.

We’ve also added three new shows: Flip 5 Live, a kid friendly singing, dancing and tumbling experience; CSI Live, an interactive take on the hit TV show; and Adrenaline Rush, an X-games stunt show that encourages audience participation. The shows that are holdovers from 2008 include the country ice skating show, which has an entirely new choreography routine/soundtrack and the evening fireworks show, which now features a new soundtrack.

I think the transformation from Hard Rock to Freestyle went remarkably smoothly. The team did a monumental effort in accomplishing it. A lot of people in the industry said they didn’t think it was possible and thought we should have waited until next season to open it smoother but I think if we did it. We had a defined budget and we got it done within that budget and on time. It was a tremendous amount of work, but here we are.

I’ve always said the middle management from last year’s park was very competent, which is why we retained many staff members for Freestyle Music Park. We augmented this with talent from companies we’ve worked in the past including Orlando’s The Imagination House, to act as art directors, help produce shows and re-theme and re-name rides, shows and areas of the park. Ian McGillivray acted as a project co-ordinators and project manager on several areas of the park. We used local vendors such as Tyson Signs to replace hundreds of notices inside and outside the park in a very short time. We couldn’t have done it alone and brought in the best teams I know to get us to where we are today.

Family Appeal

Merchandise sales may not necessarily be as strong without Hard Rock branded goods, but we are doing everything we can to build and brand our logo in Freestyle Music Park. One of the things we heard early on was that we couldn’t rebrand and order our themed merchandise in time for a Memorial Day (May 25) opening, but we have. Traditionally, merchandise is designed, ordered and delivered with much more lead time. We are not expecting the same per caps this year but we are confident sales of Freestyle Music Park merchandise will increase and improve as the Freestyle Music Park brand grows. We are also excited about our show merchandise, such as CSI:Live and Adrenaline Rush.

In order to increase the park’s family appeal, further development of rides and shows that appeal to this group are on our list. We strongly believe we have increased the park’s family appeal by re-theming the Kid’s In America area of the park and adding four children’s rides. We’ve done quite a bit to appeal more to families but want to be conscientious to keep our appeal to teenagers and young adults with thrill rides such as The Time Machine and shows that appeal to this audience such as Adrenaline Rush. After all, our team’s background is with Disney and Universal, so families are what we know best. It’s definitely an area we’ve focused on, especially this year.

Operating only briefly, Maximum RPM (from Premier Rides) was definitely one of the major issues from last year. But I am very pleased to report that in the three weeks we’ve been open, The Roundabout, its new name, has had a 95% operating rate. We are very happy with the ride and expect it to be a fully operational from now on. We’ve also talked about bumper cars, a park staple, and believe they may be valuable and beneficial to the park. We love ‘em!

Beach Time

We recognise that we’re a shore park, where the biggest attraction is the beach. This has been a big point of discussion for us. Our current operating hours are 11am to 10pm but we fully understand that visitors to Myrtle Beach go to the beach during the day. We’ve certainly seen an increase in evening attendance in our first few weeks and aren’t opposed to modifying our operating schedule if we find that the evenings are the best time to have the park open because of the heat and the beach as our main competition during the day. A lot of tourists go to the beach until 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then come to the park at night, and that’s certainly when we intend to get them, but there is also a crowd who doesn’t want to go to the beach every day and wants something to do. We are going to watch it very closely and determine the best hours to operate the park in future.

We understand the importance of advertising. The first thing we did when we came into the market was get the feedback of local tourism leaders, explain our plans and solicit their support of the park moving forward. We realised early on that we needed to position the park as an amenity of Myrtle Beach – not a destination separate from the area. With that, we pursued opportunities to be part of all out of market marketing co-operative opportunities with such entities as the local convention and visitors bureau, hospitality and accommodation marketing co-operatives.

We have also implemented an entire multimedia campaign including traditional billboards on major arteries coming into Myrtle Beach, which is traditionally a drive market. We have print, radio, television and online ads in select feeder markets and in the Myrtle Beach area to target local residents and tourists while they are in town. We have street teams visiting accommodation in town and grassroots promotions with show talent performing and promoting the park. Our basic strategy for this year is saturation, as there should be no one in the market who doesn’t know about the park.

Soft Opening

We believe providing a superb guest experience will help drive positive word of mouth and perception, which is what ultimately will get people to give us a try and keep coming back.

Was now the right time to be opening a new theme park? We purchased the park as a great investment. We are excited about opening on time and on budget. We know the current state of the economy is soft, but the Myrtle Beach market is more resilient than other vacation destination markets because it is a drive market with a very high visitor repeat rate. These are positives for us and ones we plan to capitalise on in order to have a successful park.

I believe there are lots of other reasons why theme parks do not succeed and many of those reasons that aren’t related to attendance. You’ll find a lot of the parks that have trouble are highly leveraged and heavily in debt.

The first few weeks were what we expected. We wanted to get open and work out the kinks. We considered this period as a soft opening of sorts to allow our team the opportunity to get ready – with the limited amount of time we’ve had to hire more than 1,000 employees and then get them trained. These few weeks allowed us time to get prepared for the crowds to come this summer.

We have received a wonderful reception from the local business and hospitality industry and a very positive word of mouth and buzz locally since we opened. We are encouraged by early attendance and are anxious to see what the full summer tourist season brings when the large number of tourists start coming into the market in the next few weeks.

Steve Baker was talking to Paul Ruben.

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