The Cedar Fair boss speaks to Park World.
Matthew A Ouimet, 55, is the president and CEO of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, a publicly traded company that owns and operates 11 amusement parks in North America. Matt is one of the most experienced hospitality and service industry executives in the country, having served in executive positions with the Walt Disney Company for nearly two decades ultimately as president of the Disney Cruise Line and Disneyland Resort. He joined Cedar Fair in summer 2011 and just last November was invited to address to the GM & Owners’ Breakfast at IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando.
What have you and your team achieved since your arrival at Cedar Fair in 2011?
Based upon the classic business metrics, there have been a lot of achievements, but most importantly we’ve put the plans and people in place that will allow us to live up to the high standards that Cedar Fair has always been known for.
How does the company culture differ to Disney? What attributes does it share?
There is more commonality than differences. A commitment to guest service is the most obvious shared attribute. As for the difference, our scale allows our leadership team to be much more personally connected to the guest and employee experiences. We also can make decisions in days that would take much, much longer in the large Disney corporate structure.
What lessons could the parks and attractions business teach to other industries?
The success of all businesses depends upon delivering value to a consumer. While not necessarily unique to our business, I’ve always believed that the hospitality business needs to focus on reducing the stress points of a visit. Ordinary life is stressful enough – if we don’t add to it the consumers will reward us with their business; if we actually take some of that stress away, they will reward us handsomely. Lines are stressful, starting shows late is stressful, attraction downtime is stressful, inaccurate information is stressful, blaming someone else is stressful, etc. At Cedar Fair, we spend a lot of time and attention on minimizing the stress points for our guests.
What could the park and attractions business learn from other industries?
Over the past few years we have become much more receptive to the adoption of best practices from adjacent industries. Revenue management analytics and a customer relationship management (“CRM”) platform are two examples. We spend a lot of time looking at the hotel and cruise businesses particularly. More broadly, we need to get better at incorporating the digital entertainment world into our parks. I believe there is an opportunity in this area to add to the way guests experience our parks, while at the same time removing some of the stress points I mentioned earlier. We have several ideas that we will be testing.
The parks and attractions industry hires a lot of seasonal employees, by the nature of the business. How do you ensure these staff members are equally as motivated as your full-time employees?
We have to remember to respect, value and appreciate all of our employees – full-time or seasonal. We also have to be not only good managers, but good leaders as well. As one of my colleagues is fond of reminding us: you achieve compliance by telling someone what to do. You achieve the much more valuable commitment when you explain why something is important. Leaders take the time to explain the “Why.” While seasonal employees may not have the same perspective as our full-time employees, you should not assume they are by nature less motivated. They bring new, fresh energy and ideas every season.
What has been some of the most interesting feedback you have had since your address to the IAAPA GM & Owners’ Breakfast?
The industry has a strong culture, committed to the guest experience and recognising the importance people play in delivering the experience. I’m not sure I said anything that was any different than what others, such as Jim Atchison or Joel Manby (as just two examples) would have said. However, the comments I received after the speech were focused on how this was a good reminder that it is a lot easier to build a 400-feet-tall rollercoaster than it is to lead thousands of people in the July heat.
At that Breakfast, you spoke about leadership. How can (or does) Cedar Fair provide leadership within this industry?
We have to do the right thing each and every day. This comment is intentionally broad, but there are two critical areas.
The first is safety. Our COO, Richard Zimmerman is leading our team to reassess all of our safety and ride reliability practices. We think we are great today; I am sure we will be even better tomorrow. Working with IAAPA and with open dialogue with other industry players, we hope to play some small role in challenging continuous improvement in this area.
The second is innovation. I would hope that we could serve as a catalyst for innovation across all aspects of our business, and that this innovation would serve to insure the vibrancy of the industry for a long time to come.
How important is if to you that each of the Cedar Fair parks retain their own names and identities?
One of our strengths is that we are less “corporate.” Unique park names and identities are important. We have great park loyalty in each of our markets and we need to respect the memories that have been created over decades.
Will we ever see Cedar Fair expand overseas?
What will be the bigger challenge in the years to come – growing attendance or per-cap spending?
They both are challenging, but both are achievable if you continue to deliver an experience the guests enjoy. I am grateful to say the industry has advanced to the point where we no longer chase attendance at all cost. Cheap attendance is a poor strategy – it really doesn’t help the bottom-line and it makes for a poorer experience for all.
Single out one new ride or attraction opening at one of your parks in 2014 and tell us why you are excited about it
Can’t pick just one. Wonder Mountain’s Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland will be the largest new attraction, the longest, interactive dark ride in the world. Then there’s Banshee, the longest inverted coaster in the world at Kings Island in Cincinnati.
The Cedar Fair empire
Cedar Fair traces its roots to Cedar Point, which opened in 1870 as a recreational area in Sandusky, Ohio. The park developed over the years, going through only a few management changes. In 1977 the Cedar Point Pleasure Company acquired Valleyfair in Shakopee, Minnesota. The name Cedar Fair then was derived from the names of both parks and the new company founded in 1983, listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 1987, where it trades as FUN.
“The roller coaster capital of the world,” Cedar Point remains the group’s flagship property, and where its headquarters are based. The company also owns and operates a further 11 parks in the USA and Canada, including three outdoor waterparks, one indoor waterpark, as well as five hotels. The portfolio includes Knott’s Berry Farm and Knott’s Soak City Orange County outside Los Angeles, California; King’s Island near Cincinnati, Ohio; Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto; King’s Dominion near Richmond, Virginia; Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina; Great America in Clara, California; Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri; Michigan’s Adventure near the city of Muskegon; Wildwater Kingdom near Cleveland, Ohio; plus the Soak City waterpark and Castaway Bay hotel waterpark resort adjacent to Cedar Point. Cedar Fair also manages Gilroy Gardens under contract with the city of Gilroy, California.