Drawing Future Visitors - Make Way for Millennials

January, 2015 | By Prasana William

Childless, cash-conscious, and constantly connected, today’s young adults are taking the attractions industry in an entirely new direction—whether we know it or not.

Called millennials, this generation was born between 1981 and 1999. They are now in their 20s and early 30s, and are known worldwide as well-educated, confident, tech-savvy, team-oriented, upbeat consumers.

“With more than 80 million members in the United States alone, the millennial generation is one of the largest in history,” says Mark Kupferman, vice president, insights and interactive marketing at Six Flags Entertainment Corp. “Most have reached a point where they are starting to think about settling down and having kids. For entertainment venues that serve families, millennials are going to drive the bulk of the business for the next 15 years. That’s a pretty compelling reason to pay attention to them.”

According to the IAAPA Amusement Park Benchmark Study, “families with children 2-18 years of age represent 78 percent of the primary target demographic” of parks and attractions. North American and European regions have struggled the most to attract the young adult demographic, defined as ages 18-24, and worldwide only 6 percent of attractions described the age group as a primary demographic. Millennials still want to get married, have kids, and take vacations like the industry’s primary target demographic; they just can’t necessarily afford it right now. Attractions have the opportunity to prepare for their future visits with family by wooing them now. Though their needs and spending patterns may differ from business as usual, millennials hold the key to continued success and survival.

Tomorrow’s Customers
Understanding how millennials are shifting traditional consumer behavior in the attractions industry begins with examining the two major forces that shaped their lives: the global recession of 2008 and the rise of technology in everyday life. According to research from Viacom International Media Networks (the entertainment company behind MTV and Nickelodeon), 68 percent of millennials worldwide felt personally impacted by the recession.

“You would expect the global financial crisis to have made a big difference in countries like those in southern Europe where the economy has suffered particularly badly—and it did. But overall, the economic crisis emerges as something that has touched the lives of young people right round the world, even in countries which haven’t particularly been caught up in the global crisis,” says Christian Kurz, vice president of research, insights, and reporting for Viacom. “The economic crisis has made everybody just a little bit more cautious and financially conservative.”

According to “The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” a demographic report from Pew Research Center, millennials in the United States are also the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty, and unemployment, while at the same time suffering through lower levels of wealth and personal income than the two immediate previous generations (Gen Xers and baby boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles. This has led to putting off marriage and children due to lack of strong economic foundation—making millennials look less and less like the target demographic of attractions. “They still want to have these things, so they’re saving their money, which is making them more value-conscious than ever,” says Kupferman.

The distraction of modern digital life doesn’t help paint a pretty picture of tomorrow’s parkgoers. These digital natives never had to adapt to the presence of technology in their lives, but it comes at a price. “Demographic researchers have found that over the past 50 years leisure time has gradually increased but the ‘quality’ of that time has suffered,” says Kupferman. “Millennials have more time away from work than adults in previous generations, but they are spending a much greater proportion of it in front of screens and less of it out and about with friends and family. When they do get to go outside, their ubiquitous mobile devices keep them tethered to work in ways previous generations never had to contend with. While technology and social media have helped millennials become the most connected generation in history, they haven’t necessarily improved their physical ‘in real life’ interactions.”

Since they can’t necessarily afford to acquire material status symbols, millennials are asking more from their interaction with attractions, as Caesars Entertainment discovered in Las Vegas.

“A lot of historical data suggests that people have enough disposable income to be really valuable customers when they hit the early to mid-30s.” says Greg Miller, executive vice president of domestic development for Caesars Entertainment. “That caused us to create millennials as a target, particularly a target for creative, even though many more people consume the product than just the millennials. The millennials were very clearly our target customer in designing and tenanting the Linq, and it was all for that reason: let’s make sure we’re really relevant to tomorrow’s customers.”

The Linq is Caesars Entertainment’s 200,000-square-foot, $550 million ode to the millennial generation. An alley between the Flamingo and former Imperial Palace on the Las Vegas Strip has been transformed into a windy tree-lined avenue, bordered by sleek storefronts reminiscent of New York City’s trendy Meatpacking District—a hotspot that draws millennials from around the world. Businesses in this new Vegas locale cater to the generation’s taste for bespoke experiences—from a cupcake shop to a Polaroid museum to a limited-edition sneaker boutique—and selfie-taking millennials gather to Instagram the tallest observation wheel in the world, “High Roller.” Turn the corner and there’s Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas, a bowling alley/concert venue/restaurant that has had great success drawing the 21-to-33 demographic to its original location in New York City.

Caesars Entertainment looked into the generation because its traditional gambling revenue-based business model was beginning to falter in Las Vegas. “We deconstructed the market and the difference in behavior was most pronounced in millennials,” says Miller. “They like to experience the totality of an entertainment experience, so they’ll go to great restaurants, great shows, great bars, and not just gamble. It’s not about one thing.”

‘Curating the Experience’
For millennials, it’s never about just one thing. They’re looking for a collection of different kinds of complementary experiences rather than just one main event.

“Millennials are very experience-oriented. In a recent survey, three out of five said that they would rather spend money on unique experiences versus material things,” says Kupferman.

“All generations of youth prize the experience. You’re in this liminal phase of life where you can do all kinds of things you might not be able to do when you’re older,” says Neil Howe, president of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm specializing in generations and social change; he is widely credited for originating the term “millennial.” “But, I think that curating the experience and sharing the experience, given their sociability and how conventional they are, as well as the fact that they’re so enabled by digital technology to curate and share, is much more important than it used to be.”

“Curating the experience” is the process of customizing an encounter and controlling how it is shared with the world. This is as simple as choosing a filter on Instagram, finding the right emoji to include in a status update, or hashtagging a tweet. Millennials are not different from other generations in this phase of life when it comes to craving new experiences, but the word-of-mouth generated by those events is much more potent for attractions.

According to “Meet the Millennials: Insights for Destinations,” a 2011 report by PGAV, a global firm specializing in planning and design consulting for the attractions industry, two-thirds of millennials will rely on recommendations from people they know when planning a trip, often through social media. Millennials want to control the message. They’re more receptive to product branding than previous generations, but draw a line when it comes to their personal brand. Sell them an attraction, but don’t tell them how they should share it.

“Millennials are somewhat iconoclastic and apprehensive to anything that feels too predigested, when it comes to attractions,” says Phil Hettema, president and creative executive of The Hettema Group, the design firm responsible for “High Roller” at the Linq. “They’re wary of the traditional.”

“High Roller” broke with tradition starting with its queue. Tickets are for time frames that allow guests to control their wait times—an example of curating the experience. The queue itself is a collection of experiences to curate: Films in a 360-degree theater distract from a switchback line; a lounge midway through encourages visitors to relax and grab a cocktail while they wait. The whole experience toes the fine line between interactivity and over-engagement—a key to avoiding millennials’ distaste for controlled experiences. According to the PGAV report, 68 percent of millennials find interactive attractions appealing, but proceed with caution.

“The thing with millennials, particularly if you’re going to make something interactive, is that the payoff has to be worth the effort,” says Hettema. “I think we’re really looking for experiences that have levels of payoff and surprise that are worthy of what it takes to get there.”

A Niche Spin on a Classic Attraction
An experience worth curating doesn’t have to be completely original; it can build on the format of tried-and-true attractions. Iconoclastic millennials look for niche events and products—ways to claim the familiar as their own and put their stamp on it. This characteristic is partially responsible for the rise in popularity of craft beer, craft-sale site Etsy, and even Uber’s new take on the taxi system. Adlabs in Khopoli, India, saw the opening of Aquamagica, its new water park, this fall as an opportunity to create an attraction tailored to the millennial crowd. The 138-acre park features the usual elements of a water park—14 water slides, cabanas, a family raft ride, and seaside eats—but it also regularly hosts popular DJs spinning trendy Bollywood and electronic dance music hits.

With limited entertainment options for young people in the area, Aquamagica pounced on the opportunity to create a unique experience for the millennial age group without isolating the traditional audience of families. It put a targeted gloss on the water park story. “The strategic approach was to look at Aquamagica not just as a water park, but to position it as a youth hangout destination,” says Harjeet Chhabra, chief marketing officer of Adlabs Entertainment. The culture is built into the brand, philosophy, and product of Aquamagica.

So far, it’s worked. “We’ve seen a huge number of college students throng to the park who have formed a large percentage of the audience,” says Chhabra. “Weekdays, they form almost 60 percent of the audience. On the weekends, we see young couples and families joining in big numbers.”

Brooklyn Bowl also tweaked a familiar attraction model for the new generation. Though it has the trappings of a family entertainment center, it began as anything but. According to Charley Ryan, co-founder of Brooklyn Bowl, the facility isn’t a bowling alley with a concert venue or a concert venue with a bowling alley. “The idea was to elevate the experience of all of those things,” he says.

Brooklyn Bowl’s strength is in the way it sets a stage for a truly sensory experience—something millennials’ digital world cannot provide. “I do find there’s a real nostalgia in millennials for activities where they physically interact with the world—for the analog over the digital,” confirms LifeCourse’s Howe. Brooklyn Bowl is an immersive sensory experience. It’s about the clear sightlines that allow you to see the stage from the lanes, the weight of a bowling ball in hand, the taste of a local craft brew, and the mouthwatering scent of the signature fried chicken.

“In terms of consumer behavior, we’re seeing growth in commerce that appeals to the senses,” says Viacom’s Kurz. “Sounds, smell, touch, and taste are all looking like they will become a bigger part of the entertainment experience.”

Thus, attractions are uniquely positioned to provide one-of-a-kind moments: Appeal to the senses has always been a part of our business.

Adult Children and Childless Adults: The Return of the Extended Family

Visiting an attraction is inherently a shared experience, but the super-social nature of millennials—and their reliance on social technology—ups the ante on providing a good time. “That’s one of the things that make them different,” says Howe. “They were raised to do things more socially—team teaching, team grading, and community service. We noticed that a long time ago. In the ’90s, commercial marketing toward kids would show kids in groups.”

But when it comes to experiencing an attraction with others, who exactly are they going with?

Mom and dad.

Much more than Gen X ever did, millennials are doing things in large, extended, multi-generational families. “We see an aging of wealth following the great recession; the older generations are increasingly wealthier in comparison to younger people today and that creates a somewhat shifted relationship,” Howe says. “Who’s paying for the extended family vacation? It’s the grandparents in their 60s or 70s. It’s changing why you go on vacation, why you visit an amusement park—how you visit, on what terms you visit. Cruise lines are letting out suites of rooms because you have the whole extended family coming. This is no longer mom, dad, and a kid or two. It’s the whole clan.”

On the flipside, attractions are also finding they need to cater to the childless millennial adult.

“Household structures are evolving. Millennials today are half as likely to be married as adults their same age 40 years ago. They’re delaying marriage and consequently postponing children. They still want to have these things—so they’re saving their money, which is keeping them closer to home and making them more value-conscious than ever,” says Six Flags’ Kupferman. “Adults traditionally evaluate their entertainment options in terms of the interests and capabilities of their children. We’re not used to seeing a lot of 20-something adults in our parks without kids—but we are. They’re visiting with friends, and they’re looking for adult-sized versions of the entertainment experiences they grew up with. Serving adults without kids is an interesting challenge for a theme park, and we have put a lot of effort into researching new ways to satisfy this group including in-park sports bars, special events, and different thrilling experiences these adults are looking for. Over the last couple of years we’ve been really working these programs and so far they’ve been a big hit.”

The company has a positive outlook on increased -millennial travel in the future and is capitalizing on its status as a chain of regional parks. Millennials may not be able to travel now, but Six Flags is concentrating on giving them unique experiences in their own backyards.

“Now that millennials are part of the daily work grind, we think more than ever they need local experiences that give them an escape from the everyday and a chance to kick back, have fun and capture the adrenaline rush that they can’t get in their living rooms,” says Kupferman.

In the short term, Six Flags is concentrating on ensuring a trip to one of its parks is affordable for millennials, starting with the season pass, that includes tickets for friends and a dining pass. The company has also found events to be a big hit with adults, including wine tastings, food truck rallies, concerts, races, and, of course, Halloween festivities.

“We are ramping up a number of important initiatives intended to meet the needs of millennials both now and in the years to come. We are putting a much greater emphasis on service—not just in terms of how we address guest issues or our rides, but also the ways in which we deliver the entire Six Flags experience from the time they enter until long after they have left,” says Kupferman.

Customer Service Is Key
It might be tempting to think millennials are too disengaged behind their screens to notice human interfaces, but, according to Kupferman, “service quality is exceptionally important to this group.” Always looking for the most value for their limited dollars, millennials have developed a keen desire for concierge-level customer service in the great and small parts of an experience.

“It is no longer enough to have the highest roller coasters or the fastest water slides. If the service isn’t top notch, millennials will walk away—even if your entertainment venue is the only one of its kind within 300 miles,” Kupferman says. “Millennials require us to be at the top of our game in terms of service quality, consistency, friendliness, and especially in-the-moment responsiveness.”

Six Flags sorts its customer feedback by demographic to address customer service with different audiences. Speed and broad knowledge are key; Kupferman says staff are trained to respond to any question, across platforms, to give millennials the fast response they want.

“Millennials are value seekers when it comes to entertainment,” says Chhabra of Adlabs. “They are well informed and well researched. They expect high standards of service and product. There is an appetite for quality entertainment, and as long as they see value in the offering, they’ll continue to subscribe to it and act as evangelist, as well.”

Brooklyn Bowl looked to its restaurant partner as an example of the kind of detailed customer service millennials seek. Every guest is treated with the care and attention they would receive in a small high-quality restaurant.

“From the first person who took a ticket and checked your ID to the person at the bowling desk, and of course in the restaurant, a personalized level of attention is observed,” says Brooklyn Bowl co-founder Ryan. “But more importantly it’s also observed at the lanes or in the concert venue itself, where it’s fair to say people don’t expect a high level of customer service.”

One example of how the venue follows through on that idea is the shoe valet. When guests come in to bowl, they check in at the bowling desk where their shoe sizes are taken and they’re assigned a lane. Once at their lane, the shoe valet brings the bowling shoes to the guests, avoiding the commotion and awkwardness of trying to switch out shoes in the main lobby area. Little customer service details like these go a long way with millennials.

The Social Experience
One of the most notorious game-changing innovations millennials have given to the world is social media. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram—use them all to reach this generation. Six Flags looked beyond the obvious big names in social media too and advertises with other video, mobile, and music sites like Pandora and Spotify.

Brooklyn Bowl’s original location relied almost completely on social media for promotion, becoming the 10th most searched term on Google and the number-one place for nightlife check-ins on Foursquare in 2011. Though this approach doesn’t apply to all types of attractions, engaging with potential customers over social media makes marketing evolve from a one-way presentation into a two-way conversation, according to Kupferman.

Real-Life Experience Trumps All
Thanks to rapid advances in technology, the millennial generation may have access to infinite ways to spend leisure time. But attractions have the distinct advantage of providing a real-life, tactile, and interpersonal experience.

“Millennials are the future of Six Flags, both as guests and as our team members. The challenge of reaching them and making our parks more hospitable to their needs has improved our service quality and upgraded entertainment experiences,” says Kupferman. “It’s made our parks more accessible to a wider audience of people, and it has vastly improved the ways in which we communicate with consumers and especially our guests. A key strategy of ours is to make Six Flags more accessible and enjoyable to millennials now so that once they have their kids they will be in the habit of enjoying our parks as adults. It’s an opportunity we never really had with previous generations.”

Though they may not be able to afford the traditional trappings of adulthood at the moment and look very little like the industry’s target demographic, reaching out to millennials now can define your future success. It’s simple: create clusters of affordable, sensory, social experiences and top with concierge-level customer service to draw their attention and can’t be replicated with at-home technology.

“It’s really hard to wow people with technology these days,” says Hettema. “What is really important to remember when we design experiences is that people are there to have those experiences together. That’s the essence of the business we’re in. The experiences we create, when they’re at their best, are really facilitating that exchange of sharing time together—that’s why these special experiences have meaning for them. And I think that’s particularly true for millennials.” 

Contact Associate Editor Prasana William, a first-wave millennial who is, of course, addicted to social media, at pwilliam@IAAPA.org.