New figures from the Themed Entertainment Association show that Universal Parks and Resorts attendance is growing steadily, fueled by Harry Potter and a more comprehensive resort product. News editor Johanna Jainchill sat down with Frank Belzer, senior vice president of sales at Universal Orlando Resort, to talk about what is driving these gains at Universal's largest park.
Q: The report shows that Volcano Bay was one of the only successful waterpark stories of 2017. Why do you think that is?
A: Research tells us that, rather than it being about being a water theme park, it's as much about us now having three parks. In the mind of the consumer that's made us more of a destination, along with the addition of hotel inventory. It's more about hitting a tipping point where this idea of going to Universal Orlando Resort, staying there for three, four, five days, makes a lot more sense. We've crossed the threshold with the hotel portfolio now that we can hit every type of buyer, every type of guest.
Q: You'd said that previously, people used to come and spend a day at Universal. Are you now seeing that extended stays because of the additional parks and hotels?
A: Yes. People are realizing there's more to do than just a day at Universal. We've been saying that for a long time, and now it's sinking in with consumers. Typically, even if you have three parks do you really want to go from 8 in the morning until 8 in the night every day, gangbusters, for three days? No, most people want to stay and break it up a little. Go in the morning, go rest and come back.
Q: The report shows that Harry Potter is a leading driver for Universal. How do you plan to keep it fresh to compete with the newer attractions at other parks?
A: We've added elements to the experience that have really made it a little newer. Nighttime lights at Hogwarts castle have reinspired people to look at Potter. The release of "Fantastic Beasts" also reinvigorated the franchise now. The stories are getting more connected. And in '19 we're opening another exciting Potter-themed coaster in Hogsmeade. We added Cauldron Cakes last year, and the fans went crazy. Even the food is so highly themed that you do a little refresh there and people come back to it.
Q: Theme parks face overcrowding, especially during the holiday seasons. How is Universal controlling crowds?
A: We haven't hit overcrowding issues per se, but we've been working with our partners for a long time to spread out visitation. We have a really good business in Brazil, for example. They have a tendency to visit in October and January. It makes sense to continue to invest in Brazil because those are months when Americans really aren't visiting the parks. We've been very careful about where we run incentives and programs for our partners. It's more about trying to drive visitation when we're soft than worrying about overcrowding. ... If you're staying for a number of days, the value on the ticket and hotel side is better. And when you stay multiple days, you can take advantage of early park admission for a couple days in a row, and the hotels are nice enough that it's nice to go back. And you're not stuck on a bus for 45 minutes between the hotel and park.
Q: Are there opportunities for travel agents to work with you to drive off-peak business?
A: If you're in the travel business, and you come to us and say, "I think I have an opportunity to drive business in November," we'll have a discussion. The doors are open for people in the trade who want to help us even it out.
Q: You raised ticket prices in February, along with Disney. Will we see more of that?
A: Typically, as we add new attractions and new elements to the park, it happens. We evaluate pricing at all times and see if it's the right time to do that. We still give guests a great value.