Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro wants to restore the family-friendly image to the theme-park chain
As a teen-ager, Mark Shapiro loved riding the American Eagle roller coaster with his friends and eating pizza and hot dogs with his four siblings at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago.
"You could go one weekend with your friends and one with your family, and it was cool either way," Shapiro said. "I want to bring that back."
That's the task Shapiro has set for himself as the new chief executive of Six Flags: restore the family-friendly image to the theme-park chain.
Under previous management -- which was ousted in December after a proxy battle won by shareholder Daniel Snyder -- Six Flags spent millions on new roller-coasters while cutting back on maintenance and in-park entertainment such as Looney Tunes characters that would roam the park. And although the thrill rides brought more teen-agers and coaster enthusiasts, families with small children stayed away.
Shapiro, a former ESPN executive, wants to bring those families back to Six Flags. With his new management team in place, Shapiro is ready to clean up the chain's 29 parks and make them fun again for people of all ages.
"The good news is, nobody has better rides than we do," Shapiro said. "The challenge for us is to upgrade our service."
In his 12 years at ESPN, Shapiro worked his way up from fetching coffee as a production assistant on the West Coast to brokering deals with the NFL and NBA as the executive vice president of programming and production.
He is already bringing his deal-making ability to Six Flags; the company is reportedly in talks with Papa John's and Pizza Hut for a sponsorship deal. And he has also hired three other former ESPN executives -- Mark Quenzel, Mike Antinoro and Lou Koskovolis -- with extensive sales and marketing experience to turn around Six Flags.
Although the theme-park industry is not the same as the television world, Shapiro and his team believe their experience at the sports-cable network will help them get more people to the parks. They equate TV ratings with theme-park attendance numbers and say getting more people into the parks is like getting more people to watch a television program.
"The boss is the consumer, and it's the hallmark of what ESPN does, and it's been the key to their success," said Quenzel, who oversees park operations. "We want to bring that belief to Six Flags and make sure everybody understands [that] if you're working there ... everybody around you is basically your boss. What's important to them is important to us."
Shapiro has also made employees a priority. At every theme park the management team has visited so far -- including a stop at Six Flags Over Texas on Dec. 26 -- Shapiro has held town meetings with employees to talk about "getting back to the basics of the theme-park business."
He acknowledges that employees have worked under a cloud of uncertainty for several reasons: last year's ownership struggle, the company's continuing losses and the five-year slump in Six Flags' stock price, from $40 per share to $4. Shapiro said he initially wants them to get excited about working at Six Flags again and re-establishing the company in the entertainment world.
Shapiro has found some simple ways to improve the attitude of his workers. At ESPN, he arranged for free Dunkin' Donuts coffee for the cafeteria after employees complained for years about the terrible coffee. Quenzel said Shapiro made it his "personal mission" to get good coffee for workers who typically worked weekends and late nights covering sports and knows how critical happy employees are to the success of a company.
"Unless he can get people at all these parks to believe in this vision, we will not succeed," Quenzel said.
Focus on family
With two young sons -- Jack, 5, and Jeffrey, 2, -- Shapiro often takes his family to theme parks. Every summer, Shapiro said they go about 10 times to parks such as Disney World and Lake Compounce near his home in Westport, Conn.
Although Shapiro said he likes trying to sneak his older son past security at Space Mountain at Disney to get on the ride, his kids would not have many rides to go on at the typical Six Flags park with 54-inch height requirements for its thrill rides.
To entice families back to Six Flags, Shapiro is focusing on improving the overall park experience for guests even if they don't want to ride the tall rollercoasters. For example, the parks will have more Warner Bros. characters roaming around, particularly the popular Justice League characters like Superman, Batman, the Flash and the Green Lantern.
"There will not be a day when you see less than 25 characters back in the park," said Shapiro, adding that kids like having their pictures taken with these action heroes.
The parks will also be cleaned up with a nonsmoking policy, better lighting, more security and a restroom attendant in every bathroom every hour of operation, Shapiro said. The company will also spend more on maintenance, so when rides break down, they will be back in operation sooner, he said.
In Arlington, Six Flags Over Texas will add a daily parade to celebrate its 45th anniversary, Shapiro said, in addition to the 10 smaller new rides announced in October. Shapiro said he wants to invest in the local park's celebration and bring more family entertainment.
Quenzel, who acknowledged that the Arlington park "needs a little bit of a facelift," said there have been discussions about adding a Latino festival, similar to the Best of Texas festival the Arlington park holds in September.
With the operating season for a few of its parks beginning with the Spring Break rush in March, Six Flags executives had to quickly make marketing decisions to make its advertising revenue. While they acknowledge that Mr. Six, the techno-dancing octogenarian, has brought national exposure to the chain, the ad man does not tell consumers what they can do at Six Flags parks.
Mike Antinoro, who did marketing for the NBA and created original programming at ESPN, said Six Flags needs to expand the brand past the roller coasters and introduce families to the "whole experience."
When Antinoro visited Six Flags Great Adventure, the New Jersey resident said he didn't realize there were a safari park and water park nearby. So this year, Six Flags is going to focus its advertising on telling consumers all they can do at the regional parks.
"In San Francisco you can ride an elephant, and in other parks you can pet dolphins," Antinoro said. "The Six Flags brand is so much more than what people think it is."
Shapiro and his team have been on the job for only two months, but shareholders seem to believe the new management has the right ideas to turn around the debt-saddled chain.
Since Shapiro was installed as chief executive in December, shares have steadily risen from $7.20 to $11.24. Bear Stearns analyst Glen Reid upgraded the stock mainly because of Shapiro's turnaround plan. "[Shapiro] and Mr. Snyder share a strong sales and marketing background, something we believe was lacking in the former management of Six Flags," Reid wrote in a recent research report.
Several analysts in the theme-park industry are cautiously optimistic that Shapiro will be able to move the company back into the black after six consecutive years of losses. "Their overall ability to make money for the parks drastically increased with the knowledge and experience that those guys bring to the table," said Gary Slade, publisher of Amusement Today, a trade publication based in Arlington. "But 2007 will be the telltale season because that will be their first year to go in with complete planning available where they will have complete say on what rides and shows are going in to the parks."
Shapiro made another major move Friday, announcing that Six Flags will move its corporate offices to New York City from Oklahoma City and sell its Oklahoma City properties. The company has about 35 employees in Oklahoma City and 70 at the corporate facility in Grand Prairie.
The Oklahoma City property sales will reduce the company's $2.15 billion debt, but Shapiro said the primary goal is to bring family fun back to Six Flags.
No. of parks: 29
Headquarters: New York, N.Y.
History: Texas oil baron Angus Wynne opened Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington in 1961. He sold the theme park in 1969 and it has gone through several owners as the Six Flags chain added more theme parks. Premier Parks took over the company in 1998 and renamed it Six Flags Inc. in 2000. The company's management changed in December after shareholder Daniel Snyder gained control following a proxy battle.
Source : Star Telegram