SeaWorld’s CEO speaks to the future of the parks and Shamu

October 3, 2016

Blackfish, the documentary released in 2013, was highly critical of keeping whales in captivity. It generated plenty of attention about the plight of orcas, especially those under the care of the SeaWorld parks. Backlash from the film combined with other factors caused the marine life theme parks to take on water. Attendance and revenues plunged, while PR headaches rose.

In April 2015, SeaWorld brought in a new captain, Joel K. Manby, to right its listing ship. Prior to becoming president and CEO, he led the theme park and entertainment company, Herschend Enterprises. Among the parks under Manby’s guidance were Dollywood in Tennessee and Wild Adventures in Georgia.

After trying unsuccessfully to wage a proactive PR campaign and maintain the status quo, Manby and his SeaWorld team decided to halt their orca-breeding program and make changes to the whale stadium shows, moving from an entertainment focus to an educational one. The struggling company made the about-face announcement in March 2016.

USA TODAY spoke with the CEO about the chain’s new direction and how it is influencing the new attractions and shows coming to SeaWorld parks in 2017. We also discussed the difficulties that led to the sea changes at the company.

USA TODAY: Talk about the circumstances you faced when you arrived at SeaWorld. How did you arrive at the decision to halt the breeding of orcas?

JOEL MANBY: It was the ultimate paradox. We built our brand around Shamu, yet it became the biggest reason people weren’t coming to SeaWorld anymore. When I first came to the company, I though getting the truth out about how well we really care for animals would do the trick. But the idea of having orcas under human care was not a positive thing. We looked at the data and considered whether we would continue to fight the trend or not. It felt like we had to make the decision we did. It was huge – the single hardest business decision I’ve been involved in.

USA TODAY: Had SeaWorld spoken with or worked with The Humane Society prior to the announcement of your new partnership?

JOEL MANBY: We had never spoken with them. We were adversaries. We were monologuing at each other. I thought, let’s dialogue and see where we have common ground. We have partnered on issues such as shark finning, the practice of whale hunting, and Canadian seal hunting. We are going to be coming out against the Taiji dolphin hunt [in Japan] soon as well.

Any time people in leadership make a bold move, they are going to get arrows in their backs. Partnering was a risk for both of us. We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on protecting animals in their habitats.

USA TODAY: What impact has the announcement about SeaWorld’s orcas had on attendance and revenue?

JOEL MANBY: So far, so good. We’d like more, faster. We think brand issues are abating. Our partners are coming back. We all feel a bit more pep in our step.

We think [the announcement] makes it possible for people to listen to SeaWorld again and see us as a good organization doing the right thing for animals – not a bad organization doing the wrong thing. We are pleased with the impact. (Internal research shows) our favorability ratings are eight-to-one more positive than before the announcement. Our intent-to-visit ratings are five-to-one more positive.

Attendance is a lagging factor. We’re seeing improved trends in California. There’s a chance we will be flat or slightly down [in 2016] with no new product. Next year and in 2018, we have very strong product offerings, and we fully anticipate that we’ll be up in California by next April for the first time in four years. In Texas, we should also be up in attendance and revenue for the first time in four years. In Florida, we will not be up. But it’s more of a Florida issue that is affecting all of the state’s theme parks. We hope that will stabilize.

USA TODAY: Wall Street has not been kind to the company’s stock (SEAS was trading at 13.54 on Friday, with a 52-week low of 12.12). What will it take to turn investors around?

JOEL MANBY: We haven’t proven that we’ve hit bottom yet. If we back out international issues [that are affecting attendance and revenue in SeaWorld Orlandoand other major Florida theme parks] we would be up. As soon as we show the Street that we’ve hit bottom and we are starting to grow, I think you’ll see our stock do well.

USA TODAY: Instead of using live animals, might you turn to more media-based attractions like ones at the Disney and Universal parks? For example, Universal can’t bring the actual stars of the Harry Potter films to its parks, but it can provide virtual Potter experiences.

JOEL MANBY: We wouldn’t build attractions to the scale of Harry Potter or Spider-Man. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But we can do similar attractions that we can afford and do really well.

USA TODAY: Disney and Universal use popular movies and characters at their parks. You have Sesame Street characters. What about bringing in more intellectual properties to SeaWorld?

JOEL MANBY: We are looking at opportunities. There are lots of possibilities with media players who are in the animal care-focused area. They would be naturals for us.

USA TODAY: You’ve announced the changes you will be making with your orcas. What about SeaWorld’s dolphins, sea lions and other animals?

JOEL MANBY: We’re going to look at [how we might change our policies about using other animals] once we learn from the orca encounter. I’d hate to commit one way or the other. We need to make sure that guests appreciate what we do. In my mind, we would look to do that if we can pull this off in a successful manner with the orcas.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a thought about making a more radical shift in direction at the SeaWorld parks?

JOEL MANBY: The radical shift is that in five-plus years, we don’t want to be seen as an animal entertainment company. We want to be known as an entertaining place that has a purpose and vision to help animals in the wild. How we execute that over time will be different than the SeaWorld of the past. I know that mission and vision is compelling to guests.

Source: www.USA Today.com

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