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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 8, 2007

Six Flags unveils a family-friendly look

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post

WASHINGTON Michael Chapman sat sheepishly beside his two daughters at the Six Flags America concert hall in suburban Largo, Md., recently. He clapped and smiled good-naturedly. All around him, a throng of adoring adolescent fans took to their feet, cheering and dancing as the punk-pop group the Plain White T's burst into song.

This was precisely how the Chapmans had planned to end their seven-day road trip from Raleigh, N.C., to Boston and back three rows away from their favorite band.

The Chapmans are the type of customers Six Flags is trying to lure this summer as the company rolls out a family-friendly image, with attractions intended to appeal to toddlers, teens, moms and dads, as much as the chain's traditional thrill-seeking demographic.

This focus on families is perhaps the most visible piece of a turnaround strategy orchestrated by Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro, who was installed after Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder took control of the troubled theme park company in a 2005 proxy battle. The chain is seeking to refurbish its financial performance and its public reputation, but those efforts have been complicated by the company's heavy debt and sagging stock price.

Six Flags management is targeting families because the company has found that they spend more money, stay longer in the parks and are more likely to make return visits. Several new marketing partnerships, attractions like the Thursday night concert series and an emphasis on cleanliness and efficiency are key to drawing that demographic, company executives said.

"We really are focused on the parks as complete, family destinations," Six Flags spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg said.

This summer is important for the company's efforts. It marks the first full year that new management has had to influence every aspect of the business. And, like other theme park operators, Six Flags draws most of its revenue in the second and third quarters.

In a conference call with analysts last month, Shapiro said there were some early indicators that the strategy was taking hold. Attendance through June 3 was flat compared with the same period last year, but revenue was up 5 percent, he said. The unchanged attendance could be attributed in part to fewer operating days, Shapiro said, as the company closed parks to cut costs on days when attendance had historically been light. Repeat visits increased about 15 percent, and spending per visitor rose about 3 percent, he said.

"Our audience is shifting, more families, less teens, same total audience," Shapiro said. "We're getting more strollers and less tattoos. But just as importantly, we're getting spenders."

But some analysts say the company still has a way to go. "Too many consumers still think of Six Flags as a dirty, abandoned, run-down set of theme parks where troubled teens loiter, smoke cigarettes and cause trouble," David Miller, an analyst who follows Six Flags for SMH Capital, wrote in a report following Shapiro's conference call. "The good news is, we are still in the early innings of an extra-innings ballgame in the endeavor to turn that image around."

Six Flags began as a theme park, Six Flags Over Texas, based on the cultures of the six flags that had historically flown over the state: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America and the United States.

The chain grew through acquisitions and construction of new parks, changing hands several times and de-emphasizing its original theme.

Time Warner, which purchased a stake in 1990, partnered with a Boston investment group to buy the company outright in 1993 and added the Looney Tunes and DC Comics characters to the Six Flags fold. Then the chain was sold in 1998 to Premier Parks, a publicly traded theme park company, which renamed itself Six Flags and pushed a rapid expansion strategy that substantially increased its debt load. Six Flags began posting yearly losses, in part because of debt-related costs.

Shareholder dissatisfaction with lackluster results created an opening for Snyder, who took over as chairman in December 2005 after a one-year battle with previous management. Snyder is Six Flags' largest individual shareholder, with 11.7 million shares, or about 12.3 percent, according to a proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in April.