When opportunity knocks Featured

8:00pm EDT August 30, 2005
Pete McAneny talks enthusiastically about the Screaming Swing, a new attraction that Kennywood Entertainment Co. will bring to both its flagship Kennywood Park in West Mifflin and to Lake Compounce in Connecticut in 2006, the only two parks in the United States to get the rides next year.

A creative scheme he negotiated to time the delivery and construction of the rides is saving the company money, and their arrival will produce a marketing opportunity and an exclusive run in the United States for the amusement park company for at least three years.

“We were buying two of them, one for Kennywood and one for Connecticut,” says McAneny, president of Kennywood Entertainment. “The manufacturer typically for these rides doesn’t get the orders until fall for the following season, so we worked out a good deal and got an appropriate discount by giving them the order and accepting delivery during our operating season.”

That opportunistic streak runs through much of McAneny’s approach to doing business, whether it’s bringing a new feature to one of Kennywood Entertainment’s amusement parks, lobbying legislators to reform a punitive tax, revitalizing a timeworn amusement park or jolting public officials into seeing what a new highway will mean to the future of his company — and the region. Just as important, McAneny and his team have the instincts for evaluating and taking on opportunities that allow Kennywood Entertainment, a group of five amusement and water parks and a full-service catering and restaurant operation, to play to its strengths. Those calculations — including acquiring a full-service banquet facility in 2001 and a full-service restaurant in 2003 — are made after careful review of each potential opportunity, says McAneny, and always with the needs of potential guests in mind.

“We start with a comprehensive study of the market we expect to serve. Whether we are looking at new rides and attractions at an existing park, expanding the number of operating days or purchasing a new business, we are focused on what new or expanded markets do we expect to serve,” McAneny says.

Much of Kennywood Park’s future development — potentially millions of dollars worth — hinges on tax reform and highway development, factors that McAneny is attempting to influence. An outdated network of roadways that feeds into the park discourages visits by potential patrons from beyond its traditional market area. But even with that disadvantage, McAneny has done plenty to expand the company’s operations and to bolster Kennywood Park’s performance.

As the traditional core of Kennywood Park’s customers has moved farther into the suburbs and other choices fight for the entertainment dollar, McAneny has looked beyond the traditional geographical limits of the park’s reach, mounting marketing campaigns in Ohio and West Virginia to draw individual and group business and blunt the competition it faces from theme parks there. The effort has been successful, particularly in the Akron and Canton, Ohio, markets, re-emphasizing the value that the proposed expressway would have in bringing guests in from beyond the region, he says.

Kennywood Entertainment also faces an obstacle in an amusement tax that Pennsylvania municipalities are able to levy against the company’s parks. While that tax has hamstrung Kennywood’s pricing flexibility to some degree, McAneny has implemented admission schemes to lower the barriers to attracting patrons. At Idlewild Park, for example, he instituted a season pass option to encourage guests to come to the water park multiple times during a season as opposed to the once or twice they might visit the amusement park.

To make access easier, Kennywood Park invested $2 million this year to configure a new entrance, allowing guests who already have tickets to bypass the admission booths. And the old, balkanized structure of hand stamps, general admission, individual ride tickets and all-day ride wristbands has been replaced with a fee schedule designed to simplify the process, ease bottlenecks and cut labor costs at the gate.

“We were spending huge amounts of money for staffing them,” says McAneny. “I’m sure there are some people who won’t like this arrangement, but you’ll find that with whatever you do.”

Kennywood in Connecticut
Kennywood Entertainment was considering acquiring an amusement park, but theme park operator Six Flags Inc. got there first and bought it in 1996. However, Six Flags did not want Lake Compounce, a traditional amusement park in central Connecticut owned by the same company, so Kennywood bought that.

The large facility, shuttered at the time, was close to New York City and a major interstate. A series of owners had failed, and the last of them, the operators of Hershey Park, decided to pull back after making infrastructure improvements.

The community was desperate for a new operator to revive the venue, and local government was willing to float an $18 million bond issue to match a private investment.

“It is the oldest location for an amusement park in North America, so it has a lot of historical background to it, and the goal there was to do what we did here at Kennywood,” says McAneny. “Let’s work to blend the old and the new.”

A $35 million investment was poured into the undercapitalized park, revamping its 100-year-old restaurant, building a new housing for a refurbished vintage carousel and finishing a water park that a previous owner had begun, all leveraging Kennywood Entertainment’s deep experience in amusement park development and management.

Camp Compounce has become a destination, says McAneny, a characteristic that it lacked before. Now, it’s attracting large corporate and labor groups, such as the 4,000 members of the Communication Workers of America that held an event at the park in July, the kind of crowds and events where Kennywood Entertainment can flex its management and marketing muscle.

“I think people looked at going to an amusement park in New England as something you did on vacation,” McAneny says. “Now, we have had great success in getting large corporations to come to the outings, and the group business is really driving the business at Lake Compounce.”

No doubt the acquisition of assets such as Lake Compounce provides stellar opportunities for a company with a core competency in efficiently and profitably managing amusement parks. All of those skills would be of little value, however, if not for the focus on the customer that McAneny puts ahead of all else.

At every level, whether it’s pricing, service or convenience, McAneny is keenly aware of the perspective of his customer.

Says McAneny: “We need to know what our guests desire and then put in place a plan to deliver an experience which exceeds their expectations.”

How to reach: Kennywood Entertainment, http://www.kennywoodentertainment.com