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Niles: Six Flags needs to rebuild trust with fans to get back on track

Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Knott’s Berry Farm owner Cedar Fair are posting record numbers for their theme parks as the travel industry recovers from the pandemic. But it’s nothing but red flags at Six Flags after the company posted another dismal earnings report.

Six Flags reported a stunning 26% drop in attendance last year when compared to 2021, which is amazing when you remember that several of its parks, including Six Flags Magic Mountain, were closed for part of that year. Lower attendance drove continuing declines in revenue, income and earnings for Six Flags last year.

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Why is Six Flags struggling while so many of its competitors are enjoying record-breaking performance?

Blame higher prices and fewer discounts at a chain that was known for its inexpensive tickets. Six Flags management is trying to change the public perception of Six Flags as cheap parks for extreme coaster fans. They want to reposition Six Flags as a more family-friendly destination that will attract higher-spending guests.

Many Six Flags fans, including me, agree that the company had underpriced and over-discounted its parks. The business case behind some of the deals that Six Flags had been offering on annual passes and dining deals would be best be described by the name of Magic Mountain’s big pendulum ride — CraZanity. There was no way that Six Flags could hope to maintain a viable business in a competitive theme park market with those deals.

But just as there is a physical limit to how sharply you can turn a speeding roller coaster train on a track, the public has a limit for how quickly you can raise prices before they turn away from your product. And with its recent pricing changes, Six Flags hit that limit.

Unless Warner Bros. buys it back, Six Flags never is going to have access to the cash that will allow it to build immersive attractions at the scale that Disneyland and Universal Studios can deliver. But fans can, and will, demand reliable and respectful operations on the attractions that Six Flags can offer. That means consistently running multiple trains on popular coasters, minimizing downtimes throughout the year and keeping top rides open during peak attendance periods.

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Six Flags has been walking back season pass price increases in some markets as it looks to win back fans. That’s a start, but what Six Flags needs more than a return to cheap tickets is to build some trust with its customers.

Too many companies across the economy have been citing inflation as an excuse to rip off consumers with price hikes that pay more for record profits than higher wages and expenses. But unlike with groceries, health care and housing, no one needs a theme park visit.

Fans want to know that Six Flags will deliver a better experience for the extra money the company wants them to spend. So far, the numbers say that Six Flags has failed to make that case, consistently, with enough fans to get the company back on track.

 

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