IPM Interviews waterpark industry veteran Franceen Gonzales by Martin Palicki
Franceen Gonzales, one of the waterpark industry’s true leaders and now VP of Business Development at WhiteWater West, was interviewed by InPark’s Martin Palicki.
How did you get started in the waterpark industry?
My first job was as a pool technician at the ripe age of 14. My mother worked in accounting at a local waterpark and I had a season pass. She basically told me to get a job! My sister was a lifeguard and she convinced the maintenance manager to hire me. My Dad would drop me off at the park early in the morning. I vacuumed pools, backwashed filters, and did other maintenance until the park opened. I’d play in the park the rest of the day and my Mom would take me home. From there, I became a lifeguard, then a supervisor, and then a manager. Eventually I began studying biology at university – meanwhile, working my way up in management at the park every summer season.
My commitment to the business grew out of two things. One, I went to a World Waterpark Association conference and trade show one year. I grasped the real size of the industry I had fallen in love with and decided to make it my career. The second thing was that I dealt with a serious incident first-hand, performing CPR on a young man who had been pulled from a pool. He ended up passing away. It appeared that he likely had a medical condition – but that experience made me want to help prepare companies, through processes and training, to prevent incidents whenever possible – and to be prepared to deal with those that did occur. So it was a combination of being drawn to an exciting industry full of innovation and camaraderie, and seeing how I could help make that industry better. Here I am – 27 years later!
What led you to join WhiteWater West?
I had been working in the corporate office of Great Wolf Resorts for the prior seven years, overseeing the 11 waterparks in 11 resorts – and soon to be 12 – in their North American portfolio, as well as risk management for the whole enterprise. It was a 365/24/7 job, working with 5000+ employees and developing new resorts, and I loved it. The executive management team at Great Wolf is very dynamic and we all worked collaboratively to grow the business as a public company and then as a private company.
With all that under my belt, I had become interested in the possibility of applying my knowledge of industry development and my deep understanding of waterpark attractions at a global level. I had spent most of my career in risk management and safety and all of it in North America. My involvement at the industry association level included having been chairman of the board of WWA, a member of the IAAPA board of directors, and doing work through ASTM. All of it was related to safety, whether through speaking engagements, or meeting with government officials to encourage the use of industry safety standards.
When I was approached by WhiteWater, I saw that they had been diversifying their portfolio of attractions and industries, that they are growing and have a solid, global presence, and they have a very dynamic group of executives. Each of those elements was interesting to me. So I took the plunge, and at WhiteWater I now oversee business development in Latin America as well as areas of the Southeastern US. I speak Spanish, I know rides and attractions, and I know how parks are designed and built. It was a nice fit overall and I’m ecstatic to be a part of their team.
As someone who has worked on both the operator and supplier side, can you share some insights on things that people in the industry could learn from?
Having actively worked in the parks and internalized the needs of the operator, and observed how guests act in the environment is a boon when you’re working from the other side as a designer, manufacturer, or installer. You understand the human factor and what a big impact the small details can have on how a park works.
Thankfully, at WhiteWater I work with many who like myself come from parks, so the discussions are very much about how our customers’ guests will act and how they will be “Wowed” by our attractions, and what it will take to operate and maintain attractions. That really speeds up the innovation. And when it comes to design we are talking about details that will reduce labor costs or energy costs because we collectively have that experience that our customers have. It allows us to speak the same language as our customers.
The other side of the coin is that most operators don’t see all that goes into developing new rides and attractions. It is pretty complex from initial design, to safety evaluations, simulations, then manufacturing, quality assurance, sourcing, delivery, and testing. It is fascinating to see what goes into a ride and it is heartening to know the steps manufacturers take to make sure a ride is safe.
What do you think the future looks like for the indoor waterpark resort model?
My answer to this question today is probably quite different from what I would have answered 10 years ago! The indoor waterpark resort model is not one for the inexperienced operator. The stakes are higher because the investment is much higher than a seasonal outdoor waterpark. While the ability to operate without the threat of weather is a big plus, there will always be peaks and valleys in occupancy. So the big question is going to be how to deliver a spectacular park that acts as the anchor of entertainment, but design and build it in a way where it can operate year-round regardless of occupancy level.
All that being said, indoor parks, both wet and dry, are like a blank canvas. They are a great opportunity to create another world and to fill it with all the innovations of the industry, but perhaps on a smaller scale without having to sacrifice thrill. They are weather-resistant and because occupancy is limiting, they support an intimate guest experience. They are no longer about throughput, but about ride experience and feeling special. Isn’t that what everyone is after these days? Spend what little time you have in a highly themed, high quality, intimate and comfortable environment at your leisure. So I think the future looks bright for those who aren’t shy to invest in quality and in markets that will support the leisure traveler looking for the right kind of place for adventure and family togetherness. But I hope they won’t underestimate the amount of effort and thought that should go into such ventures.
What is your opinion on what the next big trend in waterparks will be?
There is tremendous development in Asia and Eastern Europe. With that comes a lot of manufacturing of classic rides to feed those burgeoning markets. The tendency in the past was to see little innovation during times of expansion, but now I am seeing iconic rides of years past being packaged together into a singular ride. Putting those elements together is one face of innovation. There are cool paint jobs out there and twists on existing signature rides and I am seeing a new appetite for thrill rides that hasn’t been there in the recent past. From inverted, looping slides to exciting trap-door start capsules, operators are looking for thrill. Big waves and skill-driven attractions are gaining momentum as well.
But the next really big trend is bringing technology into waterparks. There are 30 years’ worth of aging waterslides out there that are in need of revitalization. The slides themselves are probably in good shape but just need to be reinvented. Layering in technology and gaming is just one way to do that. We recently launched Slideboarding, which combines a Guitar Hero-like gaming element with the action of a waterslide to create a whole new experience.
Can you share some of the key products WhiteWater is working on for 2014?
In addition to Slideboarding, one other new attraction is our No Boundaries feature. This combines 18 different activities like climbing walls, ropes courses, net climbs, zip lines, and zip coasters all in one. The beauty of this attraction is that it is designed so people of all skill levels can participate. Mom can climb without a harness in one section alongside her child who is harnessed doing a challenge course to the top of the tower. It is a game changer in the world of challenge courses.
What other wisdom about the waterpark business would you like to share that you have learned over the years?
I have worked for publicly traded companies, for private companies, and for family-owned companies, big and small. With that I learned quite a bit about what motivates executives and their values. Some value profit, some value customers, some value their employees, and some value all of the above. Each of the people I have learned from has taught me something about values and using that to focus the actions of a company. To understand value is to understand people and ultimately, it is about caring. I once heard, “we care for what we love and we love what we know.” So it is all about what we are taught. I take great pride in being a student of our industry and to that end I care deeply about the individuals and the organizations that make up our industry.
You recently joined ASTM’s board of directors. What does that role mean for you and for the waterpark industry?
The election to the ASTM board of directors is really a humbling event in my life. ASTM has 30,000 members and 12,000 standards that it stewards. The impact this organization has on making the world better is astounding. So I take that responsibility very seriously. I think for the amusement and waterpark industries, it means the greater ASTM membership is paying attention to what the amusement industry and F24 are doing with our efforts in harmonization with existing standards around the world. Our amusement rides and devices committee of F24 has also grown dramatically and we have engaged young engineers entering the working world. ASTM wants to harness that energy and innovation, which have been the hallmarks of our industry.
What is your favorite water attraction?
My favorite water attraction is probably a traditional swimming pool. As kids, my sisters and I would go to the local pool practically every day and spend the whole day there. We invented our own games, made friends, and were probably the last ones out of the water when the lifeguards were closing up. So I think my favorite water attraction is that which gives families a way to play together. My best memories are playing in the pool and riding slides at the local waterpark where I was a season pass holder. I was always with my sisters because it was more fun that way. Water attractions bring families together and build bonds like no other. This may seem ironic after I’ve just been talking up slides, rides and technology, but the lesson is to remember the human element, as I mentioned earlier. A waterpark should include something that is not too structured and provides these opportunities for people to interact in their own way. • • •