WhiteWater West’s rising tide of growth
by Martin Palicki
ABOVE: Shoot the Chute and other Hopkins Rides attractions are a natural fit with larger waterparks.
This article originally appeared in InPark Magazine issue 43, published in 2012.
In 2011, WhiteWater West Industries Ltd. celebrated its 30th year anniversary in the waterpark industry. Headquartered in Richmond, BC Canada, WhiteWater boasts more than 4,000 projects successfully completed worldwide and 550 employees in 19 offices internationally – giving the company a rightful claim to its description as the global leader in waterpark design, engineering and manufacturing. Moreover, “We are told our gross revenue confirms that WhiteWater is the largest industry supplier member of IAAPA,” says company founder, President & CEO Geoff Chutter.
WhiteWater clients include Atlantis, Carnival Cruise Lines, Chimelong Waterpark, Cedar Fair, Disney International, Dollywood, LEGOLAND, Mount Olympus, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Noah’s Ark, Six Flags, Universal, and more. “Some want traditional rides and some want to be on the cutting edge,” says Chutter. “Regardless, we remain committed until they are fully satisfied.”
Read on to learn more about WhiteWater’s corporate culture, the business philosophy and practices that led to its impressive growth, product innovations and plans for the future.
When you founded WhiteWater West, did you envision it would turn into the company that it is today?
I started by building my own waterpark which opened in 1981. I did not at that time envision that WhiteWater would even morph into a design and manufacturing company let alone become one of the top-ranking suppliers in the amusement park/waterpark industry. It was simply about recognizing opportunity – and in that context, the game has just begun.
Tell us something about the vision and management practices that have helped guide the company to its success of recent years.
We have developed a business model that we believe best fits our own natural characteristics as well those of the industry. Our early adoption of kaizen [a set of business operations precepts developed by Japanese consultant Masaaki Imai] with its focus on continuous improvement and leadership in the development of new products, has been a contributing factor. We are also strong believers in the Toyota model [the influential “Toyota Way” popularized the concepts of “lean manufacturing” and “just in time production”] the teachings in the book ‘Good to Great’ [Jim Collins’s bestselling business title, first published in 2001] and a principled belief that in the end it is all about people and relationships.
WhiteWater’s growth in the past 5 years has been across all traditional measurements: gross income, # of employees, # of projects. It has been achieved by sticking to our hedgehog principle while at the same time being able to identify complimentary opportunities. [“Hedgehog principle” is from Jim Collins: comparing the hedgehog’s deceptively simple self-defense maneuver of rolling up into a ball, with the power of simplicity and repetition in business; i.e. identifying a single, outstanding function.] In an industry dominated by single personality leadership and companies, WhiteWater has excelled by assembling a team of leaders.
2012 was a great season for you. What were some highlights?
There were many, but I will single out 3 particular ones:
First, would be the introduction of AquaCourse™. This aquatic version of a ropes course, we believe, will grow to become a new standard element for a successful waterpark – after wave pools, rivers, waterslides and interactives. Its inaugural introduction into Alabama’s Splash Adventure this year resulted in a significant increase in attendance with the AquaCourse™ leading as the most popular attraction in the park. It was interesting to see all age groups involved; however, what surprised us was the large number of 7- to 15-year-old girls flocking to the ride.
Second, would be the two acquisitions this year of Hopkins Rides and Murphy Waves. While the companies themselves are noteworthy and cement our future, it is the group of individuals behind these companies that are particularly impressive….pillars of the industry like Rick Briggs, Douglas Murphy, Jim Glover, Jim Stuart and Denise Weston…..all part of the A-team of this industry.
The third highlight is the introduction of a new technology in fiberglass rides called SilkGel™. As a result of environmental laws reducing the use of styrenes in fiberglass (that is the material that you smell in fiberglass applications) fiberglass fades at a far more aggressive rate than it did 10 years ago. After 30 months of development we have developed a product that is styrene-free and allows us to warranty our products for 10 years against fading and chalking [more on this product below]. This is a huge cost saving to the waterpark and amusement park industry where virtually all new rides (before this development) require resurfacing in 3 to 5 years.
Chutter says the Giant RainFortress™, shown here at Mt. Olympus, is one of the products clients are most interestes in. Photo courtesy Thomas Hellstrom.
What was the motivation behind the acquisition of Hopkins Rides?
For a number of years we have been transitioning our Prime Play division of products for family adventures to better serve the amusement park industry. This has been through new products as well as staff recruited from the amusement park sector. We have had two successful amusement park water ride attractions in the Spinning Rapids® Ride and the Water Coaster™. Hopkins Rides are the experts in dry park water rides and so we feel that it’s a perfect fit. Certainly when one looks at the Hopkins attractions, the components are slides, supports, control panels and mechanical – exactly what we have been doing in the waterpark sector for 32 years. We also see that the Hopkins line is a natural fit to large sophisticated waterparks where the season can be extended to the shoulder months. As important is the caliber of people that Hopkins brings to the family.
The acquisition also fits in well with our rebranding and overall expansion: WhiteWater has transitioned from “The Waterpark Company” to “The ORIGINAL Waterpark & Attractions Company.” This rebranding allows us not only to maintain our leading position in the waterpark sector but also to expand our position as the go-to company for wet amusement park rides as well as our own interactive dry rides. While we have no interest in the steel ride sector, we do see opportunities in expanding our current wet/dry ride portfolio.
The company has obviously weathered the recession very well. How did you position the company to thrive in the downturn?
Our business model has remained largely unchanged – yet since 2008, our business has doubled in size. For example, WhiteWater has always taken a stealth approach to the international market: quietly investing without fanfare nor trumpeting our successes. Thus, when the recession hit, while others were scrambling to look for new markets, we were already there. Currently we have 19 offices around the world. Our diversification along geographic, manufacturing and product lines has enabled us to react quickly to regional or sector-specific downturns.
Alabama’s Splash Adventure is home to the world’s first AquaCourse™.
Let’s talk about some of your key products. It seems like there’s a race to always have the latest and greatest slide or attraction. What sort of R&D program do you have?
Several years ago we made the decision to invest heavily in our new products group. By this I mean not only in technology but most importantly in people. Led by Rick Briggs – whose credentials include founding SCS Interactive and owning MagiQuest in addition to inventing multi-level, interactive waterpark products including the tipping bucket – we assembled a team of 12 people dedicated to the development of new products. The past two years have seen a huge number of these hit the market – including the Rattler™, the Anaconda™, the Family Python™, the Abyss™, AdrenaLIM Blaster and AquaCourse™.
In addition, because of our vertical integration in owning our own manufacturing facilities, we’re able to have a separate team driving technological advances. We recently introduced SilkTek™ (fiberglass smooth on both sides), bubble-free translucent flumes, and SilkGel™, our new process that guarantees a longerlasting material. This process is now standard on every waterslide WhiteWater manufactures. SilkGel™ works with SilkTek™, our closed-molded manufacturing process, translucent, as well as open-molded processes. This new fiberglass goes a long way in improving operators’ bottom lines since it requires little to no maintenance, has superior gloss retention and increased durability. Thus, we are able to claim the highest quality products in the industry with absolute confidence.
AquaLoop™ is a product I think that was pretty game-changing, much like the uphill slide variations from a few years back. Are we nearing the limits of pushing the boundaries of what slides (and physics) allow us to do?
Our model goes well beyond waterslides and adding more fiberglass. Our focus is on entertainment value and thus when we analyze a park’s needs, we are not restricted by simply one type of product but rather can look at interactives (AquaPlay™), Waves, FlowRiders®, AquaCourse™, the Hopkins style of rides as well as traditional waterslides to see what the park needs and what will provide the greatest return for the owner. Our target is generally the family unit. Spending too much on pushing the boundaries of physics (high thrill) caters to a relatively narrow band. We will, however, continue to drive change and see much opportunity ahead.
Of your big product portfolio, what do you find clients seem to be most interested in?
This depends on the product type; in Waves it is the big surf waves like Typhoon Lagoon’s pool, in stationary surfing it is the Double FlowRider®, in interactives it’s the Giant RainFortress™ similar to the installations at Hersheypark, Hawaiian Falls and this year Mount Olympus, in wet/dry rides it’s the Hopkins Shoot the Chute, in waterslides it’s the Family Boomerango™. What they seek is a ride that will provide the greatest return. This will take into account capacity, entertainment value, the iconic marketing value and cost. This is WhiteWater’s key differentiating point… we are proud that the parks we serve are among the most profitable and successful in the world. This is a philosophical difference… we look at the whole park, not just a ride.
Let’s talk about world markets. How do you view the US waterpark market right now? What do you feel are the global hotspots for waterpark development?
At a time when others are fleeing the US market, we are re-investing. We are seeing that the parks generally have had two or three good years and have some reserves to re-invest. Many parks are tired and are hungry for new attractions.
Within the industry community, many suppliers have found it difficult to complete. Some of this is a result of lower labor costs abroad but our observation is that until America goes metric, American products will remain uncompetitive simply because they cannot be maintained, refurbished or repaired abroad.
We are finding activity in all areas of the globe and in all of our product lines. Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Asia and even Africa are all up in volume for us and certainly the US market was up last year and is again up this year.
Cruise ships seem to be a developing new market for water and activity attractions – do you agree?
The cruise industry has responded to what their customers have seen ‘on land’ and want ‘on board.’ We have been fortunate to have supplied to 35 Carnival Cruise Lines ships, the two newest Disney ships featuring award-winning Acrylic Master Blasters, as well as Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean. Ropes Courses, waterslides, FlowRiders®, AquaLoops™ and AquaPlay™ interactives have all been added with great success. We see this trend continuing.
In your view, how is Asia’s explosive growth in themed entertainment affecting the future of the waterpark industry?
All of Asia remains strong. The hot, humid climates with large populations combined with growing
economies continue to present opportunities for new parks and new products. Many of the new products being introduced are showing up in Asia before Europe or the US simply because of the strong growth across the region. WhiteWater’s location in Vancouver, the gateway to the Pacific, is advantageous.
What sort of business structure (foreign offices, etc.) or strategy (trade shows? events? etc) do you have in place for tapping into the global market?
Our model that we apply to all aspects of our business is one of commitment. We are committed to the international market and thus rather than cherry-pick, we invest in local offices and staff. Because our international commitment has been in place some 25 years, we are well placed to take advantage of the shift to off shore growth. The fact that 3 of the 4 original principals of WhiteWater have lived overseas has helped greatly.
Family Rattler™ is just one of many WhiteWater products to hit waterparks this year.
What do you find are the most important factors to park owners or developers when they’re shopping WhiteWater products?
Fundamentally, park owners want to maximize their bottom line – which is achieved through a series of interrelated priorities. We aren’t just trying to flog equipment: It is a little bit of the Steve Jobs approach, in that a customer may start out asking for one attraction but through discussion and demonstration it may emerge that a different attraction – and often, a smaller initial investment, that at first may appear counter-intuitive – will produce a superior bottom line. This may result in a smaller sale in year one, but if the customer has a significant gate increase, the ROI will bring them back for more in year two. A great example of this would be Nick Laskaris’ Mount Olympus in Wisconsin Dells. This property has seen great gate increases as a result of strategic, well-considered additions.
What plans do you have for growing the company in the future?
Opportunities continue to present themselves. We will continue to bring together great people, to license great products and, where appropriate, to acquire great companies who have at their core more great people.
Are there any new product developments coming up that you can talk about?
No, not that we can talk about. But it is fair to say that given the size and leadership of our new products group WhiteWater will continue to introduce a significant number of new products annually, and these will cross over many of our business units. We are quietly introducing this month an overarching product that we believe has the possibility of being a complete game changer to the amusement and waterpark industries – watch for it! • • •