Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Get ready for a busy recovery: Scott Harkless

Industry professionals should start planning now for the surge in demand expected as leisure travel resumes

by Scott Harkless, Alcorn McBride

ABOVE: Scott Harkless (Chief Innovation Officer) & Hunter Olson (Director of Product Development) Photo courtesy Alcorn McBride

There’s no doubt that the theme park industry has taken quite a hit since COVID-19 flipped the world upside down last year. Most of us have experienced this first-hand in some way or another, so I’m not here to relive the past and open any wounds! What I’m here to talk about is the future. What’s next, and where do we go from here?

The way I see it, we’ve got a very unique situation brewing right now. For the most part, the same enthusiastic visitors that were fueling the pre-pandemic boom of the themed entertainment industry have now been cooped up for the better part of a year. During that time, their desires to experience the latest attractions, ride a coaster with their friends, or enjoy a churro or funnel cake have not faded. Quite the opposite, actually! Those cravings have just been bottled up for the last year, tightly corked with the hope that someday soon this will all be over.

If you’re anything like me and my family, you feel that pressure mounting. At this point, we are quite anxious for those experiences to return to our daily lives. We are all hungry for new content and activities that come from something other than the video streaming services and gaming content we’ve been getting by with at home. We want something more immersive, and more tangible. A marketing executive might describe this as ‘pent-up demand.’ Call it whatever you like, but there are a lot of corks out there ready to pop.

When, exactly, might those corks be let fly (conscientiously)? It’s hard to say for sure. With the hope of large-scale vaccinations rolling out in 2021, it does feel like the beginnings of true industry recovery are not far off. Realizing that there’s a lot of debate about how gradually this bounce-back might happen, I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about this. But if others can relate to how my friends and family feel, my gut says we’re in for a wild ride – a storm of a recovery.

Here in Central Florida, we know all about the threat of imminent storms. When you see a category 4 hurricane forecast to pass right over your town, you don’t just sit there and let it plow over you; you prepare! For some of us, that means boarding up windows, or throwing patio furniture in the pool. For others, it means stocking up on beer, snacks, and bottled water. Maybe the storm will take a turn, maybe it won’t. Either way, you’re ready for it. Storm or no storm, your beer and snacks await.

Let’s say that this gut feeling of mine is correct and that a ‘storm’ of sorts is brewing: Let’s say that the major park companies perceive the imminent release of pent-up demand and return to something like business as usual within the next 12 months. They start pulling triggers on projects, and doing it with some urgency, so their competitors don’t beat them to the punch. What can we, as individuals and suppliers with a vested interest in this industry, do to prepare for the moment when all those green lights start to glow?

The answer is probably different for each one of us depending on our personal situations and areas of expertise. If your job was affected by the pandemic, maybe that means brushing up on new skills that will be in high demand. You know, those things you always meant to learn but were too busy drowning in work to spend time on? If you work for a vendor, this might mean pulling together some exciting ideas to pitch clients. When the time comes, they’re going to want to move fast, so being ahead of the game will make your company a much more attractive option.

Speaking from a manufacturer’s perspective, at Alcorn McBride we see this as a time to double down on our investment, in developing new technologies that will help build better attractions on more ambitious schedules. Investing in development has always been important to us as a high-tech company; but balancing that with staying on top of the pre-pandemic boom was a juggling act to say the least. We see this time as an opportunity for us to take stock and focus more on the big picture.

Our top priority during this period has been approaching our products less as individual components, and more as building blocks within a larger ecosystem. If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the boom times, it’s that nobody has time to figure out how the pieces fit together anymore. With attractions getting more complicated, what the industry really needs most from a technology standpoint is a well-defined toolset that attraction designers can scale to meet the needs of the attractions and count on to work reliably together.

Next on the priority list for us has been generating new content to prepare for a surge of new clients and vendor partners. Thinking back to the pre-pandemic boom, one of the most challenging situations we faced as an industry was the talent squeeze. The atmosphere was so competitive and busy that it was challenging just to find enough people, especially those with experience in the industry. If the themed entertainment market bounces back quickly, that challenge may be exacerbated this time around because much of the talent pool has been dispersed by the pandemic. Regardless of whether those tasked with ramping back up our industry are new to the game or coming from a place of experience, we want to have an arsenal of content that can bring them quickly up to speed on how to deploy our ecosystem of tools.

Is investing in growth of this kind risky in a time of crisis? Absolutely. But, just like loading up on snacks before hurricanes, we believe that the long-lasting impact of those investments will pay off regardless of how quickly themed entertainment recovers. If you love this industry and believe as we do, all I ask is that you take a moment to think about what you can do to prepare for the surge and put together some kind of “ramp up” plan. Also, be sure to stay in close contact with clients and colleagues in the industry. Regardless of whether they are on furlough, out of work, out of industry, or still plugging away, it never hurts to hear a friendly voice – especially one that’s filled with optimism and excitement to get back to doing what we all love! At the very least, it spreads the word that you’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. It is also a great way to raise spirits and explore opportunities to help each other, which will lead to a healthier recovery.

I truly believe that if we all have confidence in the high demand for the experiences we create and the foresight to invest in our future and prepare for rapid growth, we can all help our industry bounce back quickly and emerge stronger than ever before. • • •

As Chief Innovation Officer at Alcorn McBride, Scott Harkless works closely with clients to determine their biggest areas of need and leads a talented team of problem solvers to create the products used in many of the world’s most popular attractions. He draws upon his experience in product development, system commissioning, client training, marketing, and sales to ensure that the products stamped with the Alcorn McBride logo exceed client expectations and offer value to the entire industry.

Scott Harkless
As Chief Innovation Officer at Alcorn McBride, Scott Harkless works closely with clients to determine their biggest areas of need and leads a talented team of problem solvers to create the products used in many of the world’s most popular attractions. He draws upon his experience in product development, system commissioning, client training, marketing, and sales to ensure that the products stamped with the Alcorn McBride logo exceed client expectations and offer value to the entire industry.

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