Marketing Lessons Learned at Universal Studios

Over President’s Day week­end, my wife and I decid­ed it was time to have some fun in the warmth and sun­shine of Flori­da, so we made plans to take our two kids to Orlan­do.

But which park? Sure, Dis­ney was the safe bet. But we all had been to Dis­ney, but nev­er to Uni­ver­sal. Now that our kids were 13 and almost 10, it seemed that they had out­grown the Dis­ney princess­es and Pixar Cars and were ready for the more adult char­ac­ters of Uni­ver­sal.

So we booked flights and hotels to Orlan­do and bought tick­ets to Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios.

We end­ed up hav­ing very a fun and mem­o­rable 4 days. Yet, as a mar­keter, I could not help but observe some of the clear mar­ket­ing tech­niques that Uni­ver­sal used to draw vis­i­tors to their park and to max­i­mize the dol­lars spent there.

Here is some of what I saw:

1. Dis­ney is a pow­er­house brand; Uni­ver­sal is not in the same league. Instead of invest­ing bil­lions to try to match Disney’s brand, Uni­ver­sal part­ners with an exist­ing super brand (worth bil­lions) that appeals to its cus­tomers.

Dur­ing 2000–2009, Dis­ney was crush­ing Uni­ver­sal in terms of Orlan­do amuse­ment goers. Dis­ney was the clear #1, and Uni­ver­sal a

Our family poses in front of Hogwarts

We loved the Hog­warts cas­tle.

dis­tant #2. Uni­ver­sal was the place you went if you had an extra day in Orlan­do.

But in 2010, Uni­ver­sal part­nered with JK Rowl­ing to open the Wiz­ard­ing World of Har­ry Pot­ter. Uni­ver­sal was bril­liant to asso­ciate its park with such a pow­er­ful brand that appeals to its cus­tomer base.

And this part­ner­ship changed the game in Orlan­do.

Had there not been that Har­ry Pot­ter sec­tion of the park, I am not sure we would have trav­eled to Orlan­do sole­ly for Uni­ver­sal. We would have thought Uni­ver­sal was like anoth­er Six Flags park.

But with all of the pos­i­tive com­ments we heard about the Wiz­ard­ing World of Har­ry Pot­ter, we felt that there was indeed wis­dom in plan­ning a focused trip to Uni­ver­sal.

Les­son: Busi­ness­es are wise to asso­ciate them­selves with very pow­er­ful brands that appeal to their tar­get audi­ences. The right part­ner­ship can change the game.

2. Seg­ment your audi­ence and set prices accord­ing­ly

There are hoards of vis­i­tors in the Parks (you see them in the lines!). But Uni­ver­sal knows they are will­ing to pay dif­fer­ent amounts for ride tick­ets.

Con­sid­er the basic Uni­ver­sal tick­et: a one-day, sin­gle-park pass costs about $82. At this lev­el, you wait in the full lines that snake back-and-forth (per­haps a 45 min­utes wait on aver­age). My guess is 80–90% of the vis­i­tors buy these tick­ets.

Express PassThen there is the Express tick­et which puts Express hold­ers in much short­er lines (per­haps 10 min­utes per ride). This tick­et requires a pre­mi­um of $50-$110/day (above the $82 entry fee) depend­ing on the sea­son. This group is prob­a­bly 10–20% of the park atten­dees. Note: a few very pop­u­lar rides are exclud­ed from the Express tick­ets to be fair­er to the gen­er­al tick­et hold­ers.

And for those vis­i­tors who can­not wait even 10 min­utes Uni­ver­sal offers a VIP tour. Here a tour guide walks a small group to the front of every line. Of course, there is a pre­mi­um- about $170/person on top of your $82 admis­sion tick­et.

This pack­age is clear­ly tar­get­ed at the group who has both high dis­pos­able income and lit­tle patience.

The great ben­e­fit of such seg­men­ta­tion is that you max­i­mize rev­enues and give peo­ple what they want.

Les­son: Under­stand your customer’s needs (skip­ping lines) and charge accord­ing­ly.

 3. Two small­er parks bring in more rev­enue than one big park

Uni­ver­sal built two parks. Yet they are very close; just a 5 minute walk from one anoth­er.

Why not build one park with one set of gates? It would cost less to main­tain staffers at one gate, right? This approach is fair­ly typ­i­cal at places like Cedar Point or Her­shey Park.

Nope. When you have two parks, you can sell pre­mi­um tick­ets to gain admit­tance into both parks on the same day. In fact, the mul­ti­ple-park pass­es sell for 50% more than sin­gle-pass tick­ets.

Did we fall for this mul­ti-park pre­mi­um? Of course, we want vari­ety each day. One park is not enough; we need­ed two.

Les­son: Struc­ture your prod­ucts in a way to col­lect more rev­enue

4. Bun­dle your pre­mi­um prod­ucts with spe­cial perks

Uni­ver­sal has 3 beau­ti­ful on-site hotels that are in walk­ing dis­tance to the parks.

First class hotel comes with great perks.

How­ev­er, the hotels are very pricey: they start at $400/room (with tax) and go up fast. And giv­en the mas­sive num­ber of inex­pen­sive hotels in Orlan­do ($100 buys a decent room), how does Uni­ver­sal fill up its hotels at 4 times the price?Universal is clever with what you get for $400, of course. It offers all hotel guests two siz­able perks:
  1. Every­one who stays in a hotel room gets the Express Pass for free (remem­ber its val­ue of $50-$110/ticket)
  2. Hotel guests can enter the Har­ry Pot­ter sec­tion of the Park an hour ear­ly. So they get a jump on the oth­er Park vis­i­tors. This extra hour of small crowds is pre­cious for us Type A per­son­al­i­ties.

This deal is actu­al­ly quite appeal­ing from the con­sumer per­spec­tive (I would rec­om­mend it to all vis­i­tors). We spent a lot on the hotel and tick­ets, but we got a lot of valu­able perks in return.

Les­son: bun­dle your prod­ucts togeth­er into a high­ly valu­able (if pricey) offer­ing

So I have shared with you some of the mar­ket­ing lessons I saw expert­ly uti­lized  by Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios. As a pro­fes­sion­al I must say I was impressed.

But most impor­tant­ly, as my fam­i­ly board­ed our South­west plane back home, I reflect­ed that our 4‑day trip to Orlan­do with my fam­i­ly was a ton of fun.

And as Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, who is fea­tured in a Ter­mi­na­tor ride at Uni­ver­sal, said, “I’ll be back.”

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