Universal Rides Tests for Park Renewals

Universal Studios Hollywood faced a challenge common to theme parks, as it worked this spring and summer to increase renewals of its Celebrity Annual Pass for the lowest cost.

It found the answer in sequenced mailings using 148 test groups promoting the pass to 40,000 households. Response ranged from a low of 0.8 percent to 24 percent, and renewals rose 500 percent from the previous year.

“Highlighting how much they had already saved by being a member was a very strong message,” said Carolyn Goodman, vice president of strategic and creative services at 360 Group Inc., San Rafael, CA, the agency handling the account.

Goodman would not discuss the results of individual tests but said, “The winning strategy was identifying how many times you went to the turnstile, how much that would have cost you and how much you've already saved as a member. People don't realize how often they actually use their pass, and they never really had a tangible benefit in front of them of the value of being a member.”

Central to the test was the number of variables used to urge renewal of the annual pass before it expired. The agency tested frequency, or the number of times needed to contact individuals before they responded. The aim was to reduce the number of contacts needed to stimulate renewals.

So, mailers went out on several time schedules. Some dropped the first of the month in which the recipient's current pass was expiring. Others mailed 30 days prior to the expiration, meaning some June expires received reminders in May.

“The optimal time to mail somebody a renewal offer was only weeks before their actual renewal expired, not a month or two prior,” Goodman said. “I would recommend that the closer you mail to the expiration date, the better. In other words, an early-bird approach doesn't buy you very much. Most people don't even think about their membership until it's literally upon them.”

Creative also was tested, comparing a postcard execution versus a full package with a letter, brochure and business-reply envelope in a buck slip.

In terms of offers, the agency tested incentives such as a free single-day pass for a friend to bring along to the studio and theme park in Universal City in Los Angeles.

All mailing test recipients received a rate of $45 for adults and $35 for children. The normal annual rate for 2002 renewals of $59 for adults and $49 for kids.

Telemarketing was used in conjunction with the mail drops. Some calls were made a week after the mailing, others two weeks later and still others 30 days after the mail package dropped. Goodman later found that outbound telemarketing was not cost-effective.

The campaign let people mail in their renewals with payment by check or credit card, while previously renewals were accepted only by phone.

Only a smidgen of online marketing was used since Universal Studios Hollywood's Web site at the time was not equipped to take orders at the back end.

In that push, e-mails first went to a house database to get them opted in. Those new consenters — 20 percent — combined with existing opt-ins numbered 20,000. That is how many e-mails were sent. The e-mail directed recipients to call a toll-free number for pass renewal.

The agency is looking at future campaigns based on what worked and what did not as well as how to regroup.

Universal Studios Hollywood, owned by French-run Universal Vivendi, has attractions like Animal Planet Live!, Jurassic Park: The Ride, Terminator 2:3D and The Nickelodeon Blast Zone. It also runs studio tours.

Last year, Universal executed other strategies to push renewals, before awarding the account to 360 Group.

One was an oversized postcard informing that the membership was about to expire. The other was a non-personalized letter in an envelope highlighting the benefits of membership. This package went to all audiences, regardless of who they were, how often they attended or whether they were going single or as family.

“They stimulated an extremely low response rate,” Goodman said. “Because the response rate was so low, they then relied on outbound telemarketing to call their customer base and say, 'You know, your pass is about to expire. Can I renew you right now over the phone?' They got renewals up, but it was a very expensive venture.”

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