Sometimes, when you've been down so long, any direction starts to look like up. That's apparently true in the case of SeaWorld Entertainment's (NYSE:SEAS) third quarter. Although revenue and earnings both came in below Wall Street analysts' expectations, shares of the company rose in the post-announcement trading session.
SeaWorld reported revenue of $437.7 million and EPS of $0.64. The analysts' consensus, according to FactSet, was for $457 million and $0.80, respectively. However, when compared to last year's results, the situation looks even direr. Revenue declined 10% from Q3 2016, and EPS declined 17%. Currently the stock trades hands for $12 per share, down more than 50% from the $27 IPO price in 2013. As of this writing, shares of the theme park have declined approximately 36% year to date while the broader market, as defined by the S&P 500, is up approximately 15%.
Will a new ad campaign address SeaWorld's biggest issue?
The biggest issue plaguing SeaWorld is one of public perception. The 2013 documentary Blackfish, which put a harsh spotlight on its treatment of its killer whales, struck a nerve with the public. The company was slow to respond, initially making an aggressive, ham-handed attempt to brand the film as propaganda before facing the fact that it would need to make some real changes.
Since the documentary's release, the company has struggled with falling attendance. Last quarter was particularly poor: Attendance declined year over year from 8.3 million to 7.6 million, a drop of approximately 9%. The visitors who did come were on average less profitable as well, with total revenue per capita dropping 1% to $57.52.
Management feels they have a solution with their new marketing campaign, "From Park to Planet," which ties the company to animal conservation efforts. According to CEO Joel Manby, "when people watch Park to Planet and then an attractions-focused advertisement, we've seen the conversation rate to buy a ticket [sic] is six times higher than when we just market our attractions." Manby further noted that attendance trends have improved since the end of Q3.
SeaWorld has a lot riding on this campaign
In addition to the new marketing campaign, the company announced an aggressive cost-cutting program. By the end of 2018, it expects to derive $40 million in net cost savings, even factoring in a $5.1 million pre-tax restructuring charge this quarter. However, the bulk of these cost savings will hit the bottom line, as the company plans to direct most of the funds freed up toward increased marketing and advertising.
Under the restructuring plan, SeaWorld will lay off 350 people. The company said the program was undertaken to increase efficiency, reduce duplication, and improve operations; Manby noted the eliminated positions were mostly from corporate.
The story right now is SeaWorld has a great deal riding on the "From Park to Planet" campaign after a relatively short testing phase. It appears to be an all-in move to restore the company to growth, and sometimes, such aggressive moves pay off. For high-risk, turnaround-focused investors, this may be an interesting stock to watch (and a potential takeout target) but I'd steer clear until and unless the company provides some confirmation that its attempt at brand rehabilitation is gaining some traction.