There is more new blood at SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS). The theme park operator is bringing in a pair of new executives next month.
Peter Crage will fill the permanent CFO role that has been vacant since its former chief bean counter resigned in May. He's a good hire, one that's had previous CFO experience at the country's second largest regional amusement park operator. However, the more intriguing announcement is SeaWorld bringing Anthony Esparza as its next Chief Creative Officer.
Esparza comes from Herschend Enterprises -- the family owned operator of several parks including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City -- where he serves as Senior Vice President, Guest Experiences, Design and Development.
If Herschend rings a bell for SeaWorld investors it's because Joel Manby -- who the chain brought in as its CEO in April -- headed up the amusement park operator before taking on the SeaWorld challenge. Manby announced earlier this month that he would be unveiling a new strategy for them on Nov. 6.
It makes sense. Manby's about to introduce his grand vision for what SeaWorld can be, and he brings in a fellow Herschend executive to help frame it for the masses.
SeaWorld is showing some signs of life. Attendance has inched 0.7% higher through the first half of the year, and that's a big deal after back-to-back years of 4% declines. This isn't a turnaround. SeaWorld has had to discount admissions, and folks aren't spending as much once inside the park as they used to. All of this has done a number on margins and profitability.
It's fair to say that SeaWorld hasn't been the same since Blackfish skewered the company two years ago. SeaWorld has gone from enjoying the same kind of positive buzz that zoo operators receive to one that's getting perpetually bashed for having orcas in captivity.
SeaWorld needs to change the narrative. Last year's announcement that it would be dramatically expanding the tank environments of its orcas didn't silence the critics. Can what Manby has to announce on Nov. 6 change that?
Activists won't be happy until SeaWorld releases its killer whales into the wild, and then they may turn their attention to dolphins and sea lions. That's not going to happen. SeaWorld is investing a lot of money in its new orca habitats. However, with enhanced viewing areas, if it scales back the performances it could make it harder to hate. It's already taking steps to make the marine life angle less important, opening new thrill rides and immersive attractions. SeaWorld is never going to turn its back on its roots, but it wouldn't be hyping a peeled curtain that's less than three months away if it didn't have something radical to offer. Manby is ready to leave his mark on SeaWorld, and armed with a familiar executive to broadcast the new strategy this is when things get interesting.