The next few days will be huge for SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS). The controversial theme park operator reports quarterly results on Thursday morning, and a few days later CEO Joel Manby will offer a presentation to unveil his new strategy for reviving the struggling chain of marine life-themed parks.
Investors are starting to get hopeful. The stock hasn't closed as high as it did on Monday since mid-June. However, that only places more pressure on the company to live up to its end of the investment bargain.
Thursday's report will be critical. This will detail the seasonally potent summer quarter, and it's naturally the best time for the chain to shine if it's making any kind of headway on a turnaround.
Attendance is already starting to stabilize. Comps rose 0.7% through the first six months of the year. Leading theme park chains are growing a lot faster, but the positive showing for the first half of 2015 reverses the negative trend that began in the summer of 2013, when the Blackfish documentary cast SeaWorld in an unflattering light.
Unfortunately for SeaWorld, improving turnstile clicks comes with more asterisks than patron photo opportunities of Shamu. Folks are returning to SeaWorld, its water parks, and its Busch Gardens sister concept, but they are spending less to get in. The chain is discounting admissions to get folks into its gated attractions at a time when leader Disney (NYSE:DIS) is unapologetically boosting its ticket prices. Margins are getting crushed in the process. Net margins are less than half of what they were when they peaked in 2012, according to S&P Capital IQ data.
SeaWorld will never be the family magnet that Disney has become, but there's no excuse for deteriorating margins outside of its own failing to combat the negative publicity stemming from doc-streaming activists.
Analysts are holding out for improvement in Thursday morning's report. They see $509.5 million in revenue, nearly 3% ahead of the prior year. That may not seem like something to get excited about, but it would be SeaWorld's heartiest top-line growth since late 2013. Wall Street pros are even more assertive on the bottom line where they are targeting a profit of $1.18 a share, 18% ahead of where it was during last year's telltale summer quarter. If it lands anywhere north of $1.00, it would be SeaWorld's most profitable period since its first full quarter as a public company in 2013.
Investors will have a couple of days to digest the report before Manby's presentation at SeaWorld's Investor Day on Monday. Manby is still relatively new to the company. He was lured away as CEO behind Dollywood and Silver Dollar City to take on the challenge of turning SeaWorld around earlier this year. He's a CEO that isn't used to courting venom. He was on Undercover Boss, and he even wrote a book on how love and Christian principles are effective ways to manage a company. That's the kind of background that would make a "free Willy" kind of announcement possible, but that's highly unlikely.
However, if Manby effectively positions SeaWorld as a theme park operator that will emphasize rides and immersive non-animal experiences as its blueprint for growth, the easier it will be to silence picketing activist -- and please the investors who have been pushing the stock higher in recent months.
Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.