Former EVP Marketing at Universal Studios Orlando Theme Park, Gretchen Hofmann has extensive experience in the theme park industry and in marketing. Chad Emeron caught up with her. “Innovation is expensive, and there’s a tipping point that the industry is probably getting close to hitting. At some point, recession or not, the wallet won’t open any wider relative to other entertainment options.”
by Chad Emerson
Chad Emerson: How did you get your start in the amusement industry and what are some of the positions you’ve held?
Gretchen Hofmann: I walked a crooked path, first working for a global ad agency in New York (BBDO) and then another in Mexico (JWT) as VP, Account Director. While in Mexico, I was recruited by Pepsi and handled marketing for Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell. That led to an assignment in Singapore handling South Asia and the Middle East, and then California as VP, Marketing for Taco Bell US. Shortly thereafter, Universal Orlando called and once I saw the place, I was hooked. I stayed for about 7 years as EVP, Marketing & Sales before retiring in 2008. There’s a lot to be said for not having a “5 year plan.” I couldn’t have planned any of it.
Emerson: Leadership training is obviously an important topic for an industry that deals so closely with a wide swath of the general public. How did Universal Orlando train their leaders to be prepared for all types of experiences and challenges during your time with the company?
Hofmann: Some of it was trial by fire. Take 9/11. I was with Universal Studios Orlando theme park for about six months before the tragedy and there wasn’t any classic training that could have prepared us or the industry for that. But Universal’s culture is one that encourages people to aim high, constantly find new and better ways to grow the business and to think “what if.” That culture permeates the organization and it’s the basis of Universal’s leadership training.
Emerson: Describe for us your most rewarding leadership experiences while working at Universal Orlando?
Hofmann: There were two. The first was taking a chance on people by giving them more responsibility than they’d ever had before. Almost always, they’d blow by the goal and want more. The team at Universal is exceptional both as professionals and as people, and seeing them “make it happen” – particularly when conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done – was awesome.
The second was the “All Star” department meetings where we’d bring together every member of the team, from administrative assistants to the senior executives. These meetings were quarterly business reviews where we highlighted results and plans, and then celebrated the people for making them happen. Then we’d celebrate a little bit more. Everyone worked hard and that was a chance to say thank you. It was always a lot of fun and it took care of business in ways no formal meeting ever could.
Emerson: What about examples of challenging leadership experiences that your training equipped you to effectively respond to?
Hofmann: As circumstances with the market change, so must the business plan. You have to know when to say “Stop, this isn’t working and it’s probably not going to they way we envisioned. We need to change course.” That often meant changing people’s jobs, something that can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. But do it right, create a support system to manage the change, and it works.
Emerson: Looking forward, what are some of the challenges that you see facing the amusement industry in these uncertain times?
Hofmann: The main challenge for the industry is to go from being a discretionary expense that can be replaced to a phenomenal experience that sticks and that people demand. That requires constant innovation, an incredible experience that transcends rides and a price most people can afford without blowing up their credit card. But innovation is expensive, and there’s a tipping point that the industry is probably getting close to hitting. At some point, recession or not, the wallet won’t open any wider relative to other entertainment options. Or if it does, it will be with fewer guests (and a different financial model).
Emerson: It’s a beautiful day in Central Florida. Describe for us your perfect theme park afternoon.
Hofmann: It’s off season, maybe October. Crowds are light, it’s 75 degrees and Margaritaville at Universal’s CityWalk is playing Jimmy Buffet loud and proud. I’d start there with a few friends for lunch, then hit the Hulk at Islands of Adventure at least twice, followed by a good tear on the Mummy at Universal Studios. Later on, it’s a water taxi over to the Hard Rock Hotel, a little R&R, and then back over to Universal for Halloween Horror Nights for screams that wake the dead. From there, the agenda is wide open. You may have made plans, but today is not about a schedule. It’s about letting loose and having a blast. That’s my perfect theme park afternoon.
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