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Theme Parks: Looking into the Future at Disney

By Chad Emerson

When it came to predicting the future, Joni Newkirk (right) was the closest thing that Disney had to that skill.   You see, Newkirk was the executive in charge of forecasting and feasibility analysis for Disney parks.  And, while she couldn’t literally see into the future, her team was charged with identifying the upcoming trends and changes that affected revenue at Disney’s vast resorts.
joni newkirk senior executive walt disney world resorts
This spring, Newkirk left Disney to begin her own consulting firm, Integrated Insight, and plans to offer her unique skill set to a wide variety of clients throughout the amusement industry and beyond.  Newkirk recently visited with Blooloop’s Chad Emerson for an exclusive interview discussing her important experiences in the industry. 

Blooloop:  Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry, the different leadership roles that you’ve held, and why you decided that now was a good time to embrace a new opportunity.

Joni Newkirk:  Having just completed my Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and nearing five years at what was then Martin Marietta, I was open to new opportunities.    I was searching for something different than muxes, modems and missiles, but hadn’t considered Mickey.  Then I saw an ad in the paper that was just made for me….someone with a Master’s degree in Operations Research to fill a Forecasting Manager role at Walt Disney World.    I got the job and I still have that original ad in my file cabinet! 

For the next seven years, I performed the forecasting role and also worked on feasibility analysis for new projects under consideration.   I had a great teacher – Bill Hartman – who gave me the opportunity to learn the business inside out and taught me the importance of credibility and integrity.  During that time, I also embarked on a second leadership role – Mom!   In 1995, I was promoted to Director of Research and a few years later when Bill retired, I was promoted to Vice President of Forecasting and Research.  

In 2003, I was promoted to Senior Vice President and given the added responsibility of Pricing and Revenue Management.    That year marked the beginning of marrying consumer research with data-driven insights to formulate winning strategies.   Our first success – and it was a big one – was the introduction of a new, holistic pricing strategy, Magic Your Way.  Then in 2005, I was given one more division to manage – Industrial Engineering – and we started calling the combined team of five analytical areas Business Insight and Improvement.    My final leadership change also occurred that year when I was given worldwide responsibility for all the Business Insight and Improvement functions.   Talk about a full plate!

While my career at Disney was a dream come true, I was ready for a new adventure.  I had an itch to start a consulting practice, to help other companies learn to thrive on data-driven insights and decision analytics.  It’s something I am passionate about and there is a need, particularly among companies that are not yet equipped with advanced analytical capability.   While some may question making the move in a down economy, I’m a firm believer that calculated risks are usually the most rewarding ventures no matter when you take them.   Along with my partners at Integrated Insight, Inc, I’m looking forward to adding value to companies large and small.

Blooloop:  During your time at Disney, what is the most challenging leadership experience that you recall?

Newkirk:  Managing a global organization presented some unique challenges.  While there is benefit in sharing specialized skill sets and best practices, a fine balance must be struck between the skill and the culture.  Consistency for consistency’s sake is a fast way to failure.   And forget making a difference if you don’t take the time to really understand and appreciate local nuances.  In the global world, patience is a virtue and that is not always my strong suit.  Okay, maybe it never is.  But you learn as you go and I believe we did make a difference. 

Blooloop:  What about the most surprising leadership experience that you faced?

Newkirk
:  Magic Your Way was a sweeping change to Disney’s pricing strategy and resulted in a number of organizational challenges.    Having had the strategy designed and developed based on consumer insight and in-depth analysis of historical transactional data, I was confident it would be an overwhelming success, a risk worth taking.  Imagine my shock when not everyone was willing to jump on board and take that risk.  I learned a lot about change and organizational behavior through Magic Your Way.  Fortunately, we had unending support from my boss, Al Weiss, and implemented the strategy as planned.   But in retrospect, there were measures that could have been taken to smooth the way.  Live and learn. 

Blooloop:  With the economy obviously affecting even the industry’s largest companies, what new leadership challenges do you see arising out of these unique times?

Newkirk
:  Organizations today find themselves needing to dig deeper to discover opportunities for profitable growth and out behave the competition.  Savvy leaders know not to rely on intuition to uncover new insights, but rather, data and robust decision analytics.  This fairly new and radically different approach requires strong change leadership. From recruiting appropriate analytical talent to educating employees how to use timely, actionable information, leaders themselves are often in need of additional training. Recognizing these changing requirements and adjusting the organization to respond will help assure long term growth and profitability.

Blooloop:  Let’s say it’s a beautiful day in Central Florida.  How would you spend your perfect theme park day?

Newkirk
:  That’s easy.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Great rides, fabulous shows and a chance to get up close and personal with spectacular wildlife.   Always entertaining, never the same.

See also:
Amusement Law: Chad Emerson gets Legal with the IALDA
Amusement Parks: Viral Marketing and the WOW Factor at Disney

Branded Attractions: Visitors Experience Beer and Boats at Rotterdam and Heineken Centers

Exit Interview: Cindy Gordon moves on from Universal Orlando

Attractions: Cause Marketing Can Boost Business
Amusement Law: There’s more than bad guys lurking around the corner at a Wild West Show

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