I know a lot of people on here really don't like LWV or their Facebook statuses, but can we refrain from this indignant, PBE-style remarks which are no better?
We know LWV is a worse park, we know it has failings, we know that their level of investment is far lower than Alton's, we know the infrastructure is at breaking point. But we also know that it too has a parent company which gives it very little money to spend, they are trying to improve the atmosphere and aesthetics of the park, their customer service is good and you actually get personal responses, they offer an enthusiast ticket price of £13, and they actively encourage visitors to contact their staff directly for feedback.
Personally I don't have an issue with a small park, which needs every guest they can get, highlighting failings that just shouldn't occur in a the country's leading theme park, owned by a group that in 2011 earned revenue of £928.4 million, of which £222.5 million was operating profit - a group which instead of spending a little of that £222.5 million profit on some basic refurbishment and improving the guest experience, reduces the budgets of its parks, forces them to open later, shut earlier, close swathes of the parks, individual attractions and ramp up prices.
If I worked at a small park which received just 300,000 visitors a year, just 10% of AT's, and was looking for any positive publicity, I also would highlight any area in which my park was doing better than supposedly the UK's best. So would any other company in any other sector.
I find it surprising that people that people will spend 17 pages voicing their indignation over this "disgusting" decision, but when a small park, 200 miles away with a different catchment area, different target market and considerably lower profile does the same, people are up in arms and dismiss it as 'childish', 'worryingly desperate', and 'petty'? I don't really get it - it feels exactly the same as when we criticise the attractions at Blackpool, and an unnamed forum respond by saying how crap AT is. Only in this case nobody is saying that LWV is a better park with better attractions or management, but highlighting that they are not making cuts to ride openings, park opening hours and are in fact putting on more offers than ever before, compared to Alton who are lessening the guest experience.
This is by no means a defence of LWV, I recognise it is a far worse park in comparison, but it would be nice to see some rational thought instead of mounting an all-out attack describing how lame it is - you could simply let them score their points to please a few of their fans, accept they have a point, or just ignore them.
All that said - I find it staggering just how strapped for cash Merlin parks seem to be. So short of disposable income that they are having to cut operating costs by closing transport systems, shaving hours off park/area/ride opening times, and at the same time raising ticket prices and increasing upselling. And allegedly Alton Towers had "particularly strong performance during 2011" somehow (source: Merlin Entertainments Annual Report and Accounts 2011 - same for the figures above and below). It's madness.
It feels so shortsighted, because not only are they suffering surprisingly large public backlashes at every cost-cutting decision they make, guests are put off by the entry prices and put off returning because the experience is slightly worse. The notion of perceived value for money is so important, but it is really being chipped away to the point where you have to question the value for money these attractions give, especially when entry prices go up yet attractions close.
I'm well aware that there is substantial investment in ride hardware, but something said over and over - when Merlin build big, marketable attractions, it is to ramp up attendance and create the kind of statements that look fantastic on their annual reports: "gate figures up 5.4%, revenue up £128.4 million, operating profit growth of 7.2%." It's such a sketchy business model, because it hides the fact that much of that comes also from reducing maintenance/reduced costs associated with closing more etc., and despite the parks getting new investment in rides (we'll ignore Chessington), the maintenance and upkeep of the parks is shocking. It looks great on their financial reports, but whoever buys the parks after Merlin blows them a kiss goodbye is in for a slap in the face when they realise how much Merlin underspend on operating costs, just to make their balance sheet look like a wonderful investment prospect.
I really hope the future owners, which look to be coming sooner than later, take park operations seriously, and don't continue the unsustainable "build-something-new-and-they-will-come, ignore-maintenance" approach that is destroying the parks. After SW7, I would be happy for a couple of years of no new rides if they did what Blackpool, and to a lesser extent Drayton and LWV, are attempting to do - investing in the aesthetics, maintenance and reliability of what they have, thereby improving guest satisfaction, reducing complaints and making the parks fantastic places to visit. I don't mind not having a new ride if I/my family/friends/anyone can go on everything we want to, when we want to, in surroundings that aren't falling apart and not be assaulted by people selling us stuff.
I think the best we can hope for is for the stock market float to happen as soon as possible - not because Merlin don't invest, but because whoever next acquires the parks will hopefully have a longer term approach than the 'ramping-up profit margins just before we sell to get the maximum share price' approach that Merlin go for. Look at new acquisitions by Plopsa and Parques Reunidos - there's regularly big investment in infrastructure, aesthetics, entertainment and all of the features that improve a day out, and improve guest satisfaction: sustainable business models that promote genuine growth, return visits and further investment.
One can hope.