Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

Q-Lines – Joel Manby

Joel at Silver Dollar City

The president and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) talks to Park World about the group’s parks and attractions and its recent surprise (even to some in the company) move into the sports industry.

Herschend Family Entertainment operates 26 family-oriented theme parks and attractions across North America. During Joel Manby’s tenure, two of HFE’s parks – Dollywood and the flagship Silver Dollar City – have earned the industry’s highest honour, the Applause Award. An expert on leadership and customer relations, he is the author of the book Love Works and in 2010 featured in a memorable episode of the TV series Undercover Boss. Prior to his appointment at HFE in 2003, Joel spent 20 years in the car industry, including a spell as CEO of Saab Automobile USA. 

Joel Manby as seen on Undercover Boss
Joel Manby as seen on Undercover Boss

It’s now several years since you appeared on Undercover Boss. How important is it to you to retain this “grass roots” experience of your attractions?

It is critical that I stay close to our hosts and close to the customer. One thing my senior leaders sometimes ask of me is to spend more time with our vice-presidents and directors at the attraction level when I visit our properties. Yet I only have so many hours during a location visit and I tend to prefer wandering; talking to guests, the front line hosts and “experiencing” the attraction as a customer would. I find that is how I get the best pulse of what is going on. Having said that, I need to spend equal time with the VP and director level to assure they are getting the support they need from me and the corporate office.

HFE already operates a number of different tourism and hospitality businesses, but the acquisition of the Harlem Globetrotters is nevertheless a radical departure. How long had you been considering such a move and why does it make sense for the company?

Our vision as a company is to “bring families closer together.” Our mission is to “create memories worth repeating.” Anything we do has to be 100% wholesome, a product that moms can trust their kids to go see. The Harlem Globetrotters fit all three of those high level screens to perfection.

Actually, I did not have my eye on them but when we got the call that they were on the market, we moved very quickly. They are an iconic brand with strong cash flow and they have an overseas presence which we currently do not have. They also make their money in the winter which helps even out our cash flow.

As a private family-owned company, it is important that we diversify our cash flow streams so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. We already successfully diversified into the aquarium business, they are a weather hedge and being in metropolitan markets they are also a gas price hedge, and we are already in the fixed arena dinner theatre business with Dixie Stampede and Pirates Voyage. Although I admit the travelling arena business is new, we have an outstanding leadership team running the Globetrotters and we feel the brand and their potential to be “ambassadors of goodwill and reconciliation” is powerful.


Will we see any attractions built on the Harlem Globetrotters land or sporting facilities built in the parks, or is the deal more about cross fertilisation of existing skills and experience?

Our specific plans for integrating the Globetrotters into our current attractions are still being developed. The acquisition was more about an iconic brand that has upside in the US and internationally in its own right than any specific integration with existing HFE properties. However, we obviously will market the Globetrotters at all our existing attractions and market our existing attractions at all the Globetrotter games.

Do you expect to see other parks and attractions operators broadening their portfolios in such “360°” fashion?

I cannot speak for other attractions operators, but I do think we have great leaders in this industry and I am sure they will continue to expand. However, we do not look at ourselves as strictly a theme park or an attraction company. We are an entertainment company with several strong brands that we use to tell compelling and entertaining stories to our guests. We use theme parks, waterparks, dinner theatres, aquariums, an arena business and hotels to tell those stories. I would note that Disney only makes 25% of its profit from businesses that HFE is in today. They are not an attractions company. There is no reason we could not leverage our brands in other ways to make money and satisfy our guests over the long term – maybe not in my career time frame, but long term.

How important is to keep the “Family” in Herschend Family Entertainment as the business expands?

It is critical to who we are in two regards. First, we are family owned and intend to stay that way. However, it is even more important that our hosts and the guests feel like this is a family-owned company. We want them to feel like part of the family. That is part of the reason I wrote Love Works. It is one of the many ways we reinforce a family-oriented culture at HFE. We want our employees to know of our culture and if they all know, they will hold me and other leaders accountable to our family oriented philosophy. Second, our product will always be family-focused and will always be wholesome.

Joel Manby with Pete Herschend
Joel Manby with Pete Herschend

The partnership with Dolly Parton at Dollywood is still going strong. Would ever you bring anyone else’s intellectual property (IP) into your parks?

Our relationship with Dolly Parton is very strong. We have been her operating partner for 28 years and have enjoyed a lot of success together. She is one of the most authentic, kind, generous and smart people I have ever worked with. I can say with 100% certainty that we would never bring in an IP at Dollywood that she does not support, yet we have a great relationship with her and she is very open to new ideas. As for our other properties, we look at other IP all the time. As you know, they are difficult to make work given the licensing fees etc.

What did you learn from the closure of Celebration City?

I learned to trust my instincts. At the time, I was HFE chairman and there was a different CEO and a different senior leader for Branson, Missouri, where Celebration City was to be developed. The board’s instinct was the amount of capital being proposed was not enough to make the park strong enough to compete in the market. We were also worried about competing with our own Silver Dollar City in Branson. Leadership tried to solve that by positioning Celebration City as a night product but it didn’t have enough scope to make a return on the capital we had in it. My (and other board members) instinct was not to support the idea, but I wanted to support the CEO. I should have trusted my instincts and I have never forgotten that lesson. Now, don’t misunderstand me, my instincts are not always correct, but I have rarely gone against them since.

Once I became CEO, we decided to close Celebration City in order to focus all of our capital and marketing efforts on Silver Dollar City (from a theme park perspective). That decision has paid off very nicely. In addition, I learned that we needed to take care of our people. We held onto all of our key full time employees who were at Celebration City and over time found great homes for them at other properties and sometimes in other cities. My favourite example is Miss Lillian, who is a famous character at Dollywood with a strong customer following: she was a street performer at Celebration City. We loved her so much we created a job for her and the rest is history. She creates as many memories worth repeating at Dollywood as any other employee in the company.

How has HFE improved the Darien Lake and Elitch Gardens experience since taking over as operator in 2011?

Both properties had significant deferred maintenance and some guest concerns that needed to be addressed. We worked very hard to shore up the operations by making sure everything that was supposed to work was working. I know that sounds very basic but it took significant effort by our teams. At Darien [HFE’s management contract at Elitch Gardens has since come to and end], we have been very successful improving the accommodations side of the business which has improved our ability to penetrate the Canadian market.

Joel at Silver Dollar City
Joel at Silver Dollar City

Can we expect any new operations contracts or park acquisitions in the years to come, either at home or overseas?

We are always looking at acquisition opportunities and will consider operations contracts if the numbers make sense. I would be very hesitant to invest in a park overseas. We may manage one someday, but I have enough scars on my back from my international experience at Saab that I would be very cautious investing overseas.

Your book Love Works highlights “seven timeless principles for effective leaders.” How many of these did you pick up in the parks and attractions industry?

I learned most of what I wrote about in Love Works from this industry, and I learned it from the incredible owners and leaders of HFE. Jack and Pete Herschend had created an incredible culture; what I did was put words to their way of leading so it could be taught as we grew. I put a vernacular to it but they started it and nurtured it. They are my business heroes. In my automotive experience, I frankly learned more what not to do than what to do when it comes to effective leadership that leads to engaged employees who love on their guests in order to create an outstanding guest experience. We have a long way to go at HFE to be where we want to be, but at least the cultural vision is in place.

Other than the automotive, sports and entertainment/attractions industries, could you envisage working in any other sector, or has the “bug” got you?

Yes, the bug has me. I have had opportunities to go elsewhere but I don’t want to. I love the entertainment/ attractions industry, I love the Herschends and I love this company. I hope and pray that I am not going anywhere. However, that is up to the board and not me! Having said that, I am very sure that I have the support of the board and family.

Single out one new ride or attraction opening at one of your properties in 2014 and tell us why you are excited about it

Firechaser Express at Dollywood. It is the first “forward and backward” family launch coaster in the industry. I am so proud of our operations and creative teams. For two years straight we have had the best new ride in the industry with Wild Eagle at Dollywood and then Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City. We may have another winner with Firechaser Express. It is certainly more family oriented than the other two, but it is creative and the theme is all about supporting and honouring the firefighters we all admire and respect.

Firechaser Express – coming to Dollywood in 2014
Firechaser Express – coming to Dollywood in 2014

A rollercoaster ride from the cave to the basketball court

It all began in 1950 when Hugo and Mary Herschend acquired a lease on Marvel Cave near Branson, Missouri. A decade later, as the popularity of the cave grew, so did the lines. In order to entertain cave guests during their wait, the widowed Mary, along with a staff of 17, opened a small 1880s-themed village on the cave’s grounds. Silver Dollar City became a huge success – forming the foundation for Herschend Family Entertainment.

Today the company operates and manages 26 themed family-oriented theme parks and attractions across America including Silver Dollar City, Dollywood, Wild Adventures, Stone Mountain Park, Talking Rocks Cavern, plus two aquariums, one waterpark, San Francisco’s Classic Cable Car Sightseeing, Ride The Ducks sightseeing tours in five cities, various hotel, lodging and camping facilities, plus dinner theatre shows such as Showboat Branson Belle and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Via its subsidiary FE Management it also has a management contract for Darien Lake Theme Park Resort in New York. Most recently, HFE welcomed the legendary Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to its portfolio.

Currently headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, the privately-owned company is considered the largest family-owned themed attractions corporation, its mission to “Create Memories Worth Repeating”.

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