June 1, 2012
A summer job directing traffic at Carowinds theme park near Charlotte, N.C., led to David Mandt’s 31-year career in public relations. Currently the vice president of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), Mandt started in the business after working several seasonal positions at the theme park during college.
“Those experiences paved the way for my first PR position,” he says. “The day after I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I started writing direct mail and handling concert and event publicity for the then 77-acre theme park and waterpark.”
Mandt worked in various marketing and communications positions at attractions in Charlotte, Cincinnati and Las Vegas before coming to the IAAPA in 2006. The trade organization has 4,3000 member companies (and suppliers) that operate theme and amusement parks, waterparks, family entertainment centers, zoos, aquariums, museums and resorts in 90 countries.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
There’s no such thing as a “typical” workday for me. Our industry is dynamic and requires us to be flexible to address our members’ needs and represent the attractions industry to the press.
Some activities I manage include: providing guidance and direction to our publications team, which produces our monthly magazine, Funworld; talking with the press about the industry and hot topics or issues as they develop; leading our website team; crafting executive communications; and providing communications and marketing support for conferences and trade shows in the United States, Asia and Latin America.
How does the Association advocate for the profession?
IAAPA is the leading trade association for the worldwide attractions industry. Our primary advocacy role is to provide information and perspective on our industry to the press and for members. We support the legislative and regulatory advocacy work of our government relations team and help promote the association and our events, resources and programs.
What role does public relations play in building the IAAPA brand?
Our communications and marketing teams work closely together to promote our brand and the services we offer our members and prospective members. In addition, we assist with quality control for communications developed by other members of our team. We work with the marketing department to review the communications distributed to our various publics to ensure the brand is presented in a high-quality, consistent manner [and] with staff and volunteer leadership to help them support our key messaging.
How has outreach for amusement parks and attractions developed as the media landscape has changed?
PR and marketing communications activities of our members evolve as the media landscape evolves. Attractions operators are using social media to generate buzz, build relationships with guests, communicate operational information, market new attractions, and collect and respond to guest feedback. They understand reporters are using social media to generate story ideas and solicit feedback from guests and loyal park-goers.
At IAAPA, we work with our PR agency Edelman to deliver our messaging through transmedia storytelling. That means we provide story content in multiple formats so press outlets can tell our stories in different ways across their traditional and digital outlets. We are just dipping our toe in these waters, but believe tying stories together this way will produce buzz at a greater depth and breadth.
Your job is on a global scale. Is it difficult to reach audiences of various backgrounds and tourists from other countries?
Our members are experts in communicating with and connecting to their core guest segments. In some cases (for example, our regional attractions), the audience may be homogeneous. In others, those audiences are exceptionally diverse.
As an international association, however, we constantly adjust the way we communicate with our members around the globe. We work in multiple languages and try to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in our events, programs and communications. It is a tremendous challenge, but the recent opening of regional offices in Asia, Latin America and Europe — staffed by professionals from those regions — has helped us.
What are the challenges for the industry of reaching consumers in a down economy?
The attractions industry is recession-resistant. Families may visit parks and attractions closer to home in a down economy, but they still need quality family entertainment experiences, and they visit our members’ facilities.
As economic conditions change, operators may alter their promotional strategies and the way they communicate value-added special offers, but the channels through which they reach customers remain the same. Those typically include traditional advertising (television, radio, print, outdoor and online), public relations and social media.
How has social media and real-time news changed how you do your job and also how amusement parks and attractions reach their audiences?
The way we handle breaking news has changed. When I started in the business, we had a goal of creating a statement within an hour of the news event. Now, we encourage our operators to make their first statement in 10 minutes or less.
If we don’t speak up early and establish our communications as an official pipeline of information early on, our voice and messages may not be heard in the initial stories — which, in some situations, are the only stories reported. Our initial statement is more about establishing our communication channel than it is providing all the relevant details.
We also have to monitor the press coverage and social media. It is absolutely critical to correct inaccurate information right away. This also means communications professionals in our industry are on-call 24/7. They must be ready to respond in a moment’s notice if they are on property or away from the facility.
What social media initiatives has the Association been implementing and how successful have they been?
Our social media strategy is constantly evolving and is a responsibility shared between marketing and communications. We started out with a blog and a group on LinkedIn. We added a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Today, we have multiple groups on LinkedIn and two pages on Facebook. Our general approach has been to use these social media outlets as channels to push out our association news. While we know those channels are most effective as two-way conversations, by using them selectively our members have engaged with us and each other.
Like many organizations, we have a lean staff. As a result, we do not have the luxury of having a dedicated social media strategist. Different staff members manage a social media outlet “in their spare time.” This has fueled a disjointed approach and some outlets get more attention than others. Currently, we are stepping back to reevaluate and refocus our social media activities. Some activities are more effective than others in a business-to-business environment. We want to capitalize on the effective outlets, jettison our activities in marginal activities, and establish a way to quickly evaluate new outlets and opportunities as they emerge.
What advice do you have for other PR professionals looking to get into the travel and tourism sector?
You need to have a passion for this business to be a successful PR practitioner. If you are not enthusiastic about the experience you are promoting, that will come across, and you will not be effective. It is also important to remember you have to maintain that passion 24/7, including nights, weekends and holidays, since we operate around the clock, and you are either on-site or on-call to take care of the business.
What’s the best part of your job?
I love working in an industry that’s all about making people smile. Plus, I get to work with some of the most amazing and creative people in the world. Our industry is full of dreamers and entrepreneurs who turn good ideas into successful businesses that make people happy.
News editor Amy Jacques interviewed David Mandt for this month’s member profile.
Any 3 dinner guests — past or present?
Dolly Parton, Michelle Obama and Robin Roberts
Favorite leisure time activity?
People-watching at a theme park
“Dead Poets Society”