I have been pondering what to say about the new membership program, announced by Busch Gardens Williamsburg on Monday. My initial response was surprise, followed by confusion, and rounded out by concern.
Before I go any further, I want to highlight the fact that both Zachary and I supported the original introduction of the Membership Program. It seemed like an elegant solution to long-standing problems. So, the issues detailed below were primarily created by this week’s update to the program, and are not a result of any objections to memberships in principle.
We have reached out to the park with specific questions, and updated our ticket options spreadsheet with the new memberships. You can find both of those below. First, however, I’d like to examine each of my reactions.
We were starting to hear rumors over the weekend about changes that were in the works for the Membership Program, possibly chain-wide. It seemed very strange to us that a program would be modified only eight months after it was initially rolled out.
When I saw the actual details, however, I was stunned. Two items in particular stood out to me:
There were already two systems in use in Williamsburg: the classic Platinum/Two-Park/Single-Park Passes and the Premier/Unlimited/Basic Memberships. Adding a third set of options seemed to fly in the face of BGW’s goals, when they introduced the Old Membership Program in February.
As we started to examine the New Membership Program more closely, we realised we had more questions than answers. We reached out to BGW Marketing with two sets of specific inquiries. The responses are below.
We were not the only ones who were puzzled, however. Throughout the day on October 1st, we received reports directly and on our Forum from people who had contacted Busch Gardens Customer Support with questions of their own.
Over the past two days, we have been piecing together information from BGW’s Marketing Department, Customer Service Center, Website, and Blog. I believe we have a fairly good understanding of all of the options. We do not, however, yet understand why Platinum was added and Premium was downgraded.
I can understand why the park modified Basic and Unlimited. They faced a fair amount of backlash from their decision to include Water Country USA in all of the membership options. Making those two tiers single-park memberships with options to upgrade for $2 a month was a reasonable response to customer preferences.
I cannot, however, wrap my brain around the changes they made to upper tiers. I am having difficulty understanding why anyone would select the New Premier Membership. Perhaps the free Preferred Parking, extra guest ticket, and slightly higher discounts will make it worthwhile for some guests? I can see an argument in favor of families purchasing one New Premier Membership for those benefits. The fact that the price is same as Old Premier, which includes 11 parks, however, makes it insupportable to me.
Similarly, New Platinum doesn’t seem to have many advantages over Old Premier, yet is costs $7 more a month. So, for $84 customers get a year-long PhotoKey, which only works in Virginia. Once again, I can understand the argument that it could be a useful benefit for some people. I’m not sure, however, how many members really want unlimited park photos from BGW and WCUSA. In fact, most customers who select Platinum probably plan to use it outside of Williamsburg, where arguably PhotoKey could be more useful.
Regardless, the cost-benefit analysis of both New Premier and New Platinum seems hard to justify to us. Perhaps we are missing some critical factor? Or perhaps Old Premier is just a better deal.
Now that we have a better understanding of the New Membership Program, we are left with one overriding worry: given the complexity of the current system of systems, will we actually receive the benefits we have purchased?
The New Membership Program reuses names from the two previous structures. We now have Basic Memberships, Unlimited Memberships, Old Premier Memberships, New Premier Memberships, Platinum Passes, Platinum Memberships, Two-Park Passes, and Single-Park Passes.
Is it reasonable to expect park staff anywhere in the chain, especially outside of Virginia, to know which benefits are associated with each pass? Will someone with an Old Premium Membership be able to use it for parking, admission, and discounts at parks outside of Virginia? Will Old Unlimited Members enjoy discounted tickets and other benefits in non-Williamsburg parks? Will Platinum Pass Holders still enjoy re-ride and reserved seating benefits in Florida?
BGW claims that the barcodes on our passes will ensure we receive all of the perks associated with our membership levels. Not all benefits require a swipe, however. For example, I have never had my pass scanned for either re-ride or reserved seating privileges. In those cases, how will park staff know whether my Premier Membership is old or new? Will they have even heard of Memberships to begin with? Will anyone who doesn’t have the word “Platinum” on their pass receive all of their benefits outside of Virginia?
Even in Williamsburg I can see this becoming a perennial problem. Who has the right to use the Employee Entrance, and will the guards be able to differentiate? Will everyone know which tier gets what discounts?
These are not idle or needlessly inflammatory questions; we know of instances where Premier and Unlimited Members were denied entry and discounts at Florida parks just this past summer.
While the park’s answers to our fairly specific questions have alleviated several of my concerns, I am still not sold on the new price structure. The New Premier and New Platinum Memberships seem to have much higher rates than their predecessors. While Basic and Unlimited are enjoying increased flexibility and a potential cost reduction, the upper tiers have been forced to choose between a substantial loss in benefits or yet another significant price hike.
Similarly, I am not comfortable with the information we have received from BGW about future rate increases. While I understand that they cannot (and probably should not) commit to specific dates and amounts, it would be nice to know if they have a long-term plan for grandfathered passes and memberships. When my 12-month commitment is fulfilled, will I be required to switch to a new membership? Will my prices be aligned with one of the new tiers? What about pass members, who never switched to memberships?
Finally, if SEAS does elect to roll out the Membership Program chain-wide, will that affect our structure? Will ours be updated again? Will everyone be forced to the new system? Will we lose benefits outside of Virginia?
Ultimately, I guess I am still left with many questions. We do have some useful answers, however. I believe they are generally good news, as well.
Here are the two sets of questions we sent BGW Marketing. They were very helpful, getting us answers quickly.
We have included a spreadsheet below reflecting what we know about the new program in addition to how it compares to the original Membership program launched earlier this year.
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You dont list prices for “Old Platinum” members.