In this weird pandemic-induced dystopia, I was not expecting to find myself sitting down to write an article about park passes for BGWFans. Everyone in the world is self-isolating, deaths across the country continue to climb, and theme parks are ghost towns. But this week, some interesting news arrived in our inboxes, setting off a flurry of research and analysis.
We have started to see the amusement industry begin to circulate plans for compensating pass holders and reopening their parks under safe social distancing guidelines. On Monday many of us received emails announcing a COVID-19 membership upgrade program. It appears that the intent was to move everyone up a tier for the remainder of 2020.
Unfortunately, nothing in this environment seems to be going smoothly, and this new program is no exception. While we applaud Busch Gardens Williamsburg for attempting to compensate their members and pass holders, we feel compelled to share some concerns we have with our readers.
BGW has published a reasonable solution to the problem of people continuing to pay for memberships, while the parks were closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Here is a quick summary of our understanding of how it will work:
- Annually paid in full accounts: Access will be automatically extended “for a period of at least as long as the temporary closure.”
- EZpay accounts that have met their one-year obligation (and did not defer payments): “Payments after the re-opening of the park [will be] waived for a period of time equivalent to the length of closure.”
- EZpay accounts that are still within the first year of their contract (and did not defer payments): “Payments after their initial term is completed [will be] waived for a period of time equivalent to the length of closure.
We believe this means:
- Paid in full accounts will effectively have their renewal dates postponed for the amount of time the parks were closed.
- EZpay accounts that have met their initial obligation will not have to pay for a period of time equivalent to the length of the closure, once the parks reopen.
- EZpay accounts that are still within their first year will get that same amount of time free, once they hit their one-year anniversary.
There are still some outstanding questions, however. A few such concerns include:
- For weeks when the parks were only scheduled to open on the weekends will the accounts be extended for the full seven days or only the number of planned operating days (eg. seven vice three days)?
- Will the Unlimited Splash Pass receive the same extension as the BGW-only pass, or will it be limited to the actual number of days that Water Country USA was closed?
- Does the category of “active Annual Passes and Membership products” include purchased add-ons like the year-long dining plan and PhotoKey?
- Will the Unlimited Splash Pass, which is technically a membership, be upgraded? If so, to which tier?
Obviously, we all lost several perks simply by virtue of BGW being closed for months. I am not simply referring to lost days; I am referring to the seasonal benefits that cannot be replaced.
The monthly membership rewards are not evenly distributed across the seasons, and some of the most valuable benefits are only offered in the Spring. The free items at the Food & Wine Festival provide perhaps the best example of this problem. Especially since the event appears to have been canceled for 2020, there is no way to receive that reward, resulting in a net loss. And, yes, it is a loss. Members pay a premium for the benefits we receive. There is no free lunch (or in this case, no free gamba fritters and hibiscus lemonade).
The rewards program should not be viewed as an add-on. Special member rewards were marketed as part of the package to entice people to switch. BGW told annual pass holders specifically that each tier would include a different set of monthly rewards, none of which would be available to non-members. In purchasing a membership, people believed they were also paying for a lineup of exclusive perks.
We understand that the park is in no place financially to compensate us for everything, and we would never be churlish enough to make such demands, regardless. But we want to be clear that the upgrades and benefits they have rolled out in response to the mandatory closures are not a gift. Rather they are an honest attempt by SEAS to compensate their pass members for lost membership value.
On its face, giving everyone a complimentary upgrade seems like a wonderful idea, and we do not doubt the generosity of the spirit behind the plan. We fear, however, that the park failed to consider the second and third order effects.
Many of the benefits for which premier and platinum members pay a premium are only really useful if access is limited. For example, the preferred parking lot is not large, and often it cannot accommodate those who already pay for free access. Now that all of the unlimited members have been upgraded to premier and, hence, can use it free of charge, it is likely to run out of spaces much earlier and much more often. Another good example is the platinum-exclusive reride perk. If a few people can ride an attraction twice without getting back in line, it is an annoyance. Now that every Premier Member has been upgraded to Platinum, many additional guests will have reride privileges, further exacerbating the already strained capacity and increased wait times created by anticipated social distancing and sanitation measures.
Beyond the problems caused to park operations, complimentary upgrades actually create downgrades for most people. Members at each level are paying for a certain set of benefits. As already explained, many of those perks are only valuable if access is limited. By substantially downgrading or even negating the usefulness of these benefits, the park is essentially charging people a premium for a perk they cannot really receive.
Each tier has different included benefits. Depending on how the park handles the upgrades, some people may end up losing out on some of the new perks. For example, platinum members receive PhotoKey for free, while the other types of memberships do not. We do not know if the park will issue refunds to premier members who already purchased PhotoKey for the year, once they are upgraded.
Technical Difficulties (We Hope)
Based on the emails our readers received this week, it appears there were technical glitches with the roll-out. It seems that one-park premier members, two-park premier members, grandfathered premier members, and even some legacy platinum pass holders will be getting the same upgrade as those paying for platinum memberships. In other words, many passes are getting a two tier upgrade.
We believe this problem occurred, because of the Byzantine pass structure that has developed, since the Membership program started in 2018. As you all know, despite initial plans to move everyone over from passes to memberships, many people are still using the old annual passes. Eight months into the program, as a result of a company-wide overhaul, many of the tiers were renamed and/or redefined, leaving another set of grandfathered members. As a result, there are multiple memberships and passes with essentially the same name and vastly different benefits.
Given that “premier” and “platinum” are used across multiple generations of pass products, it is easy to see how a database could apply the wrong upgrades to both. It is possible that this problem will be fixed. It is equally possible that no one at SEAS corporate really understands the Williamsburg pass structure.
Comparison By the Numbers
This table lays out the specific benefits associated with each membership, pass, and upgrade, including current, legacy, and grandfathered products. The color coding attempts to group similar passes and memberships into distinct tiers, although no two are exactly the same. We have created a new tier, which we are calling “COVID Platinum,” which encompases the benefits created for the current platinum membership, which had no higher tier for an upgrade. Comparing the Pass Type column with the COVID Upgrade Received column provides a visual representation of which passes and memberships received which upgrades; we think you may find this very instructive. Be sure to scroll the table all of the way to the right.
(If the embedded Excel table is frustrating, you can view the full sheet here.)
As depicted in the table, both the one- and two-park versions of the premier membership are being upgraded to a tier with access to all SEAS parks. Because both variants will now include Water Country USA, the two-park premier members are paying extra for no additional value. Similarly, platinum members are paying $7-9 more a month than premier and $8 more a month than grandfathered premier for the exact same upgraded benefits.
When BGW lured many of us over from annual passes to the membership program, they promised (I believe with real sincerity) that there would be member-only benefits, and that the old passes would be phased out eventually. Obviously, none of this has come to fruition. We hear regular reports of pass members being allowed to attend member sneak peek days, which were explicitly marketed as a primary reason to switch. Moreover, BGW seems to have made no attempt to cancel the old passes in the ensuing two and a half years.
Not only do legacy pass holders sometimes receive member-exclusive perks, we know for a fact that some legacy platinum pass holders have received emails promising them the same COVID upgrades as current platinum members.
Obviously, this isn’t a zero sum game, and in principle we do not begrudge others’ good fortune. That said, as we have already pointed out, these COVID upgrades are not gifts; they are compensation for lost benefits. Furthermore, the value of many of these perks is dramatically reduced when too many people can take advantage of them due to their intrinsically limited capacity.
An Alternative Approach
As any good team member knows, it is not useful merely to sharpshoot someone else’s proposal. It is necessary to provide an alternative.
We believe we have a simple solution to BGW’s problem. Rather than upgrading everyone, we believe they would be better served by using the existing member rewards system.
As long as everyone, including both those who pay in full and those on EZpay receive “free” months next season, the cost of the memberships, themselves, appear to be reconciled. That, however, will not address the lost benefits.
We would have liked to have seen an array of perks added to the member benefits calendar to compensate everyone at their current tier, rather than upgrading anyone. For example, every active member could receive:
- One additional Bring-A-Friend ticket;
- An additional 5% off all shopping and dining;
- Free items at Summer Nights and/or Bier Fest; and
- Additional exclusive member events and/or ride times.
Obviously, that list is only meant to be illustrative. The point is that there are benefits that could be added to the membership calendar that could reasonably replace the lost spring perks,without incurring the unintended consequences we have already discussed.
Not a Fait Accomplis
We hope BGW recognizes that while a simple upgrade may be a reasonable solution for parks with more straightforward pass structures, it causes more problems that it solves for their system of grandfathered and legacy products.
We are all still stuck at home, likely weeks away from BGW even opening its doors, Thus, there is still plenty of time for the kinks to be worked out of this system. We believe the park intends to compensate us all for our losses, but we fear their approach will not have the outcome we all desire.
Since you are trapped in your house with only fading memories of Busch Gardens Williamsburg to hold you over until COVID recedes, why don’t you follow us on Twitter and Instagram, like us on Facebook, and join the conversation on the ParkFans forum!