Cedar Fair’s digital strategy based on ‘frictionless fun’

Oct 16, 20236 mins
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment Industry

What do data analytics, roller coasters, and saltwater taffy have in common? They are the foundational underpinnings of this more than 150-year-old entertainment company’s focus on customer-facing innovation.

Cedar Fair's Zambezi Zinger rollercoaster
Credit: Cedar Fair Entertainment Co.

Most companies will not hesitate to promote their organizations as a fun place to work, especially when trying to attract new hires. In fact, the search term ‘fun’ returns hundreds of thousands of postings at one of the more popular job websites — more than 16,000 in Massachusetts alone. But far fewer companies highlight fun as a customer success mandate.

Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. is one organization that takes fun very seriously and has history to prove it. The company got its start in 1870 as a bathing beach, boat dock, and dance hall on the shores of Lake Erie and has since established itself as an industry leader with 15 amusement and water parks, as well as six hotels and other park-related resort properties throughout the lower 48 states and in Canada. More than 28 million people visit these locations each year, generating more than $1B in annual revenue, which delights and thrills those who follow the company and its NYSE ticker symbol FUN.

As everyone knows, however, in business today there is no fun without the support of technology fundamentals and innovation. Leading this effort for Cedar Fair is CIO Ty Tastepe, who joined the company about two years ago and oversees its technology strategy, implementation, and operational support across all the company’s properties.

“There’s no single function within the company that doesn’t rely on some form of technology,” notes Ty. “Every touchpoint has to be integrated with some other system or some other solution, so we have continuity from start to finish,” he adds, referring to this flow of interoperability as “frictionless fun.”

In this IDC CIO Executive Council Future Forward podcast interview, we talk with CIO Ty Tastepe about his challenges and thoughts on the impact emerging technologies such as generative AI will have on the organization’s approach to technology enablement.

The following are edited excerpts from our conversation. Click on the embedded links below to hear the full two-part podcast interview.  

Tim Scannell: These past few years have been challenging for most companies, especially as it concerns customer experience. Have you had to make any drastic changes today in your approach to customer experience, as compared to the years preceding the pandemic?

Ty Tastepe: I wouldn’t say drastically different. I think our guests and our customers have become very used to engaging on digital platforms, whether it’s in a mobile app, online, or with any touchpoint. There are a lot more digital experiences or expectations out there. For example, one of the things we did during the pandemic and completed last year was a cashless solution. Now, all transactions at our parks and resorts are performed electronically resulting in shorter wait times and better guest experience overall.

Most companies today are focused on developing solutions that provide more data-driven insights and business intelligence, although research shows that quite a few still may not have a formal process in place to share and use customer and operational data. Do you view getting information to the right people at the right time as a problem? If not, what is your approach in terms of making it happen?

Business intelligence has been a primary focus for us for the last couple of years. Getting the source data from our core systems into a central warehouse has not been an easy journey. We still have a lot of opportunities there, but now that we are at a good spot on our journey, we can effectively leverage that information. Our business intelligence team looks at that data and makes pricing and labor decisions. We check in on these initiatives every couple of weeks, making sure we’re on the right track and identifying other potential opportunities that should be focused on.

Keeping track of what people like and don’t like within your parks and resorts is obviously important in terms of creating new experiences and developing new technologies. Can you talk a bit about that effort?

The more data our guest is willing to share with us, the more we can deliver a unique and rewarding experience. It enables us to strike a sensible balance. We don’t want to overwhelm our guests, so we enable them to control some of the parameters. For example, how many times you want to be notified, or if you welcome information about a particular food when you are near a location where it is being served. We must be thoughtful about how we communicate with our guests, some of which is driven by guest preferences.

There seems to be a lot of skepticism right now about trust and the authenticity of source information, especially as generative AI is used to collect and aggregate data from multiple areas. Do you think this uncertainty or distrust will have an impact on the future design of cognitive systems and applications?

I think a healthy dose of skepticism is justified and some level of fact-checking may be needed. We hear and read a lot about inaccuracies in the output of some of these systems, so you do really need to double-check. I think it will get better over time. Coincidentally, I heard recently about a solution that uses AI to determine whether content is generated with AI, or by a human.

Although generative AI is still more hype than happening in terms of actual budgeting this year, research shows that a reasonable number of companies worldwide are committing some portion of available funds to this area for pilots and proof of concept projects. What is Cedar Fair doing in this space right now and what are the plans for the coming year?

Like many of our colleagues, we are really in the early stages of learning more about this space than doing anything active. We will most likely look at areas where we can leverage generative AI next year and beyond, whether it’s embedded within the systems that we purchase, introduced into our ecosystem, or leveraged in our development process so that we can grow some of those capabilities in-house.  

We have yet to carve out a percentage of our budget to focus solely on generative AI. It’s more about identifying what business problems we’re trying to address and determining how generative AI can assist in that solution — whether that is an in-house or third-party solution we incorporate into our ecosystem.  We’ll figure that out as we go through the process.

Tim Scannell

Tim Scannell is Vice President of Strategic Content for the CIO Executive Council/IDC, a global community of IT leaders and influencers whose mission is to advance the profession, provide direction and resources to current leaders, and guide and mentor future IT executives through a range of integrated products and services.  He has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and market analyst in the computer industry and is a frequent speaker on technology and strategic topics.

Prior to joining the Council, Scannell was the Editorial Director at the TechnologyGuide Media Group, a division of TechTarget, Inc., where he managed the activities of seven technology news and review Web sites and coordinated a worldwide editorial and freelance staff. He was also the founder of Shoreline Research, a consulting and market research and information services company; and a Managing Director at 2in10, Ltd., a Scotland-based strategic business services and venture management company specializing in product positioning and channel marketing. Scannell was also a member of the core start-up team of SOFTBANK Corp.'s U.S. division, and Editorial Director of its U.S. and Japanese operations for more than a decade. 

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