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Will Koch: CEO of Holiday World & Splashin' Safari.

FAMILY FUN DURING summer trips to an amusement park--for Will Koch, it was not only a fond memory from his childhood, but the start of a career building one of Southern Indiana's most popular attractions.

Koch is CEO of Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, an amusement and water park started by his grandfather in the town of Santa Claus, approximately 45 miles east of Evansville. His grandfather thought a town named Santa Claus should have a toy shop and a place for children to play with Santa. What started as a hobby for Koch's grandfather in 1946 has grown into a destination for regional tourists and die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts from around the world.

Initially built around the Christmas holiday theme, the park has continued to grow over the years, adding sections for Halloween, Thanksgiving and the 4'h of July that feature rides, games and live entertainment. In 1993, a water park area opened and in 1995 the park won rave reviews for The Raven, a new wooden roller coaster that was recognized as one of the best in the world.

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Koch, who grew up in the family business, got his start working in the park as a costumed character when he was just 10 years old. He took over as CEO in 2003 and now oversees an attraction that draws some one million visitors each season. "We've been averaging eight percent growth per year since 1975," he says. "That's something I'm really proud of."

Koch says the key to continued growth has been keeping a focus on families, while other parks targeted mostly teenagers. For example, the park has added a number of water attractions over the years that are fun for smaller children and their parents. Keeping the park clean and making sure the staff are friendly are also top priorities.

In addition, the park has taken some novel steps to make visits more enjoyable for families. For example, installing four self-serve soft drink stations where kids can get something to drink for free has eliminated a lot of hassles for parents who found themselves repeatedly saying "no" to thirsty children. While the move reduced some revenues, it made visitors happier and more likely to return.

Koch says such thinking was initially panned by other park owners before being recognized as a top promotion. "All I kept hearing from other park owners was 'Are you nuts?'" he recalls. "It's an amazing feeling to take a risk and have it turn out to be such a winner--both in the industry, and more importantly with our guests."

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That's also why the park offers free parking and sunscreen and this year introduced special menus for children with food allergies. Koch says having on-site management and listening to customers is a competitive advantage for family-owned businesses. And it's not unusual to see him walking around the park to find out what visitors would like to see in coming years.

Such efforts resulted in this year's $6 million expansion, including Kima Bay, a monkey-themed water attraction that has seven water slides, more than 125 water jets and a 1,200-gallon bucket that tips and creates a four-story waterfall. Another new feature that resulted from visitor requests is the patriotic-themed Star Spangled Carousel in the 4th of July area that was built for those who wanted to enjoy an old-fashioned ride.

Koch is actively involved in all aspects of the park's management and when he decided to add a new hybrid wooden coaster (a steel structure with a wood track), Koch worked with designers to create the ultimate ride. The Voyage opened in 2006 and features a 163-foot hill that drops riders through a series of other hills, tunnels and three 90-degree banked turns, reaching 67 miles-per-hour and having the most "air hang time" of any wooden roller coaster in the world.

"I've always loved roller coasters," Koch says. "We really pulled out all the stops."

The out and back design of the roller coaster takes advantage of the park's layout and has been one of the its most popular rides, attracting enthusiasts from around the world and last year was named #1 Wooden Roller Coaster on the Planet by Amusement Today magazine.

Koch remains committed to the local area, hiring some 1,700 seasonal employees from Southern Indiana and next on his agenda is working to build attendance at another local attraction--Lincoln's boyhood home in Spencer County, the first national park in Indiana.

How did you decide to pursue a career in this industry? That's an easy one. I grew up in the family business. I started working at the park as a costumed character when I was 10, and moved on to other jobs from there. The business requires a lot of hard work, but working with young people and our family guests can be very rewarding. Working with companies that design and build roller coasters can be kind of fun, too. I always loved roller coasters when I was a kid.

What is the best business advice you recall getting and who made the suggestion? Read "Positioning, the Battle for the Mind" by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Can't say anybody recommended it to me, but the strategy recommendations in that book are the best I've found yet.

What has been your most successful accomplishment in business? In 2004, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari won the Applause Award, a worldwide award given once every two years to a park whose foresight, originality, creativity, and sound business development have inspired the industry. Holiday World & Splashin' Safari is the smallest park ever to win the award.

Can you share an experience that didn't turn out as you expected, but provided a valuable lesson? Just one? Oh, my There've been so many! In 1999, we added a huge kids area to Holiday World, called Holidog's FunTown. While the attraction has been very well received by our guests who continue to enjoy it every day, it did not meet some of the objectives that I'd hoped it would. In particular, I wanted to make a kids play area a major marketing draw by doing it on such a large scale. Didn't happen. Second, I hoped to use it as a "draw" to pull visitors to the end of the park where it is located, improving traffic flow throughout that area. Didn't happen.

What goals would you like to accomplish in the near term? I am currently chairing the Lincoln Boyhood Drama Association board. We are working to stage a new show, opening in June, 2009, about Abraham Lincoln's character, and how that character was forged here in Spencer County, Indiana, while Abe grew from age 7 to 21. If we can bring in 45,000 visitors per year, we should be able to get to break-even, thus protecting the drama's future from future funding cuts. I want to put 45,000 people in that amphitheater in 2009!

At Holiday World, we will continue to grow, but it is extremely important to us to do so in a way that adds value for our customers--we must maintain the "small park" feel that they love.

Named #1 Wooden Roller Coaster on the Planet Koch grew up in the family business started in 1946 by his grandfather as Santa Claus Land. Today the park attracts a million visitors a year with new attractions like Kima Bay and free Pepsi.

Will Koch, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari

CEO since: 2003

Birthplace/year: Huntingburg, Indiana; 1961

Education: BS in electrical engineering, University of Notre Dame, 1984; MS in computer science, University of Southern California, 1986

First "real" job: Member technical staff, TRW Electronics & Defense--verified nuclear safety for Peacekeeper (MX) targeting software.

Proud of: "We've been averaging 8 percent growth per year since 1975."
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Title Annotation:CEO PROFILE
Comment:Will Koch: CEO of Holiday World & Splashin' Safari.(CEO PROFILE)(Holiday World & Splashin)
Author:Hromadka, Erik
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3IN
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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