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October 2, 2023 Corner Office

Lake Compounce’s new leader Hemphill focuses on rides, food and beverage, guest experience

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED New Lake Compounce GM Doug Hemphill on the amusement park’s wooden roller coaster ride, Boulder Dash.
Click below to see Doug Hemphill's bio.
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Doug Hemphill took over as the new general manager of Bristol’s Lake Compounce amusement park in May.

One of his first orders of business was taking a turn on all the rides.

It wasn’t just for thrills. Ensuring all rides are open and operating daily is one of Hemphill’s top priorities, he said.

That keeps guests satisfied and increases the likelihood they will be repeat customers, or even buy a season pass.

One early victory was this summer’s reopening of Thunder Rapids, a river rapid-type water ride that had been closed for two years prior.

The strategy involves more than just turning a ride on or off, but also keeping up with strict safety and maintenance protocols, Hemphill said.

Another focus area is guest services, and “ramping up how we treat guests when they come to the park, treating them as you would treat an honored guest that comes to your home,” Hemphill said.

He wants staff to be attentive to guests’ needs, make their experience enjoyable, “whether it’s moving people through lines, on a ride or at a restaurant, there is a way that you can do that and be a little more friendly about it. So, it’s pretty basic.”

Both of those strategic focus areas, he added, are part of his foundations or pillars for success.

Decades of industry expertise

Hemphill brings 40 years of theme park and entertainment experience to Lake Compounce, which is owned by Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of Spanish operator Parques Reunidos.

The 427-acre park, founded in 1846, features a water park, rides, attractions, food, live musical performances, campgrounds and seasonal events, including the Phantom Fall Fest, which is currently running on weekends through Oct. 29.

Hemphill said he got his feet wet in the industry while still in high school, working at SeaWorld San Diego, then at other properties within the SeaWorld family.

In 2000, he served as vice president of food and beverage at the now-defunct SeaWorld Ohio, before the park became a Six Flags, allowing him to work in both parks and through the transition.

He moved into campground operations, then to Six Flags Great America in Chicago as revenue director.

He later worked at Six Flags as corporate senior director of food and beverage, before going back to SeaWorld, then landing in Bristol, where he said he sees significant opportunity at Lake Compounce.

Hemphill said he wants to leverage his background in food and beverage as another focus area.

Lake Compounce’s core offerings — pizza, hamburgers and nuggets — will remain, but the park needs to enhance its variety of foods with salads and seasonal or limited-time offerings, he said.

“People consider food part of their theme park experience, so we need to make sure that we live up to that expectation,” he said, adding that guest feedback is vital to making successful changes.

Economic drivers

Nationally, the amusement/water park industry is still recovering from the pandemic, recording $10.1 billion in value-added economic activity in 2021, up from $7.3 billion in 2020, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

That’s still down significantly from the $15.7 billion in activity the sector generated pre-pandemic in 2019.

In Connecticut, the amusement and water park sector generated $53.5 million in valued-added economic activity in 2021, BLS data shows.

Hemphill said attendance and spending at Lake Compounce are back to, or even above, pre-COVID levels. He declined to disclose specific numbers.

Destinations like Lake Compounce are important drivers of state tourism and the economy, said Jan Jones, a professor and coordinator of the hospitality and tourism management program at the University of New Haven’s Pompea College of Business.

Hospitality, outdoor adventure and recreational facilities have been more sought after in the pandemic’s wake, Jones said.

However, a challenge for the industry is staffing, she added.

Seasonal employers like theme parks, including Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, have also been impacted by a higher minimum wage, which has increased in Connecticut from $11 in October 2019, to $15, as of June 1, 2023.

Connecticut’s minimum wage is set to increase again on Jan. 1, to $15.69.

“This is a challenge across hospitality in general,” Jones said of labor issues.

Hemphill said Lake Compounce has been fully staffed with full- and part-time workers, and that theme parks in general rebounded well from the pandemic.

One challenge he sees moving forward is all the other outdoor recreation/entertainment and even indoor activities competing for consumers’ attention.

“We need to make sure that we have unique offerings,” Hemphill said. “And I believe theme parks, including Lake Compounce, have something (guests) can’t get anywhere else. Sure, they can go play a roller coaster video game, but it’s nothing like a real coaster. Especially some of the world-class coasters that we have here.”

Lake Compounce has some of the modern thrill rides guests desire, but it’s also a park with a rich history that Hemphill says is imperative to preserve.

The park’s season pass base is growing, he said, in part due to more offerings patrons can enjoy.

A new attraction this year included a floating stage on the lake that hosts live entertainment concerts.

“And that was really a driving factor of season pass business and loyalty of the existing season pass holders, something that creates value and things we will continue to grow as we move into the future,” he said.

Jones praised many of the initiatives Lake Compounce is working on, from more food choices to the music venue.

“In Connecticut in particular, we have really amazing local (music) talent, or we have the ability to bring in artists, but we don’t promote it as much,” she said.

Concerts help extend the amusement park experience, Jones added.

Lake Compounce Marketing Director Megan Forno said she is leveraging many platforms, including social media, “to bring Doug to life as the face of the park, using him as our voice and leadership to talk to all the newness, everything that we’re doing,” like “upping the ante” on the scare factor for the Halloween-themed attractions, including new mazes and 3D effects.

On tap is the Holiday Lights event, and then next season’s rollout of the restored Wildcat wooden roller coaster, which will be 100 years old in 2027.

“We’re really excited to have it operating next year and for its 100th anniversary,” Hemphill said.

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