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Universal starts wooing Muggles to Harry Potter

03 December 2009 by By Jason Garcia - Orlando Sentinel

After months of near silence, Universal Orlando is starting to sell Harry Potter.

The theme-park resort has in recent weeks ramped up advertising for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the highly anticipated addition scheduled to open next spring in Islands of Adventure.

The resort has begun airing a television commercial on networks owned by corporate parent NBC Universal, signed a sponsorship deal with one of Britain's best-known travel companies and organized a grand-opening sweepstakes for Potter fans. Its sales staff is now using Wizarding World as a lure in some special-event pitches.

The early marketing campaign, which is likely to get larger and louder after Christmas, is a testament to the importance of Wizarding World to Universal, which is banking on the $200 million-plus project to help reverse flagging attendance. The collection of themed rides, shops and eateries is considered by many to be the biggest addition to any of Orlando's theme parks since Walt Disney World opened Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1998.

Universal would not talk about its marketing approach in detail.

"We don't generally discuss our marketing strategies," spokesman Tom Schroder said. "But we can say everything we are planning is designed to build and add to the tremendous excitement and anticipation surrounding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter."

The biggest plank in Universal's early Potter marketing effort is the television commercial, which began airing late last month. Designed to cast Wizarding World as a real-life reflection of the Potter books and films, the TV spot begins with scenes from the movies that morph into animated renderings of the theme-park attraction.

"You've read the books; you've seen the movies," a British-accented narrator says in the voice-over. "Now the adventure comes to life as you join Harry Potter and friends in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, to be revealed in spring 2010, only at Universal Orlando."

Fans have spotted the ads on multiple NBC programs, from The Today Show to The Biggest Loser to The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien. It has also appeared on NBC Universal's cable-TV channels, including CNBC, MSNBC and Oxygen.

It's unclear whether Universal has yet paid for television advertising time on any non-NBC Universal networks; the resort said only that its current commercial is airing "on a limited basis."

NBC Universal, which co-owns Universal Orlando with the Blackstone Group, may also be planning to pull other promotional levers. There is talk that the company has filmed an episode of its reality show The Celebrity Apprentice that will feature the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and will air early next year.

A spokeswoman for NBC Universal would not comment.

Separately last month, Universal Orlando signed a sponsorship deal with Virgin Holidays, the U.K.-based tour operator affiliated with Virgin Atlantic, which ferries more overseas tourists to and from Orlando than any other airline.

Under the deal, Virgin Holidays has splashed the Wizarding World of Harry Potter across the cover of its Florida sales brochure. The tour operator is also offering Potter-themed packages that include a free breakfast at one of the attraction's themed restaurants plus early-morning access to Wizarding World, once it opens.

The pairing with Virgin, whose airline brought about 468,000 people to Orlando last year, could be valuable for Universal. The Potter novels are set in England, and Wizarding World is expected to prove especially popular with British tourists.

The cover of Virgin's Florida brochure has often featured Walt Disney World in previous years. A spokeswoman for Virgin would not discuss its agreement with Universal.

Also last month, Universal and partner Warner Bros. launched an online contest in which fans can win a trip to the Wizarding World's grand opening.

As for when that opening will be, the promotions may offer some clues.

For example, the Potter-themed packages that Virgin is offering are only for trips beginning May 28 or later.

What's more, new sales materials for Universal's three-day "Grad Bash" event for high-school seniors promise that attendees "will be the first Grad Bash class to able to step into an entire world of magic and excitement at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter." That suggests Universal expects the project to be open by April 23, when Grad Bash begins.

Though Universal has accelerated its Potter marketing in recent weeks, it has yet to truly turn up the volume.

Universal officials have consistently turned down media and online fan requests to discuss Wizarding World and have provided few details beyond a mid-September webcast. It has yet to add Potter-themed merchandise to its theme parks. And though a 150-foot-high Hogwarts castle now looms over Islands of Adventure, the resort has not updated vaguely worded signs stating only that the project will open "in 2010."

Though such a slow-building approach can boost anticipation, some industry observers say Universal is making a mistake by not promoting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter more aggressively.

Robert Niles, publisher of the industry Web site Theme Park Insider, said Universal should already be promoting the project heavily in its park, discussing details of the project with fans and more. Had Universal been more aggressive in its marketing, he said, it could have used Wizarding World as a way to position 2010 annual passes or vacation packages as coveted Christmas gifts.

It's possible that Universal is reluctant to overpromise with advertising until it is certain it can meet a firm opening date, particularly after its big addition of 2009, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, missed its target.

Cost may also be a factor: Universal has had to cut deeply into its advertising budget this year to offset falling attendance and sales brought on by the global recession. It slashed marketing and administrative costs by 24 percent — about $30 million — during the first nine months of the year, according to regulatory filings.

Niles called Universal's approach "a very old-school, risk-averse, baby-steps form of promotion."

"At this stage, you need to move away from the secrecy model and move to the engagement model," he said.

But Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said Universal's marketing approach reflects a new environment facing all theme parks — one in which vacationers are waiting to book their trips until very close to their dates of travel.

"Three years ago, people used to make their travel decisions six months in advance, nine months in advance," Pizam said. "Today, things have changed. People are afraid to commit long term.

"I think they [Universal executives] were smart enough to realize that there was no point in wasting all this money six months out," he added.


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