LEGOLAND Florida recently received a unique distinction as the first theme park resort destination to become a Certified Autism Center (CAC), which is conferred by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). This means the cluster of parks under the LEGOLAND banner in Florida will satisfy a number of requirements, both in staff training and sensory guides to accommodate cognitive diversity.
This is a category of customer and their families that's only recently getting attention from marketers. But it is important for marketers to explore how the reality of cognitive diversity intersects with things like marketing and how all brands can service a wider customer base, especially as all aspect of retail and IRL service aspires to be more experiential.
As Kelly Hornick, director of marketing and communications for LEGOLAND, tells Brand Insider this week, focusing on niche constituencies is not just about serving oft-overlooked customers. These kinds of outreach have a multiplier effect far outside the initial target. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.
MediaPost: Does the brand have any history or previous affinity with a neurodiverse customer base?
Kelly Hornick: It's always been at the core of the LEGO brand, when you think about the toy itself being approachable to all different types of kids from all different needs and backgrounds.
But theme parks tend to be overstimulating. It's supposed to be this moment of excitement and anticipation of getting big enough and being tall enough to ride the next roller coaster and have those big kid experiences.
And there really has to be a balance between those incredibly overstimulating saving experiences they get adrenaline pumping and then also moments of kids feeling safe and comfortable with their parents and with their family from experience to experience as they traverse the attractions.
MP: How was this certification initiated?
Hornick: When I started at LEGOLAND Florida, I saw a need, because we were just looking at some of the qualitative responses we are receiving. We hear a lot of guests’ feedback through all of the social media channels, but then also, on the one-to-one channels of guest comments coming through email or being spoken directly. But we started to really talk about programs that could directly affect one group of individuals but then also have that ripple effect on other types of individuals in different types of needs.
That was where I brought my experience with working with IBCCES as a partner to the table for Merlin Entertainments and for LEGOLAND Florida. Because what's great about this Certified Autism Center program is that while it's labeled as a program to help with families who may have a child or an adult who has autism, it actually really does help across the whole span of cognitive diversities.
So the training that our staff goes through can be applied to working with an adult who may have had a stroke in the past, and may have feelings and sensations a little bit different, because of those needs.
MP: I think that's an important point that when marketers and companies think about working in these areas with what seemed like very specific or niche populations, they really do reverberate an echo into other demographic groups and other populations that you may not anticipate.
Hornick: Exactly. When people come to our parks and have a fantastic time, regardless of what needs they have, they tell everybody. And theme parks and vacations are really the brag moment on Facebook.
Every parent wants to be the parent that gives their kids the best experiences ever. And what's great about this program and other programs that we're looking at getting into more of is that it levels the playing field for these parents who normally have to be super-planners.
MP: There is that kind of ancillary branding impact of recognizing that whether this this park serves your particular needs, knowing that it serves others, just has a great branding impact.
Hornick: It absolutely does. People want to feel like they're contributing their dollars to a place that cares -- and especially when we talk about children.
So as part of the Program, IBCCES experts come on site and review all of the attractions, and how they may affect each of the five senses. And then they create a ranking system, a grid that tells you that if your child or you may be sensitive to sounds or loud noises be prepared, because there's a cannon in our water sports stunt show. Or if you're sensitive to smells, this is close to the restaurants, you're going to get some food smells when you go around the corner.
It takes the guesswork out for the parents. But again, something as simple as having that signage at the parks for parents who don't have children who have these special needs, they might see it. They just see that there's another layer there for those in need of that. And again, I think it does make them feel good to know that they're part of a place that cares about all children.
MP: What are some of the other protocols for getting IBCCES certification?
Hornick: 80% of our staff needs to maintain their certification at all times. Now I’m thrilled to say that we're actually hovering at about 95% of our staff, right now, which is a huge feat. And what that does is it gives people the confidence to be able to know that they can approach those families. I think in a lot of times if somebody isn't familiar with children who may have special needs or families who may have experienced parks differently in the past, it was expected to just kind of let them go about their day or be a little bit more passive.
There are tools available at the parks on placards in front of all the attractions. We're working on getting all of those live over at LEGOLAND theme park and hotels this summer. But then, also in advance online on legoland.com and on peppapigthemepark.com.
Parents who are super-planners can go on in advance and kind of map out their day based on what their child's needs are to hopefully either prepare the child or avoid situations that might not be favorable for that family that could change their whole day.
MP: Is there any marketing plan that's being attached to this certification? Are you using it in any of your marketing materials?
Hornick: We do position it online. We'll continue to look for opportunities to partner with different influencers. But we don't do any pay-fo- play relationships. That's part of who we are as a brand. We really want those authentic genuine experiences. There are plenty of parents who have children with special needs, who might be advocates within their own communities.
And we like to do that in a trade relationship versus a paid relationship, so they feel comfortable giving us feedback as well.
So that we can continue to grow, to find out if we missed the mark somewhere, and if there's something we can correct, versus it being an exchange of payment for a positive story on our parks.
MP: Let's pull back a little bit and talk about destination marketing generally right now. Have destinations like LEGOLAND bounced back from the pandemic? Where are we now?
Hornick: We were lucky at LEGOLAND Florida to really get ahead of a lot of the planning through a lot of our health and safety initiatives and we were the first theme park to reopen back in 2020. We were closed for 77 days, and when we reopened the park, we had very strong health and safety policies and practices put in place with that. It was a constant evolution, which was tough, as you can imagine. Coming back from a closure period our staff were a bit smaller, some people were furloughed, but we had to be nimble and be ready to change things quickly. Here in Florida, the different mask rules or group gathering rules, enclosure roles kind of changed every few weeks. So we are constantly updating our materials or different ways of connecting with people. We went back to social media and to PR arms, because it was the quickest way to get information out there and then use our site as a tool to really speak directly to our consumers as what to expect when they came to our parks.
We went out of our way to make sure that people would feel comfortable in our parks and that they felt safe to play. We are a theme park that's built on the beauty of LEGO, which is a hands-on kids toy in the time of the pandemic. We want kids to feel safe to be able to touch things to play with, to be kids, to run around not worry about where they're standing. We had to look for opportunities to try to make all of those things fun and playful to stay true to who we were as a brand.
A lot of the input excitement and the notes that you would have seen online or through some of our PR channels and social media channels, had a very funny playful nature. When we talked about masks, we related it to LEGO ninjas and LEGO NINJAGO world and “Even ninjas wear masks sometimes.” Instead of what a lot of people said with markings on the ground that said, “Don't stand here.” We flipped it and we put giant red bricks on the ground that said stand here. We encouraged kids to jump from red brick to red brick and turn it into a game while we were practicing social distancing.