Alton must tread carefully to avoid PR disaster

The Smiler, Alton Towers

by Michael Mander

When two carriages collided on The Smiler the park claimed their top priority was ensuring the safety of the guests.

It probably was. But close behind was, undoubtedly, how the park and the individual ride could possibly recover from PR crash that inevitably followed.

Ironically, of course, this incident follows several PR stunts from Merlin: offering the ‘dream job’ of coaster-testing and encouraging guests to ride the ‘Big Six’ for prizes.

Both of these promotions will now be dissected by the press: the irony picked out and sensationalised for headlines.

Thankfully for the park they opted not to celebrate the second birthday of the controversial coaster. Indeed, it is not surprising that Alton Towers has been keeping fairly quiet about their £18m Smiler investment.

Worsening reputation

It has made headlines for the wrong reasons and consistently worsened the park’s reputation.

It seems that celebrities getting stuck on the ride on its press opening was a sign of things to come. So what’s next for the ride?

The Mirror reported that over 80% of their readers want it closed – but the theme park enthusiast community has a wildly different view (an Airgates survey reports 67% of readers believe it should stay open): saying these incidents are rare, fixable and preventable.

Alton Towers has remained closed since the accident

Alton Towers has remained closed since the accident

Until we know the cause of this incident it is unclear just how fixable or preventable this accident was.

Following this event, The Smiler might just be the safest coaster on the park. If it reopens, it will undoubtedly have so many new fail-safes installed to ensure nothing like this can happen again.

But if we ignore the factor of how safe the coaster is and look at the issue of re-opening the coaster in terms of publicity and marketing a wealth of issues arise.

Public scepticism

Opening the ride in the near future is out of the question. Even if the problem is solved people will not trust the fix.

In theory, the damage this event will do to viewing numbers is fairly minimum (most people who are put off roller-coasters by this incident were scared of them anyway) – however if Alton Towers appears to rush out a fix they are presenting themselves as putting profits above safety.

This could have a far more severe impact on visitors who will begin to question the safety of other coasters at the park.

So, at least in the near future, Alton Towers will need to keep The Smiler closed. But what about the further future?

I cannot see The Smiler reopening in this season purely because of the extent of negative publicity it would generate.

If they are to re-open it, they should at least do it on a day with lots of news so the press might miss the story: The Smiler needs lots of time to lose its terrible reputation.

If Alton Towers decide to apply fixes during the closed season this could have severely negative consequences.

‘Structural issues’

The ride's past issues have been theorised as being related to its densely-packed structure

The ride’s past issues have been theorised as being related to its densely-packed structure

There is currently speculation that the numerous earlier issues were caused by some kind of structural problem.

If that is true, we could be looking at a very expensive fix: and spending that much money would mean the park expects the roller-coaster to generate significant numbers of guests.

But there is a paradoxical effect here: implementing a fix is an admission of a severe structural problem and consequently an admission that Alton Towers have been running an unsafe ride for two years.

As such, not implementing a fix could be a safer option (in terms of PR).

But even this raises the question: is The Smiler fulfilling its core aim as an investment? Is it attracting guests, or is it scaring them off?

Closure and re-launch?

Perhaps the most plausible course of action for the park is a few structural alterations followed by a major overhaul of the ride theming – relaunch it, with little fanfare, under a new name.

The problem of the tainted ‘Smiler’ brand is resolved and the £18m investment continues to pay-off.

But this reflects negatively on the park and has resonance of a ‘cover-up’. Its easy to imagine the Daily Mail’s headline: “ALTON TOWERS RE-OPENS ‘DEATH TRAP’ COASTER UNDER NEW NAME: Attempts to FOOL public into boarding coaster that CRASHED in 2015!”.

Would The Smiler benefit from a re-launch?

Would The Smiler benefit from a re-launch?

With a ride as temperamental as The Smiler, it is plausible that there will be another issue – another fallen bolt or wheel, for example – that will silence the “it’s safe” argument once and for all.

That could result in the end of the park.

In my opinion, the only way to solve this issue and maintain any credibility is closing the coaster. It says “we are a responsible company, and we won’t let this happen again.”

They would receive praise for abandoning their £18m coaster in the interest of safety.

Guests who previously boycotted the park in fear would return – or, at least, they would avoid further visiting figure decreases.

It seems to me that the best way for the park to increase or maintain their visitor numbers is not by opening a coaster – but by closing one.

Michael Mander is a student and freelance journalist who writes for Airgates Attraction News. He analyses the attractions industry with objectivity and with a close eye on the perspective of the general public.