goBeyondProfit CEO Interview: Love Tested: Navigating an Industry Crushing Pandemic
Friday, June 17th, 2022
Herschend Enterprises and their CEO, Andrew Wexler, were recently nominated and selected as the first 2022 goBeyondProfit Champion. We sat down with Andrew and learned how “Leading with Love” helped the nation’s largest privately-held themed attractions company weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Love Tested: Navigating an Industry Crushing Pandemic
Yeah, I remember, Friday March 13th of 2020. That day will be burned into my mind forever. We had just opened Dollywood for season pass holders and suddenly, Disney announced they were closing Disney World. Obviously, Disney is a leader in our industry of family entertainment and attractions. They have operations in Europe and China so they had visibility to the pandemic in a way that we didn’t as a U.S. company. When they shut down, we knew this was serious and that we had to take serious action. So we announced the closing of our properties.
As we entered into the beginning of the pandemic, nobody really knew how long this was going to last. And for a company like ours that is based on mass gatherings of people coming into a space where they would be close to each other, whether it be a theme park, a waterpark, or a dinner theater, or Globetrotter game in an arena, we basically went to zero in terms of revenue. We had no opportunity to make money.
How do you survive? You don’t know how long it’s going to last and you have to make decisions to make it to the backside. I remember one day I had my leadership team on the phone and I said, you know, I don’t want to be the CEO that lost the Herschend legacy.
To me it isn’t about a company going out of business. It’s the legacy of caring, and taking care of people, and bringing families closer together. And I just cannot let that legacy go under on my watch.
We put this idea of leading with love to the test. The first thing we did was be upfront with our employees. Going out of business doesn’t help anybody so we told them we were going to have to make hard choices to ensure the company survived. We went from roughly 6,600 employees down to 300 so that we could survive. The second step included decisions to ensure our employees had money in their pockets and benefits to make it through. Because of the stimulus actions at the federal and state level for unemployment, it was clear that there was going to be a certain amount of cash for furloughed employees. But what they wouldn’t get was health benefits. We challenged ourselves to step into the gap and we paid health benefits for all of our furloughed employees.
Now, fortunately, we got through the pandemic and we’ve recovered very well. But it was in those darkest days that I knew that if we just do the right thing that we’ll get through it.