Building on a legacy: Holiday World’s new president and CEO
If you had told Matt Eckert when he was in college that he would end up making a career in the amusement park industry, he would have thought you were crazy. But now he spends the better part of most of his days at the only place in Southern Indiana where every day is Christmas.
Raised in the small town of Wickliffe near Patoka Lake, Eckert attended Patoka Elementary and Crawford County Jr.-Sr. High School, graduating in 1991. He attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, double majoring in Accounting and Insurance, and following graduation, went to work for Arthur Andersen, a major accounting firm in Indianapolis.
While at Indiana State, Matt met his wife, Tonya, a native of Schnellville.
“Although we grew up only about 15 minutes apart, we didn’t meet until we were in college,” he said.
The two were married in 1999 and decided they wanted to move closer to home, so Matt took a job with Masterbrand Cabinets in Jasper.
A call from Santa Claus…Indiana
He had only been at Masterbrand for about seven months when he got a call from Holiday World. The small-but-growing park was looking to hire a controller, and one of Matt’s good friends from college who worked there recommended him.
“At the time I wasn’t really looking for a change,” Eckert said, “but I’ve never been one to shy away from a potential opportunity.”
He met with the park’s President, Will Koch, and the next day got a call offering him the job. Very appropriately, given that he was going to work for “Holiday” World, Matt’s first day as the park’s new controller was Valentine’s Day of 2000. He was immediately at home within the tight-knit Holiday World family.
“Nothing against accountants, but I remember being so impressed that Matt has such a good sense of humor,” said the park’s Director of Communications Paula Werne.
He and Koch were particularly close, and in August of 2007 when the park went through a restructuring to accommodate its significant growth, Koch made Matt one of two General Managers, helping to spread the administrative load.
Weathering the storms
Just a few years later, in June of 2010, the Holiday World family faced a devastating tragedy upon Will Koch’s sudden and unexpected passing.
“Losing him was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to go through,” Eckert said. “Will was like another brother to me, so losing him hurt. It still hurts.”
Matt assumed some of Will’s responsibilities, as the organization regrouped and moved forward in Koch’s absence. But nine months later, Holiday World faced another difficult circumstance when Matt was involved in a car accident when a school bus pulled out in front of him while he was on the way to work one morning.
“The last thing I remember from that day is dropping my kids off at school, which was probably about 25 minutes prior to the accident.”
He was in the hospital for 23 days, and while undergoing rehabilitation he insisted that his wife give him his cell phone back so he could catch up on emails.
“But I don’t remember that,” Eckert said smiling. “And I don’t remember any of the emails that I sent, but apparently I was corresponding with people about work and things I had tucked away that I knew needed to be done. I found out that the brain is a very fascinating organ of the body.”
During his recovery, Matt received a tremendous outpouring of support from not only his family and local community, but his Holiday World family as well.
“After being here for so long, working as much as we do together, and given the atmosphere of our business, we get very close; we become like a family,” Eckert said. “And during the time of my accident there was tremendous support for me, my family, and my wife. She knew the love was coming from the park, and I think that helped her tremendously.”
Matt’s accident was scary enough as it was, but coming so soon after losing Will Koch, it was particularly frightening for the Holiday World staff.
“Matt had stepped in and assumed some of Will’s responsibilities, and I think his personality is similar enough to Will’s that it made the shock and the worry that much worse,” Werne said.
Given the seriousness of the accident, Matt had to take it easy for sometime, but really pushed himself to return to the park and job he loved.
“I came back to work a lot sooner than I was supposed to,” he said. “I got out of the hospital on March 23, and I was here for opening day in early May. As soon as I could get the doctor to clear me to drive, I came back.”
The Newest Chapter
In January of this year, Matt stepped into a new role at Holiday World, becoming the park’s President and CEO.
He says that if someone had told him when he started at Holiday World that he would one day become the park’s President, he would have never believed them.
“But then again, if you had told me I would be working at an amusement park,” he said, “I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Now, Matt says he cannot imagine doing anything else, thanks in large part to everything he learned working under his boss, mentor, and friend, Will Koch.
“He wasn’t just my boss, he was one of my very best friends,” Eckert said.
And Matt carries the lessons learned from years of watching Koch lead the organization, applying them daily in his new role.
“I constantly ask myself ‘What would Will Do?’ and I spent enough time with him that in my heart and head I know what he would want and what he would do.”
One of the most valuable lessons Matt learned from Koch was about valuing and investing in the park’s own people.
“We have fantastic roller coasters, water slides, and food stands. Those are all great assets, but to me our biggest asset is our people. And Will really took time to invest in nurturing, growing, and developing our people.”
A bright future
Matt is taking the helm of an organization he knows well and an organization that has seen incredible growth in the past several years. In fact, Holiday World is no longer really considered a “small park,” as it has had over one-million guests every year since 2006.
The park has been voted the cleanest park in the world the last thirteen years in a row. It has been named the friendliest park in the world about a dozen times. And its wooden coasters have seen number one rankings as well.
“I think we’re just as competitive as any park,” Eckert said. “We offer something different: everything is about families. We have free soft drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, free tubes…those are things that really set us apart from other parks.”
Holiday World is unique in that it is one of the few remaining family owned and operated parks that is still seeing significant growth. As a result, it’s widely respected within the industry.
For four years, Matt sat on the human resources committee of IAAPA, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, with representatives from such parks as Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and Disney, and it wasn’t unusual for those parks to call Holiday World for advice.
“They would call and say how would Holiday World handle this,” Eckert said. “To me that said that we were very respected within the industry, and to have those large parks looking to us as a role model was huge.”
Matt says Holiday World still has big plans for the future, and in spite of the bumpy ride he’s looking forward to continuing to build on an impressive legacy.
“When I first started here in 2000, we had a little over 500,000 visitors per-year, and we’ve seen incredible growth. More than the numbers, though, our mission is to be number one for family fun, and I want us to continue to do that.”
Matt and the Holiday World team pride themselves on being a “large park with a small park feel” and want to continue to maintain a place where families can make memories.
“We truly have a treasure here in Southern Indiana,” Matt said, “and I think we’re very lucky to have Holiday World here.”
Holiday World opens for the season on May 4.
Find out more about the new attractions for 2013 and plan your visit at www.holidayworld.com
And don’t forget to LIKE Holiday World on Facebook
Professional family photos by Lacey Reimann Photography