You gotta have heart

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that I have just returned from Coaster Nerd Con 2010.  The title sounds fancier than it is… this was just me and some other amusement park/roller coaster enthusiasts heading out for a walk in the park – or parks – as it so happened. That’s Darren and Alan (with glasses) getting ready for a spin on the Tennessee Tornado at Dollywood.

Our original plan was to hit Kings Dominion, Dollywood and Holiday World.  None of us had been the last two, and KD had added a 305 foot tall menace called Intimidator 305.

If you hadn’t heard, at the last minute Busch Gardens Williamsburg was added, and at the last-last minute, Kings Island was added.  All in all we hit 5 parks in 7 days with many miles of driving in between – it was a BLAST!

As I looked back at the trip as a whole, I thought of the things that will stick out most in my memory.  Certainly the rides were great, but it was really the employees that made our visits special, and that is especially true of Busch Gardens, Dollywood and Holiday World.

When I was first planning this trip, a friend who works at Holiday World told me, “we may not have the biggest park or the scariest rides, but we make up for it with heart.”  Having spent a day in the “heart” of Holiday World, I would say he’s right.

So what did these parks do so well?  I think if I were to label the experience at all three parks it would come down to two words (or a word and a phrase): genuine and hassle-free.  Even with some moderate crowds, we were able to make our way through the parks with relative ease.  And in our interactions with employees, we felt like we were talking to real people.  People who were genuinely compelled to help us and improve our experience.

While all three companies are different, and are run differently, I would imagine there are some fundamental truths about their business model that makes them successful (and makes me want to write about them).

  1. They have values that they stick to. We were fortunate enough to speak to some great people from both Dollywood and Holiday World, and one thing was clear: they knew the company values and were serious about enforcing them.  It’s one thing to have a poster or handbook that states what your company stands for, it’s quite another to have them rigorously enforced.  One example is dress code at Holiday World – team members are required to wear plain white sneakers.  When asked what would happen if someone came in with sneakers that didn’t meet the dress code, the response was a very confident, “they wouldn’t”.  For some that might be hype, but based on everything else we heard and saw, it’s not hype here.  By the way, all employees we saw were wearing plain white sneakers.  We checked.
  2. They really put the guest experience first. At Dollywood, like many places around the country, it was HOT.  On the tram from the parking lot to the front gate, the driver told us that Dollywood would be giving out free water to make sure we stayed hydrated.  Sure enough, at the food stands they were filling up cups of ice water and placing them on the counter for guests to take just as fast as they could.  It was refreshing (in multiple ways) to just walk up to a stand and grab some water.  They also had fans everywhere!  For guests and employees alike!  Holiday World gives out water and soda as well, and have not only seen that money spent elsewhere, but have also seen a decrease in the number of EMS calls.
  3. They took away obstacles to service. At Busch Gardens, they have a system for avoiding long lines called Quick Queue.  To me, most of these programs are simply glorified line cutting, and many systems around the country leave a lot to be desired.  At Busch however, they have taken away one of the great dissatisfiers by not even allowing non-Quick Queue guests to enter the waiting area for the second row of a coaster train.  They’ve set a clear expectation and this way, there is no need for an employee to have to explain to other guests that they will have to wait longer because someone who paid a little more is getting “special treatment”.  That creates hostility among guests, which is usually taken out on the employees.

To get back to our title, I think you have to lead with your heart to make the kind of decisions these companies have made based on the needs of their employees and guests.  Like I said, we know that we rode some rides, but we’ll REMEMBER the experiences we had because the employees – employees who are successful because of the environment created by their leaders.

As a leader, what are YOU doing to take care of your employees and guests?

Thanks for reading!

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