Visiting 7 amusement parks in 7 days taught us…

CNC17 (Coaster Nerd Con) is but a memory (and a bunch of Facebook posts), but the lessons learned still linger!

For those who like data, here are a few things to chew on:

  • Number of rides and coasters ridden: 52 rides on 27 coasters
  • Number 1 coaster of the trip (IMO) – Renegade at Valleyfair (especially in the rain at night!) Super fast, lots of airtime, and out. of. control.
  • Total length of all coaster track ridden: just over 28 miles
  • Day 1 of trip in MN – 59 degrees
  • Day 7 of trip in TX – 95 degrees (biggest temp swing on any CNC trip)
  • Total driving miles: just under 1300 miles

So what did we learn?  As I mentioned in my last post, we observed that an old concept is still true: the parks with the more visibly engaged management teams also had the best performing employees.

And the parks where this was most evident were Adventureland, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and Silver Dollar City*.

I put an asterisk by Silver Dollar City because while we did see engaged management, there was something else going on there.  Something beyond employees and managers and good guest service.  At SDC, it wasn’t about a theme, it was about a lifestyle.  There was something so genuine about the experience that you didn’t feel you were in a “park”. It’s more like stepping into another time and the people aren’t employees or cast members or actors playing a role, this is who they are.  And for many, this is absolutely true.  For the craftspeople and artisans that line the foot trails, this IS their life.  And others around them embrace it.  I didn’t feel like anyone was putting on a “show” (unless they were literally part of a show) but that they were just living their lives and we had been invited to be a part of it.

While you can’t replicate that kind of atmosphere everywhere, you can replicate the genuineness that people display.  Whether you run a museum, zoo, theme park or FEC, allowing and encouraging people to use their talents and creativity on the job generally leads to higher satisfaction levels for both employees and guests.

Here are some things we oberserva-learned (made that up) during our trip:

  • Valleyfair – speaking of letting people be creative, there is no better way to stifle that creativity than to surrender your safety spiels and announcements wholly to an automated system. Luckily, Valleyfair balances this pretty well.  On many rides, we heard operators using the theme or name of the ride in their speils.  On High Roller (roller coaster), the operator would say, “enjoy your ride on the Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh Roller!” – and they would hold that out until the last car left the station.  At Renegade, they said “Yee Haw” as you left the station.  In both cases, guests were playing along, which enhanced their experience.  You can’t do that with a recorded speil that says the same thing every 45 seconds.  People tune those out.
  • Nickelodeon Universe – It was hard not to be nostalgic both here and at Valleyfair, since I had worked at both places. At NU though, the changes over the years not only included new rides and attractions, but a new name, brand and theme.  When I was there is was Knott’s Camp Snoopy, and it was themed to the woods of the upper mid-west.  It was cool and quaint and really neat.  And while there are some elements of the old park still there (like home plate from the old Met stadium), there are also LOTS of new things to dazzle the kiddies and extend a stay at the Mall.  And that’s when the “don’t do what you’ve always done” lesson kicked in.  It would have been neat for me to see the park exactly as it was when I worked there, but that would have been bad for business (most notably since the Knott’s name was no longer able to be used!).  For any business to survive, they have to change, grow, and adapt.  And that’s exactly what has happened.  The park has evolved to offer new and fresh experiences that keep people coming back.
  • Adventureland – This was our first visit, and boy were we impressed.  We enjoyed the mix of rides, the cleanliness of the park and the friendliness of the employees. It really shows that you don’t need a Disney or Universal sized budget to provide a great experience and excel in all areas of operation.  It just takes a commitment to quality and knowing who you are so you aren’t trying to be something that you’re not. PS – Petunia the Pig says hello!
  • World’s of Fun – Despite the rain (and it RAINED!), we had a great time at World’s of Fun! This was largely due to our tour guides, former IAAPA Ambassador and friend Deborah Burnett and her roommate Koen.

    Just before the deluge!

    They both have a deep love of the park and it’s history, and it was so fun hanging out with them and hearing their stories.  What this reiterated to me was that enthusiasm really is contagious, and that a positive attitude can make even a rainy day at an amusement park a fun and memorable experience.  Don’t let others, or the conditions of your situation, stifle your natural enthusiasm about something… there are others who need to see your example.

  • Silver Dollar City – See above! Oh, and do the cave tour.  It rocks.
  • Six Flags Over Texas – File this under, “you may not think people notice, but they do!”  Okay, so we rode The New Texas Giant a bunch of times on this visit.  A bunch. When we rode it first thing in the morning, there was a young lady with red hair at the controls, and she was there just about every time we rode. Toward the end of the night, she was still there, however this time she was on the load side of the platform where we could talk to her.  As we entered the station, she smiled and said in a humorous way, “oh you guys are back?  Going to the front seat again?”  Apparently, we made an impression – and were predictable! The point is that while I could see her diligently watching the ride when at the controls position, it hadn’t dawned on me that she was actually paying attention to us – so much so that she remembered us and where we sat. Thinking back to my operating days, this really shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  I remember when the same people would ride over and over and again, and it was fun to interact with them.  This also proves that as a leader, people are watching you, too. Your employees, guests, managers and peers – they all notice what you do, even if you don’t notice that they’ve noticed.
  • Six Flags Fiesta Texas – this is where the “visible management = better performing employees” really came to life.  While at the park, we had the great pleasure of getting to hang out with Park President Jeffrey Siebert, Director of Marketing Ron McKenzie, and Admissions/Waterpark Manager Josh Parisher.  And while a bunch of the time was spent geeking out and talking “theme parks”, we also got to observe these three in their natural habitat… talking to guests and employees, picking up trash and setting an incredible example for employees to follow.  One of the first things Jeffrey did while walking us through the park was to straighten a trash can on the walkway.  I found myself later wanting to do the same thing, almost as if I had stepped back into my management shoes and was suddenly responsible for such things.  But what was most impressive was how each of them, at different times, broke away from our conversations to address an employee, usually by name, and genuinely interact with them for a few moments.  We could tell by the employees’ reactions that this seemed to be a pretty normal occurrence, that talking to the upper management was not out of the ordinary. There were genuine smiles and conversations that only happen when a trusted relationship had been established. We also saw this when we weren’t with these three.  By and large the employees were friendly and efficient, and absolutely added to an outstanding overall guest experience.

A quick recap:

  • Find ways to let your employees use their creativity
  • Honor the past, but don’t get stuck in it
  • Budgets don’t determine quality, your commitment does
  • Let your enthusiasm be contagious
  • Be genuine, be who you are, know who you are
  • People notice what you do
  • Visible management = better performing employees (bonus – it all starts at the top!)

For some of you, there could be a few “A-HA” moments in there that you can work to implement.  For others, this may be validation of current practices.

For those of who KNOW this stuff but for some reason aren’t doing it, I challenge to think about why.  Is it you, your team, your company?  What is standing in the way?  What will it take to knock down the roadblocks?  Sometimes it can be hard to identify specifically what’s holding things back.  Let me know if you need some ideas about where to look.

Our itinerary for CNC18 is already in the works! Stay tuned for where we will go (and what we will learn) when we venture out next year!

Thanks for reading!

NEWS YOU CAN USE!!

Did this post get you thinking about how to develop your own leadership skills?  How about the skills of others?

For you:

Attractions Mastermind Group – a small, trusted group of peers who meet regularly to discuss issues and support one another

For your team:

The Myth of Employee Burnout Supervisor Training Program – self-guided 8 week program that helps leaders build skills, relationships, and avoid burnout!!

Kordell is a rock star

I knew before venturing out on this years coaster extravaganza that I would be paying very close attention to the way we were treated by the employees at the various parks we visited.  With long drives between some of the parks, my friend Alan and I had ample opportunity to dissect our experiences, and continually came back to one conclusion.

Kordell at Six Flags Over Texas is a ROCK STAR. He was by far the standout employee at the six parks we visited.20130719-121701.jpg

We first met Kordell in the morning when purchasing our Flash Passes (Six Flags’ cut the line pass). Here is what he did:

  • Greeted us with a smile.
  • Processed our transaction quickly (it was almost like we had a Flash Pass for the Flash Pass process!)
  • We were going to get the Gold (mid tier) pass.  Kordell noticed that Alan had an annual pass, and said with that discount we could get the Platinum pass for just a little more.  In the same breath he rattled off the benefits of the Platinum, which were very appealing to us.
  • He then said, “If you have a Discover card, I can take another 5% off!”  We did, and he did.
  • When all was said and done, he wished us a great day.

Alan and I walked out of the office commenting about how fast, friendly and knowledgeable Kordell was, AND the fact that he upsold us (which we agreed doesn’t happen that often)!  But, the story doesn’t end there.

The Platinum pass allows you to reserve a time on the Texas Giant (this was the day before the very unfortunate incident at the park) to minimize waiting. To reserve this time, we had to go back to the Flash Pass office.  Each time we did, Kordell remembered us, greeted us with a big smile and took care of our request.  We left the park for lunch, and had to turn in the Flash Pass device – who was there?  Kordell, rocking the house.

At one point in the early evening, we went to see Kordell again for a reservation for the Texas Giant.  We didn’t know it, but it had closed temporarily and was not taking reservations.  Kordell knew that, and instead set our device for a reservation for Titan (another great coaster at SFoT). He could have simply handed the devise back to us and sent us on our way, but instead he took it upon himself to make up for the fact that we couldn’t do what we originally asked for.  We were surprised and excited, and of course immediately made a bee line for Titan!

The picture above was taken when we ran into Kordell just before getting on the Texas Giant for our last ride of the night.  He was out in the park sweeping, but he was still smiling. When we mentioned how much we appreciated his service that day, he immediately (and proudly) told a co-worker standing nearby.  You could tell that he was happy that someone noticed his efforts.

When we turned in the Flash Pass device at the end of the night, we met Eric, Kordell’s supervisor.  He said that he had met Kordell when he was 15 and that he was eager to work, but too young to hire.  Eric told him to call him as soon as he turned 16 and he would hire him.  Alan and I are sure glad they both followed through!

If this experience confirms anything, it is the importance of hiring the right people.  Kordell showed signs of excellence long before he was even hired, and that translates to his performance on the job.  It’s also obvious that Kordell enjoys what he is doing, and that speaks to the ability of his management team to make sure people are in the right places and doing jobs that line up with their skills and personality.

Employees like Kordell are not always easy to find, and they will rarely be molded from someone who doesn’t have the desire or personality to perform.  So how (and where) will you find your next Kordell? Are you currently looking?

Thanks for reading!

Matt

About the author: Matt Heller cannot magically make all of your employees perform like Kordell.  He can, however, help you and your leaders figure out how to find the best talent and keep them motivated!