Ravens turn to Disney for help devising stadium game plan Staff members coached on Xs and Os of service

July 05, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- You're opening a new stadium, right next door to one of the nation's most successful. As many as 69,000 people will descend on you, needing to be parked, greeted, seated, fed and entertained. You want to send them home happy -- no matter what happens on the field or how much they spent -- with plans to return again and again.

Whom can you turn to for help with such a daunting task?

Here's a hint: M-I-C (See you at Ravens stadium!). K-E-Y (Why? Because you'll love it!) M-O-U-S-E.

Well, why not? If any company has patented the formula for keeping masses of people in near narcotic bliss -- even as they endure long lines and expensive souvenirs for squalling children -- it's the Disney Co.

Which is why the Baltimore Ravens sent 60 of their 2,000 #F game-day personnel to the Disney Institute last weekend to learn from the reputed happiest place in the world.

"How," as Glenn Preibis, manager of guest services for the stadium, put it, "do they create the magic?"

Disney, not satisfied with merely dominating the world of theme parks (in Anaheim, Calif., Tokyo, Paris and here), television (ABC, ESPN), and movies ("Armageddon," "Mulan"), went into the business of business consulting 12 years ago. Companies of all stripes have sent employees here to take classes such as those the Ravens opted for: "Management, Disney-style" and "Service, Disney-style."

Offering both classroom instruction and tours of the famed parks, the Disney seminars won raves from the Ravens staff even as they acknowledged that it might not always be possible to sprinkle Disney's "pixie dust" on their own operations.

Immersing employees in the culture and values of an organization -- a big Disney imperative -- can be difficult, for example, when much of your staff comes together just for a single Sunday then disperses for another two weeks before the next home game.

"It's a little harder for us. We only have 10 home games, while Disney is open every day of the year," Preibis said. "But the thing that stands out the most for me was how important Disney feels its employees are. That can translate for us, even if we can't go to the extremes that Disney does, we still can't treat them just like pieces of meat."

Behind the scenes

Preibis and the Ravens group got a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the Magic Kingdom's workings when the seminar facilitators took them to the employees area, dubbed "the tunnel," beneath the park. There, they toured the massive costume operation, where employees launder and repair the furry bodies and huge rubber heads of the Mickeys, Goofys and assorted Dwarfs. They saw the computerized information kiosks, equipped with a direct phone line to human resources and other personnel, that employees can use to find out about job openings, benefits and company events. They also viewed the employees cafeteria, noteworthy mainly because it's among the rare Disney-free zones in the park.

"They said, 'I'm on my break, I don't want to see Mickey or Minnie on the wall or hear any Disney music,' " Frank Thompson, a seminar facilitator, told his class.

One of Thompson's first messages to the Ravens was that companies shouldn't try to imitate Disney, a fairly impossible task.

"We're going to ask that you not adopt our approach," he said, "we're going to ask that you adapt our approach."

Few companies, after all, employ more than 50,000 people on one site or look to a mouse for inspiration, said Thompson, a nine-year Disney veteran. Still, he said, there are lessons for any company, regardless of size or scope of operations, if you're in the business of entertaining people.

Entertainment entity

Sports venues increasingly are about entertainment as much as athletics, said Kevin Byrne, a Ravens spokesman who sent several of his public relations staff to the seminars. The wide array of food and drink, the pre- and post-game activities and all the other ancillary amusements have made what goes on off-field as important as the game itself for many fans, Byrne said.

"We compete for the entertainment dollar," he said. "People with disposable income can choose so many other things -- other sporting events, theater, orchestra, movies. People who have a bad experience at our stadium might not come back."

Much of the stadium-going experience, positive and negative, involves how employees interact with customers -- or "guests," the Disney lingo that the Ravens have adopted, Byrne said. That is why the Ravens decided it was worth spending more than $125,000 to send the staff to seminars conducted by a company known for pleasant service.

The Disney philosophy is that if employees are treated well they in turn will treat customers well, according to Thompson and his partner, Heather Shea. Much of their management seminar dealt with the importance of hiring the right people, training them continually and recognizing excellent performances.

"People say, 'How do you get your people to smile all the time?' " Shea said. "Well, you hire them that way."

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