Do you know who is representing your brand on gameday?
It’s something we’ve wrestled with for years at EngageMint. How do you get a third-party employee to represent your brand with pride? At a high-level, “make them feel like family,” or “treat them like one of your own employees” sounds great in theory. But in reality, that’s much easier said than done.
What if that employee only shows up to work your event once? How can you treat her like one of your own employees if you don’t even know her name? You may be struggling with these same questions in your own venue.
From our time working at Disney, we knew that it was possible to have third-party employees represent your brand in a positive light. That iconic Cast Member holding Mickey-shaped balloons on at Disney’s Magic Kingdom? She’s a third-party employee. The chef of your favorite restaurant the Italy pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT? Third-party employee. The large majority of employees working at retail stores and restaurants at Disney Springs? All third-party employees. Yet they all represent the Disney brand in accordance with Disney’s service standards.
So how might we adapt some of those behind-the-scene systems and processes to the world of sports & entertainment and live events?
“You create the experience for your employees that you want them to create for your fans or your guests, right?”
That’s Kevin Gober, the Senior Director of Employee and Guest Experience for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Before moving his talents to the sports industry, Kevin worked as a leader in Disney’s Parks and Resorts.
In his last role with The Walt Disney Company, Kevin worked with me at Disney Institute, helping organizations around the world adapt Disney best practices in leadership, culture and customer service.
Now with the Hawks, Kevin is putting those learnings into practice himself, and changing the industry standard in the process. Last year, the Hawks claimed the top spot in the NBA’s Game Experience Survey, ranking No. 1 among all teams in ticket-holder satisfaction for their “Overall Game Experience,” despite the team not making the playoffs.
We asked Kevin how he convinced his third-party partners to buy-in to some of his ideas that might seem radical, even to the point where his third-party partners swap and trade employees based on their interests and personalities.
Kevin: “So where does it start? It starts at the exec level. We’ve got to get the executives to buy in and be connected. When we talk about experience, we’re talking about a rational versus an emotional connection. Rational connection for our vendors might be, “Wow, we got this contract.” That’s rational, man. “This is going to be great for the bottom line.” And emotional connection goes beyond that.
Leadership for these organizations needs to connect. Our leadership, our execs, our GM need to connect with their president, vice president leadership, right. And connect and understand our common purpose, our “true North,” and create that emotional connection. So that’s the relationship.
At this point, Kevin is not even referring to the GM of the third-party working with your venue, he’s referring to the C-Suite of the overarching third-party company. Once you’re on the same page with what your organization’s common purpose is, then you have common ground to build a relationship.
Kevin: So that’s the first thing. Make sure they don’t feel like an outsider. And once you develop, develop that relationship, dude, everything is milk and honey, from that point… I’ll give you a solid example. When I got into the building, Pritchard was already working with State Farm Arena and the Hawks. (Pritchard Sports & Entertainment Group is one of State Farm Arena’s largest third-party event staff providers.)
I sought out the site manager for Pritchard . We exchange names and information. We had coffee, we had lunch. I walked with him during games and events to see what his team was doing. I met his team. I went to his standups to talk to him, briefings to talk to his folks. I went to his dark day sessions where he was talking to his people. “Hey, I’m KG, y’all, I’m in this with you. Show me how to mop.” Those kinds of things. And they’re like, “Oh wow, they’re in this with us.”
So now fast forward to your question. Now I can ask them to help us bring in the right fit people. “Help you? By all means!”
That’s what I wanted to do six months ago, but it took this journey. It took this journey for us to develop relationships and for us to be on the common ground.
Once you have that relationship with the senior execs, you can start to bridge the gaps between front line workers. As a leader for your organization, you must start to tear down the lines of dividing yourself and welcome those employees to your team. Here’s how KG has done it at the Hawks.
Kevin: I would stand at the magnetometers outside of the building to help invite guests in and encourage my security team. I was as much as I could in our food and beverage spaces, encouraging that team. So they got to know me, not as Kevin Gober, Senior Director of Guest Experience…They got to know me as KG.
And so I would have fun with them, engage them, excite them. And I got my entire leadership team to do that, including my GM, and any of my execs that were in the building.
Because of that engagement, I started having food and beverage people, Pritchard folks, security employees saying “KG, we want to work in Guest Experience.”
No negative shots to their leadership team, but I wanted to engage ‘the building.’ So when you get that, “we want to work in guest experience,” now you have their attention and then you share with them the importance, right? The value that they have in their current role, so it now is that sense of belonging in the building.
So now here’s what we do. Everything from a rewards and recognition standpoint, everything from an anniversary and birthday, everything from a ‘veteran’s wall’ that we might have up… we include everybody. So they don’t see themselves as separate. Now they see themselves as belonging to the building.
I took it as far in corporate training of all the arena staff, which I have purview over now. I say, “You are a State Farm Arena employee. However, you might work in Security. You might work in Guest Experience. You might work in Food and Beverage. You might work in Housekeeping, but you are a State Farm Arena Employee.”
That sense of belonging. So now guess what? We have their allegiance, right? We have their buy-in. We have the front-line employees saying (even though the third-party contract might be up), “I’m staying here because of how they make me feel.” That’s what we started talking about with culture, it’s about how you make people feel.
Here’s the challenge for you as an organization. KG has created a culture where leadership shows genuine care for their team. But at this point, it’s still a culture determined by the behaviors of an individual leader or a group of leaders. What happens if KG retires or leaves for another job? What systems and processes exist to move the culture from relying on individual leaders to being about the organization as a whole?
This is why at Disney, despite the fact that Bob Iger stepped down and Bob Chapek is taking over, it’s still the Disney culture. It’s the systems and processes in addition to the people that make the culture so strong that you’ll immediately find your happiness elsewhere if your personal values don’t align with the organization’s values.
How might you reinforce those behaviors with systems and processes?
Kevin: I understand being in multiple locations, every building is not the same. You don’t have your own team. You might not manage the building, and you might have multiple teams or units or things that happen in that building. So I understand that this might not be able to be duplicated, but it can be adapted to your organization.
So rewards and recognition for our game day event staff. We do the basic things like everybody else does. It might be something else for you, but we call them Smile Makers. (The Hawks service behaviors are spelled out in the acronym SMILE)
We don’t call our folks ushers and greeters and security, we call them Smile Makers.
So we have what we call Smile Maker of the month. We have what we call our MVP, which is a combination of Smile Makers of the Month throughout the year into an MVP, one big deal at the end of the year.
We do things like, what we call, “Walking in My Shoes.” We might have our execs, arena execs and front office execs come work alongside, in uniform. As we would say at Disney, “in costume,” next to our frontline members, that’s building relationships. That’s also giving you a connection, like, “Wow. This is the GM, she’s scanning badges just like me,” You know, that is a form of recognition. And also we’re building that emotional connection…
The recognition and cross-utilization programs are great, but KG and his team have taken that one step further to something we’re working on with our clients at EngageMint as well.
Kevin: One of the things I’ve done, my leaders and my direct reports have done, over the last five months is work to build a global database. So my role now is not just guest experience.
As I said earlier, my purview now is the entire arena staff. So all 1100-1200 event & game day staff, I’m responsible for the learning and development aspect and the employee engagement aspect.
So we’ve worked to put together a global database so that all of those employees, food and beverage, all of those housekeeping, all of the internal folks are in one database (despite being employed by third-party organizations). So they get the same message. Outside vendors, contract employees, they get the same message as arena staff. And that’s been huge.
When I was not in that capacity and I was piloting things, for example, rewards and recognition for guest experience, not having that database impacted us.
Last year, we sent out what we call Birthday Boxes, right. And it was just for the Guest Experience team, probably 300 people. But news got out to everyone else… (For more information on what a Birthday Box is, fast forward to 47:00 mins in our full episode with Kevin).
Our third-party employees started saying “where’s my Birthday Box?” And we had to say, “Ahhhh, we’re just piloting this… yours is coming…” But they feel a certain kind of way! They connect with each other. So of course, as we move into this new year, that’s something that we’ll take globally across the organization, once again, just to make people feel connected. And as one team.
The beauty of having all third-party employees enter into one database, is it helps Kevin recognize all those staff. How could KG make a Birthday Box for a third-party, front-line supervisor if KG doesn’t know what her birthday is?
Kevin: All of that’s in a database. So this global database consists of who you are, where you work, how long you’ve worked there, your email at the right email address, the right phone number, birthday, work anniversary, all of those special things.
So on certain days we might just do random acts of kindness. Come up to you, “David. Hey, I know you’re a Skittles guy. Here’s a bag of Skittles for you, man, enjoy the day.” So yeah, that global database is all encompassing of things that are important to that individual. Remember the “I” in S.M.I.L.E. is “Individuals Matter.” (To find out what the other letters stand for in SMILE, go to the 18:40 mark in the full interview)
Aggregating third-party employee data into one, overarching database helps answer so many questions that exist in the traditional venue set-up. Kevin would go on to tell us about how that database is helping the Hawks do professional development for that staff during this pandemic, everything from hosting Town Halls to convey important messages to hosting virtual trainings.
Getting all of your gameday staff to represent your brand during your event can be a big challenge. But with enough persistence, leadership support, relationship building and digital tools, you can do it. But if the lift just seems too heavy to do alone, we’re here to help.