By R.V. Baugus
We all know just how important hospitality is in our world of public assembly venue management. Give those guests who attend your venue a positive experience to remember and they will not only be sure to come back but will also tell their friends about their received hospitality. Living in the times of uncertainty created by COVID-19, hospitality takes on even greater significance when interacting with customers who are unduly stressed due to a myriad of hardships.
No one understands the world of hospitality better than Southwest Airlines, and Jonathan Portnoy with Southwest Airlines Hospitality (they have their own department!) stands at the forefront when it comes to discussing the topic. Portnoy will speak at this year’s IAVM virtual GuestX held from February 9-11. Before we get to some nuggets that Portnoy shared with us prior to his session, let’s make sure that if you have not yet that we get you registered for GuestX by clicking here. We want to also remind you that if you or a member of your team has been furloughed or laid off, IAVM is offering complimentary registrations for full-time IAVM members who have been impacted.
Portnoy will present on the title of How an Airlines’ Philosophy Can Enhance Your Guest Experience. Let’s let the expert on the subject tell us some more in advance of the session.
Do you come from a background in hospitality?
My professional background was primarily in product management before I moved to my current role a few years ago. I was fortunate to serve in this capacity at a number of companies including FedEx, Travelocity and Southwest. This diversity in companies and products gave me a well-rounded understanding of product management. In a very simplified form, product management is about developing and promoting a service or product to best appeal to customers. As I entered my current role at Southwest, I viewed Hospitality similarly to how I worked previously with products and services: Hospitality must be developed and promoted to the audience (both Employees and Customers) with the goal of maximizing its awareness and practice. The only real difference is that Hospitality does not involve a direct revenue stream from sales. But we attribute its practice by our Employees to retaining Customers.
We love how you capitalize several words, including Hospitality, Employees, and Customers. That tells us they are all important to you. Tell us about this thing called the people business.
Whether you work at Southwest, a venue, arena, convention center, or elsewhere, we’re all in the people business. Southwest flies planes and you host concerts or hockey games or conventions. But without people, our industries would not exist. Unfortunately the current pandemic has tested that to the extreme. The Hospitality philosophy at Southwest wasn’t created for an airline; it was created for a company whose greatest asset is its People and Customers. For this reason, the tools and best practices of Southwest Hospitality can apply across organizations and industries that focus on people first and foremost. The key to success is the amount of investment the organization is willing to make in Hospitality.
Can you define the difference between customer service and hospitality?
In our minds, as those who promote hospitality, customer service is kind of getting the job done and hospitality is going above and beyond. So we have developed three different levels of hospitality called Excellent Hospitality starting at that service or Transactional level at the bottom. Finding the solution for the customer, getting the job done and meeting the needs.
The next level is the Transformational Level, building a connection with your customer. Ask them how they’re doing, ask them where they’re traveling, ask them if they’re going to see family or why they’re traveling. Build some sort of connection with the customer. If they’re going to a specific event, a concert or a game, they’re wearing AC/DC clothes or their favorite team’s clothes. Relate to them.
The top phase is we call the Transcendental phase. That’s really about creating a memory with the customer so that customer can kick back with them after the events, after the flight and you can go tell others. Word of mouth is extremely strong. I always use the example of I was on a flight years ago from Dallas to Memphis and there was a family with a mom, dad, and little boy maybe three years old. It was his first flight and the flight attendant brought over a certificate. It was a first flight certificate given to the boy. The boy was elated, he got something from the flight attendant for his first flight and the parents were elated because the flight attendants recognized their son for his first flight. Even better, they were going to Memphis to see grandma and granddad. So of course they’re going to go tell grandma and granddad about their experience and receiving the certificate and now grandma and granddad are going to be loyal Southwest customers. So creating that transcendental level is about creating a memory.
Then one of the worksheets will be filling out what each level means for your organization. Transactional at the bottom, transformational building a connection and then transcendental creating a memory.
Can Hospitality still be showcased in a time when everything is “self-service” due to the pandemic?
Self-service is now big and just because self-service is growing doesn’t mean that Hospitality is going away. It actually provides an even bigger opportunity for Hospitality because now as employees instead of having to check a bag or credit ticket maybe interact with the customer in a different way and provide that extra level of Hospitality going back to that transformation and transcendental level rather than just here’s your ticket and go on and interact in a different way.
You are bound to have some awesome takeaways for sessions attendees. What would be the top one?
The greatest takeaway from the presentation and workshop is understanding that the transition into a company focused on Hospitality does not happen overnight. It takes intention from the organization, especially from all leaders to exhibit Hospitality in their communication and relationships with employees on a daily basis. Including Hospitality within formal employee training and orientation builds a foundational understanding of the philosophy and behaviors. But the consistent practice and advocacy of Hospitality by leaders is what makes Hospitality blossom within the organization.
GUESTX 2021 – Essential Training for Exceptional Challenges
As venue management professionals, we have a responsibility to create a safe and enjoyable venue experience. During these challenging times, we currently find ourselves in, the scope of our industry has changed, and we must be prepared and diligent. It is essential and critical that emphasis is placed on Guest Service Training to better prepare and equip our venues and staff with the knowledge, skills, and expertise to handle challenging situations.
Join us as we welcome Fanny Dunagan, LinkedIn Content Strategist/SAP Talent Acquisition & Employer Brand Strategist, delaware North America, as our opening workshop speaker! She will discuss the five stories every venue needs to tell and how leveraging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is essential for guest services. All who attend will learn how to satisfy these needs, how to use them to attract your guests back to your venues, and remind them of your exceptional guest experiences.
By R.V. Baugus
Randy Brown, CVE, Executive Vice President & General Manager of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has just about seen it all during his three decades-plus at the venue. He has witnessed more starts and stops than a car chugging on its last fumes before running out of gas, but even Brown has to admit what started in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic and is carrying on into this year is unlike anything his eyeballs have ever come across.
“I’ve never worked harder in my life,” said Brown, who actually got in one year of very hard work serving as IAVM Chair in 2011-12. “I’m the little Dutch boy holding the leaking dike. There are more holes that seem to pop up every day and it’s like I’ve got all my fingers pretty much committed and I’m starting now with my toes.”
Before Brown runs out of anatomical parts with which to hold the fort, don’t regard his comments as those of utter doom and despair. In fact, Brown wants his colleagues in the industry to know that just as his venue has hope with events in this year of continued uncertainty, so too can they.
For starters, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel with the ECHL having announced a 2021 hockey season in which the Fort Wayne Komets will host their first regular season game on February 19 against Wheeling. As an anchor tenant, the Komets join 13 other teams to comprise a league that is slated for a June 6 conclusion before the playoffs begin.
“Our hockey team is No. 4 in all of minor league hockey in attendance,” Brown said. “We’ve been No. 1 in the ECHL for a long time.”
As everyone in the public assembly venue world knows, impressive attendance figures have all but melted as many venues host events with no guests while others perform before limited capacities. War Memorial Coliseum’s capacity is 10,500 but due to state regulations will host 2,619 at most when the Komets take the ice.
“It’s a matter of challenging times but we want to keep it alive to make it work,” Brown said. “We’ve been down between $350,000-$400,000 a month. We know that with starting hockey just with labor and mechanical systems with an ice plant running 24/7, along with cranking up cold air in the arena, boilers, natural gas and all, the loss is probably going to go up another $100,000 a month.”
The bright side, according to Brown, is that other events are slated for now that did not take place in the previous year that according to one poll showed some 72% of adults calling it the worst year in their lives. The All-American Outdoor Expo is slated for February 26-28, and Brown is especially excited about hosting the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball National Championship on March 19-20.
In the spring of 2017, the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Manchester University and Visit Fort Wayne were awarded the opportunity to host the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball National Championship events in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. After a successful event in 2019 and another bid process in 2020, Fort Wayne’s local partners were again awarded with the honor to host four more years – 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.
The tournament was wiped out by the pandemic in 2020, of course, but Brown remains cautiously optimistic about its prospects in March.
“Were hopeful and would sure like to have it,” he said. “There is national television and free attention for the market, but it’s all about the experience for the student/athletes, too. It broke my heart last year to not have it. Everything was on sale and ticket sales were great, and then the bottom falls out.”
Brown lamented the furlough loss of approximately 400 combined full-time and part-time staffers, but said with the return of hockey that maybe half of that number can initially be brought back.
“We’re a large building,” he said. “The arena, and over 200,000 square feet of exhibit space. We have a million square feet under roof, and onsite 6,000 parking spaces. We’re in the volume business. There’s a real mix of large and small but the average Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, we might have 15 events happening at one time.
“The good news is that hockey is back, even with restricted capacity. Part of it is you have to think about the quality of life for citizens in the county. There is excitement there and a sign that we’re one step closer to getting things back to normal.”
Brown added that the venue is also the county’s COVID testing and vaccination site. Vaccinations have started and held in one of the exhibit spaces below the arena. Before that, the Coliseum was an early voting site. The facility has served as an evacuation site as well during various disastrous situations.
Brown said that almost 2,000 people stayed at the venue for a few days after a toxic fire downtown caused citizens to relocate. More recently, an ice storm at Christmas time caused a massive electrical outage that resulted in a few hundred people staying at the facility. Just how do you ease the stress of those who have to come in when they had rather be at home? You bake them cookies.
“There are two things we do right away,” Brown said. “First, I’ll call the chef in and he starts making cookies, hot, fresh cookies. The other call is to our IT department to set up a phone bank. The reason for that is these people are upset when they get in here and their blood sugar is plummeting. So, what do you do? You put a warm cookie in their hand to make them comfortable and then you send them over to a phone and say, call your loved ones and let them know where you’re at and that you’re OK.”
Ever the optimist, Brown speaks excitedly about the days and months ahead.
“When I moved here 30 years ago, International Harvester had just left and it was a bit of a dark time period for this community,” he said. “But in the last 20 years we have been on such a boom and with improvements and downtown and the park along the river, and then we’ve got world-class facilities in this town from libraries to orchestra.
“When you think Fort Wayne, Indiana, it would never have that, but guess what, we do. I tell colleagues about the events we have in the building and having four sports teams and they’re like, you can’t do that. Well, maybe we can’t or maybe we shouldn’t but we do.”
International arts management consultants TRG Arts announced that Chief Executive Officer Jill Robinson has been elected to the Board of Directors of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP). APAP, based in Washington, D.C., is the national service, advocacy and membership organization dedicated to developing and supporting a robust, performing arts presenting field and the professionals who work within it. The APAP membership voted in new board members during the Annual Member Meeting held on January 13, immediately following the close of APAP’s 64th annual conference.
According to APAP, its new President and CEO Lisa Richards Toney commented, in part, at this year’s conference, “We’ve got work to do. But we have imagination to uncover and promises to uphold. We are just getting started. We are stronger together, and we are worth it.”
To fulfill the critical mission Richards Toney addressed, Robinson brings more than three decades of enduring dedication and expertise in the arts and culture sector. Her counsel is sought out by arts and culture executives worldwide. With her leadership, TRG Arts has doubled in size, opened a location in the United Kingdom, and served more than 1,200 clients in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Europe. Under her guidance TRG Arts has developed the largest (and growing) global arts and cultural consumer dataset in the industry, the COVID-19 International Sector Benchmark.
“I’m honored to be selected and I look forward to serving with the other distinguished members of APAP’s Board to help revitalize the performing arts,” Robinson said. “With the creativity, bold-thinking and decisiveness of this organization, the sector will come back stronger than ever.”
Robinson also serves on the Advisory Board for SMU DataArts and has served on the board of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado Springs, CO. She is an adjunct professor of the Master of Arts Administration/Master of Business Administration program at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, and an inaugural faculty member for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Cultural Leadership Program.
Our friends at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta were omitted from last week’s update of IAVM member venues who have obtained GBAC STAR designation. We apologize for the oversight and wanted to give special acknowledgment to President & CEO Allan Vella and his entire team for now making “The Fox Experience” even more safe, friendly, and entertaining.
IAVM members seeking to apply for accreditation through GBAC, please use the link https://gbac.issa.com/iavm/!