Expo 2012 Executive Panel: Different Roles, Same Goals

CEOs from Great Wolf, Herschend, Texas State Aquarium discuss the relationship between leadership and branding

by Jeremy Schoolfield

To kick off the IAAPA Attractions Expo 2012 conference program, CEOs from three different attractions shared their thoughts on leadership and branding, and how the two work together in service of the customers.

“Branding is telling millions of customers what you stand for as an organization; leadership is telling your team what you stand for,” said Joel Manby, chairman, president, and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment. He was joined on the prestigious panel by Kim Schaefer, president and CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, and Tom Schmid, president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium. Though each of them comes from very different backgrounds and operates some widely different attractions—from theme parks to indoor water parks to aquariums and more—there were many points of overlap among their personal and corporate philosophies on these two important areas of business.

Manby said the key to being a good leader and building up more good leaders in your organization is “constancy and consistency.” He said it’s crucial to clearly define success for employees and the company as a whole, so everyone understands where the company is moving and how they can individually help it get there. As those goals are attained, he said good leaders must celebrate successes with the same fervor as when solving problems.

“It’s the job of the leader to celebrate success … because [your employees] are watching every move you make and what you celebrate,” Manby said. They take their cues from you—both positive and negative, he said.

Schaefer said she challenges all of her corporate executives to ensure all of the employees “on the ground” in the Great Wolf Lodges have everything they need to accomplish their tasks. It’s important leaders empower their employees, not hinder their ability to serve the customers.

Schmid stressed the importance of getting out from behind the desk and staying in touch with your attraction. He walks his aquarium at least once a day, and oftentimes more. It’s a great way to get instant feedback from both guests and employees, he said. He also recommended keeping employees at every level as informed as possible about the attraction’s plans for the future, so they develop a sense of ownership for the property.

The CEOs agreed that their facilities’ brands—no matter how hard they try to steer them—are ultimately decided by their guests, so it’s important to stay in touch with them as much as possible. And that requires good leaders throughout the organization to monitor guest feedback and be willing to respond instantly.

Schmid finds great value in monitoring social media to read unfiltered feedback on what guests are saying about the Texas State Aquarium. He said social media provides “a remarkable opportunity” to help attractions assess their brands.

Great Wolf sends instant surveys to its guests as soon as they check in to start immediately receiving feedback on their visits; Schaefer said there are certain trigger points within the ­questionnaire that, if scored low by a guest, are immediately brought to the manager on duty’s attention so that person can work to rectify the situation. Also citing the power of social media, Schaefer said it’s more important than ever to nip problems in the bud before guests have a chance to voice their ­displeasure online to the entire world.

All of this, however, assumes an attraction has defined its brand. If a facility or company does not have a clear vision and mission—one that is easily communicated to and understood by employees at every level—Manby said this is without question the first order of business.

“You don’t want to rush it, but you shouldn’t sleep until it’s done,” he said.