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Human Resources - February 2017

The Power of Perks

Incentive programs increase morale and improve employee engagement, boosting the bottom line

by Jodi Helmer

On the Fourth of July, the senior leadership team at Darien Lake abandon their offices, don aprons, and spend the afternoon cooking hot dogs and serving frontline staff.

The Independence Day picnic is one of a handful of employee appreciation events the New York theme park hosts each season.

“There is a cost associated, both financial and time-wise, but it creates relationships among staff and gives our employees something to look forward to,” explains Amber Ciesiulka, public relations and events manager at Darien Lake. “We recognize that having happy employees translates to happy guests.”

The trend of employee incentives extends beyond the attractions industry. The Incentive Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization serving the incentive industry, reports more than half of U.S. companies offer incentive programs, spending more than $100 billion annually to reward and recognize their employees.

Among attraction operators, there is growing awareness that employee incentive programs help reduce turnover and improve morale, which elevates the guest experience—and most programs can be implemented for minimal cost.

Popular (and low-cost) incentives range from reserved parking for employee of the week/month and merchandise for perfect attendance to gift cards for hitting performance and sales goals.

At Darien Lake, the incentives include multiple “Employee Appreciation Nights” each season, free tickets to the park for staff and their families, and in-park discounts on food and beverage.

“These events help us create a sense of community in the park,” Ciesiulka says. “We want our staff to feel like they belong at Darien Lake.”

Darien Lake has been offering employee incentive programs for more than a decade. Appreciation events and free tickets are mainstays, but the park also experiments with its offerings every season.

“We like mixing it up and offering different incentive programs to make sure we’re offering something for everyone,” says Ciesiulka.

Teens might love an evening of exclusive staff access to the water park while teachers working part-time at the park might be more appreciative of free admission for their children.

“Making our employees feel like they are an important part of the park is the best incentive,” Ciesiulka notes.

Tiny Tokens, Big Results

Incentives don’t have to be elaborate or expensive to show results.

To amp up the fun factor at Rapids Water Park in Riviera Beach, Florida, Operations Director Lisa Hogan got creative.

In 2013, Hogan turned the soda machine into a prize dispenser. She wrote messages on the bottom of a handful of cans each time she filled the machine in the lunchroom. When employees purchase soda, they can win free meals or park merchandise; once, she gave away a television.

“These kids work their tails off,” she says. “It’s a fun way to let them know we appreciate them.”

To keep staff from taking advantage—one employee brought rolls of quarters to work with a plan to buy all the soda and claim every prize—staff are limited to four sodas per shift.

Rapids Water Park also rewards its returning employees for filling out paperwork before the season begins by entering them into a drawing for prizes like free uniforms, tech gadgets, and gift cards awarded during orientation. New employees, Hogan believes, see the prize drawings as an incentive to return the following season.

“We don’t think of these as incentives; it’s our way of making the job fun,” Hogan says.

Celebrate Connection

For the 200-plus actors who staff Land of Illusion Scream Park—
a haunted attraction in Middletown, Ohio, that is open for nine weeks in September and October—elaborate costumes and makeup make each shift feel like a Halloween party.

Even though it’s a sought-after seasonal job, owner Brett Oakley doesn’t rely solely on the attraction’s atmosphere—or the promise of a regular paycheck—to keep employees engaged.

“In the younger generation, money isn’t always the answer,” he says. “Building self-confidence is also a very important factor.”

In 2009, Oakley introduced an end-of-season awards banquet. The annual event includes a catered meal and awards reception where employees are given plaques and trophies in categories like Best Scene and Best Scare Actor.

“We know that everyone wants to feel appreciated,” Oakley says.

While employee appreciation is top of mind, Oakley recognizes Land of Illusion benefits in other ways from hosting an awards banquet at the end of the season.

The staff works extra hard in the hopes of earning one of the coveted awards, which requires teamwork and a dedication to guest satisfaction—and both have positive impacts on the attraction.

Elevate Engagement

Certain incentive programs can also affect how guests view the park.

At Darien Lake, one of the most popular incentives is the Pocket Praise program.

The leadership team issues on-the-spot feedback (via a “ticket” acknowledging good deeds) to employees doing a great job. Pocket Praise could be given to a concessions worker for replacing a dropped ice cream cone or helping a lost child reunite with her parents.

“The positive feedback motivates our employees,” says Ciesiulka. “When it’s done in front of a guest, it makes our employees feel even better and lets our guests know we care about our employees and the guest experience.”

Incentive programs like Pocket Praise have helped Darien Lake improve employee job satisfaction and reduce turnover. Its annual return rate for staff ranges from 40 to 55 percent per season.