How should the teenager running the concession stand respond when a customer complains about his lukewarm french fries? What should a groundskeeper do if she spots a lost child? How should a lifeguard address a topless sunbather in the waterpark?
Giving staff the tools to handle difficult situations can help them succeed at their jobs and provide a better experience for guests. Before handing over a uniform and sending staff out to the front lines, parks are implementing role-playing games as part of their training.
“We use role-playing to train staff on everything from life saving procedures [for lifeguards] to handling disciplinary problems,” explains Benny Anderson, general manager of Metropolis Resort in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “We think it’s one of the more effective methods of training because it lets our employees practice how to handle various situations they’ll experience in the park.”
During practice scenarios, managers have the opportunity to correct behaviors and offer suggestions for more effective ways to respond before employees are out in the park interacting with guests. Employees also learn from watching one another. Seeing how a peer responds to a difficult situation can be more effective than listening to a manager explain how it should be handled.
After training staff with videos, classroom sessions, and PowerPoint presentations, Hersheypark introduced role-playing activities in 2007. Operators believed giving employees the chance to act out real-world scenarios during their training sessions enhances their performance.
“We wanted to get our employees invested in what we were teaching them,” explains Chris Duncan, supervisor of guest services and ticketing for the Pennsylvania-based amusement park. “We figured the best way to do that was to make them actively participate in training.”
When the idea was first introduced, Duncan admits he was nervous about the reaction from employees, especially high school and college students who had limited experience with public speaking and might be nervous acting out scenarios in front of coworkers and management.
“We went ahead with it because we knew it was important for them to be able to handle situations with confidence when they were out in the park,” he explains.
There was some nervousness at first, but the overall reaction was surprisingly positive. Employees embraced the opportunity to practice their skills before they were put to the test on the job. Today, Hersheypark schedules multiple role play trainings throughout the year, including one before the park opens and several department-specific trainings during the operating season. Duncan believes the sessions have become popular among the employees, who see it as training and team building all rolled into one.
“We’ve gotten great feedback,” he says. “Through these role-playing activities, employees see that simple changes in their wording or body language can make a big improvement, and it makes them feel more confident out in the park.”
The best way management can boost confidence is to interact with employees during the training. Supervisors should participate, not just stand back and offer suggestions for improvement.
At Metropolis Resort, which includes Action City and Chaos Waterpark, managers also take turns participating in role-playing scenarios, demonstrating both correct and incorrect responses and asking for employee feedback on their performances.
Anderson picks the “biggest man in the room” to act out the role of the hysterical mom who’s lost her child and encourages him to be over-the-top in his theatrics. Letting management and staff have fun acting out different scenarios is part of the appeal of role-playing.
“Keeping the employees entertained during the training is one way to make sure that we’re getting the message across,” he says.
“A good role-playing scenario can teach an employee how to have a genuine interaction with a guest, not just run on autopilot selling hot dogs,” adds James Thomas Bailey, corporate trainer and artistic director for Comedy Sportz LA, an improve company that offers role-playing workshops to corporate clients, including Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios. “No one teaches communication skills in high school or college; role-playing can help enhance guest satisfaction by teaching employees how to interact on the job.”
Enhance the Guest Experience
According to Duncan, Hersheypark has seen a noticeable decrease in guest complaints since the park began using role-playing to train its staff three years ago. He attributes higher guest satisfaction to more confident employees who learned effective tools to handle a variety of situations through role-playing.
When Chaos Waterpark had problems with the heating devices in the indoor pools last fall, managers set up roleplaying training to teach employees how to respond to guests.
“The water was colder than usual, and the last thing we wanted to happen when a guest complained about the cold water was to have an employee say, ‘Yeah, it really sucks,’” Anderson explains. “We used role-playing to teach them more positive alternatives like, ‘Can we get you more towels?,’ and it helped them figure out how to respond.”
Using role-playing also helps the employees at Metropolis Resort learn the procedures for Code Adam (missing-child program in the United States and Canada). One staff member acts as a missing child and hides somewhere in the park while a group of employees follow the procedures for initiating and conducting a search.
“We could have outlined all of the steps in a PowerPoint presentation,” says Anderson. “Using a role-playing game helps them run through the steps and act out how they work in an actual scenario. We know that our employees will still be nervous if it actually happens but at least they’ll have real-life experience to fall back on.”
Role Play for Everyday Issues
The best role-playing scenarios address everyday issues as well as emergencies.
WhiteWater World in Queensland, Australia, uses roleplaying to simulate emergency situations in the pools, giving lifeguards a chance to practice life-saving skills and procedures to ensure they’re prepared if a problem should arise.
To practice their responses in emergency situations, employees at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, take part in mass-casualty incident drills every April. Volunteers act as victims in a range of scenarios from a lightning strike on a whitewater ride that leaves passengers trapped in a raft to a car crash at the ticket booth that causes injuries and casualties.
“Every aspect of the scenario is treated like it is an actual emergency,” explains Daniel Hall, chief of park patrol for Dorney Park. “This kind of intense training familiarizes [the employees] with exactly what goes into effectively handling a large-scale emergency operation. There is no way to simulate something like this in a tabletop exercise.”
All park employees from ride operators to executives are involved in the training. The local fire department, police, and emergency medical crews are dispatched and respond as if it were an actual emergency. According to Hall, partnering with local public safety crews allows everyone to evaluate the best practices for addressing possible disaster situations. In 2007 the training was put into use when three boats on the log flume ride collided and several people fell into the water.
“It went off seamlessly,” Hall says. “Everyone knew exactly what to do because we’d just practiced it a few weeks earlier.
“Simulating real-life situations is themost effective way to train staff,” he adds. “[Classroom] exercises aren’t nearly as effective.”
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and frequent contributor to FUNWORLD. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.