Mentoring the Next Generation of Industry Professionals
As a child, Jeff Pike already knew what he wanted to do with his life: build roller coasters. In the pre-internet days, it was tough for the aspiring designer to find information and make connections. He wrote letters and made phone calls to parks and ride companies. When Pike got a little older, he went to IAAPA Expos and “bothered everybody in their booths,” he recalls with a laugh.
When he discovered that Curtis Summers, a structural engineer who worked on the “Texas Giant” and other coasters, was based in his hometown of Cincinnati, Pike “bugged him by phone once a week until Curtis finally answered.” The engineer invited the persistent and precocious kid to meet him, prompting Pike’s parents to buy their son his first suit. So began a long mentorship in which Summers shared his advice, guidance, and words of wisdom.
In gratitude for helping to change the course of his career, Pike has a prominent photo of Summers hanging in his office at Skyline Attractions, where he serves as partner and president. After Summers passed away, his wife bequeathed the engineer’s desk to Pike. “That’s the desk I now use to design roller coasters,” he says.
The Sky’s the Limit
In another form of gratitude, Pike and Chris Gray, Skyline Attractions partner and vice president, developed “SKYnext.” It’s a way for them to offer young adults a more direct and structured way to explore careers in parks and attractions than they were afforded and to facilitate the kind of mentoring that Pike experienced with Summers.
Started in 2015, the annual “SKYnext” weekend-long retreat allows folks from all over the world who are hoping to break into the industry to rub elbows with one another and with professionals from a variety of disciplines.
“It’s their first chance to develop an ongoing professional relationship,” Pike says of the program.
Through the years, representatives from Universal Creative, Morey’s Piers, Rocky Mountain Construction, Falcon’s Creative Group, and Extreme Engineering, to name a few, have participated in the event. In addition to presentations, the group has toured Orlando-area parks and attractions, some of which have been under construction. “SKYnext” quickly became so popular, Skyline Attractions began limiting attendance by choosing the top 60 applicants.
Irvine Ondrey Engineering (IOE), a control systems and consulting company, also reaches out to students and young professionals but takes a different approach with its program, “IOE Rising.” Participants mostly interact through a private Facebook group.
“I want members to have a spot all their own to meet like-minded people, share their experiences, and have a place to vent,” says Anne Irvine, CEO and marketing manager. “IOE team members join in with their own stories, advice, and, most important of all, moral support.”
They also share details about projects on which IOE is working so that participants can gain insight into real-world, day-to-day matters. Via a chat room, “we basically conduct much of our business life in front of the mentees,” Irvine says, adding that they impart best practices in safety and ethics.
“We try to give members a taste of the inside of the amusement industry,” notes Brian Ondrey, the company’s president. Like Pike, he says it was difficult to access information and meet people in the business before he joined its ranks. Ondrey hopes that “IOE Rising” provides resources and a path for young people to make their way into the industry. As the program grows and evolves, he says that some of the earlier participants have be-come mentors to newer members.
Mentors Lead the Way
While she was in high school, Irvine had a life-changing encounter with Dick Kinzel, who worked his way up through the ranks at Cedar Point and later became the CEO and president at Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. Upon learning that she had a burning desire to work in the attractions industry and was seeking advice, Kinzel graciously offered to meet Irvine in person.
“He shared his advice,” Irvine says. “But even better, he shared his personal experiences of why he loved his job.”
The encounter, she notes, was affirming and motivated her to be available to students. She hopes she can be the spark that inspires others to pursue their dreams. To help support their passion and provide encouragement, members receive “IOE Rising” decals, indicating that they are “proud future amusement industry professionals.”
“What students need in big doses is hope,” Irvine adds.
In addition to the Facebook group and chat rooms, IOE invites members to attend “Rising Edge,” an in-person gathering at IAAPA Expo. Industry professionals attend, and the event typically morphs into an informal storytelling and Q&A session.
For its mentoring program, Vekoma Rides Manufacturing B.V. works directly with colleges in the Netherlands, including Breda University of Applied Sciences, and helps present a 20-week program in which students prepare a business plan for a hypothetical family entertainment center.
“The students sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), and we have an open-minded discussion about the business case,” says Peter van Bilsen, global executive vice president of sales and marketing at Vekoma. “We advise them how it would work in the real world.”
Participants break into groups and explore the center’s attraction mix, storytelling, facility management, ticketing systems, food and beverage, and other aspects. In addition to the classroom lectures, students visit Vekoma’s headquarters. At the end of the program, the groups make presentations, which are judged.
Steeped in giving back to the industry and other altruism, mentoring programs are a labor of love for attractions companies. But there is a hint of selfishness, as well.
“We have found some great talent, including one of our best engineers, through ‘SKYnext,’” Skyline Attractions’ Pike says.
Likewise, many of IOE’s employees started as “IOE Rising” members. In today’s uncertain economy, where recruitment can be especially challenging, mentoring programs can be great conduits for attracting and retaining talent. But Irvine says she gets much more than tangible benefits from working with young people.
“Their enthusiasm and unbridled excitement for the work we do almost bowls me over,” she notes. “It’s an incredible joy to share with them. They remind you every day why you wanted to work in this industry yourself and challenge you to be a better leader.”
- Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column.