Pia Adlivankin Prioritizes Customer and Staff Satisfaction at Linnanmäki
Photos by Jessi Ristilä
When Pia Adlivankin, managing director of Linnanmäki Amusement Park IN FINLAND, says she rolls out the red carpet for her staff, she means it. “They walk along red carpets when they come to work and when we have staff parties,” she says. Adlivankin does everything in her power to show her team that they are VIPs. “They are the most important factor in our success,” she says.
The red carpet treatment is a symbolic gesture, one that Adlivankin backs up with action. She has transformed the culture at Linnanmäki, guiding the Helsinki attraction as it’s become one of Finland’s best workplaces, earning a coveted spot on the Finnish Great Place to Work list. Her philosophy: “Take care of your people, and they will take care of your customers. People say it, but you actually have to do it.”
Adlivankin is on a personal mission to drive staff satisfaction, improve performance, build guest service, and grow profitability, which she sees as inextricably linked.
A Different Way of Thinking
Adlivankin’s introduction to the attractions industry came early. She spent her childhood exploring North America’s amusement parks with her family. At the time, her father was working for Finland’s biggest candy company, which was considering building a Hersheypark-style destination. “We got to travel with him, so I acquired a love of amusement parks and fast rides,” she says.
Adlivankin, who has dual citizenship thanks to her Finnish-American father and Finnish mother, set her sights on an international career in hospitality. After attending top schools respected for their hospitality programs in Finland and the United States, she worked with big chains including Hilton, Radisson SAS, and Marriott. She was attracted by the five-star service culture. “I thought it was exciting to always exceed customer expectations. I would think up ways to surprise guests,” Adlivankin says. “I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing people happy about the way they were served. I put my soul into it.” It’s the same attitude she looks for in Linnanmäki’s staff.
While guest satisfaction is a priority in hotels, staff satisfaction was often overlooked. “As a young girl, I remember hoping somebody would say, ‘Thank you,’ or ask for my opinion,” Adlivankin says. “In the early days, I was once told, ‘Oh, Pia, it’s not your job to think, just do your job.’ I felt discouraged; I thought it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Later, she went out of her way to look for a smaller place where she could influence the business. She found what she was looking for at the 50-room Manor Spa Kaisankoti hotel in Espoo, Finland, which became a testing ground for her ideas. After a lot of hard work, the hotel was named a Great Place to Work. “We had built excellent staff satisfaction, which resulted in excellent customer satisfaction. In seven years, our revenues increased 35% without increasing capacity or largely increasing prices,” says Adlivankin.
Caring for People’s Welfare
In 2014, she spotted a newspaper ad listing an opening for the CEO position at Linnanmäki. As one of Finland’s biggest attractions, Linnanmäki has a special place in people’s hearts. Located in Helsinki, the city park is interwoven with its inhabitants’ lives. “You go there as a child, as a teenager, on a first date, as a parent with your children, and as a grandparent. You have a lot of history here,” Adlivankin explains. “When we redo something, we always try to keep part of the old and incorporate it into the new, so we still have those layers of history.”
Linnanmäki, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, has an altruistic purpose. The park was founded in 1950 by six children’s welfare organizations, on land provided by the city, as a way to raise funds. To this day, they maintain Linnanmäki through the Children’s Day Foundation.
“Over the years we’ve given out more than 120 million euros from the park’s profits for children’s welfare,” says Adlivankin. Last year, the park donated 4.5 million euros, and held the same goal this year before the challenges created by COVID-19.
As a point of principle, visitors can enter Linnanmäki for free. The park traditionally offers seven free children’s rides, free shows and singalongs, and a picnic area, making a day at the park accessible to all. “We call it the most fun city district in Helsinki; anybody can come,” says Adlivankin. Guests who purchase a wristband can enjoy 40 additional rides and attractions. Adlivankin invests in the softer side of the business too, “making sure the park itself is beautiful.”
During a six-month operating season, the park usually attracts around 1.2 million visitors. Linnanmäki has achieved 28% revenue growth from 2014 (Adlivankin started in June 2014) to the end of 2019.
Creating a Virtuous Circle
Although Linnanmäki could count on a beloved brand, loyal guests, and solid products, Adlivankin thought it needed a shift in mindset to take it to the next level. “Linnanmäki has always been a great park, with a lot of emphasis on the rides but maybe not so much on the atmosphere,” she says. “Staff satisfaction was not top-notch. I was inspired to see how, together with the team, we could change that and make Linnanmäki the best possible amusement park.”
After six years as CEO, she is proud of the exceptional service that Linnanmäki delivers. “It’s not enough that I personally think exceptional service is important,” Adlivankin says. “It’s about the way we train, encourage, and inspire passion among our staff so that they want to serve our customers.”
Adlivankin believes that if you emphasize your staff’s well-being in many different ways, they will want to provide excellent service and always exceed customer expectations. Customers who are satisfied will then come back. With guests returning over and over, the park can generate more revenue, allowing Linnanmäki to further emphasize staff well-being, so they do even more to satisfy guests.
But how does that work when you’re running an operation with 70 permanent staff and 600 seasonal staff? Adlivankin has created a “wheel of success” for what she calls workplace “fun-being” (her twist on well-being). “Being at work should be fun. Everyone has to understand that our success relies on our staff being happy at work. It seems simple, but it’s a big ask,” she says.
The mantra begins with recruitment. “Our staff are masters of creating fun. We have to recruit only the ‘funmasters’ that share our core values. When we find the right ones and provide them with excellent work experiences, we get them back year in and year out,” she says,
Team tasks play a big part in recruitment. “It’s important that you can get on with people and that you’re a team player,” Adlivankin says. “For example, we’ll put four to six interviewees together and ask them to build an amusement park ride from Lego bricks. We’re not looking at who makes the best ride. We’re looking at who takes the initiative, who takes other people’s opinions into consideration, and who sits back and lets everyone else complete the task. Very quickly you see who the team players are and who aren’t.”
Involving Staff in Decisions
Once Adlivankin’s recruited “the best of the best,” she and her team spend time on training and
orientation. Normally, the park hosts an annual gathering for the whole staff where Adlivankin and other funmasters explain the company’s values and direction. She shows her appreciation for the staff and invites them to help shape the business.
“We make a lot of decisions for the park during the offseason, but during the season, it’s important that we ask people, ‘What do you think about these things? We have two choices, which would you prefer? These are the plans; do you have any ideas?’” Adlivankin says. “Usually, they have great ideas. People are much happier when they are involved in the decisions that affect them.”
There is little hierarchy at Linnanmäki. Adlivankin and her human resources director host regular, informal coffee mornings. “Every second week we say, ‘Come and have coffee with us. Ask us anything; tell us anything.’ We’ll sit there whether people come or not.” When people show up with good suggestions, Adlivankin makes sure to act on them. She also rewards those who share feedback and ideas.
Turning Issues into Opportunities
Adlivankin recalls another pivotal moment when, during her second year, tensions arose among her seasonal managers over a particular issue. She called everyone into a meeting and had to listen to some harsh criticism. “I promised them we were going to solve it, and we did,” she says. Afterward, she approached one of the group’s elected spokespersons. “Her shoulders went up to her ears, as if she was preparing to get shouted at,” she says. Instead, Adlivankin publicly thanked her and gave her a gift card with a handwritten note.
“You should have seen people’s faces! But I got to hear of problems very quickly after that, which was good,” she says. “If I’d put my head in the sand like an ostrich, it wouldn’t mean there were no problems. It would just mean that I wouldn’t hear about them until it was too late.”
How a leader treats people, in moments like those, defines the culture of the organization, she believes. Showing respect and trust is essential. “It is really important to win people’s trust. I want them to understand that it’s okay to have different opinions and to make mistakes because that’s how we learn,” she says. “But we need to share our mistakes so that we don’t make the same ones many times over.” Adlivankin wants leaders across the organization to share that same empathetic, coaching style.
The trust that she has built with her staff has helped Linnanmäki weather the effects of COVID-19. Adlivankin is bowled over by the flexibility and dedication of her team, saying adaptability has been key. “I’m really touched by how quickly we adapted to the new way of thinking together,” she says. “We have planned the 2020 season four times now. However good your plans are, anything can change at a moment’s notice.”
Pulling Together After COVID-19
COVID-19 caused Linnanmäki to lose “many millions” she says from the end of April to mid-June. When it came to saving money, all of the park departments united together—whether it was redesigning the season or doing jobs normally outsourced, such as painting, she says.
Linnanmäki swiftly canceled big, expensive events such as autumn’s “Fright Fest,” as well as special event programs and future investments the park hadn’t yet started or could live without. “Everybody understood the big picture and came forward with great ideas for how things could be done differently. I’m really proud of my team for that,” says Adlivankin. “It was really important that I wouldn’t have to lay off my staff. I’m happy and proud that we have had zero days of furloughs or layoffs, for now.” (As of Funworld’s June 2020 interview.)
Adlivankin has had to change the way she inducts staff into the culture, with video and online presentations replacing the mass orientation meeting at the season’s start. “It’s exciting to see how everything can be done differently and how we can build trust, without doing it the ways we have before,” she says.
“What I hope most is that our staff and guests stay healthy as we open up the park. We have done everything we can, but there are no guarantees because we don’t know enough about the virus. It’s important that people support each other, but we still need to move forward. You have to plan ahead; you can’t stop.”
Looking Long Term
Adlivankin had hoped that “Taiga,” an Intamin linear synchronous motor (LSM) double launch coaster that swooped into the park last year, would continue to put Linnanmäki on the world map in 2020. Currently, around 80% of Linnanmäki’s guests are domestic visitors. “International travel is going to be down, but this is a big project, so we’re sure we can still gain the benefits in the years to come,” she says.
“Taiga’s” eagle-themed trains soar at speeds up to 106 kph along the track, which exceeds 1,100 meters. Its 52-meter-high top hat is visible across Helsinki’s skyline. The new ride stands in sleek contrast to Linnanmäki’s classic wooden roller coaster, “Vuoristorata.” Opened in 1951, “Vuoristorata” still uses onboard brake operators.
Linnanmäki’s next big project is to replace the park’s popular, but dated, fun house, which was removed during “Taiga’s” development. “We had planned to do it next season. We’ll take an additional year or two, depending on how this season goes, but we will move ahead with planning for that. We constantly try to develop and bring in new trends,” Adlivankin says.
“Taiga” is a dream come true for Adlivankin personally and her two daughters, who share her love of speed. “Happily, they are also daredevils and will go on any ride!” she says.
In many ways, Adlivankin also treats her staff like family. By nurturing them, she allows friendliness and outstanding service to flourish, which should keep Finns coming back to Linnanmäki for generations to come.
Funworld Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the attractions industry in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region. Contact her at [email protected].