Shanghai Disney Resort's Joe Schott on Lessons Learned in the Pandemic
On May 11, following more than 15 weeks of pandemic-related closure, Disney enthusiasts could once again immerse themselves in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure,” soar over the horizon in a flying theater, and see their favorite characters at Shanghai Disney Resort.
As the leader of one of the first attractions in the world to reopen, Shanghai Disney Resort President and General Manager Joe Schott could not look elsewhere for guidance as he strove to “preserve a magical experience” for guests, while simultaneously addressing new realities.
A 37-year veteran of The Walt Disney Company, Schott stressed positivity to his team as they navigated the park’s closure and reopening. Several months later, Schott is as optimistic as ever about the global attractions industry’s future. In conversation with Funworld, he reflects on the lessons learned from COVID-19.
Funworld: Operating in a COVID-19 world is uncharted territory, and Shanghai Disney was a pioneer. How did you approach reopening?
Joe Schott: We started with having to reimagine the guest experience. As you think about the entry pattern and other things that we needed to do differently, we had to prioritize the safety and health of our guests and cast while still preserving a really magical experience along the way.
We had to make changes daily. We’d have conversations a couple of times a day and then regroup each night.
Take the reservation system that we used to stagger arrivals, for example. We needed to associate each person’s name to a ticket, not just the head of family, due to government contact tracing rules. We also couldn’t write down the guest names manually or type them in as they arrive, so we had to develop a system that could retrieve this information, assign entry times, and that we could scan upon entry. We had lots of growing pains with that. Nothing ever works exactly as you planned. The technical team delivered what they said they would deliver, but the volume was more significant than we expected.
We didn’t have complications with the guest behavior. Guests were doing exactly what we had hoped that they would do and in a very respectful way. I think most of it was us trying to be as perfect as can be in the magical execution of what we were delivering.
Looking back, what were the most difficult challenges for Shanghai Disney Resort in addressing COVID-19?
Reopening on May 11 was probably as emotional, if not more so, for some people than our original opening, and not just for the guests. It was very emotional for the cast because they had been through so much and sacrificed so much to get to that point.
Back when there were thousands of cases a day, it was really challenging for people to keep a positive perspective. “This too shall pass,” we had to keep reminding ourselves.
Personally, it was challenging at times to live out the positivity that I was preaching to my team, but my core team leaders would help me regain perspective.
When you think about this whole episode in terms of professional challenges, you have to focus on hits that translate into runs. Each day you can make progress against that. You just have to point to those mile markers and know that you’re actually making progress.
How do you persuade guests that it’s safe to come back?
Even after the government says it’s OK, there are people who are not comfortable going out. Everybody has to make their own choices, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do to help them recover that confidence. That being said, there are lots of things we did to encourage people to feel safe and secure about coming to this beautiful, happy place.
First, we needed to create a safe and healthy environment for our casts. Once we had confidence in being able to maintain that bubble, based on the government input, we went through a very deliberate phased-opening process.
During the course of opening, we trained relentlessly. We updated our cleaning and disinfecting process throughout the parks in three categories: high touch, medium touch, and very infrequent touch. Then we put in technology solutions to help us track the safety of our casts and guests, and we had to update our app to make it very intuitive in the process.
Cast member training was huge. I don’t think we realized how significant the retraining was going to be. We had to change the way we loaded attractions, spaced out guests, cleaned, and all these things required huge amounts of time to orient our cast.
Do you think the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the industry?
This is a speed bump in the road. We’ve got to understand that we’re going to get past it. We’ve seen the desire for our guests to come to the park grow exponentially as they gain confidence in the overall environment, and that gives me confidence in the longer-term play for the entire industry.
One long-lasting effect is going to be the use of technology in areas we hadn’t used before. Take cashless points-of-sale, for example. The government asked us not to have on-site ticketing. We have closed our ticket booths since this pandemic began, and I don’t think there’s really a need to reopen them, thanks to technology and how we digitally distribute tickets. That’s a game changer for the way we think about our experience tomorrow.
What are the top lessons that Shanghai Disney has learned during this time?
One, focus on your employees. Making sure that your cast is healthy and informed is a critical success factor that also helps management keep their perspective in the right place.
Two, stay connected with your guests. Find ways to talk to them. We used a small team, just a couple of people with a video camera, to do little, impactful shorts, like yoga with Mickey Mouse and tai chi with Chip ‘n’ Dale, things like this were important to let guests know: “We’re getting ready. We’re going to be better than you remember. Magic lives here. It’s alive, well, and is just waiting for you to reemerge.”
How about from a personal perspective?
I spent more time just connecting with my team and recognizing that we’ve got to have an outlet to talk about how life is working out at the moment, before you get to business. My leadership team, for example, started communicating on a completely different level. We took a lot of time to just share our feelings. You have to know somebody on a more personal level when you’re going through something that makes you that vulnerable. I think the team did amazingly well, and that’s why we were able to open first amongst the Disney theme parks.
Technically, I knew how to do it. I don’t think that that was ever a challenge in terms of knowing what to do next. It was a matter of how you get to keep people’s head in the game and make sure that they keep their spirits positive, and not go to the dark spot that they’re hearing all around them. People need to have a positive outlook in order to get the most out of both their personal and professional lives.
Shanghai Disney and other attractions in China are ahead of other parts of the world. What advice do you have for others in the industry who are still trying to find their way through the pandemic?
Have faith in the industry being resilient. People are always going to have the want and desire to travel and experience the things that our industry delivers.
Listen to the people around you in a more attentive way. We’ve worked really closely with the local authorities during the course of this epidemic, for example, and I’ll tell you, at times we didn’t always have the same opinion, but the conversation was always fruitful.
When you come back, you don’t want to come back at less than you were. You want to come back better. You want people to really say, “Wow, I can’t live without that in the future.” That confidence that you gain from returning customers can power your business growth for years afterward, if you cultivate it the right way.
I’ve seen the power of positive thinking work through my entire career, and I can’t underscore how important it is, during the course of this challenging situation all over the world, for our industry to recognize that it can bring joy and happiness back to people’s lives.
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.