Summer Staffing: Making Safe Changes
Parks and attractions are labor-intensive businesses. This year, however, finding the labor is especially challenging as employers across many industries post help wanted signs en masse. With the pandemic showing signs of winding down in the United States, many companies are trying to staff up and return to some sense of normalcy. Parks and attractions seeking seasonal employees, therefore, have to vie with other businesses for candidates. And those candidates—like virtually everybody else—have had their lives disrupted by COVID-19.
Facing the prospect of getting by with less employees, how might parks adjust and adapt? How can they find operational staffing efficiencies?
Many attractions had already opted for a limited operating calendar this year, not because they anticipated a hiring crunch, but because they thought the pandemic would continue to stifle attendance. Assuming that social distancing requirements, reduced capacity mandates, and other COVID-19-related policies would still be in place, they throttled back expectations.
Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, for example, is planning to close on Tuesdays and some Mondays this season. And, except for Saturdays, the park will remain open only until 7 p.m.
“We planned conservatively for a limited schedule,” says Nick Paradise, director of communications for Palace Entertainment, Kennywood’s corporate parent. Pandemic conditions have improved, but Kennywood plans to stick with a reduced schedule for now because of staffing challenges. “It (shorter hours) requires fewer team members,” Paradise adds.
Similarly, instead of a typical seven-days-a-week schedule, Cedar Point and Cedar Point Shores Waterpark in Sandusky, Ohio, will not open on four Tuesdays and Wednesdays in June. The amusement park will also reduce its hours on many of the days it will be open during the month by shutting its gates at 8 p.m. Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire, is not planning to open on Mondays or Tuesdays throughout June, July, or August and will shut down at 6 p.m. all days that it is open this season.
Paradise believes if ramped-up hiring campaigns yield results, operating hours could be restored. “We’re hoping that we can expand hours back—not to 2019 levels—but better than 2020. It’s an incremental process,” Paradise says.
Automation and Innovation
As many parks this season cope with fewer staff members, they’ve begun to selectively close rides or rotate the operating schedule of rides, as well as dining and retail locations.
Six Flags found efficiencies through automation and innovation. “There is technology that we introduced during COVID-19 that will make operations more efficient and cut back on our labor needs,” says Bonnie Sherman Weber, the park group’s senior vice president of operations. For example, all of the parks incorporated Evolv Technologies’ contact-free security screening system at their front gates as a way to help maintain social distancing. Six Flags will continue using the systems, thereby reducing the need to manually check most guests’ bags. In turn, the parks won’t need to hire as many security staff members.
Ben Mathews, senior vice president of enterprise solutions at accesso, believes that technology and automation can play a significant role in helping parks and attractions reduce their staffing needs. Getting more guests to purchase tickets in advance online instead of at the front gate is one way to leverage technology. The trick, Mathews says, is to make the experience easy to understand and use. “Most guests want to engage online,” he notes. “Make it so intuitive they wouldn’t need in-person operational support.”
accesso offers a mobile food and beverage solution that enables guests to place their own orders. The concept, which can be used both on mobile phones and on-site kiosks, has allowed attractions to offer a contactless way to process orders during the pandemic. But, as with automated security screening systems, mobile food and beverage (F&B) technology can also reduce the need for cashiers, help at the counter, and other staff in dining locations. accesso is considering development of a similar preordering solution for merchandise.
The company’s virtual queuing system frees guests from the drudgery of waiting in lines. It also allows them to do other things, such as make purchases in shops or grab something to eat. And with less people in line to manage and support, the system can reduce staffing needs.
“It’s a triple winner,” says Mathews, referring to the implementation of technology at parks and attractions. “If you can enable guests to do as much as they can digitally, there’s an upside to the guest experience, there is the potential to generate more revenue, and there’s operational savings.”
Six Flags launched mobile food ordering during COVID-19 and plans to keep the systems in place post-pandemic. The parks also introduced kiosks that allow guests to convert cash into cards for contactless transactions, another automation solution that will remain in place. “They are just more efficient ways of doing business,” says Sherman Weber.
What about ride operations at parks? Might there be a way to find efficiencies there as well? Brian Ondrey, president of Irvine Ondrey Engineering, believes that it is possible.
Many times, there are at least three staff people assigned to operate a roller coaster: two to check restraints and one to operate the control panel. Ondrey, whose company designs show control systems, says that by adding a safety key switch, the operator could remove the key and disable the panel. That would free the person up to pull double duty and also help check restraints. Parks might, therefore, be able to dispatch coasters with two staff people.
“It’s going to cost you in time,” Ondrey notes. “But if it’s a matter of personnel versus capacity, yes, you could reduce your staffing by one person.”
Can parks lower the number of employees for coasters that have been designed to require five or six ride operators? “Here’s the good news. We’ve already thought of that,” says Ondrey. Rides often offer the option to disable one or two of the operator stations. It’s important to abide by ASTM standards and account for redundancy and safety. “You wouldn’t want to have just one person responsible for the operation of a coaster,” Ondrey says.