The Guests are Here!

Martha Stewart move over. Stanford University’s guest services program shows how to properly play host to a whole arena of visitors.

By Ray Purpur and Dr. Elizabeth A. Alden

Ray Purpur is a Senior Assistant Director of Athletics at Stanford University. He oversees the Facilities, Operations & Events area, as well as Men’s and Women’s Crew. Purpur has also served as the Assistant Director of Athletics at the University of the Pacific overseeing the facilities and events area. Elizabeth “Betsy” A. Alden, Ph.D., is President of Alden & Associates: Collegiate Athletics Consulting and Managing Partner at Alden-Perry Athletics Search She is a former athletics administrator and past president of NACWAA.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001,

Convenient and orderly parking. Short admissions lines. Knowledgeable ushers. Quick concession lines with tasty, affordable food. Clean bathrooms. Intelligible public address announcements. Efficient, friendly crowd management.

Such guest services are what fans have come to expect when attending an athletic event. Yet, fans only seem to notice these services when they are not provided.

An old adage in the hospitality industry is that a guest who has a great experience at your venue may tell a couple of friends about it. But, a guest who has had a bad experience will tell anyone who will listen. So, not only may that encounter with the surly usher cause the fan to reconsider purchasing a ticket in the future, but you can also bet it will be water-cooler fodder the next work day.

That’s why it is so important to implement policies that will guarantee a positive experience for each and every fan. This article will describe several approaches designed to empower venue managers to provide first-class guest services at collegiate athletic events. These procedures are used at Stanford University in the course of hosting 400 home varsity athletic contests in 33 sports per school year, and a number of NCAA regional and national championship events. However, these concepts are easily adapted to any size venue, at any size college or university.

Staff Training
The level of success you attain in guest services is largely a function of things that happen long before the event begins. That is why we hold a training session in August of each year.

Our training session takes four hours and is required attendance for every employee under the “guest services” umbrella. This includes our full-time employees (Director of Operations and Events, Parking Manager, Guest Services Manager, Concession Manager, Event Manager, and Facilities Services Manager) and our part-time employees (ushers, ticket-sellers and takers, parking attendants, security guards, part-time event managers, and custodians). All employees are paid to attend this training.

One part of the training entails going over logistics and detailing any changes from previous years. For example, we map out where wheelchair seating is, explain any changes to the printed tickets, and warn them about any construction scheduled for the upcoming year.

The more difficult part of the session is the teaching of proper interaction with spectators. This type of training can take many different forms, and we’ve experimented with several over the years. In some years, a senior level administrator has lectured on the topic. We’ve also asked those attending to do some role playing—acting out how they might react to fans in certain tricky situations.

Last year, we hired a nationally known consultant to conduct the training. While this person didn’t say anything too different than what was relayed in past years, attendees reacted well to his presentation. Most important, we’ve found, is to change who is leading the training each year; after the third year of hearing the same person, attendees quickly get bored.

We are also looking into doing two levels of training in future years. If an employee has completed the initial training, he or she could attend a upper-level training the next year. The next level would build on the initial workshop, providing a further level of information designed to empower long-term employees.

No matter who leads this training or how it is structured, the most important point we are trying to get across is: Take care of your guests. All ushers (and other support staff) are challenged to be professional and friendly hosts, no matter what the circumstance. The following are the top eight guidelines we talk about during training:

• Give each guest eye contact, a smile, and a friendly greeting.
• Uniforms must be clean and name tags visible.
• Eliminate personal intrusions and internal problems during work time (i.e., save ALL talking with friends for off-hours or break-time, which is held in one special employee-only area.)
• Take ownership of a problem until it is resolved.
• Use positive words with spectators, such as “I’ll be happy to show you.”
• Be proactive to avoid negative situations.
• Keep your assigned areas clean. Get help or clean it yourself.
• Say good-bye to the guests as they leave. “Thank you for coming to tonight’s basketball game.”

Staff Retention
Second only to the above guidelines is to work toward the retention of those current staff members who do a good job for you. This starts with good hiring practices and continues with praising and elevating those who are deserving.

In the past at Stanford, we had always hired part-time guest services personnel through word-of-mouth. Current workers talked to their friends and relatives, and everyone who applied got a job. We are now working on raising our hiring standards so that we don’t hire anyone and everyone. We know that as we hire better people, our workforce will continue to improve.

We are now advertising the positions and formally interviewing those who apply. We need a consistent core staff of 75, and so every year, we hope to interview 50 people, with about 15 new hires coming on board. At the same time, we are now eliminating poor performers from the staff.

We are also working harder to provide feedback to our employees. Although it is difficult with such a large staff of people who work on a very limited basis, this is an absolute must if you are to keep your best workers on board. One thing we do is circulate “guest comment cards” and share the responses. Any positive (or negative) cards are photocopied and handed out to the entire staff.

We have also implemented an “Employee of the Game” program. We ask administrators to help us spot an employee who is doing a great job or going the extra mile and name him or her to this special honor. Honorees each receive a personal letter thanking them for their service and a food coupon or gift certificate. We are also considering handing out pins to these employees.

Another important way to retain good employees is by treating each as an individual. This is admittedly difficult with such a large group, but it starts with taking into account some of their personal needs. For example, we do our best to say yes to particular requests. If an employee asks to work inside instead of outside, we accommodate that; if an employee asks for an extra food coupon, we give it to him or her.

Most importantly, we try to single out those really impressive workers and promote them to supervisor-level positions. We recently elevated two workers and found it created a tremendously positive overall reaction from their co-workers. Another way we hope to help our staff grow is by offering additional training in topics such as emergency planning and sexual harassment.

Pre-Event Planning
Since every game has particular nuances, it’s important to communicate its details before every event. These include: How many fans are expected to attend? What ticket promotions apply to the event? Is there reserved seating for the event and where is it? Is there halftime entertainment? Are there special guests attending the event? Where will tailgate parties be located?

We’ve found that the best way to get this information out to our guest services personnel is through two strategies. First, we produce a gameday information sheet that is handed out. Then, we have all employees sit down in the bleachers, and we go over the details and answer any questions they may have.

At this time, we also honor the past week’s Employee of the Game and try to get employees in the right frame of mind for the work that is to be done. We impress on them that they are a critical part of the entire event. For example, we might talk a little bit about the team and relay an inspirational quotation from the head coach. Once in a while, we’ve even gotten one of the coaches to say a quick motivational word to the staff.

It never seems to be close enough! And everyone considers himself or herself a VIP, especially at a big football game. “But so-and-so said I could park here,” or “Do you know who I am?” are two of the many phrases uttered by fans seeking to persuade traffic-control personnel to upgrade their parking spot.

The key to avoiding a lengthy discussion with each motorist is having policies in place and educating your patrons. With everything spelled out, most fans will know these types of excuses do not work. The key is for the patron to know what parking is available, and more importantly, why.

At Stanford, we put all parking information in our season-ticket mailers. We also put a map on the back of the season-ticket pass clarifying where that ticket holder can park—this avoids confusion when people share their season-ticket pass with others. We also have parking information up on our athletic Web site and provide a phone number that fans can call with any further questions.

We also ask our parking attendees to use good judgment. We tell them to abide by the parking rules that have been set forth, but we also give them some leeway to be flexible. If someone shows up at the VIP parking gate explaining he has forgotten his pass, but his name is Dr. Smith and he is a Vice Provost who is meeting an important alumnus on the field in 10 minutes, it’s best to let him through. Even if he is being totally dishonest, it is not terrible to have one extra car in the lot. But if he is who he says he is, it might be a disaster to not let him quickly park.

The big question is: Who ultimately controls the parking? Many athletic departments want to oversee all parking for their events, but we’ve found it works better to let the campus police be in charge. Since they are in control of all other campus parking, it can produce poor relations with them to not entrust the athletic event parking to them also.

However, it is still important to work with campus police on parking strategies. Invite them to the trainings you conduct and discuss all options and situations. But, do let them have the final control over the roads and parking areas.

Even with the police overseeing the parking services, we supply the staff. A good parking services program includes a Parking Manager, who is trained in parking management and is responsible for all parking needs and problems. He or she should have a golf cart to be able to troubleshoot the entire venue.

A large athletic department should also have an Assistant Parking Manager to help check staff in and out and take care of the equipment. Each parking area or lot should have a supervisor to coordinate the parking attendants. Each lot should also have enough attendants to handle the influx of cars; if the parking lot is not marked, more attendants will be needed. It is also helpful if each supervisor has a means of communicating with the Director of Operations and Events or the campus police quickly about any serious problems they might encounter.

Food Service
By definition, fast food served at athletic events is not home cooking. Hot dogs and fries can only taste so good and only be so hot. However, there are two things you can offer the customer that will be appreciated.

First, ensure the concession staff is friendly and efficient. This will make for a pleasant, quick exchange at the counter. Waiting in line to pay for fast food while missing plays on the court or field is upsetting to fans. Work closely with food service management to make sure you are providing the type of consistent, quality food service that the fan hopes for and deserves.

Second, be creative by diversifying menu offerings. Helpful cues can be taken from Major League Baseball. The Dodgers offer sushi, the Giants sell garlic fries, and the Astros have footlong jalapeno sausage on a stick, as a few examples.

Successfully introducing new menu items requires you to know your customers. Such knowledge may be acquired through formal surveys, or by simply taking stock of what is requested, but not available, in the concession line. Something as simple as a suggestion box can be very effective and informative.

Try a cappuccino stand for evening games, or use a dessert cart with freshly baked goods and gourmet frozen treats. Prominent, reputable outside vendors from local restaurants are used successfully by many athletic departments to provide these diverse menu items.

Other Items
While the above areas are the major categories to consider in guest services, here are five more points of emphasis:

ADA Compliance: Understanding and meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act is critical to your guest services operations. No fan or spectator should ever, in any way, be excluded or made to feel bad due to their physical abilities.

The main theme we tell our employees is: “treat everyone the same.” We also talk about the fact that not all disabilities are recognizable. So, if someone cannot read the menu or asks to sit in special seating even though they are not in a wheelchair, we do our best to assist them.

It’s also a good idea to work with your campus office devoted to assisting students with disabilities. They can bring to your attention a full range of physical facility issues that will ensure that all spectators feel welcome.

Clean bathrooms: This is an absolute must for any athletic event, whether it’s in a 70,000-seat stadium or a 100-seat gymnasium. Along with cleanliness, sinks and toilets should be working properly. Janitorial staff should be available during the event to inspect and remedy any problems. Adding changing tables in the men’s and women’s restrooms are a must for fans with small children.

Public Address Announcements: Fans should not be expected to strain to hear or interpret announcements that end up sounding like Charlie Brown’s school teacher. Ineffective sound systems are upsetting to fans and potentially dangerous in times of emergency, such as evacuations.

Crowd Management: No matter how well you do everything else, someone who conducts him- or herself in an obnoxious manner in an adjacent seat can spoil a fan’s enjoyment at an event. Therefore, it’s critical to establish and enforce very specific guidelines regarding acceptable and non-acceptable fan behavior. (If possible, include your campus police in any decisions that are made regarding crowd management.)

At our events, if a spectator is acting out of line, the usher politely asks the fan to discontinue the behavior. If the improper behavior continues, we tell our ushers to do what they feel comfortable with; that is, they can talk to the spectator again or they can call in a supervisor. However, we ask the university police to carry out any ejections if behavior is derogatory enough.

Foot traffic flow in and out of the venue can be equally frustrating for fans if improperly managed. Problems can be lessened with good signage, including directions to exits, bathrooms, concessions, and ATM machines. Signs should be plain and large—nothing fancy. Also, make sure people know how to leave the venue. Public address announcements and ushers can make this process go smoothly.

Know Your Venue: Staff should consider fans as guests in their own home when working an athletic contest. When asked for directions to seats or where the nearest pay phone or bathroom is, for example, guest services staff should be able to provide an answer quickly, confidently, and accurately.

It is this constant attention to even the smallest details that will leave your guests with a positive feeling toward your venue and its staff. The best example of this is the recent volunteer effort at the Sydney Olympics. The volunteers became the backbone to the entire event—they knew their venue!

Written Guidelines
One of the best ways to get guest services heading in the right direction is by creating a guest services manual. This handbook will help both new and old employees all be on the same page, so to speak.

The manual can cover all facets of your program, including a list of “Venue Quick Facts” for all members of the athletic department. A copy of the manual should be given to each employee and reviewed at each annual training session.

Creating the manual can be a positive experience in itself. It works best to form a small committee to help write the manual so that many groups have ownership. It also ensures that questions about guest services are thought through and made clear to everyone.

A sample manual might include some of the following information:

• University and Athletic Department Mission Statements
• Guest Services vision statement
• Venue specifications
• County/city/university/athletic department alcohol policies
• Venue Policies, including:
Guest ejection
Lost Guests
Prohibited items
Public Address announcements
Re-entry into the venue
Thrown objects
Unauthorized ticket sales
• Venue Emergency Procedures (including bomb threat information, evacuation plans, fire emergencies)
• Venue Services & Guest Services (including disabled access information and calling taxi cabs)
• Medical Services
• Merchandise Sales
• Parking
• Ticket Office Information & Prices
• Employee Policies (including job descriptions and appearance guidelines)
• an Appendix with spectator comment cards, an incident reporting card, and detailed maps of the facilities