Thursday, June 18, 2009

More From FUNWORLD: Great Wolf's Training Philosophy and Program

After researching waterparks with a plethora of amenities for June’s One-Stop Shop story, I wanted to know more about the people behind the services—the employees who can say that while they work at a waterpark, they also lead facility tours, tell bedtime stories, and act as a tech jockey at tween hangouts. So I talked to Great Wolf Resorts Vice President of Brand Melissa Wheeler (right). She’s been with the company all of its 12 years, and after participating in the opening of the Lodge in Wisconsin Dells, has worked closely with the operations team during 11 more resort expansions. In this interview, she gives me some insight on the secret to a successful staff and how to achieve uniqueness in each location. It makes sense why in 2003, Great Lakes Co. (which evolved into Great Wolf Resorts) won the IAAPA Spirit of Excellence Award for Best Employee Retention.

FUNWORLD: Tell us a little about how the staff’s training program is set up.
Melissa Wheeler: Our training program is called Wiley University—Wiley is Great Wolf’s mascot—and new hires go through about a day-long orientation program that teaches them our “family traditions” (standard operating procedures). This includes the history of Great Wolf, our values, culture, benefits to the job, and more. We call our employees pack members, and when they come on board, we want them to feel really comfortable in their environment.
After the initial orientation program, pack members break off into their respective departmental training sessions, which can last three to five days. Each department incorporates Great Wolf’s service standards—safety, quality, consistency, and fun—and then teaches the specifics of the job: perhaps a recipe for cleaning a room, or the nitty-gritty details of working behind the front desk.
If a new resort is opening, we’ll send in our S.W.A.T. team, which stands for Support With All Traditions. Those are members who have been with the company for many years at other properties. They’ll come to train the new hires and get them up to speed.

FW: How do you find your strongest employees and what are some of the recruiting methods you use?
MW: When we open a new resort, that’s when the energy comes in. Every resort hosts a three-day job fair before opening, and we fly in 25 pack members from our other locations who help existing directors. At our latest opening in Concord, North Carolina, 8,000 people showed up! We use a “right-fit” philosophy when hiring our talent that says they must be the right fit for the lodge and the job must be the right fit for the pack member. We want to make sure more than anything they have those bubbles—that passion and energy that radiates. That’s a hard thing you can’t really teach; but the skills are teachable. So we look for the individuals who have a motivation and passion for GWL. And because of that, some pack members have been with us since we opened.
You have to make sure you put your pack members first—your guest service will follow, and from that will come profit. By taking care of those individual employees comes top guest service.

FW: You’ve referred to the Great Wolf team as a “big family”—how do you build community and loyalty among this group of people? Do you let them add their own personal touches to their jobs?
MW: Each of our resorts forms their own employee-led committees. We have one called the Pride Committee where the leaders bring all the pack members together in a fun way for get-togethers, incentives throughout the year, bingo down at Bear Paw Sweets & Eats.
Through employee-based committees, they gain ownership through their goals. By letting go a little and allowing them to excel, it gives them more passion for the job and pride in what they’re doing.
Also, this summer we aligned with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America and each department is going to work with the local chapter. We’ll allow for complimentary overnight stays for bigs and littles, once they’ve been together for a year. But if they haven’t reached a year, they get to use the other amenities at the resort. And we encourage our pack members to become bigs. We’re opening MagiQuest here in Wisconsin Dells, and that will be a really fun activity for them.

FW: How do you achieve the personal touch and the strong customer service that you want to be known for?
MW: The backbone to our philosophy is that of servant leadership and mentoring. We always want to ask employees, “How can we help you and make sure you have the tools to do your job to succeed?” Their supervisors should be asking “What can we do to help you provide your services?” And that extends to the corporate office, where people should ask each of the properties the same question: “How can we help you?” That philosophy runs all through the company, which is a hard mindset to accomplish.
We also did a workshop on signature service, where we stressed creating “Wolf moments.” Other companies might call these “touch points,” but it asks how they can put their own signatures or marks on the service they’re delivering. This allows pack members to come up with neat ideas.
For instance, one of the ideas that came from our Mason, Ohio, team was that when the wave pool goes off and there’s a howling sound coming out of the attraction, the lifeguards will do their own howls as well. I asked a pack member what he thought of the idea and he said, “Secretly I had always wanted to do that and now I just let it rip!” It’s fun to teach some of the job fair participants how to howl and to see the pack members go through the interview process. Random howling is definitely encouraged at our resorts!

FW: How do Great Wolf staffers come up with such creative ideas for amenities—for instance, your gr_8 space area is a tech haven for teenagers, with everything from laptop portals for Facebook viewing to karaoke and dances.
MW: Yeah, gr_8 space takes a different spin than the woods-theme and is geared moreso to engage the tween market. There’s a tech jockey that runs everything in that space, so kids can safely hang out and watch movies or share photos from their trip. [Editor's Note: Great Wolf's Grand Mound, Washington, location even has its own gr8_space MySpace page where kids can sign on, see pictures from recent events, and post comments.]
Luckily, we have a lot of people at our corporate office who are very creative. And along with brainstorming ideas, we monitor the trends from guests' feedback; our newer amenities are a result of the valuable feedback we’ve received over the years. We ask others, “What would make this amenity really cool?” And personal touches make all the difference. Like at our Scoops kids’ spa, you get an ice cream sundae with your manicure and pedicure. And they crown girls “Miss Great Wolf” and she gets to parade around the resort in a tiara. These places focus on strong educational elements for children, too. When kids are getting facials, they’re a little different from the adult treatment. Instead, they learn more about skincare and hygiene.
Our Cub Club is for little guests between the ages of 4 and 12 years old. We partnered with National Geographic Kids, so we have a lot of great education for them. Sometimes they get in before the waterpark even opens and learn about lifeguarding and what it takes to work at Great Wolf Lodge. We also have programs like “Bugs on a Rug” and “Backyard Birdies,” where they identify animals. The activities usually incorporate games, crafts, and food. And we actually just rebranded our Cub Club room last year, so now there’s an “educational story tree” where you can pull out a portion of the tree and learn about the rings on it. The folks running Cub Clubs are called Ambassadors of Fun and they’re passionate about the experience, bubbly, and excited about making something special for the kids.

FW: What valuable lessons have you learned from working at Great Wolf through the years and seeing how management works at so many resorts?
MW: I’ve learned we are a company of very talented people and when you trust in those people and utilize communication and organization, that’s the key to ensuring the entire team is moving in the right direction. When you’re all on the same page, you know you’re going to accomplish something great.
It’s a movement, and it’s very cool to see that happen. The secret ingredient to success at Great Wolf is the passion our pack members hold. It’s difficult to find and it’s what sets us apart. The evidence of our passion is found most at our openings—at our job fairs and our pep rallies. That really gears the members up and you see all the departments to skits featuring their signature howls. We know we have a lot of work to do but we might as well have fun while we’re doing it.

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