Predict and plan for your guests' needs - don't wait for things to go wrong and then try to manage the complaints. This is Walt Disney World's attitude to its guests' holidays. Reworded into the buzz phrase "proactive, not reactive, management", it was just one of the messages taken away by delegates on Caterer's professional development course, held at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida.
Disney is adept at managing customer expectations - predicting needs and then providing the necessary tools, information or facilities to meet those expectations. One example, as explained by Jeff Soluri, course facilitator at the Disney Institute, shows how Disney's research and practical approach can benefit the customer.
The company's research has shown that the majority of people are right-handed and will walk towards the right, given a choice. The first stop in the morning for visitors to Disney's theme parks is to buy film for the camera. In line with the company's research, the camera shop is the first store on the right-hand side. Disney has put it where the guest needs it most, not where it best suits Disney. Similarly, merchandise, required at the end of the visit, is on the right-hand side as guests leave the park.
One way of learning what the guest expects is by having staff act as customers for a day, an idea welcomed by Andrew Edwards, general manager, catering, for Gardner Merchant at Eton College. "You need to see your business or service as the customer sees it, not just as you would like them to see it," he says. "Let your staff be a customer - is the level of service as good as you think it is?"
Service mapping, a tool for examining the way in which service is delivered, was introduced by Leslie Bays, course facilitator at the Disney Institute. Used to break down the elements of such facilities as room service, guest welcome, check-out or dining, it can reveal what a guest expects and how these expectations can be exceeded (see form, right).
Paul Kelly, development director at Granada Entertainments, found the session invaluable. "I learned more in two hours on service than in the past five years," he says.
"Service mapping is a process I will employ with marketing to ensure we strive to exceed guest expectations," says Geraldine Calpin, loyalty programmes manager for Forte Hotels.
Service mapping is just one link in the overall chain of staff, and ultimately customer, loyalty. A contented workforce leads to customer satisfaction, repeat business, and thus more profit. But acquiring a contented workforce cannot be left to fortunate accident, it involves a structured recruitment and induction process.
Potential Disney recruits are first interviewed for 15-30 minutes on the phone and given substantial information on what Disney expects from employees, or cast members as they are known. This process deters 50% of would-be recruits.
The next step is the casting centre, where Disney tries to take some of the fear and nerves out of the interview - the door knob is from Alice in Wonderland. Once inside, employees are shown a video which details salary rates, what their appearance should be, the type of work schedule they might have, and the need for personal transport. A further 16-18% opt out after this stage. Those who are hired, or cast in a role, are then taken through the induction programme, known as Traditions.
As last year, this year's delegates were taken through a condensed Traditions programme by cast member Louis Gravance. This whirling dervish of excitement took the group through Disney's corporate history, the inspiration of Walt Disney himself, and the key tenets of safety, courtesy, show and efficiency that every cast member learns as a mantra. These four keys are the basis on which all cast members react to any situation when dealing with guests. "I wanted to bottle Louis up and bring him back to Scotland to motivate my staff," says James Thomson, proprietor of the Witchery by the Castle in Edinburgh.
Gravance is typical of a Disney employee in that he is empowered to put things right when they go wrong. But enough theory - would it work in practice?
At the Yacht and Beach Club resort, delegates met Bob Beck, known as Captain Bob. His role is to be a greeter, an entirely separate role from that of the general manager. He is the captain of the ship and wears a seafaring uniform to reflect this. His primary function is to walk around the hotel preventing problems from occurring and ironing out any difficulties. If a guest has a problem, he is instantly empowered to put things right by offering Champagne, buying small gifts or signing autographs from Disney characters. There are no guidelines to what he is or is not allowed to do.
Delegates were impressed by this level of trust in cast members. "I think it is excellent that staff can deal with customer complaints on the spot," says Hannah Burton, operations director of recruitment consultant Sherwoods. "They have clearly got it right with regard to service, and that is evident in the percentage of return guests."
In 1992, Disney had 68% annual repeat visitation. By 1996, this had reached 75%. The company estimates that an increase of 1% is worth $80m [£48m] in revenue, says Bays.
The increase in repeats is another part of listening to front-line workers. Soluri told the group that, a few years ago, Disney spent thousands of dollars researching what customers thought of the organisation. The findings were interesting, but when cast members heard them they asked management why they hadn't been consulted - what research company Mori had been paid substantially to discover could have been confirmed by cast members. "Listen to your front line," was one of the Disney phrases which Katherine Felgate, operations director of Corney & Barrow, said she would take away.
At Disney, cast members are encouraged to suggest ideas for improving the front-line service. Previously submitted ideas now in operation include the use of information boards listing queue wait times in order to help guests plan their trip around the theme parks, and scripted scenes to play in front of guests to enhance their experience at the Hollywood Tower Hotel, one of the thrill rides.
Perhaps because staff feel involved in the day-to-day workings of Disney, they stay with the company for long periods of time. The staff turnover rate is low - about 15-17% compared with a US hospitality industry average of 100% a year. The cast members' enthusiasm for the company also struck the delegates. "I was amazed by the apparent long service and dedication to Disney," says Paul Schnepper, general manager of the Cumberland Hotel in London.
Nicki Hawkins from Vanguard Lease Company agreed. "Disney appears to be a way of life," she says. "Nearly everybody I spoke to thoroughly enjoys working for the company - the main point being: fun!"