By Natalie Hope McDonald
At iPlay America in Freehold, N.J., it’s all about the “wow” factor. The indoor venue, which features two levels of laser tag, go-karts and bumper cars, spans about four acres, and features some impressive design elements. Inspired by both the Jersey Shore boardwalk and the streets of nearby New York City, the arena also features snack bars, a Skyscraper ride and 4-D Theater experience.
Employees hired at this family-friendly entertainment center usually have at least some experience in customer and/or food service before they even walk in the door.
According to iPlay America’s Vice President and General Manager, Samantha Unglert, “Because we are a multi-faceted family entertainment center, we actually do not start new hires in any of our attractions. All of our operators start on the rides – and based on performance over six weeks or more – they graduate to the attractions.”
The rigorous training process was put in place, says Unglert, to ensure that new employees know the ropes before they interact with customers. The training itself requires about five hours of what Unglert described as an “in-depth, hands-on learning experience” that’s focused on, among other issues, safety.
For starters, new hires are each shown a Power Point presentation and provided with training packets equipped with pertinent information about the venue and job expectations.
“We review all opening, closing and cleaning checklists,” explained Unglert, “and a detailed run-through of the actual operations, including point of sale (POS).”
All new team members are also required to participate in a program developed in house called iPlay University. “This program is conducted over four sessions with eight chapters that cover topics from guest engagement to leadership coaching,” said Unglert. “The main take-away from this course is all about teaching our team that leadership is based on one’s actions and not the position one holds. We also utilize a lot of situational role-playing to help our team members navigate various circumstances that may arise and how to respond.”
Once a new employee is hired, trained and officially brought on board to either operate amusements, manage events or handle concessions, schedules are posted Wednesdays of every week.
“We utilize our Center Edge software system to control all incoming time off requests,” said Unglert, “and to keep team member availability up to date.” This is also where new schedules are created and posted.
There are actually a variety of employment opportunities at iPlay each season ranging from sports and gaming oversight to positions at Mixx Frozen Yogurt, Sonny’s Boardwalk Grill and Broadway Sweets. The venue also hosts live events throughout the year that often necessitates more staff to handle crowds.
The diversity of employment also means there are quite a few ways employees can stand out when it comes time for raises and promotions.
“We have a great evaluation system in place that allows all team members to receive an evaluation on their anniversary date each year they are employed,” explained Unglert. “This system evaluates the overall performance; a salary increase is determined by the overall score.
Employees who achieve and/or exceed their goals are considered for raises and promotions each cycle. The evaluation system seems to make it easy for both employees and managers to track each employee’s performance in a way that spotlights strong skills and individual talents, or even by highlighting areas where an employee may need to improve.
“Throughout the year,” said Unglert, “we are always offering other incentive programs in addition to yearly evaluations. Whenever a team member goes above and beyond, provides excellent guest services, demonstrates teamwork or handles a difficult situation, we reward them with various prizes and incentives, including gift cards and tickets to various places and events.”
The ongoing incentive program really seems to inspire employees to think outside the box, and allows managers to reinforce great work skills well beyond the annual review. There’s no limit to how many rewards an employee can receive if he or she does a standout job.
A big part of this is safety training. “In our industry,” said Unglert, “there is nothing more important to training than [reiterating that] safety is the [hallmark of the] guest experience. Without a safe environment, we cannot create brand loyalty.”
Because safety is paramount in all training at iPlay, Unglert is confident that each new team member fully understands safety protocols by the time they are on the floor or behind the counter. “We ensure they also know and understand how to interact with one another,” she said. “Often the way our team members treat each other is a reflection of how they intend to treat our guests.”
Yep, There’s an App for That
At Laser Flash in Carmel, Ind., Owner Peter Murphy said new employee training starts with the application. An applicant’s ability to follow directions, as well as pertinent experience and willingness to learn the ropes all determine whether someone is ultimately hired at this popular regional venue.
For more than 20 years the family-friendly center has been earning accolades for its top-notch customer service during laser tag events, at the arcade and at private parties. One of the more interesting twists on the gaming offered is the center’s team building opportunities that allow workplace peers to compete to improve communication and problem-solving skills in fun, new ways.
With a range of employment opportunities available at Laser Flash, Murphy said he likes to personally conduct orientations for all new hires that pass muster during the application process.
“They work with a trainer for a few hours and shadow existing employees,” he explained. “New hires have a training checklist to complete and get multiple tasks signed off by a manager to earn their first raise.”
Murphy said in recent months he’s been working to revise the training program to include a lot more role playing in which new hires face real-life situations and learn how to respond, like what happens if a child falls and gets hurt, and how to respond if a customer makes a complaint.
Once a new employee is in the system, all time off and schedules are handled digitally to maximize organization and to limit any miscommunications about who’s on the clock and when.
“Employees submit requests for days off and submit changes to their overall availability either in our POS system or through an app which is linked to the POS,” Murphy explained. “Once a manager approves time off requests, that information automatically becomes part of the schedule template in the POS for when the managers start working on the schedule each week.”
The sheer convenience of the system, which allows employees to seamlessly communicate with their managers digitally, has not gone unnoticed. “We have the reputation of being the most accommodating employer in town with regards to scheduling,” Murphy said.
The schedules are also published online for everyone to access in a special staff portal. Any shift changes, said Murphy, must be approved in writing by a manager before they are entered into the system. He admitted the system eliminates any potential misunderstandings or complaints about scheduling since everyone can see the schedule well in advance.
An important aspect of the employment experience at Laser Flash is also about rewards.
“Almost all managers over the years have been using in-house promotions,” said Murphy, meaning that they are always on the lookout for ways to reward employees who stand out for doing great work and having a friendly demeanor with customers. As such, there’s a lot of room to grow and increase wages.
Outstanding employees are usually asked to become trainers, a step up that comes with a raise. “There are certification tests employees may take to obtain raises,” explained Murphy. “We also score surveys from parties and record those scores by which employee was the party coach.”
Murphy records any positive or negative feedback on the surveys from guests. “Both the survey scores and positive mentions get reflected in a small way on their paycheck,” he said. The overall survey scores during each pay period will ultimately determine the percentage of the center’s gross income that’s shared with employees as an hourly bonus.
The system, which smartly chronicles feedback and achievements, can work in an employee’s favor if they do their jobs well. If they don’t keep up with expectation, well, it can also hurt them.
“Employees can lose their bonuses for being tardy or other infractions,” said Murphy. But the goal is to reward great work and to inspire everyone to do their best.
Attitude Is Everything
Live action gaming really sets Arena 51 Laser Tag near Cleveland apart from the competition. With FPS video games and other high-tech features, players can step into the competition as their own avatars to traverse mazes and games on two different levels. This massive laser tag venue is completely customizable with sound, lighting and fast-paced rounds that challenge players in virtual ways.
James Bailey, the general manager of Arena 51, said that safety and security drive the employee experience, whether on the laser tag field or during parties. The venue has even added a new eight-channel camera system that extends through each area of the family fun center to help monitor events as they happen. It puts a lot of parents at ease knowing their children are in safe hands.
Another big part of the safety protocol has to do with training new employees. “We usually start with shadowing one of our best staff members,” said Bailey. “We want new employees to pick up on the enthusiastic nature our employees have. We sell smiles and the new staff member should learn this on day one.”
What ultimately makes a good employee at Arena 51 is attitude. “Attitude is everything,” said Bailey, which is why after a new employee spends time shadowing a staff member for at least one or two shifts, he or she is encouraged to “gamemaster” independently. This leads new employees to registering and hosting special events on their own.
“Hosting is the most important job,” admitted Bailey, “and some employees never make it to this step. A good host can make many more return customers, and a bad host can hurt the business.”
To ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to scheduling, Bailey lays out requirements up front. “We require that [employees] have open availability at least one weekend day,” he said, adding that he is “lenient” with requests for time off.
Bailey knows well the demographic of not only the guests but also the employees. “We understand that our staff is mostly 20 year olds that have social lives,” he said. “As long as employees request time off before the schedule is posted, they get it.”
A challenge navigating schedules can be when too many employees request the same time period off. It can happen depending on the season and class schedules. “In these situations,” Bailey explained, “we usually grant the request to the employee that requested the earliest.” The importance of a request also weighs in. An example: If someone has requested off for a wedding and someone has asked off for a new video game release, the wedding wins, said Bailey, “regardless of when the request was put in.”
Bailey also evaluates how new hires are doing through regular reviews. These tend to happen every six months or so. Depending on the review, an employee is usually given a raise. They are judged on their attitude and the ability to complete assigned tasks on time and in good quality. Overall, he said, he likes to hire people who are positive and upbeat.
“Attitude, smiles and being fun loving,” said Bailey, “are [how employees] stand out. If they have an awesome personality, they stand out.”