Serious Staff Training in Play
Perspectives from Mini-Golf and Go-Kart Centers

By Sara Hodon

Having a competent and reliable staff is as important to a business as its physical building and equipment. In the park and entertainment venue industry, employees are not only responsible for giving customers a satisfying experience, but also for their safety and well-being while they’re on the premises. Venue owners, operators, and managers utilize several different training methods to attract, retain, and grow their workforce to fit their venue’s culture.

Evvy Matako, party host, Adventure Sports. Staff members are treated to several activities throughout the year.

Margaret White, owner of Papio Fun Park in Papillion, Neb., said her staff works out of a training book that covers the various aspects of running the operation. “It’s an extensive list. It takes about three months to complete. Our new hires work one-on-one with their mentors. The book has three columns: Column One is checked off when the employee learns the item; Column Two is checked off when the employee can recite the task back to their mentor; Column Three is for the manager to check off when the function has been learned.” Employees have five levels of training to become managers. “It takes about a year to get to the next level,” White said. “It goes by how many operational hours they’ve worked. We also have a volunteer component—the employee has to get involved in the community; it’s often tied in to events we’re doing.”

Mike Rohaly, general partner of Coal Country Miniature Golf in Fairmont, W.V., said their training stresses giving customers everything they expect, and just a little bit more. “My top tip is to call and treat our clientele as ‘guests.’ Safety is important—even as simple as paying attention to where you are walking. Treat the facility and our guests as though you are the only representative of the company. Be nice. Be friendly.” As most managers know, training staff can be challenging. Issues can range from having different personality types work together to accommodating staff members’ various learning styles. Rohaly said one of his biggest challenges is dealing “high turnover because it’s mostly minimum wage work.” 

Janet Hill, owner, Adventure Sports in Hershey in Hershey, Pa. A new program will make available to employees a staff ambassador to serve as a link between workers and the management. “We want them to know we will implement changes to improve situations as much as we can,” she said.

Janet Hill, owner of Adventure Sports in Hershey in Hershey, Pa., said one of her best tips for training staff is “to keep them engaged by keeping it fun.” She encourages a sense of fun and keeps morale high by “having several staff outings throughout the season. This provides the staff with the opportunity to be together in a more casual environment. We also encourage staff participation in special events such as preparing the Yearbook, designing a feature sundae, and preparing charity events.” 

Although White’s staff doesn’t have mandatory team building events, she said her staff will come in for a Decorating Party the week after Thanksgiving. “We decorate the park for Christmas then we’ll all go out for lunch,” she said. As for keeping morale high, she says much of that comes from the team members themselves. “It’s a team effort to get things open. The kids know what needs to be done. They’ll just look at our checklist and pick and choose what they want to do. Most of the kids do things in pairs, but they’re not always the same pairs. Our staff is thrown into the team concept right at the beginning, and our junior kids always work with the senior kids.”

Erik Peffley, head of maintenance, Adventure Sports. The owner said staff members are encouraged to approach management with any issues they may have.

PJ Lahey, owner of Lahey Family Fun Park in Clarks Summit, Pa., agreed that keeping training fun goes a long way towards retaining staff, many of whom are working at their first job. “Making sure they are having fun and enjoying their job is essential to keeping them engaged,” he said. “Their positive attitudes are contagious, and ensures our customers have the best experience possible.” 

Operators said it’s also important to have clearly-defined roles for each employee. “We cannot expect employees who are so new to the workforce to just know what’s expected of them,” Lahey said. “Things that seem obvious to management is not always as obvious to younger workers. For this reason, the responsibilities and expectations of each position are clearly defined and documented.  We use videos, manuals, training from management, and training from peers to thoroughly reinforce the responsibilities of each employee.” 

Collin Truitt, customer service representative, Adventure Sports. A suggestion box lets staff members contribute ideas anonymously.

White said having clearly defined roles is critical at her facility, as well, as each employee is cross-trained to learn the various aspects of running the operation, so they need to know the finer details of what each position entails. “Our staff works year-round. They’re not just hired for the season and not just hired to do one job,” she explained. “Twenty years ago our training was more casual, but then we decided we needed to get a real program. We started using this training program about 15 years ago. One of the big components of it is the Go Kart Boot Camp, where the employees go out and learn how to fix a wrecked go kart and more. Most everything we do is hands-on, but some things you just have to be taught.” 

As owners and managers are aware, training staff has its share of challenges. “The two biggest challenges are having a time when everyone can attend—thus having two training sessions—and keeping the training moving along so the staff doesn’t get bored,” said Hill. Once again, finding ways to keep the session fun and the associates engaged helps reduce the likelihood of boredom. Because most of the workforce is so young, Lahey said it can be a challenge to teach good customer service skills. “While skills such as working a Go-Kart control system or cash register can be easily taught, training the staff to interact with customers in a meaningful way is much more difficult.  This issue is best addressed by carefully interviewing and hiring employees whose personalities are a good fit for our facility.” 

Attracting and training strong employees helps boost retention, so an FEC operator can bring back the solid employees year after year and may only have to bring on a few new hires each year. Operators said they try to address employee issues (whether disciplinary, or an issue the employee brings to their attention) on a case-by-case basis. “We address complaints objectively, seeking out all sides of the story and make decisions as fairly and unbiased as possible,” Rohaly said. “We keep safety foremost, and the best interests of the business second.” 

Lahey said his management team expects employees to act as the eyes and ears of the facility, and relies on their input for issues and concerns. “Our employees are our greatest asset, and can give us insight into issues that might otherwise go unnoticed,” he explained. 

Customer Service Representative Jenna Miller of Adventure Sports. The owner encourages staff participation in special events such as preparing the Yearbook, designing a feature sundae, and preparing charity events.

“We often ask our staff what we could do to make their jobs better. If there is a complaint about working conditions, the issue is addressed immediately. Complaints about other employees are treated more carefully. The employees know they can make a confidential complaint, and management will follow up accordingly.” Hill said staff is encouraged to come to management with any issues; if they are uncomfortable speaking to a manager face-to-face, a Suggestion Box is available for issues to be submitted anonymously. She added they are trying something new for the upcoming year. “We are implementing a staff ambassador. Staff can bring their concerns to the staff liaison who can then speak to management. We want them to know we will implement changes to improve situations as much as we can.”

White is fortunate in that they don’t get many complaints from employees. “If there’s a problem we tend to fix it. If an employee complains, they likely don’t stay with us for long,” she said. “Our employees are cross-trained, so they don’t have to be outside in extreme temperatures for long periods of time. We don’t have employee ‘interviews’—we have ‘auditions.’ We bring in groups of 50-80 kids each year. Our staff is there and they know what they’re looking for.” She added, “We’re pretty lenient. We have an 80 to 90 percent retention rate. We have about 35 staff members, which includes some kids who came home for the summer and left for an internship. Once you’re here you can bob and weave around a second job, internship, what have you, and schedule around those other commitments.” 

There is no one tried-and-true process for training staff; it can often take some time before you find a method that delivers the results you’re looking for. Whether you utilize an in-house training program or work with an outside vendor, ongoing training is key to keeping your staff informed and engaged with the correct way to complete various job-related tasks. 

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