Wednesday, February 13, 2008

As they enter the 2008 season in their new ballpark, the Washington Nationals are getting some help from Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends.

The team has hired a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company to help train staff members on improving customer service and the experience for fans on gamedays.

Members of the Disney Institute held a daylong seminar for more than 30 members of the team’s executive staff yesterday and will hold another today for all other customer service employees.

“Obviously, we’re expecting a high level of service in the new ballpark,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said yesterday between sessions at the Greenbelt Marriott. “We know the results [Disney] produces. Everyone knows their reputation.”

Disney, of course, is well known for creating several of the world’s most popular entertainment destinations, including Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. The company created the Disney Institute in 1986 to help other groups learn from their business practices.

During the seminar yesterday, executives got tips on how to create an organizational philosophy that trickles down to all employees. In some ways, the seminar is simply a reiteration of attitudes that team owner Ted Lerner and his family have tried to put in place.

“A smiling, friendly person is the tip of the iceberg,” Disney spokesman Terry Brinkoetter said. “As a new organization, it’s clear they want to create a fan-friendly environment rather than simply hope it happens on its own.”

Since taking over the team in 2006, the Lerner family has placed a new emphasis on customer service. The team has expanded sales staff to ensure season ticket holders have personal account representatives and have contributed tens of millions of dollars on fan-friendly enhancements at the new ballpark.

Team officials were stung last year when fans complained about the performance of food concessionaire Aramark and announced it will replace the company with Centerplate this season.

Kasten said the Nationals field scores of letters and e-mails from fans, and nearly all of them make a point to comment on whether a staff member has been helpful to them.

“Everyone takes note of how they’re being treated,” he said. “We will be continually stressing customer service. That philosophy has been set by our ownership. We already know how important it is.”

For Kasten, this is not the first time Disney has lent a helping hand. Kasten previously hired the Disney Institute when he was president of the Atlanta Braves, and the company owns the Braves’ spring training facility, located near the Magic Kingdom.

In addition to offering single-day seminars, the Disney Institute offers 3½-day seminars at the Walt Disney World Resort, as well as 90-minute sessions and three-hour workshops.

The firm has worked with hundreds of organizations, ranging from McDonald’s and Volkswagen to Duke University and Phillip Morris.

Brinkoetter said the experience at a ballpark is not dissimilar from that of a theme park; fans arrive with a level of anticipation, they are excited for several consecutive hours and they leave exhausted.

“We want to be at the same emotional level of our guests,” he said. “It’s all about creating that culture of service.”

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