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Every seasonal event requires a dedicated team of eager and talented individuals. Keeping that team for the entire run, however, can be challenging. The very nature of seasonal events is that they’re temporary. This should be clear to anyone simply by the definition of the word “seasonal.” Unfortunately, for some people, seasonal also means, “I can leave whenever I want.” They’ll use justifications like, “It will be over in three weeks anyway,” or, “If they really liked me, they’d offer me a full-time position.” If we examine these two statements more closely, we’ll see that they’re actually better justifications to stay through to the end of the contract than to leave early.
The phrase, “It will be over in three weeks anyway,” suggests that if the worker leaves now, the company won’t be able to find and train a replacement, so the employee is creating undue hardship by leaving. It also means that, in a mere 21 days, the team member will be free to pursue whatever other options he or she desires. Wanting a more regular or full-time position is admirable, but anyone with even the slightest understanding of business will realize that leaving an agreement early will eliminate any chance of being offered ongoing employment. In fact, it may even jeopardize being offered another seasonal position in the future.
In this article, I’ll shine a light on concepts and techniques that will help companies to assemble, develop, and reward teams for limited-run engagements. By implementing some of these ideas, the likelihood of turnover will decrease, and the consistency of a dedicated staff will improve its overall quality.
Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill
The first step to insuring a seasonal team that will last is to find the right people for the right jobs. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s often difficult to execute. In most seasonal entertainment events, you’re looking for three basic types of people: performers, managers, and contractors (designers, writers, etc.). Let’s look at each of these categories individually.
Performers are the most guest-facing member of the event team. They can be anything from Santa to Satan, from ballerina to balloon twister, from clown to contortionist. Whatever their skill, they need to make an emotional connection with the guests. Therefore, the person or people who do the casting should trust their gut feelings. If, for any reason, they don’t feel right about someone, they shouldn’t cast them until they’ve done more research. The Internet is filled with ways to learn more about individuals. Social media can tell you a great deal about nearly anyone. This type of research doesn’t need to be done for everyone, but taking a few extra minutes to look into those “people of concern” now can save a great deal of time and effort later. The last thing any event needs is a negative performer-guest experience. It can ruin the whole run.
Another essential element in finding the right performers for an event is holding auditions. Auditioning accomplishes several things. The most obvious is that it gives the hiring team a chance to see what the performers can actually do and how well they react to real people. Promotional videos and printed material are great, but they’re designed to show the performer in the best light possible. An audition strips away the production value and shows the basic skill level.
In some cases, an audition may be unrealistic. There are many contracted specialty artists who are too busy to audition on site. If this is the case, ask for a live performance video or, better yet, try to find one on YouTube. If they look good in a shaky video shot on an audience member’s phone, they’ll look good at your event.
Auditions also elevate the value of the position being offered. In some haunted attractions, for example, roles are handed out like candy to friends and family members. This makes the position seem less important. For such performers, there’s no time or effort invested in getting the job, so there’s no real connection to keeping it. By holding auditions, performers are forced to prepare for and commit time to getting the job. It makes the position more important and therefore worth keeping.
Another advantage to holding auditions is personal contact. The company learns how well the potential performer follows directions, fills out paperwork, handles changes in direction, etc. There have been many times in my own casting experience in which the performer did a very nice audition, but they were rude and demanding in the waiting room or they bad-mouthed the audition process as they were leaving. These glimpses into the personality of the performer are helpful when trying to assemble a team that will stick it out through the entire event.
Hiring Managers and Supervisors
Now let’s explore hiring managers and supervisors. These people are the conduit between front-line personnel and upper management. They’re often called upon to express the desires of the leadership team to the employees and the concerns and needs of the employees to both the creative and operational staff. In other words, they’re the pinch point in communication that can kill or elevate any event. These are some of the most important people with often the most difficult jobs.
In searching for these key players, it’s common to read through stacks and stacks of resumes. The resume shows the applicant’s work history but rarely their level of success. Use resumes as a tool but not the definitive source. By reading a resume, employers can identify if the prospective employee has applicable skills and experience. Personally, I’ve found that a long resume with many employers and no rehires is a red flag. This kind of resume suggests that the applicant can talk a good game but, once hired, doesn’t perform the tasks well enough to be hired again. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s worth considering this very real concern. Work history is a fine tool for making the first cut, but then the real hiring process begins.
The interview process is the true test. I suggest having an interview team vs. a one-on-one interview. With more sets of ears and different perspectives, the employer will get a more well-rounded understanding of the potential manager or supervisor. I believe the best types of questions during an interview are situational instead of theoretical. I always prefer questions that begin with, “Tell us about a time when…” or “Can you give us an example of when you had to deal with…” These kinds of questions force the applicant to share more about their actual experience versus telling the team what they want to hear. These questions also open the discussion to details and specifics.
I highly recommend at least one totally open-ended question like, “Why do you want this job?” This can be a great way to start the interview. The applicant’s answer reveals what motivates him or her and how they can be rewarded or encouraged if they’re hired for the position. If the tone of the interview is kept at the same level of professionalism (or casualness) as the actual work environment, the interview team will also see how well the applicant will fit into the company culture. The interview is a great opportunity for everyone involved to get to know each other. Use this time to the fullest advantage.
Another great tool that can be used to identify the perfect manager or supervisor is to ask them to do a project. This can be used as a final interview or as a test to see how well applicants work together. An example of a final interview project may be something as simple as: Create a break schedule for a performance cast of 50 that gives everyone a 15-minute break, a 30-minute lunch, and has the least impact on the guest experience. Another example might be: Develop a plan where the event (or element of the event) can continue at an acceptable level of operation if 15% of the staff calls in sick. I believe it’s best to keep these kinds of projects challenging but doable. Leave a few of the details up to interpretation. The goal isn’t to get the right or wrong answer but to provide insight into the way the applicant approaches projects and solves problems. This kind of activity is often assigned to be done at home and then presented at their final interview.
A team-building project can be done after several applicants have completed their interviews.
Give them an assignment to complete as a group. Once example might be: Based on your knowledge of the event, create an outreach program that includes social media, personal appearances, and one unique form of advertising. Develop a full schedule of implementation including staffing. Give the group a fixed amount of time, and observe how they work together to accomplish the goal. This will clearly show who in the group is a leader and who’s a follower. Well-run events need both.
The third group, contractors, are really less of a concern in this discussion. Most of their work is completed before the event begins. The most important consideration is their initial timeline and how well they can commit to it. It’s often wise to ask how many other clients will be competing for their time during the event installation and make selections accordingly.
I’ve Got Them, Now How Do I Keep Them?
Once the right people with the right attitude are in the right jobs, the leadership team needs to make sure that practices are in place to keep them—fostering the “gritty” quality that will retain them until the end of the run.
It’s been my experience that people work harder and stick around longer if they’re invested in the project. By giving team members a sense of ownership, they’re less likely to abandon “someone else’s” event and more likely to see “their own” event through to the end.
There are several ways to instill a sense of ownership. The easiest and most obvious is to listen to the employees’ needs. This should be true for employees on all levels. If they have a suggestion, comment, or complaint, make sure they’re heard. If it’s impossible to sit down and listen to every single word spoken by employees, at least have a system in place where everyone can share their thoughts. This can be as simple as a suggestion box. It can also be a program that rewards ideas that improve the company or the event. Make sure each submission is acknowledged and the employee is thanked for their suggestion. If team members feel they’ve contributed, they’ll have a sense of ownership.
Some managers feel that if they listen to every employee idea and thought, they’ll either lose control or won’t have time to execute the event. I suggest the opposite point of view. The leadership team will ALWAYS have control over what happens within the organization. Listening to new ideas from folks on the front line won’t only increase their dedication but will result in new and perhaps innovative ideas. As far as the time it takes to listen, I suggest that it will take far more time to retrain people that leave throughout the season or seek out new people next year to replace the disenchanted who don’t return. For those who feel, “I don’t have time to listen,” I suggest that you don’t have time NOT to.
Rewarding desired behavior and redirecting inappropriate behavior are the most effective ways to train anything or anyone. If leadership is actively trying to catch staff members doing things right and praises or rewards them when they do, they’re training the staff to do things correctly. If leadership is trying to catch their team only when they’re doing things wrong and then punishing them for it, they’re training the team to not get caught. After hiring the right people who will stick with the project through completion, recognition of appropriate behavior keeps the flame burning.
These rewards can be as simple as an unexpected word of praise or as complex as an employee of the month/week/shift program. One example from my personal past happened at the Howl-O-Scream event at Busch Gardens Tampa. One year, we tested two different rewards options for front-line scare performers. One was a coin that could be used as $10 spending cash anywhere in the park, and the other was a small button that read, “I Scared Scott.” We were surprised to see that the perceived value of the button was significantly higher to the team members than the in-park spending money. I believe the button was more popular because it publicly acknowledged the performer’s accomplishment. People who are committed to a project seem to enjoy being able to show their success in some way. This is why it’s ESSENTIAL to praise publicly and redirect privately. By praising desired behavior in front of others, that behavior is being exemplified. Committed staff members will recognize this praise and try to emulate that behavior.
If the management team recognizes inappropriate behavior, it’s often the best approach to redirect that employee onto a path of success. If the staff is fully committed to the project, they want everything to be right. When poor choices are made, a clarification of the intent is often the best approach. To avoid breaking the team member’s spirit, this kind of guidance is best handled privately so that no one feels they’ve been singled out or are made to feel embarrassed. Again, praise publicly, redirect privately.
It’s Worth It!
There are people who believe that taking the actions described in this article to find the right staff and nurture their commitment takes too much time. For some, it’s a new approach. My experience has shown that the more time you spend finding the right team and nurturing their natural inclinations, the less time you spend disciplining them and training their replacements.