Those of you who are fans of Theme Park University know my deep rooted love for the former Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was revolutionary, edgy, sexy and, in some ways, ahead of its time. While I have written many articles on the origins, details and demise of the park, one crucial element I never fully covered was the employees that made it so special.
After posting my series on Hard Rock Park, many former “Rockers” who worked there reached out to thank me for keeping the memory alive. Nearly every single employee told me, without prompting, that working at Hard Rock Park in the summer of 2008 was the greatest job they ever had. On the flip side, as a guy who has visited theme parks his entire life all around the world, Hard Rock Park was the by far the best service I have ever encountered in a park. Period.
As anyone who has worked in, managed or recruited for a theme park will tell you, finding great employees isn’t exactly easy. The pay isn’t a lot, benefits are only so-so (unless you count free park admission!) and a lot of times it can be grueling with unruly guests and the heat of the summer bearing down on you. In the case of Hard Rock Park, an integral part of the plan was creating a training program that rivaled that of Disney, Universal and Sea World.
Even before opening, Jon Binkowski (former Chief Creative Officer of Hard Rock Park) wanted to instill a sense of teamwork with everyone who was working on the project from creative down to construction crew. “Beer Tuesdays” would happen every week where at the end of every Tuesday damn near everybody on the project would gather around, have a few cold ones and fire up the grill for hot dogs and hamburgers. As Hard Rock Park neared completion and kitchens were available for use, Beer Tuesdays would move inside and they would test out new recipes on whoever happened to be working on the project at the time.
An advantage that the Hard Rock brand has that nearly all theme parks sneer at is their ability to hire whomever they wanted regardless of their personal appearance. “Rockers” could have blue hair, be covered in tattoos and even have piercings if they so choose. This opened up the hiring pool to a much larger demographic than Disney could possibly imagine. Granted, most theme parks are trying to stay true to theming or keep their employees looking “family friendly.” However, Hard Rock has always valued employees who have great people and customer service skills, regardless of how many piercings or tattoos they display.
Most theme parks use their name tags to create “conversation starters” to encourage guests and employees to have something to chat about, while Hard Rock Park used a different tactic. Rockers were issued a “camp shirt” (think of a fairly generic looking button down shirt like Charlie Sheen always wore on Two and a Half Men) that they were encouraged to leave unbuttoned while sporting a t-shirt underneath. The under shirt could be literally anything the Rocker wanted to wear, but they were encouraged to sport something that represented them and their music tastes. While strolling through the park, you’d see employees displaying their love for artists like Bob Dylan, Def Leppard and even Elvis Presley. Now that is a conversation starter!
Disney has an employee orientation class called Traditions that encompasses company policy, philosophy and history. Hard Rock Park had a similar first day called “Welcome to the Jungle”. At this class, Rockers were given a run down on how the Hard Rock brand turned into the global phenomenon it is, how Hard Rock Park came to be, as well as some guidelines on how they should look at their new job and customer service. Disney has given cast members guidelines like “make eye contact and smile.” Universal has been known to inform Team Members of the “10 and 5 rule.” If a guest is within 10 feet of you, you are to physically acknowledge them with a wave, head nod or even eye contact. If they are within five feet, you need to greet them verbally.
As Steven Goodwin, former CEO of Hard Rock Park once told me, “If we have to tell our employees to smile at our guests, we are hiring the wrong people.” Hard Rock’s approach was much broader and gave more freedom to their employees to create exceptional service. Everyone who went through “Welcome to the Jungle” orientation received a copy of “The Story Book,” which contained the guiding principles of the park. Here is a direct line taken from the manual: “Your job expectations are really quite simple; Deliver a Kick-Ass Service experience to every Guest you encounter, every time. This is how we create authentic experiences that rock and turn ordinary guests into raving fans.”
Did you catch that? A theme park employee manual that used the word (gasp): ASS! Yep, Hard Rock Park Rockers were encouraged to tell guests to have a “Kick Ass” ride and I heard that phrase used multiple times during my visits. Does that mean they were allowed to call me a douche bag just for fun? No. It just meant that Rockers were allowed to step into the 21st century and use modern English and not have to completely sensor everything they said. In virtually any other theme park in the world, using a curse word in any context while in a guest area is grounds for termination. However, in Hard Rock Park, as long as it was in good taste and not meant to intentionally offend anyone, it was perfectly fine and even fit in with the theme of Rock N’ Roll!
This modern plain-English approach is not only an ingenious way to get your employees on the same page, but it also makes them feel empowered to make the right decisions by not micro managing what should be natural reflexes like smiling. “Welcome to the Jungle” also reinforced very simply with how Rockers could influence a guest’s day by paying it forward: “Go the extra mile by practicing selfless and unexpected good deeds or acts of kindness towards Guests, fellow Rockers or members of our Community. In doing so, those you help will practice the same behavior and spread the spirit of good will. (Be sure to participate in our exclusive Pay it Forward Pin program whenever you get the chance).”
That’s right! Before Disney, Hard Rock made pin collecting cool and Hard Rock Park had their own line of pins that in certain circumstances were given to guests as a gesture of goodwill (which also could spur for them to start their own Hard Rock pin collection). It’s this sense of entitlement that gave every employee a sense of purpose and that their job mattered. Again, from the employee handbook: “…. you’re going to play an integral role in a visitor’s experience at Hard Rock Park. That thing you do out there is going to fuse into memories that will last a lifetime. Whoa! Sound heavy? Think about it. Right now, some kid has been up all night bouncing around the hotel room totally pumped about coming here. And some parent has gone from “fool” to “cool” for bringing their family to our doorstep. Old friends and new friends will want to hang here. Thousands of couples will meet here – some on their very first dates. Hey, Jon [Binkowski] had a first date at a theme park with his now-wife!”
The point is, theme parks can be filled with great attractions, shows and food… but employees really can make a lasting impact. Personally, I will never forget the time I ran across a Rocker working The Punk Pit in British Invasion. My friend Howard and I had just finished watching the Bohemian Rhapsody fireworks show and we were headed to Nights in White Satin: The Trip for one final ride before the parked closed. On our way we were literally stopped in the middle of the street by a Rocker who had purple hair in a ponytail, wearing a Def Leppard shirt and some sort of silver colored steampunk goggles around her neck.
She literally held up both hands motioning us to stop and told us we were not allowed to pass until we came in to the attraction she was working. We told her we didn’t need to visit a bounce house, even if they did have a side built exclusively for adults/big kids. Politely, she insisted that we didn’t know what we were missing. With this persuasion (and she was pretty cute!), we begrudgingly went, removed our sneakers and made our way through the maze of inflatable punk rock imagery. Ya know what? She was right. It still stands as one of the best memories of I have ever had in a theme park.
Unfortunately, Hard Rock Park wasn’t visited nearly as much as it should have been and closed only after a few short months. However, for those of us who did get to experience it, we are amongst the lucky few who got to interact with the coolest park employees the world has ever known or may ever see again. What are your thoughts? Do you think Hard Rock Park had the right ideas when it came to employee training? If you have worked in a park, how does it compare to what you experienced? Also, if you worked at Hard Rock Park and would like to share some of your stories, I would love to hear from you!
Want to learn more about Hard Rock Park? Click this link and read the entire series of articles on this lost gem.