Lessons on tackling tech innovation from Disney
Lessons on tackling tech innovation from Disney
08 AUGUST 2019 8:22 AM

Speaking at Hospitality Technology Next Generation’s 2019 Insight Summit, the former VP of Disney’s Magic Kingdom outlined how that company thought about and rolled out new technologies.

PARK CITY, Utah—When investing in and rolling out new technologies, companies should have both guest and employee experience in mind, according to a former Disney executive speaking at Hospitality Technology Next Generation’s 2019 Insight Summit.

Dan Cockerell, former VP of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, outlined lessons learned from the roll out of My Magic Plus at Walt Disney World Resort, which wrapped up everything from payments and ticketing at the amusement park to hotel room keys at Disney-owned hotels into RFID wristbands called “Magicbands” for guests.

He said there were three guiding principles for the project, which was originally conceived of in 2008 and implemented in 2013 with more than $1 billion invested: Guests have to love it, cast members (Disney’s term for employees) have to love it, and it has to “freakin’ work.”

He noted that last bullet item was specifically mandated by Walt Disney Company CEO and Chairman Bob Iger.

Keeping guests front of mind
Cockerell said those three principals simplified decision-making and resulted in a product that brought value instead of just creating new friction points for guests and employees.

“Six months (after coming up with the principals), we’re sitting in a meeting with someone saying that guest will have to put in a 16-digit number on the website to connect (their Magicband) with the system,” he said. “So we could say, ‘I don’t think the guests will love that; they’d love it if it happened automatically.’”

That decision alone resulted in another $1 million in development, but ultimately was worth it, he said.

He noted that perceptions over poor guest experience initially spurred on the program, so making sure the company stuck the landing in this regard was paramount.

Winning over employees to win over guests
He said employee experience also has to be considered as a factor in guest experience, as frustrating employees with difficult new systems and processes can quickly make things worse for guests.

“If the cast doesn’t love the system, it’s not going to work,” he said. “It’s easy to make things not work, and to get passive resistance. So this was the same thing. When the (development team) said the cast will have to sign into three different systems and then sign into a separate system for any exceptions, we knew they wouldn’t love that. You either have to build a work-around or add extra labor.”

He said he and other members of the executive team held “35 to 40” sessions to ensure employees in all departments across the resort bought in to the new systems, to explain the changes and how they will benefit them, and to invite feedback even before implementation.

Employees were able to try out the platform with their own Magicbands and mock-ups of the entire guest experience, including booking at home.

“A lot of times you don’t want to get (employees) involved early because they’ll have questions you don’t want to hear, but you’ll get them now or later,” he said. “I’d rather have them beforehand.”

Experience over systems
The last principal was sometimes the most complicated, Cockerell said, because technology doesn’t always work right. But the onus was on his company to create the appearance it was always working or at least to make sure employees knew how to deal with complications in a way that didn’t hurt guest experience.

“It has to work doesn’t mean it will always work, but what will you do when it doesn’t work?” he said.

On the IT side, Disney built in redundant systems so that the park could continue to operate for 48 hours in the event of a power or server outage. From an operations standpoint, employees were coached to always err on the side of making guests happy.

He used the example of a family of five trying to board a ride at the park: If four of the five family members’ passes work but the fifth doesn’t, they’ll be allowed to ride together anyway.

“You can override the tech when you want to keep guest experience intact,” he said, noting staff wouldn’t say “Sorry, 12-year-old, you can’t go with your family because that’s what the rules are.”

Bridging the IT gap
Cockerell said his team pulled out top-performing employees on the operations side and temporarily embedded them with the IT and development team to more intimately learn the systems and to ultimately serve as liaisons between IT and operations.

“We gave them each a radio and an iPhone and put them back in operations,” he said. “Then I never talked to IT about issues; I’d talk to John on the operations team. And it was amazing how clear it was.”

He said this helped avoid confusion between operations and IT. “When you create a network of people to translate … from an operator’s point of view, things go much smoother and you get through things quickly,” he said.

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