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Referencing the theme of this year’s Expo, “CEO Speaks: Three Veteran Leaders Discuss What’s NEW. NOW. NEXT!” provided a high-level look at the industry, leadership, guest satisfaction, and, yes, the favorite part of a pizza.
“The box,” Arnaud Palu, chief executive officer of MAF Leisure and Entertainment, told the capacity crowd. “The pizza gets cold without it.”
Clever responses like this, along with golden nuggets that come from decades of experience, guided this Tuesday’s panel discussion. Moderator Matt Heller, founder of Performance Optimist Consulting, hit a range of topics with his questions.
When asked how to develop leadership staff, Al Weber Jr., president and CEO of Apex Parks Group, urged the audience to remember their roots and strive for active staff buy-in.
“When you get to corporate, you forget what being in the field is like,” he said. “Get people involved in the key decisions and projects.”
Jane Cooper, president and COO of Herschend Family Entertainment, said her company conducts employee surveys asking questions about recognition, available resources, and job expectations. The company rewards leaders who earn high scores, a sign of staff engagement. “The magic happens on the floor, with the people,” Palu agreed.
Next, the conversation turned to what excites the speakers about the industry, as well as current challenges.
Cooper said the data available allows Herschend to gain greater insight into the guests’ wants and needs, and to build its audience. However, she does worry about investing in technology that will become dated in a year.
“Sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming,” Cooper acknowledged. “It changes so much, so fast.”
Weber, too, has some apprehension about technology—in particular, the rapidly shifting landscape of social media.
“How to get the attention of our guests is becoming more and more challenging,” he said. “It’s a scary thing, but it’s also a great opportunity.”
Heller followed up by asking the speakers how they develop themselves professionally. “It’s about listening more than talking,” Weber said. “Don’t push out your opinions too soon.”
While Weber was referring to employees, Cooper said that same lesson in flexibility and empathy also applies to guests. For example, she noted her company took a calculated risk when addressing negative comments about its pricing. Herschend modified the cost of bottled water to one for $2.99, with a discount of two for $4.
“Our sales went up, and we heard a lot of good comments from guests,” Cooper said.
The session concluded with Heller querying the panel about their advice for the next generation of leaders in the entertainment industry:
“Know your market, and have the right people in the right places,” Cooper said.
“As a young leader, don’t take yourself so seriously,” Weber stressed. “Don’t believe your own press.”

“Middle and upper management need to show humility,” Palu said. “The power is not at the top of the pyramid.” 

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