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Darren Ross, Service Freak: Turning Moments Into Memories With Exceptional Customer Service – REPLAY

BDD 26 | Customer Service


It’s all about turning moments into memories. This episode is about creating those moments. Join Jesse Cole as he sits down and discusses customer service with the Service Freak himself, Darren Ross. As COO of the Magic Castle Hotel and Chief Executive Freak of Service Freak, Darren walks us through his journey in customer service and discusses what he’s learned in this journey. Darren talks about his days as a messenger to his start in creating the experiences the Magic Castle Hotel is now known for. Learn Darren’s insights into transforming your business into a business that wows. Finally, find out why and how to empower employees to deliver that great customer service experience.

Listen to the podcast here:

Darren Ross, Service Freak: Turning Moments Into Memories With Exceptional Customer Service – REPLAY

In the past few months, I’ve gone deep with a solo session about the Bananas business and how we do things differently with our vision, our people, our idea creation and our culture. In this episode, I’m mixing things up and reposting one of my top episode of all time with Darren Ross, the CEO of Magic Castle Hotel. This episode was recorded back in 2018 after my first visit to his hotel in Hollywood. Since then, Darren and I have become good friends and I’ve become a huge admirer of his work.

The story of the Magic Castle Hotel and Darren’s leadership is now being shared in my newest book, Fans First: Change the Game, Break the Rules and Create an Unforgettable Experience. His story is the perfect story for our book as he has created fans worldwide of his hotel by breaking the rules in the hotel industry and creating moments and experiences that will never be forgotten. This episode is where I first learned from him about, “Listen carefully, respond creatively,” and how they incentivize stories over sales with their team members.

BDD 26 | Customer Service
Customer Service: Our job is to compel our customers to go out there like soldiers and scream about us without us asking them to do so.


They are not afraid to be taken advantage of by their guests and I believe in this mindset that you should create an experience where your guest and fans feel like they are taking advantage of you because the deal and the value is so good. Darren does this with his free snacks, ice cream bar, drinks, laundry service, popsicles and the famous Popsicle Hotline and his free DVDs. You name it, Darren gives it away to create that remarkable experience.

As you know, we are trying to do the same here with the Savannah Bananas with our all-inclusive model at the ballpark. All your food, all your entertainment, all-inclusive. This episode was the starting point for me in learning how to build a culture of buying to create these special moments on a regular basis. Since then, I’ve had numerous talks with Darren and learned so much more but it all started right here back in 2018. For the new readers, you are in for a treat. For the readers who have read this one before, it may be time to reread it as it’s that valuable in my opinion. On that note, read carefully and respond creatively.

The key to success is to never stop and always move forward. Click To Tweet

Our guest is Darren Ross, the COO of Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood. His hotel has been named the number 1 or 2 highest-rated hotel in all of Los Angeles on TripAdvisor. The hotel has also been featured in the bestselling book, The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath. Darren is also the Chief Executive Freak of Service Freak Hospitality, a hotel management company. I stayed at the Magic Castle Hotel and was blown away. I remember when I first walked out in a yellow tuxedo, going to be on a show and Darren greets me and knows exactly who I was because he saw a post that I made on social media. That shows you that the leadership is coming from the top-down. You’ve been called a customer service company that functions as a hotel, but you’re constantly trying to add more value. My friend, Darren, you absolutely get it and understand what matters most. I’m honored to have you on the show.

Thank you so much. It is great to be here. I want to say that when I first saw you in your yellow tux against our yellow building, all I saw was a head coming down the stairs.

That’s an important starting point right there. The hotel was bright yellow. It’s not the nicest, most aesthetically-looking hotel. That’s what makes this story so amazing. Darren, if you could take us back to a little segment I call, “How I Built This.” How do you turn this older hotel into one of the highest-rated hotels in all of LA?

When I first started in 2001, the hotel was okay. It was a bit run down. I remember I had a secret shopping company and that was how I was introduced to the hotel in the first place. I remember doing this secret shop for the hotel. I remember one of the employees smoking at the front desk. I said, “Maybe they have some work to do.” The family who owns the property certainly had the vision and understood that they had a lot of potentials there. They brought me on board. I started off as the general manager there back in 2001. It has been an amazing ride. Our biggest key is we started taking baby steps. We never looked back. We were constantly moving forward in terms of adding services. This has been the key to our success is to never stop and always move forward.

I want to dive in and share some of the things that you’re known for. First of all, let’s start with this. It is a limited facility. Many people know that I talk about our ballpark in Savannah, Georgia, which was built in 1926. It’s one of the oldest ballparks in the country and we can’t change that. It’s an old ballpark, but you can create amazing moments. Your hotel was built in the ’50s.

BDD 26 | Customer Service
Customer Service: Companies are afraid to do this (free items) because they are thinking short-term profits over long-term plans.


It was built in 1957. We don’t have an elevator, bar, restaurant, room service, gym and spa. There are a lot of things we don’t have and that is part of our story. That doesn’t stop us from creating amazing experiences for our guests.

It was an old apartment building. Is that correct?

It was an old apartment building built in 1957. It became a hotel in the early ’80s.

What type of guests did this hotel attract?

It wasn’t families and business travelers. When I first started, we had one corporate account. It was a gay porn company, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Was that your one corporate account?

That was one corporate account that I inherited. It was just guests traveling through in a travel hotel. People are passing through in large part. There is Hollywood, certainly, but it was low-end.

This is what’s so great because I talk about thinking about business differently. It doesn’t have all the typical amenities you would expect. The lobby is about the size of a big walk-in closet. It’s not the most beautiful place, yet you realized you need to start creating some amenities. I was blown away when I first walked in. Why don’t you share how you started developing these, where they came from and what the impact has been?

You hit a good point, where it came from. That’s something valuable to share with people. A lot of our services were inspired by my childhood, growing up and things that I remembered as a kid. What I know is that if we implemented some of these services at our hotel, that we would start creating memories for kids. That’s what we’ve done. I’ll go back in time. When I was a kid, my dad was the President of Famous Amos Cookies back in the ’70s and ’80s. We get to travel a bit. I remember being at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Maybe I was 9 or 10 years old. I remember going to this Italian restaurant. In front of the restaurant, they had a fountain. Instead of water in the fountain, it was filled with Hershey’s Kisses and I couldn’t believe it.

After dinner, the hostess gave my brother and me, and my cousins were with us, little paper bags. She said, “Take as many as you want.” What does a kid do? We filled it right to the top. I remember going back to our hotel room and having Hershey’s Kisses fights, the four of us in the hotel room. It was a great, happy memory. I certainly didn’t remember the hotel. I couldn’t tell you the color of the carpet and other amenities they have, but I remembered that moment. That to me was a very special moment. That inspired me to have not only a snack bar at the front desk. We have candy bars, bags of potato chips, popcorn, pretzels, nuts, granola bars and all sorts of things.

When I first started that program, I charged $1 for each item. That was funny. I didn’t want to charge a lot. I want people to use it and they did. We certainly weren’t making money on it or very little. I thought back to that time at Fontainebleau Hotel and at that moment. What I did was I stopped charging for the snacks altogether and that was many years ago. We never looked back. Now, you can come and we have 20 to 25 different items, full-size candy bars and all sorts of things, 24 hours a day, unlimited, whatever you want.

The beauty of it is that we watched these kids, 6 and 7-year-olds, come onto the front desk and it’s a big deal for them. They say, “Hi. Can I please have a Kit Kat bar and Sour Patch Kids?” We say, “Absolutely.” We come around from the front desk and hand it to them. We’re creating memories for these kids. It’s a safe place. The parents are right there in the courtyard, watching them, smiling and taking pictures of them from afar. That’s what we’re doing. We’re creating these memories.

Look within your walls of what you can do. That's where creativity and a lot of fun come into play. Click To Tweet

I was so blown away. I read about your experience in The Power of Moments, but then when I showed up, it continued to blow me away. The woman receptionist who welcomed me handed me a piece of paper with all the snacks that were included. I was like, “This is ridiculous.” I don’t even enjoy snacks, but I already felt taken care of. I’m not a person who’s going to eat candy, but I was still blown away. She handed a DVD menu, which is hilarious because DVDs are now like VHS. I was like, “I saw this DVD manual,” which was an awesome DVD. It was two pages of all the DVDs. She said, “We have free DVDs. We have a DVD in each room. Feel free whatever you would like to take out for free.” I started laughing. I was like, “This is hilarious.” It was like the nostalgia blast of the past. The real one that blew me away was the ice cream bar. How did that start?

We started that a few years ago. It started with me thinking, “Free ice cream is something that would be cool to have at the hotel.” That was how it started. It was low-risk thinking, “Will people like free ice cream?” I was willing to take that risk. Apparently, people do like free ice cream. We have a soft-serve ice cream machine that we roll out. It’s a big, heavy-duty, commercial, real, no-joke ice cream machine. We roll it out at 2:30 every day and stays out there until 9:30 every night. It’s great and a lot of fun. You can do a cup of ice cream or a cone. It’s fantastic. We have two flavors. On the right side, it’s always vanilla. We change the other flavor every two days. It creates a lot of opportunities to talk with our guests to create memories.

One of my favorite things to do is when I’m out there, greeting our guests. I see a couple of little kids there and I’ll tell them about the ice cream machine. If it’s a day we change the flavor, I’ll let them choose the flavor. I’ll give them 8 or 9 options. We can blend them and do all sorts of things. I’ll tell them, “This is a big responsibility. This is going to affect the entire hotel.” I can’t tell you the look on their faces. It’s about creating these memories. What we’ll do is about ten minutes before the ice cream machine comes out, if they’re in the room, I’ll say, “Can you come on down and taste this before we bring it out to make sure it’s okay?”

They are a part of the experience, which is great. In addition to that, you also have the free beverage machine, which any type of soda, fruit punch or lemonade or water. I’ll tell you that impact on me as a guy who drinks lots of water constantly, especially in LA and Hollywood where it’s hot, I was blown away because normally I’m like, “What an inconvenience. I got to get $1.50 to go to a vending machine and pay that. I just paid a couple of hundred dollars for a room and I got to pay $4, $5, $6, $7 for water.” You said, “Forget that. I want free soda, drinks and ice cream.” I’m not trying to make this a lovefest, but it’s so different from what everyone else is doing.

Thank you for mentioning that. We have this Coca-Cola freestyle machine. It’s a touch screen. There are a couple of hundred combinations of drinks that you could make and it’s awesome. It’s free 24 hours a day. Something that I don’t understand as someone who travels for business, I’ll check into a hotel and this hotel has done a lot of marketing. They spent a lot of money trying to get me there, whether it’s television, print, web or whatever. I’m finally there. I’m in the room and they want to charge me $5, $8 or $10 for a bottle of water.

I got to tell you, it pisses me off. I know that if I’m feeling like that, most people are feeling like that. I know I’m not the only one that it bothers. Let’s do the opposite. It has the opposite effect. It doesn’t piss people off. It blows people away. That’s the business we’re in. These are just marketing dollars. Instead of having people be upset that not only they’re staying at this hotel that doesn’t have an elevator and all these services, now they have to pay for the water, but we also turned around. They don’t focus on the facility anymore. They’re focusing on the value, experience and how different we are.

There are two things I want to unpack there. You’re putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. This season at our ballpark, we’re having all of our front office staff. We’re going to be fans for the night and go undercover. We’re going to experience an entire Savannah Bananas game as a fan and we’re going to write notes. At the end of the night, we’re going to talk about that. I don’t think many companies do that enough. You’re going to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, see how it is and understand that there are friction points with most companies that upset you. As soon as you find those things that bother you, eliminate them because most people don’t have the courage to do it as you did. The second thing I want to unpack quickly is you don’t have to spend much money on advertising because when you’re doing something that’s so great to create moments, who’s doing all your advertising? It’s the customers.

We were focused on that. Our job is to compel our customers to go out there like soldiers and scream about us without us asking them to do so. That’s our job and we get it. From the moment they check in to the moment they check out, it’s our job to blow them away to showcase who we are. It’s not always easy and it takes a lot of thought but that is our job. This money that we spend on our snacks, soda and ice cream are marketing dollars.

It’s nothing in the scheme of things. We don’t need to go too much into financials, but here’s something why I’m so attracted to what you’re doing and why we’ve been able to stand out. All of our tickets are all you can eat. They include all the burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn and Byrd Cookies for $15 a ticket.

That’s incredible. I did not know that. That’s fantastic.

What’s a friction point? When you go to a sporting event, especially out in LA, you get a ticket and then how much are the hotdogs, burgers and soda? It’s a friction point. You bought tickets to go to the sporting event. Now, when you walk out and I know you have kids with your family like, “I can’t believe I just spent $200.” We eliminate that just like you. Companies are so scared to do this because they’re thinking short-term profits over long-term fans.

What has happened over the years for us with that concept is that we’ve built this demand for our hotel that’s ridiculous. We wouldn’t want to talk about numbers too much, but we went into April with that 94% occupancy. It’s unheard of in the industry, especially for a small independent hotel in Los Angeles. Those are insane numbers. We have a tremendous amount of repeat business, referrals and demand overall.

Let’s go back to this. You built the prices of the snacks, ice cream and soda. I want to get into the popsicles in a little bit, but you built all that into your room rate. I think everyone is like, “I can’t do that.” The reality is, think about us, we’re giving burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwich, soda water, popcorn and dessert. How many burgers and hotdogs can people eat on a given night? How many ice cream and sodas? Darren, you don’t need to go into it but I’m guessing it’s extremely small. For me, I think I had four waters. I didn’t even have ice cream. My cost in all your amenities was zero. It’s very small but people are scared to do this.

People can only hold so much food. It’s funny. You’re absolutely right. Do we get that occasional family that piles up on the snacks and wants one of everything, which we do happily? Yes, we get them once in a while. Do most people respect it? Absolutely. Some people don’t ever touch it like you’re mentioning. Some people will have a snack or two. It all averages out. It’s nothing to be afraid of.

What most businesses do is set up policies and rules because of those few people that will take advantage of it. They say, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that,” but there’s such a small minority. Take care of the people to the best degree and create the best guest experience like you’re doing. If those few people take advantage of you, who cares? We have people that eat 6 Crème Brulee, 6 burgers and 3 hotdogs. I’m like, “You’re going to have indigestion later. You’re going to have some struggles with that.”

We’ll show you you’re going to be sick later.

We don’t hope for that for any of our fans but I love what you’re doing.

When we first started doing these free snacks, we did have some families that took advantage. An employee and a manager came to me at that time and said, “Why don’t we create this policy and this limit to protect ourselves against that?” To which I said, “No, it’s not a problem.” Is this something that might happen once in a while? Yes, but overall, the big picture, it’s pennies. It’s not worth it and the value of there not being a policy is huge. People like coming in. I hear this time and time again at the front desk. When we’re explaining to our guests our free snacks, I hear the guests say, “Do you mean unlimited? Wait. Do you mean 24 hours a day?” There’s always that time where they check in with that to clarify our program. If we have a policy, it muddies it up. It makes it not quite as great. It being great is valuable to us.

I want to get into how we build this within your people and culture. First, we’ve got to tell a little bit about these other two unbelievable menus. You do laundry for guests for free and then the famous Popsicle Hotline, which I was so impressed that you have T-shirts now with it. Can you share the laundry and the Popsicle Hotline for the readers?

I’ll start with the laundry. It was Carnival Cruise Lines that inspired me to do the laundry idea. I’ve been cruising for a long time. I love it and the family loves it. When you get to a certain status, they give you free laundry and there are some restrictions with it. The concept was you could fill up a bag or two of your dirty clothes and they’ll deliver it back to you the next day and that’s included. That was so cool. I brought it to the hotel. We did not have to add any labor. We did it with the housekeepers that are there during the day. The program is this, “We’ll wash all your clothes with no charge.”

We wash, dry and fold it. We wrap it up in a little bundle and brown butcher paper. We tie it with twine. We put a little sprig of lavender on it and deliver it back to your room the same day. There’s no charge and it’s unlimited like the snacks. There are no restrictions. If you have five suitcases of dirty clothes and you want it all done, we will do it and you go home not having to do any laundry. What I like about it is it’s probably the most relevant amenity we give to our guests. It’s the most meaningful and impactful because we’re taking a job away from our guests so they would have to sit home and do laundry and now they don’t. We’ve made guests cry on more than one occasion when they learned that we’re going to do all the laundry.

Thinking about the amenities that you have, you’re doing laundry at your facility as is. It’s a nice tie-in. You don’t have to go anywhere else. You can do it. Companies need to look at what assets they have that they can use to create a better customer experience.

Look within your walls of what can you do and that’s where creativity and a lot of fun come into play.

Now, the Popsicle Hotline.

We were serving popsicles out by the pool at random. We would do it every day. When we saw people were out by the pool, we would go out there wearing white gloves. We had a silver tray and we would pass out free popsicles by the pool. It might happen 5, 6 or 7 times a day. It was cool. The people and kids loved it. It was always a surprise. It was fun. In the spirit of always moving forward and improving on things, I don’t know how I thought about it. I remember driving and thought of a hotline. I thought of a red phone and there was already a phone out by the pool.

I had our phone guy switch it out to a red phone, which has no buttons or dials on it. It was truly a hotline. There was a colorful sign above it that says, “Popsicle Hotline.” In smaller print, it has the other names. Other countries would call it popsicles, icicle or ice block. We have a lot of Europeans and Australians. Certainly, they have different names for popsicles. All you do is lift up the red phone. We answer at the front desk because we know where the call is coming from. We answer, “Popsicle Hotline.” There’s a kid or sometimes an adult that says, “Can we have popsicles please?” We say, “Of course.” A couple of minutes later, we’re out there with our white gloves and silver tray full of free popsicles. It’s always a real possible brand of popsicles, cherry, grape and orange. We keep it old-school and traditional. We pass the popsicles around the pool. It’s a great conversation piece. It’s where people take their pictures in front of. Some people have done their research ahead of time and kids will run out to find the Popsicle Hotline. It’s playful and fun. It’s inexpensive for us. It’s certainly a conversation piece and it’s what people talk about.

It’s all about the experience. Going into your staff a little bit, they must love this because they get to see the impact they’re making. I would bet, in most hotels, you just go about your business, you check people in and check people out. Seeing a kid’s face when he gets a popsicle or free ice cream, how does that build the comradery and the culture of your staff?

It changed the whole day. One, it gets our front office staff away from the desk, which I love. I want them to be outside, in the lobby, in the courtyard and by the pool. It gets them talking with guests, which is how we learn more about our guests and how we learn ways to surprise our guests. We learn more information. It’s something that we call, “Listen carefully, respond creatively.” We use that term a lot.

Can you give me some examples of that?

Let’s say we’re outside, passing out popsicles. We’re talking to a kid and we asked them how their day was. The kid said, “It was great. We saw the Spider-Man exhibit.” The kid is wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt and then we understand that this kid loves Spider-Man. What might happen is that by the time that child gets back to the room, there might be a Spider-Man poster on the wall by his bed or something like that. We collect this information by listening carefully and then responding creatively.

Has your staff done some of these extra touches?

We do it every day. That’s our way of life in the Magic Castle Hotel for sure. That is who we are.

Give me a few more examples. Even getting a Spider-Man poster, what are some other things that you guys have done to like, “I heard this. I’m going to go make this happen?” How do they do it?

BDD 26 | Customer Service
Customer Service: A lot of companies pride themselves on their customer service, but they forget to take action and be creative. They forget to not only allow but encourage their staff to create these stories.


Our front office agent, Oliver, who’s amazing, there was a family checking in. The first thing that they were going to do is go visit the gravesite of Marilyn Monroe because the mom was a huge Marilyn Monroe fan. By the time they got back to the room, there was a full-length Marilyn Monroe poster on her bathroom door. He wrote something great on it as if it was Marilyn writing it. It was clever and playful. Our staff is encouraged to not only be creative, but it’s okay to spend some money. What I want in exchange is the story. Go into the cash drawer and spend some money. It’s fine. If it’s ever out of line, I’ll let you know.

In my many years there, it’s maybe once or twice if I’m going to say something. I want the story. Make it great. They understand that it’s their job. You started this conversation by saying that we’re a customer service company functioning as a hotel. We live that every day. We truly believe it. How you bring that to life is by taking action. What I find is that a lot of companies pride themselves on their customer service. They talk about it all the time, but they forget to take the action and be creative. They forget to not only allow but encourage their staff to create these stories.

Something that we’ve done is whenever I do an incentive program for the front desk staff and other departments, we do it for housekeeping as well, but it’s usually for the front desk. I don’t do incentives based on sales. I do incentives based on the quality of stories they’re turning in. I’ll give you a quick example. We had an incentive program. It lasted for a whole month. The winner of the best story and I get to be the judge, every time you turn in a story, your name goes into a hat once. The person with the most stories has the best chance of winning the prize and the prize was a three-day cruise. The only trick is, the fine print was each person has to turn in at least five stories in a month. We’ve ten agents with 50 stories. What the hotel gets are 50 stories. That’s a lot of people who create a lot of magic. We get to talk about the stories. I used to read the stories. I get to tell travel agencies when I visit them these stories and the guest gets to experience them.

What was the winning story? I’m fascinated by this.

One of the best stories was these two kids were staying in one of our rooms. When they were out in the pool with their parents, the housekeeping went into the room and they saw that they were playing store. They had handwritten signs with all the initials of the kids and it was their store. They had some pretend food. The housekeeping came and told the front desk this. We went into the room. While they were out in the pool, we made it a real store. We redid the signs more professional on the computer. We put real foods to replace the fake food. When they came in from the pool, they had this real store and it blew them away. It was awesome.

You created magic. It goes so much with your brand, the Magic Castle Hotel, but for those kids, what happened was magic.

They’ll never forget it. They’ll talk about it. It’s stressful traveling with little kids. To see a hotel make that effort for their kids and make their kids so happy on a trip is very meaningful to people. That’s the best word I can come up with. It’s meaningful to parents.

Meaningful matters. The big thing to take away is incentives not based on sales but incentives based on the quality of stories. I say this whenever I’m talking with companies. I go, “What’s your story?” They’re like, “We’re not getting covered much by media.” “What’s your story? Is it compelling? Are you creating stories?” You’re encouraging all your staff every day to create stories. With our staff, we call these Fans First Moments. The name of our company is Fans First Entertainment. I challenge every day, “What are the Fans First Moments you’re going to create now with 4,000 people in the ballpark?”

The key, Darren, which we don’t talk about. We’ve got to be very clear here. It’s not for every single person. You can’t go on and say like, “I can’t do this for thousands of people.” When you listen carefully and then what you said about respond creatively, that’s how you can do it. Pick a select few. I’m sure, every day, there are probably 1 or 2 people that you guys pick out to make this experience and it’s not everyone. That’s a key for the readers and business owners to know. Find those moments and then make them even bigger.

Listen carefully and respond creatively. Click To Tweet

I’ve talked to people who are with larger companies and they say, “That’s great. You guys could do that. You’re only 43 rooms, but we couldn’t possibly do that.” I think that’s bogus. You could certainly do it. Take baby steps. Do it with a handful of people. It will start to become your way of doing business. We don’t hit every single guest. That’s not practical. When they do come to the front desk, when there is a question, we try to blow them away. That’s our mission.

I’ve heard you say before, “Our goal is to make our people really happy.” You finished with this great comment on one of your speeches, “What’s your popsicle?” You’re known for the Popsicle Hotline, but every company can have that one thing that makes them stand out and special. While you do so many other amenities, it’s the Popsicle Hotline that most people are talking about. Have you seen any of these other examples of companies? Because I know a lot of people are scratching their heads, “I don’t know what my popsicle is. I don’t know what it is that can make me stand out and people tell our story.” Have you seen any other very unique things that have stood out for you in the business world?

Let me get back to that if I could. I can’t come up with some examples.

It’s tough and that’s a point. When we try to think of all these companies, there are very few. That’s the reality.

Companies are reluctant to be playful and goofy and it’s okay. I feel like there’s more of a need for that now than ever. At least in the hotel world, I can tell you that everything is slick, incredibly cool and hip. A lot of hotels want to be the coolest, newest hotel. That’s great. There’s also something to be said for doing things in a slower and more old-school way, going back to the real touchy and feely kind of stuff. Kids just want to experience something unique, fun, playful and appropriate to them and so are families. By the way, it’s also for business travelers. It’s not all for families.

People want to experience something real. I tend to stay away from technology. People try to sell me on new technology all the time, “Your customers could check-in from their cab before they come in. They could manage their whole stay on their iPhone.” That’s great but that takes away our whole business. Our whole business is face-to-face. I can tell you that people don’t remember in an app that they checked in with or made a restaurant reservation on, but they might remember coming to the front desk and having a front desk call ahead to that restaurant and make sure they get a good table and they’re well taken care of. There’s something to be said for slowing things down a little bit. That’s what we do.

I’m laughing here because we’re so similar. At our ballpark, we don’t have a video board and electronics. We use an old school manual scoreboard because we want people to escape. We have promotions every half inning, from dancing players, our players are delivering roses to little girls in the crowd in the middle of the game, to our senior citizen dance team in their 70s dancing Justin Timberlake on the field. It’s all about those experiences and those aren’t through technology. We use it as a clutch. I’ve seen so many people and that’s all they use, their app and media.

That’s not a face-to-face human connection. When someone delivers a popsicle to a little kid and sees that smile, there was no technology involved. Businesses need to go back to the old school and think about the human connection. I salute you so much for doing that because we need more of it. People need to understand that’s what matters. You remember those Hershey’s Kisses back in the day when you were a kid. They’re not going to remember that app or that media channel. They’re going to remember how they felt with that experience.

The other points of inspiration for me in introducing services. Every guest that checks in to our hotel, let’s say we make a mistake and for some reason, it doesn’t happen. I hope that wasn’t your case. I hope we greeted you with a glass of lemonade soda when you checked in. It’s our way of slowing things down and welcoming you to the hotel. It’s a champagne glass of non-alcoholic Italian lemon soda. I allow the staff to make it their own speech, but the only thing they have to hit every time is, “We just wanted to take a moment to tell you what a pleasure it is to have you with us.”

I’ll tell you where I got that line from. It was the day and the night my wife and I found out that our first child was going to be a boy. We went to a great steak house in Beverly Hills called Mastro’s. There are a few of them. We couldn’t get a reservation but we went in anyway. The manager was great. We just waited a few minutes. He brought us to our booth. He took a step back and said his name. He said, “I just want to take a moment to tell you what a pleasure it is to have you with us tonight.”

Maybe it was because it was an emotional day for us, but it slowed things down for a minute. It pushed the pause button for a minute and it was memorable for me. That was the inspiration that started what we call the lemonade speech that every single guest gets at check-in. It slows everything down. They came in from a long flight, fought traffic or whatever. We’re pushing the reset button for a minute, “Now you’re here. This is the level of service that you can expect. Let us take you through our process and our experience.” It’s great and I think it works. It’s simple.

I want to get into some lightning rounds to finish up. I want to touch on that, the slow things down. I’ve had my staff, which meant more to me than anything. They said, “Can we give you some constructive criticism?” They said, “Sometimes with fans, because you’re moving so fast from thing to thing, your body language, you’re not squared up facing them directly. You’re facing like you’re on the way out. Jesse, I know how much you care about our fans, but that may show the wrong perception to them.” I was like, “You’re so right.” You think about it when you meet someone or you’re working, you’re often thinking about the next thing. How often do you solely focus and slow things down? That’s such good practical advice that every leader needs to do to show to all their people and how important that one connection is.

First of all, I hope you fired that employee.

He probably got a raise. In talking about culture, I always encourage our people to challenge us in how we can get better and care more for our people in our fans first way. If our people don’t feel safe enough to challenge me on something I can do better, then I’m not creating the best culture for our people. I remember I heard one of your receptionists said, “No worries.” As a person staying there, I said, “No worries can be perceived negatively. It’s better to say, ‘All good, I’ll take care, or ‘My pleasure.'” I felt comfortable telling that because I was trying to help. If people aren’t doing it and they’re noticing something could hurt the business, that is grounds for, “You may not be a fit here if you’re not going to help us get better.”

BDD 26 | Customer Service
Customer Service: Kids just want to experience something unique, fun, playful and appropriate to them, and so do families.


When we hire the front desk agents, I do frame that position as a creative position, which people tend to like. The same goes for housekeeping. Housekeepers generally aren’t used to the boss wanting their creative input. It’s very well-received. We do consider housekeeping and front desk to be creative positions.

We’ll go into lightning rounds but first if you were to give practical advice right now for someone to find their popsicle and start building this in their culture, what would you do? You started in 2001 and you’ve continued to build it. What would you tell someone how they can start?

First of all, don’t be afraid to be silly, goofy or playful. People like that and need it. Also, look to your past. Look at your own childhood and growing up. What memories do you have that might be relevant to apply to your business? People like that personal story and don’t fear it. Look around. You might have the resource right in your business now.

We’re going to go to flip the script. I’m going to let you be the host, Darren, and ask one question to me and flip the script. You are the host of the show right now for one question.

It’s going to take me a second. I’m sorry.

You’re putting in a lot of thought. Usually, I just get asked ridiculous questions. I’m a little bit scared right now. It doesn’t have to be a deep question. You don’t need to stump me here. You’re like, “I’m going to get him here.”

I’m definitely overthinking it.

Any curiosity.

You said there are 4,000 people in your ballpark. How do you grow what you do?

Every single night, 4,000 people. We’ve been blown away and fortunate to sell out 32 straight games. Our whole season is about to be sold out going into 2018. How do we grow? I always think that there are a few ways to look at that. How can you do what you’re doing for more people? We talked about the impact on revenue. We look at let’s say we’ll impact 120,000 to 150,000 people at our ballpark. How can we show and do what we do for more people?

The play that I’m looking at now is, as ironic as this is, but can we travel on the road? Can we showcase this? Can we bring this to Little League parks and do it for kids? Can we bring it to big stadiums? Can we do it in a media way that we have it filmed and shown? That’s the ironic part. As much as I am against technology, if there’s a way to make an impact and make more people happy, then that’s how we’ll look to grow. The reality is, we can’t add many more seats to this 1926 stadium. Everything that drives us is impact and I’m thinking, “How can we impact more people?” That’s either going on the road or showing it through distribution in media.

I have a feeling your team is infectious and people love it.

It’s the players. When they come on that first day and I’m like, “Guys, you’re going to have your practice and there are going to be 3,000 people watching you practice. It’s not a game.” Every night, the whole season is sold out. They’re like, “You got to be kidding.” I go, “It’s because of you, guys. It’s because you’re out greeting fans.” When fans first come to our ballpark, our players are out there in uniform passing out programs, signing autographs and taking pictures. We have our 30-piece pep band playing music out there. I’m out there high-fiving people. We have people dressed up in penguin costumes that are our parking penguins that are parking our cars.

Like you, it’s not a huge expense. We’re looking at all these tiny touchpoints so then you build the experience all the way through. That’s why I was fascinated. The best part of my trip was staying with you and connecting with you and your staff. I was on a very popular show and I did a few other things on that trip. Most of the time, I enjoyed was with you guys and because we connected at what most is most important. It’s not just about seeing the glamour and Hollywood is what it is, but it’s those human connections and touchpoints. You guys nailed it. We went elaborate on that flip the script, but thank you for asking. That’s why I know we’re going to continue to connect for years to come.

You and I see firsthand the need for joy out there, the need for happiness in people’s lives. People are hungry for it now more than ever. Your team and staff make a lot of people very happy. I was in Australia. I go there often for business. I was flying from Sydney to Melbourne. I got off the plane in Melbourne in the domestic terminal. Randomly, as I get off the plane, I heard some loud voices. The sooner I looked, I looked over there. Boarding a plane from Melbourne to Cairns, Australia were the Harlem Globetrotters in full uniform with the Washington Generals with them. They were boisterous and funny. They were boarding the plane. They were awesome maybe because I was far away from home and there was a bit of Americana right there and it made me happy. As I walked through the terminal and I saw a couple of other Harlem Globetrotters running for the plane, I thought, “It’s so great and pure. It’s so much fun. They bring so much joy to so many people.” They were in character. They were happy and it was a slice of Americana. I feel like that’s what you’re doing, spreading happiness to people, which is great.

What’s great about you is that you get people that come from all over the world that stay in your hotel that you get to share that. What you’re doing is spreading throughout the world. We’re trying to take our little piece in Savannah, Georgia, that’s selling out and take that all over to the Globetrotters. The big point is you said, “Hungry for joy and happiness,” but when you’re providing that, you have great purpose and what you want to do is you want to keep providing more. It’s very contagious. We’re going to finish here with our final four. Before that, we’re going to do a magic moment. We talked about the book, The Power of Moments, which has your great story, Dan and Chip Heath. What’s a moment you’ll never forget in your life?

Take baby steps. Do it with a handful of people. It will start to become your way of doing business. Click To Tweet

I’ll give you a customer service moment that was inspiring to me. I was seventeen years old and I went on my very first cruise. It was on Carnival Cruise Lines. We had a larger room because there were five of us. It was better to do it that way. Our room steward came to the cabin. He was a 6’2″ black guy from Jamaica. He’s awesome. His name is Roger. He was going to be our room steward. He had his hands behind his back. He introduced himself and he was amazing. He elevated the experience completely and I never forgot it. He was inspiring to me. In fact, as a side note, he would end up introducing the woman staying a few cabins down from us at that cruise, introducing her to my brother and they now have two adult children.

Roger and I are still in touch. He moved all the way up with the company, ended up being the hotel director on one of the Carnival ships. He retired at a very young age with them and still has a lot of influence with Carnival Cruise Lines. He’s an amazing guy himself. I always remember that. Of all the cruises I’ve been on since haven’t measured up to that experience. I think about that when we’re greeting our customers. I think about that when I was seventeen years old. I think about Roger. I try to convey that to our newer employees and how impactful that could be on people just like the Mastro’s guy who greeted us. It’s the same kind of thing. Those initial greetings are super important.

It’s time for our final four lightning round. We’ll go quickly through these. In every show, I finish with these. Darren, I’m excited to hear what you have to say here. Number one, what have you done to stand out in business and life?

Honesty and accountability are incredibly important not only with my staff but with our customers and hotel guests. We make mistakes and being honest and what I call running into the problem instead of running away from the problem has been important for us and also good for business. It has been a way for us to showcase who we are as a brand and as a company. I’ll give you a quick example. Our check-in time is at 3:00. It was 3:15 and someone’s room wasn’t ready yet. We said, “It’s going to be done in about five minutes.” The guests had no problem with it. We checked them in. In about ten minutes after they checked in, they get a knock at the door with a note from me, with an apology saying, “I’m so sorry your room wasn’t ready when promised.” There was a bottle of wine. It was an acknowledgement, running into the problem. I’ve been doing that for a lot of years and it’s great. To us, it has been one of the keys to our success.

Mistakes are what make actual raving fans. When you make a mistake and you solve it and make it even better. I never want to encourage mistakes, but that’s a great opportunity to come to the rescue and save a customer. It sounds like you’re doing that. A bottle of wine is a nice touch, Darren. The final three here. If you were to give additional advice to someone to stand out in business and life, what would you share?

Be generous. The older I get, the clearer this is to me. I’ve been talking to my kids about this too. Be generous, whether it’s with money, time or giving advice. When I was younger, I was less secure. Maybe I was threatened about telling people what we do but that’s no longer the case.

The final two, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was younger, I was a driving messenger in Los Angeles. It was a unique company. I learned a lot about customer service there. That is where I learned to be proactive and accountable in business. It was at this messenger company and we did things differently there. A lot of our clients were five-star hotels, which was how I got interested in the hotel business. One of our clients was a Ritz-Carlton at Marina Del Rey. When I would go there, I always talked to this doorman, Orlando. I invited him to speak to our messenger company. It was in my early twenties. He did and told us about some of the principles. We ended up applying a lot of the hotel principles to the messenger company. All of a sudden, we were saying, “My pleasure, very well, certainly, I’ll be happy to,” all the Ritz-Carlton lines. It made a huge impact. My advice for your readers, by applying some of these hotel principles to your business or whatever it is, you can instantly elevate the way you sound on the phone and in-person to your customers. It’s an easy and free trick.

Finally, how do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered for my generosity and kindness, whether it’s in my personal life or business.

Darren, you were tremendously generous. When I think about you, you are a master storyteller and that’s what you’re conveying to your company. You shared some amazing stories. If anybody can get something out of this, it’s, “What’s the story you’re creating? What’s your popsicle?” I can’t thank you enough for sharing so much for what you’re doing for customer service around the world because we need it to improve. It’s a problem out there and you’re helping in solving it. Thank you so much for being on the show.

It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me. It has been a treat and I wish you much more success. You’re amazing. Thank you so much.

It’s the Magic Castle Hotel and is Service Freak the name of the hospitality?

Yes, Service Freak Hospitality is our hotel management company.

Darren, thank you again for being on the show. Thanks for everything you’re doing.

Thank you, Jesse. I appreciate it.

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