Sometimes, it’s all about turning moments into memories. 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 Hospitality, Darren walks us through his journey in customer service, from 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.
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Darren Ross Service Freak
Our guest is Darren Ross, the COO of Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood. His hotel has been named the number one or number two 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 one spring and was blown away. When I first walked out in the yellow tuxedo going to be on a show, 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 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 your 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 amazing. Darren, if you could take us back in 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 rundown. I had a secret shopping company. That’s 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 and they had some work to do. The family who owns the property had the vision and understood that they had a lot of potentials there. They brought me on board. I started as the general manager there back in 2001. It’s been an amazing ride. Our biggest key is that we started taking baby steps. We never look back. We’re 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 because, first of all, let’s start with this. It is a limited facility. Many people know that I talked about our ballpark in Savannah, Georgia, which was built in 1926. It’s one of the oldest ballparks in the country. We can’t change that. It’s an old ballpark. You can create amazing moments. Your hotel was built in the ‘50s.[bctt tweet=”The key to success is to never stop. Always move forward. ” username=””]
It was built in 1957. We don’t have an elevator. We don’t have a bar. We don’t have a restaurant. We don’t have room service. We don’t have a gym. We don’t have a spa. There are a lot of things we don’t have that are 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 1937, became a hotel in the early ‘80s.
What type of guests did that hotel attract?
It wasn’t 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.
That was your one corporate account?
That was one corporate account that I inherited. It was a traveler hotel. We had people passing through in large parts. We had some people there to see Hollywood certainly, it was low-end.
This is what’s so great because I talk 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 realize 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 it came from and what the impacts are.
You hit a good point where it came from, that’s something pretty valuable to share with people. A lot of our services were inspired by my childhood, my growing up, things that I remembered as a kid. What I know is that if we implemented some of these services at our hotel, we would start creating memories for kids. That’s what we’ve done. When I was a kid, my dad was the President of Famous Amos cookies back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We got 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. After dinner, the hostess gave me, my brother and my cousins little paper bags. She said, “Take as many as you want.” What does a kid do? We filled it right to the top. We went back to our hotel room having Hershey’s Kisses fights, the four of us in the hotel room. It was a great happy memory. I didn’t remember the hotel. I couldn’t tell you the color of the carpet. I couldn’t tell you other amenities but I remember that moment.
That was a very special moment to me and 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 and granola bars, all sorts of things. When I first started that program, I charged $1 for each item. I didn’t want to charge a lot. I wanted people to use it and they did. We weren’t making money on it or very little. I thought back to that time at Fontainebleau Hotel and at that moment I stopped charging for the snacks altogether. That was several years ago and we never looked back.
We have about 20 to 25 different items like full-size candy bars and all sorts of things in 24 hours a day, unlimited, whatever you want. The beauty of it is that we watch these kids, 6-year-old or 7-year-olds, come on to the front desk and it’s a big deal for them. They say, “Can I please have a KitKat bar and Sour Patch Kids please?” We come around from the front desk and we hand it to them. We’re creating memories for these kids. It’s a safe place where the parents are right there in the courtyard watching them smiling, taking pictures of them from afar. That’s what we’re doing. We’re creating these memories.
I read about your experience in The Power of Moments. When I showed up, it continued to blow me away. The receptionist welcomed me and handed me a piece of paper with all the snacks that were included. I don’t even enjoy snacks but I already felt taken care of. I’m not a person who got to eat candy but I was still blown away. They handed me a DVD menu which is hilarious because DVDs are like VHS now. I saw this DVD menu which was an awesome DVD with two pages of all the DVDs and she said, “We have free DVDs. We have a DVD in each room and feel free to take out whatever you’d like for free.” I started laughing. 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 would be cool to have at the hotel.” That’s how it started. It was pretty low-risk, “Will people like free ice cream?” I was willing to take that risk and people do like free ice cream. We have an ice cream machine that we roll out. It’s a big heavy-duty commercial real ice cream machine. We roll it out at 2:30 PM every day. It stays out there until 9:30PM every night. You can do a cup of ice cream or a cone. 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.
That’s one of my favorite things to do. When I’m out there greeting our guests and I see little kids there. I’ll tell them about the ice cream machine. If it’s the day that we change the flavor, we let them choose the flavor. We give them 8 to 9 options. We could blend them and do all sorts of things. I’ll tell them, “This is a big responsibility that’s going to affect the entire hotel.” I can’t tell you the look on their faces. It’s about creating these memories. When the machine’s about to come out, if they’re in the room, we’ll say, “Can you come on down and taste this before we bring it out to make sure it’s okay?”
They’re a part of the experience which is great. In addition to that, you also have a free beverage machine that has any type of soda, fruit punch, lemonade and water. I’ll tell you that impact on me, as a guy who drinks lots of water constantly especially in LA in 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, pay that. I paid a couple of hundred dollars for a room and I got to pay $4 or $5, $6, $7 for water?” You said, “Forget that. I want free soda, free drinks, free ice cream.” I’m not trying to make this a love fest but it’s different from what everyone else is doing.
We have this Coca-Cola freestyle machine. It’s a touchscreen. There are 100 combinations of drinks you could make. It’s free 24 hours a day. There’s something that I don’t understand as someone who travels for business. I’ll check into a hotel. This hotel has done a lot of marketing. They spent a lot of money in trying to get me there whether it’s television, print, web, whatever. They tried to get me there. I’m finally there. I’m in the room and they want to charge me $5, $8, $10 for a bottle of water. It pisses me off. If I’m feeling like that then most people are feeling the same. I know I’m not the only one. We do the opposite and it has the opposite effect. It often blows people away. That’s the business we’re in. To me, that’s, “We’ll talk more about this later.” These are marketing dollars. Instead of having people upset about those kinds of things, we turn around. They don’t focus on the facility anymore. They’re focusing on the value of the 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 are having all of our front office staff, we’re going to be fans for the night, we’re going to go undercover and we’re going to experience an entire Savannah Bananas game as a fan. 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 got 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. Most people don’t dare to do it as you did. The second thing I want to pack down quickly is I’ve heard you say before, you don’t have to spend much money on advertising. When you’re doing something great to create moments, who’s doing all your advertising? The customers.
We focus 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. We get it from the moment they check in to the moment they check out. It’s our job to blow them away and to showcase who we are. It’s not always easy and it takes a lot of thought. This money that we spend on our snacks, the soda and the ice cream. Those are marketing dollars.
It’s nothing like the scheme of things and 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, the hotdogs, the chicken sandwiches, the soda, the water, the popcorn and birds cookies for $15 a ticket.
I did not know that. That’s fantastic.[bctt tweet=”Look within your walls of what you can do. That’s where creativity and a lot of fun come into play. ” username=””]
What’s a friction point? When you go to a sporting event especially out in LA. You get a ticket. How much are the hotdogs? How much are the burgers? How much is the soda? It’s a friction point. You already bought tickets to go to a sporting event. When you walk out and I know you have kids with your family, “I can’t believe I spent $200.” We eliminated that like you. Companies are so scared to do this. Do you know why? They’re thinking short-term profits over long-term fans.
What’s happened over the years for us with that concept is that we’ve built this demand for our hotel that’s ridiculous. We went into April at 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, referral business and demand.
You built the prices of the snacks, the ice cream, the soda and then I want to get into the popsicles in a little bit. You built all that into your room rate. Everyone’s like, “I can’t do that.” The reality is to think about us. We’re giving burgers hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn and dessert. How many burgers and hotdogs can people eat on a given night? How much ice cream? How many sodas? Darren, you don’t need to go into it. I’m guessing it’s extremely small. For me, I had four waters. I didn’t even have ice cream. My cost and all your amenities were zero. It’s very small but people are scared to do this.
People can only hold so much food. Do we get that occasional family that piles up on the snacks and wants one of everything which we do happily? We get them once in a while. Most people respect it. Some people don’t even touch it. People will have a snack or two. That’s great. It all averages out. It’s nothing to be afraid of.
What most businesses do is set up policies and a set of rules because of those few people that will take advantage of it. They say, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” There’s such a small minority, take care of the people to the best degree, create the best customer experience the guest experience like you’re doing. If those few people take advantage of you, who cares? We have people that eat six crème brûlée, six burgers and three hot dogs. I’m like, “You’re going to have indigestion later, you’re going to have some struggles.”
When we first started doing these free snacks, we did have some families that took advantage of them. I was an employee and our manager came to me at the time and said, “Why don’t we create this policy and this limit to protect ourselves against that?” To which I said, “It’s not a problem.” It’s something that might happen once in a while. The overall big picture is pace. It’s not worth it. The value of not having a policy is huge. People like coming in. I hear this one time at the front desk. When we’re explaining to our guests our free snacks. I hear the guests say, “You mean unlimited? You mean 24 hours a day?” There’s always that time when they check in with me to clarify our program. If we had a policy, it muddies it up, makes it not quite as great and it being great is valuable to us.
I want to get into how we build this within your people and your culture. First, we 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 with it. You got to share that laundry and the popsicle hotline for the readers.
I’ll start with the laundry. The laundry idea, it was Carnival Cruise Line that inspired me to do that. I’ve been cruising for a long time. I love it. My family loves it. When you get to a certain status, they give you free laundry. 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 them back to you the next day. 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 but no charge.” We wash it, dry it, fold it, we wrap it up in a little bundle in brown butcher paper, tie it with twine, put a little sprig of lavender on it and deliver it back to your room the same day. No charge and it’s unlimited like the stacks and there’s no restriction. 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. It’s the most relevant amenity we give to our guests, the most meaningful and the most impactful because we’re taking a job away from our guests. We’ve made guests cry on more than one occasion when they learned that we’re going to do the laundry.
Thinking about the amenities that you have, you’re doing laundry at your facility as is. It’s a nice tie and 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.
That’s exactly right. Look within your walls. What can you do? That’s where creativity and a lot of fun come into play.
What’s the popsicle hotline?
We were serving popsicles out by the pool randomly. We would do it every day. We saw people were up by the pool, we would go out there wearing white gloves. We had a silver tray and we’d pass out free popsicles by the pool. It might happen 5, 6, 7 times a day. People loved it. Kids loved it. In the spirit of always moving forward, always improving on things. I remember driving and I thought of a hotline. I thought of a red phone. There was already a phone up at the pool. I had our phone guy switch it out to a red phone which has no buttons or dials on it. It’s 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 popsicles, ice polar, ice block. We have a lot of Europeans and Australians and they have different names for popsicles.
All you do is lift the red phone. We answer at the front desk because we know where that call is coming from. We answer, “Popsicle Hotline.” There’s a kid or sometimes an adult, “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 real possible brand popsicles, cherry, grape and orange. We get the old-school tradition. We pass the popsicles around the pool. It’s a great conversation. It’s where people take their pictures in front of them. Some people have done the research ahead of time and kids will run out to find the popsicle hotline. It’s playful. It’s fun. It’s inexpensive for us. It’s a conversation piece and people are talking about it.
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 go about your business, you check people in and you check people out. Seeing a kid’s face when he gets a popsicle or free ice cream, how does that build the camaraderie and the culture of your staff?
It changes the whole day. 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, by the pool. It gets them talking with guests which is how we learn more about our guests. How we learn ways to surprise our guests. We learn more information. There’s something that we call, “Listen carefully. Respond creatively.” We use that term a lot.
Can we maybe have some examples of that, Darren?
Let’s say we’re outside passing out popsicles and we’re talking to a kid. We asked him how the day was. The kid says, “It was great.” We saw the Spider-Man exhibit and the kid’s wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt. That’s when we understand that this kid loves Spider-Man. What might happen is that by the time that this child gets back to the room, there might be a Spider-Man poster on the wall by his bed. Something like that. We collect this information, listening carefully and then respond creatively.
Your staff has done some of these extra touches?
We do it every day. That’s our way of life in The Magic Castle Hotel. That’s who we are.
Give me a few more examples. What are some other things that you have done to like, “I heard this. I’m going to go make this happen.” How do you do it?
Our front office agent Oliver is amazing. A family was checking in. The first thing they do is go visit the gravesite of Marilyn Monroe because the mom is 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. My staff wrote something great on it as if it was Marilyn writing it. 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. It’s fine to go into the cash drawer, spend some money, it’s fine. If it ever goes out of line, I’ll let you know.
In my several years there, maybe once or twice I had to say something. I want the story. Make it great. They understand that is 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. That’s 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. They forget to be creative. They forget to not only allow but encourage their staff to create these stories.
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 will give a quick example, if I may. We had an incentive program. It lasted for a whole month. The winner of the best story yet 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 fine print was each person has to turn in at least five stories in a month. We’ve got ten agents so that’s about 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 stories or read a story. I get to tell the stories to travel agencies when I visit them and it gets to experience.[bctt tweet=”Listen carefully and respond creatively.” username=””]
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, housekeeping went into the room. They saw that they were playing store. They had handwritten signs with all the initials of the kids. He had some pretend food. Housekeeping came and told the front desk this and we went into the room. While they’re out in the pool, we made it a real store. We re-did the signs, more professional and on the computer. We put real foods, replaced the fake food. When they came in from the pool, they had this real store. It blew them away.
You created magic. It goes so much with your brand, The Magic Castle Hotel. For those kids, what happened? It’s magic.
They’ll never forget it. It’s stressful traveling with little kids and to see a hotel make that effort for their kids and make their kids so happy on a trip. It’s meaningful to people. The best word I can come up with is it’s meaningful. That’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. 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 them every day, “What are the fans’ first moments you’re going to create with 4,000 people in the ballpark?” It’s not for every single person. You can’t go on to say like, “I can’t do this for 1,000 people.” When you listen carefully and then respond creatively, that’s how you can do it. Pick a select few. I’m sure every day there are 1 or 2 people that you guys pick out to make this experience. 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.
I’ve talked to people who are with larger companies. They say, “That’s great. You guys could do that. You’re only 43 rooms but we couldn’t possibly do that.” That’s bogus. You could do it, take baby steps, do it with a handful of people. It’ll 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 happy.” You finished with this great comment on one of your speeches, “What’s your popsicle?” You’re known for the popsicle hotline. Every company can have that one thing that makes them stand out that makes them special. While you do so many other amenities, it’s the popsicle hotline that most people are talking about, “What’s your popsicle?” My question for you is have you seen any of these other examples of companies? 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 unique things that have stood out for you in the business world?
Let me get back to that. I couldn’t come up with some examples.
That’s the point. When we try to think of all these companies, there are very few.
Companies are reluctant to be playful and goofy. There’s more of a need for that than everything. In the hotel world, everything is very slick, incredibly cool, hip. A lot of hotels want to be the coolest, newest hotel and that’s great. There’s also something to be said for doing things more slowly, in a more old school way, going back to the real touchy-feely stuff where kids want to experience something unique, fun, playful and appropriate to them, to families and business travelers. People want to experience something real. I tend to stay away from technology.
People try to sell me new technology all the time. “Your customers could check-in from their cab before they come in. They could banish the whole stay on their iPhone.” That takes away our whole business because our whole business is face-to-face. People don’t remember an app that they checked in with or made a restaurant reservation but they might remember coming to the front desk and having a front desk call ahead to that restaurant, make sure they get a good table and that they’re taken care of. That they remember. There’s something to be said for slowing things down a little bit. That’s what we do.
We’re so similar. At our ballpark, we don’t have a video board. We don’t have the electronics. We use an old-school manual scoreboard because we want people to escape. We have promotions every half-inning from dancing players, from our players 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. Those aren’t through technology. We use it as a clutch. I’ve seen so many people that that’s all they use, their app, their media. That’s not the 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. We need more of it. People need to understand that’s what matters. You remember those Hershey Kisses back in the day when you were a kid, they’re not going to remember that app or media channel. They’re going to remember that how they felt with that experience.
Other points of inspiration for me and introducing services. Every guest that checks into our hotel, we greeted them 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 their speech. The only thing they have to hit every time is, “We wanted to take a moment to tell you what a pleasure it is to have you with us.” I got that line from the night that my wife and I found out that our first child was going to be a boy. We went to a great Steakhouse in Beverly Hills called Mastro’s. We couldn’t get a reservation but we went in anyway. The manager was great. We waited a few minutes. He brought us to our booth. He took a step back. He said his name.
He said, “I want to take a moment to tell you what a pleasure it is to have you with us tonight.” Maybe it’s because it was an emotional day for us but it slowed things down from it. It pushed the pause button for a minute. It was memorable for me. That was the inspiration that started our lemon auto speech that every single guest gets upon check-in. It slows everything down. We came in from a long flight, you got stuck in traffic, 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 experience.” It’s great and it works.
That’s what it takes. I want to get into some lightning rounds and 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? Sometimes with fans, 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. 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 you solely focus and slow things down. That’s such good practical advice, Darren, that every leader needs to do to show to all their people and how important that one connection is.
In talking about culture, I always encourage our people to challenge us, 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 could do better then I’m not creating the best culture for our people. I noticed with your people. I heard one of your receptionists said, “No worries,” and I as a person staying there said, “No worries can be perceived negatively. It’s better to say, ‘All good,’ or, ‘I’ll take care of that,’ or, ‘My pleasure.’” I felt comfortable telling that because I was trying to help. If people aren’t doing them, 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.”
When we hire the front desk agents, I do frame the position as a creative position that people tend to like. The same goes for housekeeping and housekeepers generally are used to the boss wanting their creative input. It’s very well received. We do consider housekeeping and the front desk to be creative positions.
We’ll go into lightning rounds. If you were to give practical advice for someone to find their popsicle and start building this in their culture, what would you do? You started in 2001. You’ve continued to build it over the last years. What would you tell someone how they can start?
Don’t be afraid to be silly, goofy or playful. People like that and need it. Look at your childhood. Look at you growing up. What memories do you have that might be relevant to apply to your business? People like that personal story, don’t fear it. Look around, you might have that resource right in your business.
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. It doesn’t have to be a deep question.
I have a question for you. You said 4,000 people in your ballpark. How do you grow what you do?[bctt tweet=”Honesty is incredibly important, and so is accountability.” username=””]
Every single night, 4,000 people. We’ve been blown away and fortunate to sell out 32 straight games and we have our whole seasons about to be sold out. How do we grow? There are a few ways to look at that. How can you do what you’re doing for more people? We talk impact over revenue. We impact 120,000 or 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 ironic as it is. Can we travel on the road? Can we showcase this? Can we bring this to 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 show that 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 add many more seats to this 1926 stadium. Everything that drives us is impact. How can we impact more people? That’s either going on the road or showing it through distribution in media.
I’m feeling your team is infectious. People love it.
It’s the players. When they come that first day and I’m like, “You’re going to have your practice and there’s 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.” When they’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 pep band playing music, a 30-piece pep band out there. I’m out there high fiving people. We have people dressed up in penguin costumes. They are our parking penguins that are parking our cars. It’s not a huge expense. we’re looking at all these tiny touchpoints. You build the experience all the way through. That’s why I was fascinated. My best part of my trip was staying with you and connecting with you and your staff.
I was on a popular show. I did a few other things on that trip and the most enjoyable time was with you guys. We connected at what is most important. It’s not about seeing the glamour and Hollywood is what it is but it’s those human connections and touchpoints. You nailed it. We won’t elaborate on that flip the script. 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, for happiness in people’s lives. People are hungry for it now more than ever. Your team makes a lot of people happy. I was in Australia for business. I was flying from Sydney to Melbourne. I get off the plane in Melbourne in the domestic terminal. As I get off the plane, I hear some loud voices. I looked over there and boarding a plane from Melbourne to Cannes, Australia was the Harlem Globetrotters in full uniform with the Washington Generals with them. They were boisterous and funny. They were boarding the plane and they were awesome. I was far away from home and there’s a bit of Americana right there and made me happy. As I walked through the terminal, I saw a couple of other Harlem Globetrotters running for the plane. They’re pure. They bring so much joy to many people. They weren’t in character. They were happy. It was a slice of Americana. That’s what you’re doing, spreading that happiness to people, which is great.
What’s great about you is that you get people that come from all over the world that are staying in your hotel that you get to share. You’re spreading throughout the world. We’re trying to take our little piece in Savannah, Georgia that’s selling out and take that all over like the Globetrotters. In the book, a big point you said, “Hungry for joy and happiness.” When you’re providing that, you have great purpose. What do you want to do? You want to keep providing it 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?
I was seventeen years old. I went on my first cruise. It was on Carnival Cruise Lines. We had a large room for the five of us were better to do it that way. This guy, our room steward came to the cabin, was a 6’2” black guy from Jamaica. His name was Roger. He was going to be our room steward. He had his hands behind his back. He introduced himself. He was amazing. He elevated the experience completely and I never forgot it. He was inspiring to me. He would end up introducing the woman staying a few cabins down from us on 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 and retired at a very young age with them. He still has a lot of influence with Carnival Cruise Lines. He’s an amazing guy himself. All the cruises I’ve been on since then haven’t measured up to that experience. When we’re greeting our customers, I think about that when I was seventeen years old. I think about Roger and I tried to convey that to our newer employees. How impactful that could be on people. The Mastro’s guy greeted us with, “I want to take a moment to tell you,” the same thing. Those initial greetings are super important.
For our final four lightning round. We’ll go through every show I finished with these. Darren, I’m excited to hear what you have to say. One, what have you done to stand out in business and life?
I would say honesty. Honesty is incredibly important in accountability. Not only with my staff but with our customers and hotel guests. We make mistakes and being amazing honest. Running into the problem instead of running away from the problem. It’s been important for us and also good for business. It’s been a way for us to showcase who we are as a brand and as a company. Our check-in time is at 3:00PM. It was 3:15PM and someone’s room wasn’t ready yet. We said it’s going to be about another five minutes. The guests had no problem with it. We checked him in about ten minutes. After the check-in, they got a knock on the door with a note from me with an apology saying, “I’m so sorry your room wasn’t ready when promised.” There was also a bottle of wine. It was an acknowledgment running into the problem. I had been doing that for a lot of years. To us, it’s been one of the keys to our success.
Mistakes are what make actual raving fans. When you make a mistake, you solve it and make it even better. I don’t want to encourage mistakes but that’s a great opportunity to come to the rescue and save a customer. Sounds like you’re doing fine with that bottle of wine.
Liquor always helps.
It does. Throw some alcohol in the mix. It works.
Throw some alcohol, problems seem to go perfectly.
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 more clear this is to me and 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. I was threatened about telling people what we do. That’s no longer the case. Be generous.
Final two. The best advice you’ve ever received.[bctt tweet=”Whether it’s with money or time or giving advice, be generous.” username=””]
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 a messenger company. We did things differently there. A lot of our clients were five-star hotels, which is how I got interested in the hotel business. One of our clients was a Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey. When I got there, I was talking to this doorman Orlando. I invited him to speak to our messenger company. I was in my early twenties. He did. He 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,” and it made a huge impact. My advice for your readers, by applying some of these hotel principles to your business, 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, Darren, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered for my generosity and kindness whether it’s my personal life or in business.
Darren, you were tremendously generous. When I think about you, you are a master storyteller. 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 but for what you’re doing for customer service around the world because we need it to improve. It’s a problem out there and your help solving it. Darren, where can people find out more about Magic Castle Hotel?
Thank you for having me. It has been a treat. I wish you much more success. You’re amazing.
What’s the name of the hospitality?
Service Freak Hospitality is our hotel management company.
Darren, thank you for being on the show. Thanks for everything you’re doing.
Thank you, Jesse. I appreciate it.
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