The importance of communicating with your team. With Wes Smart, Managing Director of Harbour Park

In today’s episode of Skip the Queue I speak with Wes Smart, Managing Director of Harbour Park, The Children’s Beach Adventure.

We discuss operating within the current restrictions, the importance of communicating with their team and their plans for the future.

Wes shares how they’ve used the OODA loop method to make critical decisions. It was initially used to train soldiers to make time-sensitive decisions rapidly when there may not be time to gather all the information.

“OODA Loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The tighter you can make that loop the faster you will affect the situation.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Operating within the current restrictions
  • The importance of communicating with your team
  • Plans for the future
  • OODA loop decision making method

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Wes Smart

Kelly Molson: Wes, it’s really great to have you on the podcast today, so thank you so much for being on.

Wes Smart: Pleasure.

Kelly Molson: I always like to start the interview with a few icebreaker questions and you don’t get to prepare anything for these questions, but it’s just to get to know the real you because we haven’t actually spoken before, have we? This is the first interaction that we’ve had. So do you prefer cats or dogs?

Wes Smart: Dogs.

Kelly Molson: Any reasoning behind that? It is the correct answer obviously.

Wes Smart: Grew up more around dogs. I don’t have one currently. So it was more growing up and more familiarity. I’m not against cats.

Kelly Molson: I’m not against cats, Wes, but they’re just not that pleasant all the time are they? Not really. I’m going to alienate a huge part of my audience.

Wes Smart: You will. And I’m going to help you by saying, I look at it, as a cat is a squatter.

Kelly Molson: Wow. Okay. Yeah, I think you’re probably right there. If you don’t have a dog, I have two, and I’m always willing to get rid of at least one of mine at any one time.

Wes Smart: I would have to check with the wife.

Kelly Molson: Okay. So what would be top of your bucket list? What’s top of the list for you?

Wes Smart: My wife does know how to dive and I’ve not gotten open water or anything like that. So some experience inside of diving might be something I’d put out there as on the bucket list.

Kelly Molson: Oh yeah. Have you done snorkeling before, so you’ve had that first step?

Wes Smart: Snorkeling, I’ve even used an air tank in the swimming pool and things like that, but I’ve not the open water and I’ve never been on a reef dive. And so, I’d like to do that before I kick the bucket.

Kelly Molson: Where would you choose to go and do that?

Wes Smart: Belize.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Very nice. I’ve not been there.

Wes Smart: My wife’s done the barrier reef, so I’d rather go somewhere where she’s not being before and do and learn out there and I’ve been to Belize and it’s fantastic, but I never went diving there. I know it’s meant to be excellent.

Kelly Molson: Good answer. Okay. This is the last ice breaker question and I think it’s the toughest one. So I want you to tell me something that you believe to be true, but hardly anyone else agrees with you on, so it’s basically your unpopular opinion.

Wes Smart: Eggs belong in burgers.

Kelly Molson: Eggs belong in burgers.

Wes Smart: Runny yolk belongs in a burger.

Kelly Molson: Do you know what? I don’t think that I’ve ever had an egg in a burger. I’m trying to think. I’m totally with you on a runny egg in a bacon sarnie, delicious.

Wes Smart: So add a burger into the bacon sarnie and you’ve got a bacon egg cheeseburger.

Kelly Molson: With cheese as well though?

Wes Smart: With cheese, yeah, go big or go home.

Kelly Molson: That’s my life motto, Wes. Brilliant. Well, that’s a great start to the podcast Wes, thank you for answering my ridiculous questions. I’d love to know a little bit about your background and have you always been involved in the attractions world or is this something that’s quite new?

Wes Smart: No, I’m fourth generation entertainment. The big man behind me is my great grandfather.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow. He’s fabulous. Look at that. Look at that photo.

Wes Smart: He’s Billy Smart, he was a circus impresario in the UK. Billy Smart Circus toured after the 2nd World War, maybe the 50s, 60s times, and all that. So that’s the family history, it was circus and entertainment. So amusement parks and fairground equipment and it’s not such a far-flung attitude. So historically my family has been in entertainment, I have done other things. So I went off, I’m veteran, so I was in the military for a while and then I’ve come back into the business. So yes, summers from university were spent as an attraction attendant, and ice cream puller, and a program seller when the circus was still out and about as a young teen, popcorn making. So I’ve done the whole kit and caboodle at the entry-level and everything like that. And then I went off and I did other things with the military, and then I came back in and started back in as the Rides Manager and then promoted up through to operations and now I’m Managing Director.

Kelly Molson: I love that you have worked at every level of that, of the business. That must give you such an insight into what it’s like for your team, the visitors.

Wes Smart: It’s really helpful trying to deliver a consistent experience for the guest through managing training regimes, and that coaching technique that you use with younger managers who are coming through. And you are able to see the mistakes before they come and go and talk it through so they can see it coming. I think that experience helps. I like hearing about the guys who used to run Disney back in the day, who started on Main Street and you got a lot of American parks, a huge amount of parks out there, who we speak to, whose people have come up through and know the intricacies. And even Universal’s guy walks through the park every Saturday, make notes and everything like that because he did the experience. It’s not essential, don’t get me wrong, it’s not essential, but there’s certainly a value to having been at the entry-level and then at the mid-management level, with dealing with your staff and having sympathies for some of the pressures that come and the amount of left-field stuff, that’s just how it goes.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I love that. It’s interesting, one of the guests on the podcast for this season is Lee Cockerell, who was the ex VP of operations at Disney World. And he does talk front and center all the time, so being available to his team, so making sure that he was visible, and I think it’s very similar. He didn’t work all the way up like you have, but still that visibility and making sure that he understood everything that was going on at the park at any one time, is ultimately what’s important about building trust and making people know that you are someone that they can come to for leadership and support.

Wes Smart: I think the size of operation, the size of the park that I run allows me to have a bit more granular knowledge of roles, but it’s not essential, in a larger organization and that, you can’t know everybody’s job and that’s then about building teams and building trust and delivering expectations. And we talk about end states and so the people, “This is what I want to be. The route is your choice, but this is where I want to be.” So that actually it allows for creativity inside of the train tracks and a bit of freedom and ownership of tasks. That’s the stuff we talk about now is like, “Yeah, okay, I want to be there.” And in this time now, that’s proving to be far more successful in saying, “This is where I want to be. Let’s come up with ideas.” I don’t mind being about a sounding board. I don’t mind coming up with how I would do it, but change it. Take it, own it.

Kelly Molson: I love that.

Wes Smart: Plan your work and then work the plan.

Kelly Molson: So plan your work, work the plan.

Wes Smart: Plan your work then work the plan.

Kelly Molson: That is great. I love that. Okay. That’s a good quote for you’s. That’ll be all across our social media Wes. Tell us a little bit about the park and what the attraction is like because you’ve got outdoor activities and indoor activities. So you’ve got some quite big challenges at the moment with what’s happening, but tell us a little bit about the park and what’s there.

Wes Smart: Okay. So by amusement park standards were very small, relatively, we’re probably about 16 to 20 attractions, depending on what you count as an attraction or a ride. Mainly mechanical or electro-mechanical rides. We focus on an age group of two to 12-year-olds, particularly, and anyone with responsibility for a two to 12-year-old. We are a seaside location, so we’re highly seasonal. We have an indoor element as well as in an outdoor element, we face both a river and the sea. So we only can attract from a 180-degree catchment area. So there’s some real challenges. The indoor elements at the moment are soft play, which I’m sure we’ll come to later.

The arcades, arcades are arcades, coin-operated and there’s some interesting developments in that sphere about where things might go in the future. And then rides and food and beverage. Our top-selling food and beverage item is fish and chips, unsurprisingly, ice cream is our top-selling snack amongst them. That’s how it works. It’s a tight team, but the challenges of seasonality are something that we have to manage, and that’s going to be very acute given the current situation.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Absolutely, we will come to that actually later on in the podcast. But how has lockdown been for you? It’s a difficult question. It’s a difficult question to ask because it’s been so challenging for so many people, but I want to find out, what it was like for you when you heard the news that everything was going to have to close. And then what things have you done while you’ve been closed to engage with the audience that you already have? I’m sure you’ve got loyal people that come back time and time again.

Wes Smart: So the close down, we could see the effects happening already, literally across the two week period, what we would expect dropped off a cliff. So we already were looking commercially at what do we do? And we started to get soundings from our trade association, Belper, the announcements were coming. So we had to make a decision to start to prepare for that in quite a serious way. So when the announcement on the Friday was made, we closed to the public immediately. But we then had to go through a process that we never done at the park before, which was to winterize ourselves with all ride… We pushed our inspection regime for the rides so that we were all inspected, built, and ready to go with the rides. We then had to go through what we called mothballing. And we hadn’t done it before we pulled out the manuals for rides.

We got all the arcade equipment empty because we then worried about vandalism. We worried about break-ins, we worried about insurance, we worried about water. We went through a whole list and then had to record the list because we knew we wanted to turn it back on and didn’t want to forget anything. So the organization and making that happen over a two day period was a challenge. But with a mind to recovery even at that early stage, it was the ability to say, “We’re going to turn all this back on to make checklists.” Because I’m acutely aware there’s no point in relying on one person, you have to make lists and then publish those lists to everyone, so that people could move back in. What if I wasn’t there? What if I’m sat in ICU? What if management and a lot of the management team are, it was reliant on a lot of people. And that was made quite aware to our staff and essential briefing that, at that time there was significant fear about it.

But the fact was we said very clearly that we were aiming to survive, and we set a date for survival at that time to being Easter 2021. Right-back in March 2020. That’s what we said. That is the timescale we are setting over survival.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Wes Smart: Right at the outset, no one at that time knew how long it was going to last. No one at that time knew and we still don’t whether you’re going to end up with second waves, even third waves, historic data would suggest we might. And those are the kind of things that we had to do to react to lockdown. Everyone reacted really well. Furlough was an experience that was hard. The staff were very good about it. We did communications you asked about, and the main audience we focused on was our staff, if I’m honest.

Kelly Molson: Okay.

Wes Smart: Our external communications was very much were closed. And as per government instructions, we’re staying close, we do have an annual pass scheme. So there was a lot of discussions before we closed up shop about what we’re going to do for those, and that during I was on furlough for three weeks. And then we brought myself back and everything like that. So it was literally only the finances who were running the payroll, who we kept on for the first three weeks. After that, we brought myself and a couple back. That low-level knowledge was good because I was able to do a lot of the checks for insurance and that myself but after that… There was a lot more hands-on in the early part. And then later on we started to drop in people coming back, slowly, outlets that faced out that we could use as takeaway and convert those quickly. We did that.

Kelly Molson: That’s great. So you really adapt quite quickly then and open elements of what you were doing.

Wes Smart: Yeah, certainly the catering side of things, we adapted things to be taken away reasonably quickly when we were allowed to. We have to go through the whole COVID secure risk assessment. That was quite the effort as it was for everyone. Everyone took different approaches. There’s a lot of conflicting opinions. There were only so many Zoom calls that would eventually go on, I had to limit and focus on the ones that I found most helpful. And actually, it came to making decisions. At some point, you got to stop the talking and you’ve actually got to make a decision. And then evaluate that decision when it hits the ground and the public gets to have them have their opinion upon it. It was what we call an OODA loop that stands for something, but it’s OODA observe, orient, decide, act, and the tighter you can make that loop the faster you will affect the situation.

They used to teach it to fighter pilots about the faster you do that, if your circle is smaller than the other person’s, you’re now affecting them. So you take that decision cycle in this, and sometimes an 80% plan now is better than 100% plan too late.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, supposed to be.

Wes Smart: That was the attitude we took. We started with gloves and napkins and that, and the public liked it. Two weeks later the public didn’t like it. So we had to remove those and went to the… We were sanitizing over the top of gloves. Now we’re sanitizing hands that are bare, we’re food handling, it’s learning and reacting all the time.

Kelly Molson: It’s very difficult, isn’t it? We’ve had to in our own sector, which is very, very different in digital. People’s needs and requirements are changing so rapidly that you’ve got to evaluate constantly. So like you say, a solution that worked a couple of weeks ago now isn’t right for your audience. So now you have to change and adapt. And actually, that in itself is it’s quite exhausting, but it’s testament to the speed and the ability of the team that you have there to be able to continuously do that so quickly and evaluate. Now you’re open, we talked a little bit earlier about the kind of activities that you have on-site. You’ve got outdoor activities and indoor activities. So what restrictions are in place at the moment? The indoor is soft play. So unfortunately that stays closed for the foreseeable. What other challenges do you have in terms of the restrictions at the moment?

Wes Smart: And to be honest with you with the fine weather we’ve been managing on a capacity level that has worked for us. The number one thing that affects us still as has been before COVID and will be after COVID, will be the weather.

Kelly Molson: Yes.

Wes Smart: It is the number one thing that affects us. While we’ve been dry every day, the management and the techniques have been probably 95% of what we planned has worked. The one time that we did have rain and people from the park tried to come into the buildings. That was a challenge because we have rated the building for a certain occupancy level, as well as the outdoor area. And so while the weather is dry, that’s easily managed then what we found. The problem comes when people want to come inside all at once, and that’s usually in a rain shower.

Kelly Molson: Right.

Wes Smart: So we put our umbrellas up even on rainy days that we have for the seating. We try to not put the seating underneath so that you can fit more. So just to try to prevent a run for cover if we get a rain shower, that’s probably been the number one big challenge. And we’ve got different systems we tried for it. And like you say we’re learning a lot with those, but we haven’t reached capacity in the building even when we had the one rain shower. But it certainly taught us a lot about how we thought it would work and how it actually works. And like you say, that’s the evaluation that has to happen. I know other parks have got similar problems where they let their whole park is worked out for capacity and they let the people in, but everyone wants to go to one land.

Kelly Molson: Right.

Wes Smart: Everyone wants to go to the one IP linked land first. So they’re having to manage… Although their park is at perfect capacity, no problems at all. The problem is that people want to go to one place at one time. And that’s a different challenge. I know that other parts have had as well.

Kelly Molson: So is that something that you don’t struggle with that so people don’t tend to congregate in one, and they don’t go towards one ride specifically initially.

Wes Smart: The only challenge we get with that is weather-related. But now that we know… You can predict that with a certain degree, 24 hours out you’re looking for… You can prep your team in the morning. We now keep to one side the shower reaction kit, it consists of a few fences and some signage, but it’s trying to manage flow.

Kelly Molson: I hadn’t even considered… Obviously, I know that you have mixed spaces in doing outdoor. And I hadn’t even considered the challenges of the weather being the biggest challenge. Because in a normal circumstance people would go, “Oh, well, it’s raining. Oh, well, let’s go to soft play then we’ll get everybody inside.” And that’s the challenge. And would your soft play areas usually be open in the winter months as well? So you would get maybe more visitors into those areas than the outdoors at that point.

Wes Smart: Yes. And the planning element has moved on from opening now to winter, soft play was the cool birds for… We closed down the rides. We do our maintenance inspections across the winter. We do all our refurbs and everything like that. So that’s planned to continue the only disruptors we’ll there would be local lockdowns, second spikes, however, you want to phrase it. But that’s the thing that we would look at for that insight. At the moment, we are without the attraction that is the cool bird and the driver for children’s parties. And so winter is a challenge. We’ve got a few ideas and we’ve been musing through those in the last week or two and we’ll adapt. It’s as simple as that.

Kelly Molson: Adapt is the word of the year without a doubt. That brings me to one of the questions actually about the COVID situation. And we’ve spoken to some people that have said, “Oh, well, we’d been thinking about doing this thing for a couple of years. And actually, the situation has meant we’ve had to force it upon us. We’ve had to think more quickly and more rapidly and actually bring that solution forward.” Are you in that position where you’ve been thinking about some stuff for a while and now actually they’re at the top of the list? They’re things that you have to do because of the change in restrictions and what you can, and can’t, open with.

Wes Smart: Yes, we did. But those decisions have already been made, for example, menu size in the two sit down restaurant catering outlets. I slashed the menu down to five or six items. We have a lot more than that. We’ve always been trying to trim the menu down each time we got the concept and that, but this just made us… It was an early decision. Like I said, the OODA loop was simple. We wanted to do this for ages. This is the time to make it happen. It made sense for not needing to recruit anymore. It made ease of training if you had to a cook or a chef go down, the training was simple. If you reduced the menu, stock ordering became simpler as long as you could… The amount of suppliers that you could, the range of suppliers you could go to for that short menu.

So we made that decision in April before we were allowed to open. That was simple and then that decision led on to, “What do we need to do? We need to change the digital menus. We’re not going to pay for signage and that, let’s download PicMonkey and let’s see what we can do. Okay, great. We can print A3 brilliant let’s laminate it and let’s stick that up and instead. Okay. That looks a bit shoddy. Let’s redo that on a chalkboard format, still printed, but that looks much better. Bang, up it goes.” But the decision being made early. You use breathing space to make what the solution was looked less temporary.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Wes Smart: And it gives your customer confidence with that professionalism that you would expect from coming to an establishment. And that I felt was important. Because customer confidence was something that you couldn’t control. All you could do was get your elements to look like you had thought about this properly as they would expect, and convey that through the whole presentation. That’s what we do is you have to present things in a way that gives people confidence. And that was one of the big battles, but that all stemmed from making decisions early. And the menu is the easiest one I can use as an example of saying, “We’re slashing it. We’re going to Gordon Ramsay it.” Just come in and throw the toys out the pram and just go, “Yeah, your menu’s too big.” Of course, you’re not a chef back in the day to know that a slimmer menu is a more efficient menu.

Kelly Molson: We’ve ramped up the menu. I love this. So and what about future plans? So you mentioned there are a few things that you’re thinking of in terms of the winter months now, is there anything that you’re happy to share with us, about things that you’re thinking about that. Because I can see what a big challenge that’s going to be in terms of you said it’s a big driver for birthday parties. So essentially, that’s something that you could lose for the rest of the year. What kind of things are you thinking of in terms of new developments?

Wes Smart: The starting point was what in winter are we going to going open. So we usually run what I call the main building, that will stay open. The arcade inside there it’s been socially distanced and we’ve done that already and that’s working, so that will stay. So we have an element of things that we can keep open. The soft play takes up a big space. And at the moment there’s no clue as to when that might open. So it’s about using the seating space and converting that. Soft play is roped off it’s closed, we’ve cable tied everything shut it’s done. But as we come into winter, we need to look at the birthday party room. Can we repurpose it in some way? Is there a form of arcade attraction that we can put in there?

Is there something that we can use that… We’ll be very interested as the guidance towards schools starts to come out and seeing how schools are going to operate. Because if they’re operating in class bubbles, that will give us a much closer clue as to what is permissible and what is acceptable to our audience, and legislatively as well. I care more about the audience, to be honest with you, legislation we just have to comply with it. It is, it’s black and white and the gray areas around it. You make decisions and you adjust. So there’s no specifics at the moment because I’ve got things going out to different people and there might be five ideas out there. And one may only be the one that is economically feasible even, but we’re going through that now so that we can aim that come September we’ve got a decision and we can try to implement in September, ready for the October, by December, January, February, it’s a five-month pool to get around.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a long period. It’s great that you’ve got ideas about how you can use your space. And what I’ve really liked is that throughout this interview you’ve been really pushing that message that it is about your audience. It’s really about like… I’ve heard this phrase quite a lot, sanitize the venue but not the experience. Yeah. Okay. There are these restrictions in place and there’s the sanitization in place, but it’s not diluting that experience they gain. And it’s been really nice to hear you say that all the way through. We’re coming to the end of the podcast and what I’d really like to know. There’s a couple of questions that I’d still like to ask, but I’d really like to end on a positive. And actually, this is not just for the park, but maybe for yourself as well. Is there anything that has been a positive aspect of lockdown for you?

Wes Smart: Yes. Okay. There are a few different ones that I’ll pick up on. For the business, I would say our team’s reaction to coming back, although nervous was excellent. And I take a bit of pride in the fact that our people have come back and risen to challenges in the correct way, where they felt that there was holes and you can’t cover everything and that. They brought concerns up in the right way. We’ve adapted. We’ve used them, consulted with them about what would… And their attitude hasn’t been just not doing it. It’s, “What if we do it this way? What if we try to do that?” And that’s been really pleasing to see that buy-in. But I think that came from us focusing on staff as our communications lead early on, and yet the guests got told we’re closed.

We made a decision on annual passes and fed that out once we knew we’d be given a reopening date. So we stayed quiet to our guests. We weren’t a zoo. We didn’t put out educational packs and all that. All very good if I ran a zoo, I’d 100% do that. But we focused on our staff and I think that gave us our reopening with our staff. I take pride in how they’ve reacted to it all and that’s been pleasing to see.

Kelly Molson: That’s lovely.

Wes Smart: Personally, seeing my wife homeschool and how she threw herself into that was excellent. I was lucky I was able to help for the short time that I was at home and that. That was pleasing to see, not that it was easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Kelly Molson: I am sure.

Wes Smart: But no, and the way my kids reacted to that was really interesting. So we learned a lot more of us as a family unit. So there was a lot of learning about each other done there, which ordinarily you wouldn’t get particularly in summer for myself, where it’s our busiest time.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Yeah. You wouldn’t have been around.

Wes Smart: No. And that was from a personal point of view, that was really, really good to see. There’s a lot of growth in knowledge, not a lot of growth in the business.

Kelly Molson: Well, that’s to come though, that’s to come though, Wes. We love to end the podcast by asking if you have a book that you could recommend. So maybe something that has helped to shape your career, or just a book that you’ve just taken a lot from, and we offer that book as a prize for our listeners.

Wes Smart: Okay. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne.

Kelly Molson: It’s a great book.

Wes Smart: It’s fantastic.

Kelly Molson: Why have you chosen that book? It’s a beautiful book.

Wes Smart: Winnie the Pooh is my childhood hero, one, but as an adult, when you reread it’s hard to read actually when you go back to it. It’s written from the aspect of a child, obviously, I’m in Sussex. It was written by A. Milne in Sussex. So there’s a local link as well. But as a veteran, it says things about depression that are fantastic. Not that I don’t suffer from PTSD and that, but I have many friends and colleagues, ex-colleagues who do and that. And what it says simply about that from the attitude of a child is fantastic, in simple terms. It reminds you of what’s important. It takes you back. Our audiences are children. If you want to look at it from a business point of view and the wonderment in simple things, and you don’t have to… I’ve always said about digital, how important it is to certain aspects, but we’re an analog park.

And as digital becomes the main of what people do day to day, analog is going to be more important for experience. And it’s not a surprise to me that adventure activities are growing. It does not surprise me that the experience economy is a growth area, that bars are turning into the prison themes and these kinds of things. Because the more digital you have, the more experience in analog and shared experience particularly become important. And for a child, a walk in the woods is an experience it’s something that’s different. And Winnie the Pooh brings you back. It grounds you, it makes decision making… It takes the pressure off. It’s a relief. So I’m not going to say a self-help book or an inspiring biography from someone. I’ve got inspiring people in front of me. Some of them are 16, 17, 18 years old, and they’re in their first job.

I don’t need that. I can see that where they work hard and they’re learning something. So I need something to make the thought process simpler and the decision making less grand in my own head. And Winnie the Pooh does that for me.

Kelly Molson: Wes, what a lovely, lovely, end to our podcast interview, and what a wonderful book to recommend. If you’d like to win a copy of this book, then head over to our Twitter account, which is Skip The Queue. And if you retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Wes’ his book.” And then you will be in with a chance of winning it.

Wes thank you. It has been an absolute delight to speak to you today. I wish you all of the very best with the upcoming months that you’ve got ahead of you but thank you.

Wes Smart: No problems. Thanks for having me.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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