How to be a better leader in the attractions industry. With Matt Heller

In today’s Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Matt Heller, Founder of Performance Optimist Consulting and Co-Host of the brilliant AttractionPros podcast

Matt Heller, ICAE, wasn’t planning on getting a summer job at an amusement park when he was in college, but his Mom suggested it because she thought it would be fun. 32 years later, Matt still loves the sound of a carousel organ, the smell of roller coaster grease and the screams of people enjoying a great ride.

While working in operations and HR at companies like Canobie Lake Park, Knott’s Camp Snoopy, Valleyfair and Universal Orlando Resort, Matt developed a passion for helping others succeed and achieving their goals. He identified that the best way to assist other companies was to help them prepare and cultivate their leadership teams, so in 2011 he turned his passion into Performance Optimist Consulting which is driven by one simple goal: help leaders lead.  He uses his people-centric approach to focus on leadership development, guest service, and employee engagement. 

As a leadership coach, keynote speaker, or workshop facilitator, Matt has established a proven track record for being able to relate to any audience and give them solid tools they can use immediately. No matter the size of the group, Matt brings a fun and conversational style to each interaction or presentation.

Matt is also the author of two books geared specifically to the attractions industry.  The Myth of Employee Burnout tackles the difficult topic of maintaining employee motivation and engagement, while ALL CLEAR! A Practical Guide for First Time Leaders and the People Who Support Them outlines specific strategies both for people who are moving into a leadership role as well as the management teams overseeing the process. 

Matt, his wife Linda, and their dog Otis live in Hendersonville, NC. 

“One of the things that I feel motivates me, and I think it motivates a lot of leaders, is when you can help someone else, when you can be the person that helps somebody else be successful.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • How Matt has been supporting the industry through the pandemic
  • How to keep your teams motivated
  • Matt’s advice on how to be a better leader in the attractions industry

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, Matt Heller

Kelly Molson: Matt, I am absolutely delighted that you’re on the podcast today, even more so because my Internet has just come back on. Thankfully, this interview can go ahead.

Matt Heller: Well, that is fantastic. I am super excited that your Internet came back and that we can get started.

Kelly Molson: I know that you’ve been listening to the podcast, so you know that we always start off with the icebreakers. Now, let’s see if I’ve been kind to you.

Matt Heller: Probably not.

Kelly Molson: I think I have.

Matt Heller: Okay.

Kelly Molson: What is your favourite sandwich and why?

Matt Heller: I am so glad you asked me this. I have heard you ask this to other people. My favourite sandwich, this is going to get really specific, it’s a BLT, so bacon, lettuce and tomato grinder that is at one my favourite restaurants here in town, the Blue Ridge Pizza restaurant. They put this special sauce on it. They also put cheese on it, and then they put it through the pizza oven.

Kelly Molson: Oh, is that the grinding bit? Is that where the grinder comes from? What does that mean?

Matt Heller: Well, it’s basically a submarine sandwich or a sub sandwich.

Kelly Molson: Gotcha.

Matt Heller: But the owners are from New England, and in New England, a sub is called a grinder.

Kelly Molson: Oh, okay. All right.

Matt Heller: I’m not sure why. I thought maybe you would have an idea-

Kelly Molson: No, I have no idea.

Matt Heller: Okay, so yeah that’s my favourite sandwich. Everybody knows it’s my favourite sandwich. My wife will just say, “Hey, you want to get your sandwich tonight?” Because she likes to get wings from there. So yeah, everybody knows.

Kelly Molson: I am down for that sandwich, Matt. That is a great… A BLT with cheese-

Matt Heller: Yes, and sauce.

Kelly Molson: Through [crosstalk 00:02:08]. Yeah, I’m there. All right, good. Okay. I’ll have to try and recreate that in the UK. All right, who’s the better podcast host, you or Josh? That was mean.

Matt Heller: That was mean. Is it wrong to say I think we both bring different things to the table?

Kelly Molson: No, it’s very diplomatic.

Matt Heller: What Josh brings to the table, which I so, so appreciate, is his attention to detail. So often he can say, “Well, we talked to this person. We talked to Kelly on episode-” whatever it was back in whatever month it was and the year. I’m like, “Yeah, I just know we talked to Kelly.” I’m much more free-flowing and things like that, and I think I probably take things off in different directions, but I really appreciate how detail-oriented Josh is, and how we both think of things very differently. We look at things very differently. So, he will come up with questions that I will never think of, and probably vice versa.

Kelly Molson: Good. It’s a great podcast, and we talk a little bit more about that a little bit later. So, I’m sorry that I tricked you with a very mean question there.

Matt Heller: That’s okay.

Kelly Molson: What was the worst haircut that you’ve ever had?

Matt Heller: Probably my last one. I don’t know what it’s…

Kelly Molson: When was the last time you got your hair cut? The hairdressers are shut here. We can’t go at the moment.

Matt Heller: Right? Probably two weeks ago. No actually, this one wasn’t so bad. I used to go, when we first moved to North Carolina, I used to go to one of those quickie haircut places, kind of get them in/get them out in 10 minutes or whatever. Every time I came home my wife would say, “You’ve got to go someplace else.” I’m like, “I can fix it.” As soon as I take a shower and put some stuff in it, it’s fine. It’ll grow back. Well, because I’m getting older it’s not growing back in all those places. I recently found one in a small town near us, and it’s this old-timey small-town barbershop. It’s still got the red and blue thingy.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love it.

Matt Heller: You go in there and it’s like a throwback to the 50s, but the guys are super nice, they’re very talkative and it’s a great experience. They take some time to do it, so quite frankly even if they screw up a little bit, it’s still a better experience than going to the other ones.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that. Yeah, it’s all part of the experience, which a lot of that today as well.

Matt Heller: Definitely.

Kelly Molson: Okay, the last one, and this one I ask all of our guests. Tell me something that you believe to be true that hardly anyone agrees with you on. So, your unpopular opinion.

Matt Heller: My unpopular opinion is that we should not use generational labels like “Baby Boomer”, “Millennial”, “Gen-X”. Luckily, that’s getting a little bit more popular, but I cringe whenever somebody says, “Well, it’s just the Millennials. It’s just Gen…” you know, I’m just like, “Stop.” Because these labels are doing nothing but putting more of a divide between us than they are pulling us together. I really don’t think we should be using those in any context, in any management training. I used to, and I sort of had a negative experience about it and really had an epiphany moment. I went, “This is just not helpful.” So I’ve stopped doing it, and Josh knows if somebody says Millennial or something on the podcast that I’m secretly in the back going, “Ugh,” or making a noise or something. Yeah, that’s my somewhat unpopular opinion.

Kelly Molson: I like that. I’m going to agree with you on that one, because I think they feel really kind of corporate-y and really dated, and it doesn’t really fit with where we’re at right now.

Matt Heller: Yeah, and I think what it does is it takes the individual out of the equation. From a management standpoint, we’re looking at our team and saying, “Okay, well they’re Millennials. They’re Gen-X. They’re Baby Boomers,” so I only need to know three things instead of getting to know all 50 of my employees. What’s really interesting is back when this really started to explode 15, 20 years ago when people were talking about the different dates for the different generations and things, you look at the people that were kind of leading the chargeback then and even they’ve softened. Even they’re saying, “Well, the dates are just kind of more of a guideline. They’re not a hard and fast rule.” Even they are softening on that a little bit.

Kelly Molson: It’s a really good unpopular opinion, Matt. I would love to know what our listeners think about that, because I agree with Matt. Let’s see if you do as well. Thank you for joining in my gang.

Matt Heller: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: Matt, you have had a pretty incredible career in the attractions industry. It’s 20+ plus years in hospitality and leadership, and you’ve worked for Universal, you’ve worked for Six Flags. It’s really incredibly impressive. How did you get here, and did you always think that you would work in the industry?

Matt Heller: I did not think I would always work in the industry. In fact, until I was 16 years old I was definitely afraid of roller coasters.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Matt Heller: I wouldn’t even get on one.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Matt Heller: But my family was vacationing in Florida, and the girl that I was dating at the time, her family was vacationing, so we all went to Busch Gardens in Tampa. She said, “Well, just wait in line with me,” for the Scorpion roller coaster. So I got in line and I figured there’d be a chicken exit when I got to the front, and there wasn’t. So, I get in and I’m trying to be a good boyfriend. I get in and I’m white-knuckling all the way up the chain lift. As soon as we crested the hill and started going down, I was like, “This is awesome.”

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow. Got you.

Matt Heller: I started really liking roller coasters then, but it wasn’t until I was 18, so that was when I was about 16, when I was 18 I was back home from college and I didn’t want to go back to the grocery store I had been working at through high school and everything. My mom said, “Well, Canobie,” which is a park that was near us in New Hampshire, Canobie Lake Park, she said, “They’re hiring for the summer.” I said, “Well, all right. Okay, fine. That’s fine.” So I go down, get hired that day to be a ride operator and-

Kelly Molson: The rest is history.

Matt Heller: Exactly, yeah.

Kelly Molson: What did you do? Did you then just work your way up in the different parks that you’ve worked at, you just worked your way up from the ground level up to wherever you got to?

Matt Heller: Yeah. When I started at Canobie like I said I was a ride operator. Very part-time. I didn’t really think this was going to be a career, but I came back the next year, came back the next year, and I was kind of put into higher levels of leadership as I went along. Then I kind of hit my glass ceiling there because it’s a smaller family-owned park and at the time the two people that were not family members, that I could have eventually been promoted into one of those positions, those two people weren’t going anywhere. So, I knew I’d kind of hit my ceiling. Actually, at that point, I went to Minnesota.

I moved to Minnesota and started working at Knott’s Camp Snoopy, which is in the Mall of America, which at the time was managed by Cedar Fair, so Cedar Point, Knott’s Camp Snoopy. I figured this would be good in into one of those companies. There, I actually started over again. I went back to being a ride operator because they didn’t have any other management positions, but quickly kind of went up through the ranks. Then that led to a position at Valley Fair, which is part of the Cedar Fair family, also in Minnesota. Then that led to working in Connecticut, and then Florida, and now I’m here in North Carolina.

Kelly Molson: Amazing. It’s really similar to Josh’s kind of… The way that he worked through the industry as well. It feels like once you start working in it, it kind of sucks you in and people stay a lot longer than they ever expected to.

Matt Heller: It definitely gets in your blood, I think. You know, I think what it is, is for the people that like to serve others and the people that like to entertain other people, those are the people that typically get attracted to this industry. When they find that this is kind of their home, all bets are off. Forget what you went to school for. Forget what you thought you were going to do when you were a kid. This is it.

Kelly Molson: It’s funny, because we had another guest on a little while ago, Carly Straughan, and she said actually she was kind of interested in the almost theatrical drama side when she was younger. But that fits really well with what you just said about kind of entertaining people and giving them that really fun experience. So yes, good. I like how all that works out. I want to talk about the industry in general at the moment. As we’re recording this, I’m in the UK. Obviously, you can hear that Matt is in the US. We in the UK are in our third lockdown at the moment, and I think the third lockdown for many people has felt like the toughest one. We’re coming up to nearly a year of COVID pandemic and sanctions, and destructions, and tragedies that’s brought with us.

It’s been a really tough time for the sector, with closures and furlough, and redundancies. I think there’s lots of positives on the way. We can feel like this does feel like the light at the end of the tunnel. I guess I wanted to kind of ask you how has it been for you, because you are in a position where you support leaders, and leaders in this industry have had to make really, really tough decisions about what they’re going to do, and also it’s hard to motivate yourself let alone motivate a team when you’re going through this. How have you been supporting your clients through the pandemic?

Matt Heller: One of the things that I did as a supplier, as a supporter of the industry is something that a lot of other people did, just from a practical standpoint, is that everything paused. All of our clients’ business was paused, and certain ly, they weren’t focused on leadership training at the time. At the beginning of 2020, I had a number of clients that had already signed up to work with me for the entire year, or for at least six months. All that paused, all of the invoices paused all that kind of stuff. I really wanted it to be “I’m in this with you, so whatever you need, whatever I can potentially help you with, including pausing and not sending you invoices, I definitely want to do.” That was one thing just from a practical standpoint.

Then it was figuring out what other people needed, and part of that honestly started with what I needed, or what I could do, because when I started seeing all of my travel being cancelled, and all the jobs that I had lined up for 2020 just kind of evaporating, I sat here in my home office and I said, “What do I do? What am I supposed to be doing?” And I recognised I think that because of what was going on, that so many people were feeling this sense of loss, the sense of “I’ve lost stability in my life. I’ve lost now employees if I have to furlough them or let them go. I have lost a sense of security in the business. I may be on the verge of losing the business potentially.” From a personal standpoint, and I think you know this from the work that you do, you become very close with your clients.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely.

Matt Heller: They’re friends. In this industry, it’s a big industry, but it’s a small industry. Again, just kind of thinking about what I could do at that time when I knew I wasn’t working and I knew people weren’t going to be calling me up and saying, “Hey, we need a coaching session. Hey, we need a training session.” But what could I do? One of the things that I’ve gotten feedback on that people say I’m pretty good at, is being a listener. So I said, “Well, I can listen. I can’t bring your employees back.” I remember writing a LinkedIn post about this, “I can’t bring your employees back. I can’t make it any better. I can’t tell you what cleaning supplies to use. But I can listen. So, if you want to talk, if you want to chat, if you want to just get some things off your chest, let me know.”

So I got the Calendly app and I allowed people to just kind of set a time on my calendar. I said, “Let’s talk about anything you want.” What was really interesting is some people of course want to talk about COVID, they wanted to talk about furloughs, they wanted to talk about how they were having conversations with their teams. One person actually from the UK called up and said, “I want to talk about Queue Theory,” you know when people line up and queue up for a ride, he said, “I’m really interested in that. I want to pick your brain about that.” Okay, great.

Another guy called up and he said, and somebody that’s been in my coaching programs before, he said, “I want to talk about the return on investment of adding a water park.” Okay, let’s talk about that. What I think was really interesting is that yes, some people needed to vent and they needed to get this stuff off their chest about COVID, but some people just wanted to talk about normal stuff. And that was really eye-opening because I figured most of the conversations would be about COVID, but quite a few of them were not. That’s one thing that I did and I’m going to continue doing, is just allowing myself to be available for people to call and talk about whatever they want.

Kelly Molson: That’s lovely because I think that’s something that has, with everybody that we’ve been speaking to… Actually, this is something that we spoke about when we were on the AttractionPros podcast, is how supportive everyone has been through it, how helpful they have been. I think that is such a generous thing to do to open yourself up to just say, “Hey, I’m here. Talk to me. This is literally going to cost you the call of a Zoom chat. This is just free. I’m here for you.” It’s a generous thing to do, especially when you’re in a situation yourself personally when you’ve got those same worries as everybody else. You may have a smaller team for a bit than they do, but you’re still going through the same challenges of when is that phone going to start ringing again? When am I going to start getting those invoices paid? I know that’s a really lovely thing to do.

It was interesting because the next question that I had was to ask you when you were speaking to people what were their biggest challenges at the time? What were their worries? How were you able to help them, or how were you able to kind of alleviate some of those worries?

Matt Heller: The worries kind of ran the gamut of different things. I remember one person called up and he said that his facility had quickly closed down because one of the actions of the owners, and they really could have stayed open or they could have come up with a plan, but one of the owners just made a knee jerk reaction and he said, “This is a nightmare,” what he was going through from a company standpoint. Then he also added on some other personal things that he was going through with his family, and his husband, and those kinds of things. That just broke my heart to hear those things. That’s kind of one end of the gamut if you will.

One guy called up and he said, “I’ve got some people that obviously are not working with me right now because we’re closed.” He said, “I’m going in once a week just to check the lights and to make sure everything is secure. He said, “Our staff is not here. We actually have some people that have already contracted COVID. I want to call them. I want to talk to them,” but they’re technically furloughed and his head office, his corporate office was saying, “You can’t talk to them.”

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh.

Matt Heller: “You can’t call them at all.” So he’s like, “I’m at my wit’s end because I just want to call them as a human being, as a person, but my corporate office is saying, “You can’t do that.”

Kelly Molson: That is so difficult.

Matt Heller: It is. It is. One of the guests that Josh and I had on the podcast in that time was an employment lawyer from Florida. She said, and I was so glad she said this, she said, “You have a right to be human. You have a right to call that person and say “Kelly, how are you doing? Just tell me about what’s going on with you. We won’t talk about work. I’m not going to ask you where that report is,” that kind of thing, “But just tell me about you,” and that is totally within your realm of responsibility and opportunity as a leader, as a human being. I felt really good about that because that’s kind of what I told him even before I talked to her because he was either going to break his company’s policy or he was going to go crazy.

So I said, “You’re probably going to have to break your company’s policy and talk to that person so you don’t go crazy.” The other thing that was kind of along those lines is I was really encouraging people to err on the side of compassion. We hear it all the time, “Err on the side of caution.” I think in this instance everybody that I talk to, they were all going through something and we were all going something. So, wouldn’t it make sense that we added a little bit more compassion to our conversations, or we added a little bit more sympathy and empathy to how we were interacting with people knowing they were going through some pretty crazy stuff just like we were? So, why not extend that to them as well?

Kelly Molson: That is the strength of a true leader as well, isn’t it? It’s the empathy. It’s how you show that you care to your team regardless of size, regardless of location. It’s about really caring about the individuals that are within your team. I’m so glad that you gave them that advice even before checking with the employment lawyer because that’s absolutely what I would have done. Absolutely. Things have changed quite dramatically for you, and I want to talk a little bit about how you had to change, how you kind of service your clients within the situation that we’re in from working from home, et cetera. How have you been able to kind of advise your clients on keeping their teams motivated, because I run a small team and we’ve been very fortunate to be busy throughout the pandemic. It’s a digital team, a lot of our clients have had to not pivot, but they’ve had to think of new ways to engage in their audience. A lot of that has been on a digital basis.

It’s still been very difficult to keep the team motivated even though they’re busy, because they’ve got their own personal worries about things. They might have family members that are really affected by this. They’re working from home. Not everyone is sitting comfortable with that. How do you help a leader that has a team of kind of 50, 60, 70 people to try and keep all of those people motivated when some of them are on furlough as well?

Matt Heller: It’s really tough, but I think it comes down to communication. Especially as we’re working with people in the digital realm, if you think you’re communicating enough, you’re not. If you are used to working with people where they’re side by side and they’re face to face, and you’re in the same room, you might have gotten away with X level of communication in the past. Well, that’s got to maybe double or triple. It doesn’t mean that you always have to have something to say. Communication is both ways. It could be asking them questions: How are you doing? How’s your family? Those kinds of things, and really like you said, treating them like a person and showing them that you care about them is really motivating for any human being.

I think the other thing is when we talk about employee engagement for so long, people would ask the question, “What do my team members want? What do they want? Do they want a ping pong table? Do they want more breaks? Do they want that-” I said, “We have to change the question. The question is, what do they need, not what do they want, but what do they need?” That could be someone to listen to them. They may have things going on at home that they can’t talk to anybody about. Maybe you as the boss, you’re just a listening ear and you don’t offer any advice, you don’t offer any guidance. You just are there to listen. That may be what they need.

Some people may need information on the government programs that will help bridge the gap in terms of their money. That may be what they need. They may need a connection. So, get on Zoom if we have to, I would much rather be in person, but get on Zoom and have a little get together party with people and allow them to talk to people. You as the boss don’t have to be the one leading it. You can just facilitate it. Start the process and just let people talk. Even in Zoom, there’s breakout rooms, so put them in smaller rooms. Let them have little conversations, but allow them to have that connection with people because I think that’s one of the things that we’re missing most is the connection.

I think it’s communication is a big part of that, but also changing that question from what do they want to what do they need. Then that will help guide how you actually interact with those 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 people.

Kelly Molson: You’re so right about the communication. I think that’s something that we’re definitely aware of, and I think we kind of over-communicate it to our clients. We probably didn’t over-communicate enough with our team, like all of us kind of didn’t talk enough. That probably led to a few moments of everyone feeling a little bit disjointed and not really feeling like they knew what was happening.

Matt Heller: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Towards the end of last year, I attended a really great webinar that you and Josh were on, which was around networking. It was all about connection and looking at how we build those connections within our network when we’re not able to get out and about like we used to be able to. So much of the attractions industry was about face to face, lots of conferences, lots of things like that. Obviously, all of that is on hold in the moment. How do you motivate yourself, and how do you recommend that leaders keep themselves motivated? Is it very different to how they motivate their teams? And is building kind of those support networks part of that?

Matt Heller: I absolutely think the support networks are incredibly important, and again when we’re on lockdown a lot of times we think, “Well, I’m locked down from everything.” Well, we’re really not. You pick up the phone, you get on a Zoom call, you can be connected to other people. So, I think that’s really critical is to keep that going. When you go on LinkedIn, or you go on Facebook, or you go on any of the social channels, if you just comment on things or find things that you like, it’s not necessarily about building a relationship immediately, but it’s about planting the seeds.

You can go on and say, “Hey, Kelly I love that post about-” whatever it was. You’re just kind of again planting the seeds of building a relationship with someone that could turn into a professional relationship or it may just be a friendship, or wherever it might go. But it’ll help you feel connected. One of the things that I feel that motivates me, and I think it motivates a lot of leaders, is when you can help someone else, when you can be the person that helps somebody else be successful. That’s why I really love those listening meeting calls that I did, because after each one of them I would ask, “So was this helpful?” I just wanted to know for my own sanity I guess, is this something I should keep doing?

Everybody said, “Yes, this has been so helpful,” whether I said much during the call or not, it was very helpful. That was extremely motivating to me because I got to help somebody else. I think a lot of people get into leadership roles for that reason because we want to help others. We want to serve others, especially in this business where that’s part of what gets under your skin and gets into your blood, is helping and entertaining other people. So, I say ask that same question of yourself, not what do you want, but what do you need to stay motivated? And if it’s to help people, that may look a little different right now, but it’s the same as it would be when we’re fully open and COVID wasn’t even a thing that we even knew about.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, you’re so right. That feeling that you get from helping someone is pretty incredible, isn’t it? It can be such a small thing. It might just be that you’re connecting someone with somebody else, you’re making that introduction. Like you say, it might just be that you’re giving them the ear that they need. They might just need to rant at someone for half an hour. That’s fine. That’s okay, I’ll be that person.

Matt Heller: Yeah, absolutely.

Kelly Molson: The way that you deliver your training and the way that you deliver and work with your clients has changed dramatically. Is everything for you virtual now? How have you adapted to that? Are you enjoying it? Does it feel a bit weird still?

Matt Heller: It does still feel a bit weird. Not everything has been virtual. I have had a couple of clients that have really insisted on doing things in person. So, we took all the precautions. I was just in Florida about a week ago, and we took all the precautions. Everybody was wearing masks, we’re distanced from each other, all those kind of things. So, they really saw the value of still getting together and taking those precautions because they felt like the in-person dynamic would be so much more valuable, and it really has been. For some of my other clients, we’ve changed. Sometimes it’s just based on volume, like if I’m working with 200 leaders at a specific park or an institution, then it’s just not practical to get 200 people in a room where you’re all physically distanced.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Matt Heller: Then we look at different virtual options. Some of the time I’m delivering kind of a live seminar via Zoom. Sometimes I’m doing a prerecorded video for them. While yes, it’s still a little weird, I think I’m starting to find my groove. I’m starting to find my legs if you will. One of the biggest things I did was to stand up. At the beginning of the pandemic, if I was delivering a webinar or an online class or something, I was sitting behind my desk and I was looking at the computer and I was like, “Why does this feel so weird?” It feels weird because that’s not how I present.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Matt Heller: I was facilitating a class. I’m standing up. Even right now, I’m standing up. I started using this too, my clicker. So, instead of fumbling for the space bar or the return key when I wanted to advance my slide in a presentation, I’m doing it just like I would when I’m standing in front of a group. I’ve been doing that for 30 years. So, that’s pretty ingrained as a habit. Now if I bring that into what I’m doing in the virtual space, I feel like I can be more emotional. I feel like I can connect better because I’m not so worried about being behind the computer and looking at the monitor, and looking at the camera, and all those different things, having to be perfect.

I’m learning this process now, and it’s getting more comfortable, although I will say I still prefer being in person.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, oh we all do. We do. We kind of wait for the day that we can go back to do that. One of the things I was thinking about last week is actually I used to travel a lot for work, and I think that as much as I love travelling and love seeing my clients, some of those meetings and all that travelling was slightly unnecessary. So I feel like when we go back to whatever normality we’re going to go back to, this is going to change stuff for us quite dramatically. I think that there’re barriers that have been broken down now. If we had to fly to Scotland for a day, that probably isn’t going to happen now unless it really, really needs to.

That’s kind of nice, right? You’ve got that flexibility. Do you see this opening up more possibilities for you to work with maybe more people? I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with organisations in the UK for example, would that be something that you could now start to look at that’s more of a possibility?

Matt Heller: 100%, absolutely. I think it also opens it up to different levels of leadership because I think people are more apt to invest in a six-month group coaching program where people are on Zoom rather than flying me out every couple of weeks or something. Actually, I’ve got a couple of groups going right now that are kind of seasonal supervisors. What’s great is that they probably wouldn’t go to the big IAPAs and they wouldn’t go to the big conferences on a regular basis, but this organisation has said “Hey, these folks are important,” so now we’ve got the technology… I shouldn’t say “now we have it”, now we’re more comfortable with it, and “Hey, let’s get on a Zoom call and let’s do it that way.”

I think it opens it up for that. I’m also very involved with IAPA. I’m on the human resources subcommittee. So, as you talk about how we’re going to deliver things in the future, there’s probably now always going to be a virtual element, which is great for people who can’t travel to the show. It opens up so many different possibilities of actually maybe presenting like if you were in the UK and you couldn’t travel to the US, well you could now dial in and potentially present from the UK to an audience in Orlando.

There’s just so many different possibilities now. I think just creativity is the issue.

Kelly Molson: It’s crazy though to think that all those possibilities were there before. We had this technology, we just weren’t really taking advantage of it, or it just seemed like not the right thing to do. I love that there will always been kind of a physical and a digital aspect now. I just think like you, it opens up so many more people.

Matt Heller: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: That’s a great story about the client that is now focusing on an audience of people, or a group of people in that organisation that wouldn’t necessarily have been able to access the support that they need from you previously. I love that. It’s really wonderful.

Matt Heller: Yeah, I think it’s really opened up people’s ideas of what’s possible. If you think about some of the positive outcomes of what we’ve been through, sometimes it just takes a smack in the face for us to think, “Oh, we can do things differently,” rather than just kind of keep going the same way that we’ve gone for years, and years, and years. “Oh, we can do things differently.” What I heard from so many different people was, “We were forced to do things differently,” and now we’re seeing that that change wasn’t so bad.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of very, very similar conversations. In fact, there’s an ongoing one about pre-booking which I do keep banging on about it on this show, but it was always something that was there and able to do, but it wasn’t something that the industry had adopted completely in the UK. Now, there’s a big possibility that a lot of organisations will never go back to not having pre-booking again. I see that as a huge, huge positive for the attraction, and a huge positive for improved customer experience as well. So yeah, lots and lots of positives to take from this.

Matt Heller: Definitely.

Kelly Molson: I want to talk about podcasts.

Matt Heller: Yes.

Kelly Molson: I did ask you a mean question, but I think you and Josh are excellent podcast hosts. I love the AttractionPros podcast because you have such a wide variety of guests on there, and I learn something new about the industry every time I listen to it. Gosh, you’ve been recording an episode every week. It’s a weekly podcast. How long have you been doing this now? It’s a long time.

Matt Heller: It is. As of this recording, we just released our 180th episode.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Matt Heller: Every Tuesday at 9:00 AM Eastern Time here in the US, we put up something new. So yeah, it’s been going on for a long time.

Kelly Molson: That is a huge achievement, and I think what I really like about it as well is that it’s not just… You have a podcast which in itself is a huge amount of undertaking. I know. It’s really great. You have great guests on, but you also do a lot of supporting work as well. You write great blogs that support the podcast, you’ve run webinars, you’ve run kind of training sessions around it as well. It feels like such a supportive community that you’ve built around the podcast, and that for me is such a positive.

I want to know what’s the… This might a difficult question, so I’m sorry-

Matt Heller: That’s okay.

Kelly Molson: But what’s the best thing that you think that you’ve learned from one of your guests on the podcast this year?

Matt Heller: It’s something that quite a few of our guests actually talk about, and it’s something that I’ve learned by doing the podcast. It’s about consistency. You mentioned we’ve been doing this for a long time. When we first started, we made the very conscious decision that we were going to release these at certain times, and it was going to be consistent. Whatever it took, we were going to be able to put out a new episode on Tuesday morning.

There have been times, full disclosure and transparency, that Monday night Josh and I are like, “What are we going to put up tomorrow?” “I don’t know.” He’s like, “I went to Home Depot yesterday.” “Okay, let’s talk about that.”

Kelly Molson: I love the authenticity of this.

Matt Heller: Oh, yeah.

Kelly Molson: Thank you for being honest.

Matt Heller: Absolutely. There have been times that we’ve done that. I think you know Josh and his wife just had a baby, so congratulations to him.

Kelly Molson: Yes, congrats Josh. That’s lovely news.

Matt Heller: Leading up to that, Josh knew he was going to be unavailable for quite a while. We had, I don’t know, like a month and a half of podcasts that we prerecorded and had those done out. So, it really runs the gamut in terms of those kinds of things. But getting back to consistency, I found that when we put it up at a consistent time and we really try hard to deliver a really consistently high-quality product, that people respond.

Maybe we don’t have millions and millions of viewers, but I think the viewers and the listeners that we have are people who are engaged and they enjoy what we’re doing. So, it may be a smaller niche market, but I’m okay with that. I think quite a few of our guests have talked about consistency in terms of the guest service, and employee engagement, and treating people in a consistent way. I just noticed that putting out the podcast at the same time every week and being consistent with that has really been helpful to build our audience.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, definitely. There’s an expectation as well, once you’ve built that audience, that it’s coming. There’s a level of excitement. They’re looking forward to the next episode.

Matt Heller: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, consistency is absolutely key. It’s a really good takeaway that you can apply that to any part of your business, can’t you? Any part of your leadership journey. Good, okay. Next question about podcasts, do you think that it’s helped you kind of tailor and change the way that you approach doing things. I mean, obviously one of the reasons that we started the podcast is to learn more about people in the industry from all different sides; suppliers, attractions, the whole breadth of that.

It definitely helps us change how we approach certain conversations, how we approach the understanding of what people’s challenges are. Has that been the same for you?

Matt Heller: Absolutely. When you talk to people, really smart people, and we’ve been really lucky to have a lot of smart people, including yourself on our podcast, you can’t help but be inspired by it. If you are not taking something away, if you’re not learning something, if you’re not writing down a couple of key nuggets that can help in your business, then I don’t think you’re doing it right.

Kelly Molson: True.

Matt Heller: I think both Josh and I have taken things away from different guests and different experiences that we’ve had in doing the podcast that have helped us either build a new product or focus on a new area, or open our eyes to a different part of the industry that we have maybe not thought about as much. We really try hard to be well versed in the entire industry. He and I both started in amusement parks and theme parks, so that’s kind of where our bread and butter is, if you will, of our knowledge.

But, learning so much about zoos, and aquariums, and cultural attractions, and family entertainment centres, and water parks, the industry is huge when it comes to the breadth of types of attractions, and we are AttractionPros, so we can’t just be theme park pros. That’s been really fascinating. One of the questions that we have asked a number of different folks is, “Okay, you’re a for-profit company. What can a nonprofit learn from you and vice versa?” And those have been some really interesting conversations.

Kelly Molson: That’s a good question as well. Can you think about one of the best answers that they gave?

Matt Heller: Yeah, I think a lot of nonprofits are really mission-driven, and they’ve got a mission whether it’s conservation or animal health, or whatever their mission might be. You find people in those organisations that naturally want to help them achieve that mission. People that work with animals, I’m so lucky that I get to work with a number of zoos and zoological institutions because those people are extremely passionate about what they do.

Now, can we use that, finding people that are that excited about your mission just because that’s who they are? Can we use that as a model or a framework to finding people that are just as passionate about what a theme park does? I think we can, but we also may have to alter the mission a little bit. So, it’s not just about making money and making the guests happy, but how are we impacting the community? How are we impacting the world with what we do? Because entertainment, as we’re seeing right now during lockdown is critically important.

Josh will tell that he doesn’t think any of the attractions are non-essential, and he gets really-

Kelly Molson: I’ve heard Josh talk about it. He’s very adamant about this.

Matt Heller: His feathers really get ruffled when people talk about that. I think that’s something that we try to embrace as well, is getting that message out there and focusing on all attractions. So yeah, I hope that answers your question anyway.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s a great answer. It’s a really great answer. It’s funny, I have heard Josh talk about the… He hates that word “non-essential”. He said that quite a lot on LinkedIn actually. I’ve seen a few posts from him. But he’s right because people’s entertainment is essential, isn’t it? It’s cultural, it’s your learning, you’re learning through play, you’re learning through entertainment. It is an essential service, the attractions and delivering. Completely, I’m on his side when it comes to that completely.

Matt Heller: Me too.

Kelly Molson: We’re towards the end of the podcast. I always ask our guests if there’s a book that they recommend, that they have loved or has helped them shape their career and work in some way. I want to ask you just a question before you choose a book-

Matt Heller: Okay.

Kelly Molson: Because you’ve actually written two books yourself, haven’t you?

Matt Heller: I have.

Kelly Molson: You’re a published author. Tell us a little bit about those books.

Matt Heller: The first book that I wrote, people will ask how long it took me to write, and I say 25 years because it’s a culmination of so many of my experiences. The first book that I wrote was called The Myth of Employee Burnout. It’s all about when you have the beginning of the season, or the beginning of a year or somebody is new in your organisation and they start off really strong, and they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and somewhere along the line they kind of fizzle out.

When I first started working in seasonal amusement parks, we just thought this was kind of mid-season burnout. We thought long hours, and dealing with the cranky guests, and all that kind of thing was really impacting that. Well, when I started my practice in 2011, I really wanted to take sort of a 30,000-foot view of that, and I wanted to understand that better because as an operator I felt like I was always too close to it.

What I really found is it really comes more down to leadership, it comes down to how we interact with our teams, it’s also everything from how we hire people, how we train people, how we terminate people, how we discipline people. All those are factors. Everything in the employee life cycle, all those things impact how people are going to be engaged, or how motivated they’re going to be. The book really outlines how we can get over that burnout process. Again, specifically looking at it from a leadership standpoint.

Kelly Molson: Great.

Matt Heller: The second book has the longest title ever. It’s called All Clear: A Practical Guide for First-Time Leaders and the People Who Support Them.

Kelly Molson: That is a mouth full.

Matt Heller: It is a mouth full. But all clear is what you might see on a ride platform, somebody giving the thumbs up and the “all clear”, and really that means that the ride is ready to go. What I wanted this book to be was a resource to give young leaders that they are ready to go. They’re ready to take on this leadership role. Really, what it’s about, it’s about the transition to a leadership role, which is a tough transition.

Two-thirds of the book are about all those pitfalls, all those things that can go wrong. You’re now leading your friends, that’s a huge thing, getting to know yourself as a leader, communication, giving feedback, coaching people. All those kind of things are kind of the first two thirds. Then I also wanted to write it for the people who are guiding people through that transition, so their managers and directors, because so often they went through that same sort of sink or swim, “Here’s your keys and here’s your radio. Go be a leader.” That was their training.

They don’t necessarily understand how to train another leader, especially one coming up in the organisation. So, kind of the third third of the book is really for them about selecting the right people, training them on what they need to know as a leader, and then supporting their leadership journey. That kind of outlines that book, the All Clear book.

Kelly Molson: They do say, I don’t know if you’ve heard this phrase in the UK, but they say “The most important book in your life is the one that you write and not one that you read.” We’re going to put all of the notes about those books and where you can find them in the show notes. Let me ask you the final question then. What is a book that you have loved or has helped shape your career in some way? Actually, maybe it was the one that wrote that’s helped shape your career in some way, that would recommend to our listeners.

Matt Heller: Definitely, the ones that I wrote, like you said, they’re very important to me and they did shape my career. I use them all the time. Just the other day somebody asked me something and I had just given them the Myth book. I said, “On page 88 of that book you’ll see that we talk about this in more detail.” It’s been a great resource for that. I will say that there’s a book, and I found it in my collection, it’s a book called It’s Okay to Ask ‘Em to Work by Frank McNair.

I read this when I was first starting off as a leader. It was so practical. I think that is something that has driven me as a leader, it’s driven me as a trainer, as a coach to be very practical in what I’m providing to people. None of this pie in the sky air fluffy stuff. Give me some things that I can use today as a leader. Very practical. This book is very practical. The title, It’s Okay to Ask ‘Em to Work, sometimes we feel like it’s almost hard to ask people just to do their job. Like they’re going to get offended, or they’re going to react badly.

But as he explains, and I really internalised, is that that is their job and it’s our job to get them to do their job. So he goes through all kinds of different things that again are very practical to help us figure that out. That’s one that when you asked about a book that really shaped me and really influenced me, especially early on, it’s that one.

Kelly Molson: I feel like I need to go back and read that book now. I’ve been doing this a long time. Thank you, that’s a great suggestion. Listen, listeners as ever, if you want to win a copy of that book, then if you head over our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the comment “I want Matt’s book,” then you will be in with a chance of winning it.

Matt, I’ve really enjoyed this podcast interview because I think as somebody who trains leaders, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is as kind of positive and optimistic as you. I love the energy that you bring when we speak. I just think you’re the best person right now to motivate leaders in the attraction sector. That’s all I’m going to say.

I hope everyone listening in to this will take the time out… You know what, Matt has got a really great offer of just… His ears are open. So, if you want to book in a little slot to have a chat with him, we’re going to put those details in the show notes as well. I would encourage you to do that without a doubt.

Kelly Molson: Matt, thank you for coming on the podcast today. It’s been a pleasure.

Matt Heller: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Kelly.

Kelly Molson: I think there’s only one way to end the podcast though really, isn’t there? That’s to say we are all-

Matt Heller: All-

Kelly Molson: Attraction.

Matt Heller: AttractionPros.

Kelly Molson: Pros.

Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at info@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

Give your customers a better online experience with our newsletter

Receive free advice that will enable you to create better online experiences for your users and guests.