This special interview features one of Minor League Baseball’s most successful General Managers, Kurt Landes of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies’ Triple-A baseball team. Kurt has helped steer the Lehigh Valley IronPigs to extraordinary success during his tenure as President and General Manager of the club.
The IronPigs have led Minor League Baseball in overall attendance since debuting in 2008, and the organization was recently honored with the prestigious Bob Freitas award, honoring sustained excellence in Minor League Baseball. Kurt was named the International League Executive of the Year in 2009 and 2010, becoming just the fifth person ever to be named to the honor in consecutive years dating back to the award’s founding in 1964.
The IronPigs’ success is impressive considering it’s based on the efforts of 40 full-time staff and more than 400 part-time seasonal employees. By way of disclosure, I am a season ticket holder. But as an advocate of employee and customer engagement, I also appreciate the leadership and teamwork it takes to consistently create a positive fan experience – especially when they have no control over critical variables like the weather or the baseball team itself.
I spoke to Kurt to get insight on the culture of the IronPigs’ organization and was fortunate to interview him just as he and his team were preparing for the start of the 2015 season.
QSM: Let’s start with the fans before we talk about your employees. How do you build fan engagement?
Kurt: Our philosophy is based on total fan participation. What that means is we analyze every aspect of our operation to determine how our fans can be involved. For example, our radio broadcast is done in the press box where fan interaction is zero. But now we broadcast in the stands on Wednesday nights so fans can literally come up beside the booth and watch and listen. We even pick a different fan each half inning to participate in the broadcast. In addition, we ask fans to vote on the last bobble head giveaway and the design for the last t-shirt giveaway. We’ve gone out to schools and the pediatric hospital to have kids design the game program. All these types of activities enable our fans to feel more ownership. Long term, it strengthens the fan-team bond.
The players are employees of the Philadelphia Phillies. We don’t choose the players or what positions they play, so our focus is on all the other elements of the ballpark that we can control. We continually invest in the ballpark since it’s such an important part of the experience. We take great pride in keeping the facility spotless and clean. All of our full time staff are instructed to pick up any trash they see; no one is above that.
All of our staff, not just those in promotion, have a role in the entertainment experience. There are so many opportunities to make a positive impact. It’s important to set the tone from when the fans enter the stadium — from the parking attendants who wear silly, goofy hats as they welcome the fans to the people inside the gates taking tickets, the ushers who guide them to their seats, the staff at Fan Services, customer service staff, those serving food, the groundskeepers, etc.
We want to be the best. That’s why it’s important to stay active and vibrant in our facility. We’re eight years old now so we have to go above and beyond to serve our guests.
QSM: There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, and the work at game time is unpredictable given weather and game duration, not to mention the game’s outcome. How do you keep employees primed to deliver a positive fan experience?
Kurt: It’s not easy. We have 40 full-time employees, and at any particular game, we’ll have an additional 250 employees on-site. Over a 12 month period, we have between 450-500 different employees on the payroll.
Working a lot of long hours over five months, it takes a special group of people to want to be in this business. People are really dedicated to the fan experience and putting forth the attitude and energy it takes every night. So you work hard to develop those people over time. Customer service training is important, and we’ve built a culture of service that includes the basics of being courteous with “please” and “thank you.”
We also have reminders in the front office and the “back stage” doors [that lead to the concourse] to communicate and reinforce our service mission. Our people know it’s important to be “on” when they’re on the concourse and on the field. We have so much time to entertain our fans with pre-game, between innings, and post-game activities. It’s like a stage show – even though the game is center stage, we effectively put on 18 different small Broadway-type shows a night that are well planned and rehearsed.
QSM: Is there anything special you do to keep full-time staff engaged during the off-season?
Kurt: There’s a lot that we do. We have a very youthful staff. Overall, that helps with creativity and in keeping our entire staff young and energized. We also have a number of events planned by our “Sunshine Committee” that consists of four employees who plan a number of events throughout the year to make things fun for our staff. This committee is responsible for making sure the ice-cream truck is here during the summer, and we make announcements over our loud speaker for all the staff, players, and coaches to enjoy free ice-cream. We have other events that we do as a group. For example, we’ve gone together to play laser tag and putt-putt. We have an Easter egg drawing, with the eggs containing different cash prizes ranging from one dollar to one hundred dollars. These are just small, fun things that make working here enjoyable.
It’s hard not to enjoy working here when you come to a ballpark and you get to plan 72 different events for the fans. But it’s also stressful given the hours worked during the summer. Like any business, our employees have to meet expectations and goals. So it’s a good mix of hard work and keeping it fun, fresh, and different. Some Sunshine Committee events happen annually, like the holiday party and tailgate party before Super Bowl weekend. In February, the committee gave out Valentine’s candy goody bags. Distributing the candy took 15 minutes, but it’s something that made people laugh, smile, and recognize that they’re appreciated. We try to do things to remind our employees that they’re appreciated.
QSM: What are you most proud of regarding your organization?
Kurt: I’m really proud of the steps we’ve taken over the past few years to improve our customer service — not that our customer service was ever bad. But we realize that as people have been to the ballpark multiple times, the service needs to be something that stands out relative to our competition for entertainment dollars.
I’m proud of our employees’ creativity. When we have a project and need everyone to come together – despite them having very unique, different jobs – they come together quickly to help each other out. It’s always been a great trademark of our organization.
I’m proud of our staff. No matter what issues the front office has or what people have going on in their personal lives, on a game day everyone puts those issues behind them and focuses on making positive memories for our guests — making sure every guest has a good experience at every game.
QSM: How would you describe the IronPigs culture in just a few words?
Kurt: Hardworking. Creative. Passionate. I can think of a million words, but those are the first three that come to mind.
QSM: Thank you, Kurt!