Nationals Park: Tighter Rules, Friendlier Staff?
When the first two sell-out crowds visit Nationals Park this weekend--for Saturday's exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles and Sunday's nationally-televised Opening Night extravaganza against the Atlanta Braves--everyone will be together in the same exploratory mode. Finding, getting to, and wandering around the new, $611 million stadium will be as much a part of the experience as the game itself.
One group of people who are supposed to know their way around the ballpark already are the Nationals' gameday staff, the 400-plus ushers, ticket takers and ticket sellers who have toured the stadium repeatedly and attended frequent training sessions going back to when Nationals Park was just a giant hole in the ground.
"When the gates open, the fans are not going to want to hear 'I don't know,'" says Kynny Sutton, the Nats' guest services manager.
I visited one of the last of those training sessions and got a taste of the effort the Lerner family is making to transform the friendly, but lax atmosphere fans knew at RFK Stadium into something a bit more crisply professional, yet at the same time more welcoming.
"We're most definitely going to have more ticket discipline," says Sutton, who hired 226 new workers for this season, 132 of them D.C. residents, with a big chunk of those living in Ward 6, many within walking distance of the stadium. "Ticket discipline" is the trade term for "you can't move down to more expensive seats anymore, sorry, bud."
"We want fans to be able to enjoy the value of the ticket they paid for," Sutton says, and so ushers are going to be checking ticket stubs, something that was hardly ever done at RFK. (Well, that's what they say--on a sweltering Tuesday night in July with the home team trailing in late innings after most of the crowd has headed for the Metro station, are the ushers really going to care if a kid with a $10 ticket moves down to the $50 seats? I certainly hope not.)
The good news on the usher/ticket-taker front is that the RFK rules about food and drink will indeed carry over to Nationals Park. That means that you can pack a sandwich and bring some water, "for personal consumption only," Sutton says. You can't bring in alcohol.
To maximize the chances of a friendly welcome for fans, the Nats brought in trainers from Disney, Gaylord (the hotel company that's opening National Harbor in Prince George's County next month), and a Maryland consultant named Kelye Brown, who led the session I watched on customer service.
The trainer won over an initially reticent room by getting them to stand and do The Wave, and letting them recount tales of awful customer service they've been treated to by supermarket clerks, cable companies and airlines.
"You're making history here," Brown told the assembled staffers. "You're as important as the players on the field. You are creating those memories that fans will take home with them."
The trainer told the story of her interview with Bob, a real Nats season ticket holder who paid $17,000 for his seats this year and whose most fervent wish is that the stadium be a friendly place where the workers are courteous and are fans themselves. (Well, really, his most fervent wish was for a convenient parking space, but since that's not part of reality on Planet Nats, he'll have to settle for a great time at the game.)
For a while, the workers couldn't get beyond the idea that someone had $17,000 to spend on baseball tickets.
"For $17,000, what can you buy?" the trainer asked.
The workers had plenty of ideas: A car, a vacation, college, a down-payment on a house.
But what does Bob actually get for his big bucks? Four seats on the club level, professional baseball, fun, and customer service. And, ok, a parking space somewhere in the District of Columbia.
This is supposed to impress upon the workers the need to make Bob feel special, because, after all, without Bob and his ilk, no job.
"You have the power," Brown said. "You are the image of the Washington Nationals." She talked about eye contact, smiles, that "non-negotiable first impression" workers make, and this: "Tone of voice. Nobody wants to be arguing. If they ask where the bathroom is, don't point. Take them all the way there, or at least open your hand toward the bathroom and take a few steps with them."
So, what will fans see this weekend? A spectacular scoreboard, a sharp new ballpark, an improving baseball team, and, for the first time in quite a while, sellout crowds. And a warm welcome. Coming in the Sunday column: A visit with a Nats usher whose commitment, friendliness and knowledge of the game are legendary. See you at the ballpark.
By Marc Fisher |
March 28, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
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