SBJ/Aug. 11-17, 2014/Franchises

Devils check in with Ritz

Ritz-Carlton helps team improve customer service

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The New Jersey Devils have turned to one of the world’s top luxury brands — Ritz-Carlton — to help them improve customer service and leadership skills at Prudential Center.

Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, a 15-year-old enterprise run by the five-star hospitality firm, signed a deal with the Devils to educate more than 500 people tied to game-day operations at the Newark arena, including team executives Scott O’Neil and Hugh Weber.

The Devils are the first NHL club to use the Ritz-Carlton program since it launched in 1999, said O’Neil, the team’s CEO.

The program falls in line with a complete overhaul of arena operations under Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who bought the team in August 2013, to develop a higher level of guest service. The Devils identified several essential aspects for improvement, including concessions, fan engagement, merchandise and game presentation.

The first step was hiring Legends in June to upgrade the arena’s food service, replacing Aramark. The Ritz-Carlton initiative is the second step, O’Neil said.

Team officials brainstormed brands that “best exude the type of experience we want to provide and kept going back to Ritz-Carlton,” O’Neil said.

It wasn’t until Gracie Mercado, the Devils’ vice president of human resources, made a cold call to Ritz-Carlton that they found out about the program and worked out an agreement with the leadership center.

The deal covers monthly visits during the season to follow up with the Devils and measure results after setting initial benchmarks that were established last month.

In late July, Joe Quitoni, the leadership center’s corporate director of culture transformation, spent three days at Prudential Center, breaking the total group of 500-plus into multiple sessions on the arena floor. Quitoni used the center-hung video board as part for his PowerPoint presentation.

Quitoni was overseas last week and unavailable for comment, but Jeff Hargett, senior corporate director of culture transformation, speaking on his behalf, said Ritz-Carlton instructs its clients on a variety of techniques to improve guest service.

Sometimes it’s as simple as establishing a mission statement for employees to wrap their arms around, and knowing the proper way for addressing fans in the arena.

“Often, it’s back to the basics,” Hargett said. “How do we speak to people? For example, if it’s a bank teller saying ‘Next!,’ that doesn’t make people feel welcome. We have to be consistent in the things that we do.”

For team executives, the takeaway can extend to breaking down the selection process to make sure they are hiring high-quality individuals.

“Are they hiring people out of desperation?” Hargett said. “If [the execs] don’t care, then somebody else needs to bring that issue to the table.”

For the Devils, starting on the ground floor is imperative because the “bar has been set pretty low around here,” O’Neil said.

“We have an arena that is 7 years old in the second-wealthiest state in the country with 21 Fortune 500 companies and 7 million people,” he said. “We want it to stand for much more than what we have now.”

Team owners Harris and Blitzer also own the Philadelphia 76ers and are using the Disney Institute to help train employees connected to that franchise.

Five major league teams including the Devils have contracted with Ritz-Carlton, paying fees ranging from $5,000 for a few hours up to $15,000 for a full day for the leadership center to share its expertise, Hargett said.

Ritz-Carlton is prohibited from identifying its clients because of confidentiality clauses, but sources said the hotelier previously worked with teams in the NFL and MLB.

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