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Gold Coast SUNS

Before launching their inaugural season, the Australian Gold Coast SUNS football team enlisted the help of Disney Institute to develop ways to engage their fans and raise their level of customer service.



Faced with the prospect of launching a new football team in a new market, Australia’s Gold Coast Suns realized they needed a multi-faceted customer service and fan engagement program to help fill their seats and ensure return business. Adapting and using many Disney Institute best practices helped them boost revenues and rank first out of 17 teams in a fan engagement survey — even though they didn’t win any of their home games in their first season.

Several Challenges

With a sparkling new $144 million state-of-the-art stadium, a brand new, carefully selected football team and a first-class management and operations staff, Australia’s Gold Coast Suns football team was looking forward to opening day in May, 2011. Everyone worked and planned tirelessly to make the Gold Coast Suns’ inaugural season a success. "As a startup team in a new market, we knew we had to deliver the best customer service possible to earn—and retain — the loyalty of our new fans," explains Andrew Travis, the Suns’ Chief Operating Officer.

The Suns faced several challenges. While the Australian Football league (AFL) has a large following in Western and Southern Australia, it is not as popular on the Gold Coast where the Suns were "the new team on the block." The region is also home to a large transient population, similar to Florida’s, and many of these fans already had allegiances to their home AFL teams. The Suns’ marketing message took this into account and explained, "If you have a hometown team, we don’t expect you to make the Suns your favorite team, but we will work hard to be your second favorite team."

"That’s one of the reasons we knew we had to excel at customer service," explains Travis. "Our challenge was to create unforgettable memories for fans and keep them coming back. That was the driver that pushed us to contact Disney Institute for help. When it comes to customer service no one is better than Disney."

Custom Engagment

After several telephone consultations with Suns management, Disney Institute facilitator Dennis Frare visited Queensland for a week to present a series of sessions to Gold Coast Suns staffers. He spent the first few days familiarizing himself with Australian football, learning about the Suns’ Metricon Stadium facilities and meeting the team’s management. This time gave him the opportunity to tailor his delivery on Quality Service, Leadership and Selection, Training & Engagement to the Suns’ specific needs.

Explains Frare, "The Suns’ culture was already in place when I arrived. It was my job to offer enhancements to it and, in some cases, validate what they were doing. They were off to a great start; I was there to help them step up their game and adapt some of Disney’s best practices."

Frare presented three separate sessions to the executive leadership team, middle managers and front line staff, such as ticket takers and concessionaires; about 250 employees in all. At each delivery he explained, "I am not here to tell you what to do, I’m here to show you what Disney does and help you discover how you can adapt some of our principles."

Enhancing the fan experience was a recurrent theme in Frare’s presentations. After discovering that Suns’ fans could not park at the stadium because of local regulations but had to come via buses, Frare noted, "You may be starting off with one strike against you, so you have to work a little harder to overcome that." He also explained that even though employees could not control what happens on the field they could control the fan experience. For example, Cast Members (Disney-speak for employees) are taught to anticipate guests’ needs. "If someone sees a child drop an ice cream cone or a drink they are empowered to offer a replacement free of charge," said Frare. Or Cast Members regularly offer to take pictures of Guests without being asked. "It’s all part of going above and beyond and exceeding guests’ expectations," said Frare. "It’s important to remember that it may not be your fault, but it is your problem."

Going Above And Beyond

The Suns management was quick to adapt many Disney best practices. Travis admits that before Frare explained the Suns should be responsible for their fans’ experience from "driveway to driveway," (from their home to the stadium), "We didn’t think it was our problem until they got to our front gate." Now the Suns have enhanced their pre-game communication with fans and are continually looking for more ways to enhance the fans’ pre-game experience.

Inspired by Frare’s insight, the Suns instituted "Shine" awards and vouchers for employees who go "above and beyond" meeting customers’ expectations. Pictures of staffers engaging with fans by kneeling to talk to a child, or volunteering to take pictures for a family are blown up and hung on the walls near the employee meeting rooms. "We make it a point to recognize our employees and tell their stories," says Travis. "It’s also a great way to, as we say, ‘keep Disney alive’." Travis and other Suns managers work to keep every employee engaged. "It’s a constant effort to keep this Disney-inspired momentum going forward."

No Sign of Slowing Down

Happily, the momentum shows no sign of slowing down. After a recent game a mother called the customer service team and explained she had lost her child’s stuffed animal at the Suns’ stadium. "She told us her child couldn’t sleep without it and we heard her crying in the background," remembers Travis. Two staffers volunteered to look for it.

After searching through the trash and under seats, they found it. Then one of them volunteered to drop it off at the child’s home on their way home. Twenty minutes later the child and the stuffed animal were reunited. "I cannot think of a better example of how our employees have exceeded customers’ expectation,"says Travis.

While there are other stories like this, and many fans’ letters praising other employees’ customer service efforts, a recent survey proved that the Gold Coast Suns are leading the league in creating memorable fan experiences. In an AFL survey of all 17 Australian football teams, the Gold Coast Suns came out number one in fan engagement. "We scored the highest in five out of six fan experience categories and were first in fan engagement," says Travis.

In a separate Suns survey 93 percent of fans rated services as "good to excellent." These results are remarkable for a new team in a new market, but they are doubly impressive because the Suns did not win any of their home games in their inaugural season. "It’s an amazing accomplishment," says Frare. "And it’s proof that the Suns are consistently putting their fans first."

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