It pays to do it yourself

The business

Merlin Entertainments Group operates 28 visitor attractions across eight European countries through four brands: Sea Life, Sea Life Sanctuaries, Earth Explorer and Dungeons. In 2004, it had six million visitors, an increase of about one million on 2003. Revenue was also up by 29% to £44.9m. In May 2005, the company was acquired by private equity firm Blackstone for £102.5m.

Staff numbers vary by season, but reach 1,000 at their peak across the group. The HR department has three members. It co-ordinates the 24 internal courses that the company offers its employees, and four courses that result in externally recognised qualifications. These cover a wide variety of areas, ranging from fish husbandry to self-management.

The challenge

By June 2004, Lesley Lloyd-Steer, head of HR, had identified a weakness in one of the training programmes. An external management studies course for first-line supervisors was too general for Merlin’s needs.

“The course was giving our employees a good background in general business issues, but was failing to prepare them for the specifics of management in the attractions industry,” she explains. “Because the theory didn’t relate to the practicalities of our industry, staff found they couldn’t apply the learning in the workplace.”

The solution

Lloyd-Steer worked with management consultant Steve Hender, and the company’s marketing, operations and finance departments, to develop its own Certificate in Attractions Management. This was accredited by the awarding body NCFE, and is the only qualification designed specifically for the attractions industry.

Each student takes the course over 12 to 18 months, in four sessions of four days each. They learn about information management, effective communications, resource management, people management and operations. It is taught using both classroom tuition and work-based projects. Assessment is continuous, and teaching is provided by a mixture of internal and external experts.

Lloyd-Steer’s main concern in introducing the new qualification was that, because it was not college based, potential students might not have been interested in it. So the company promoted the qualification to its staff through its training prospectus and by cascading information down through the organisation via team meetings.

Lloyd-Steer says there was considerable interest in the course, with successful applications from across the eight countries in which Merlin operates. The first group of 14 students graduated in March 2005. She estimates that each student costs the company 1,800 to train, and the 16 days they spend on the course is company time. She has not calculated the cost incurred in developing the qualification.

The outcome

She admits that the company has not yet been able to measure the success of the initiative, but she is certain it has been a worthwhile investment.

“These employees can hit the ground running,” she says. “They are better trained, are more likely to stay with our company, and have the skills to really improve the way we do things.”

She will be watching carefully to assess the impact the course has on the business. One key measure will be how graduates progress through the company, and she has noted that four of the first group have already been promoted. She will also be looking at the ‘mystery shopper’ results to see what effect the course is having on the customer experience.

Looking ahead, Lloyd-Steer plans to review the course on a continual basis. “Things do get outdated, so we need to stay on top of it all, and take on board all comments and feedback,” she says. “One of the best things about it is seeing how some individuals have really blossomed by going on the course, and I look forward to seeing that happening more often. These people are our managers of the future.”

Employee perspective

Amy Langham joined Merlin’s Brighton Sea Life Centre in June 2003, having recently left university. She embarked on the Certificate in Attractions Management in November 2003, continued it when she was relocated to the Birmingham Sea Life Centre. She recently graduated, having been promoted to become the operations manager at York Dungeon.

She found the course very useful. “It really focused me on how to do things properly,” she said. “Perhaps the most important aspect was that it put me in touch with people around the company so I know who to phone when I need some advice.”

She would have preferred to see more emphasis on real-life examples in the workplace, as opposed to textbook theories. However, she would thoroughly recommend the course, and is now embarking on a Diploma in Management Studies through the University of Leicester.

Learning points for HR

Lloyd-Steer advises anyone thinking of developing a similar qualification for their company to seek as much input as possible.

“Review what skills and knowledge are needed to become a successful manager in your business,” she says. “Look at your defined competencies and see how best to develop them. Ask past students what they found most useful about the course, and ask your managers what skills they want their teams to develop.

“Check your ‘mystery visitor’ results to see what weaknesses they reveal,” she adds. “Constantly review and evaluate, and be prepared to change if you need to.”

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