Embodying as much energy as the visitor attractions around her, Alison Leaper is looking to make her mark quickly at the UK’s biggest tourist attraction.
Leaper embarked on her new career at the Pleasure Beach, Blackpool as group human resources manager in January this year. Moving directly from her role as regional HR manager at Principal Hotels, she is now responsible for a core of 500 permanent staff, and at least 1,500 seasonal recruits.
The variety of the Pleasure Beach, which includes a hotel and theatres, was the prime reason for Leaper’s move.
“Blackpool Pleasure Beach is not just about rides,” she says. “That’s what really attracted me. I’ve come from hotels, but here, you’ve got every business under one roof. That diversity is appealing,” she says.
Within the company is a rapidly expanding hotel known as The Big Blue, the 42-acre leisure park and an entertainment division known as Stageworks, which runs three live shows, including magic and ice spectaculars. The multi-faceted business also encompasses shops and 54 restaurant and catering outlets.
Her remit includes high-profile recruitment days, when Leaper and her department look for in excess of 1,500 temporary staff for all aspects of the business.
The Pleasure Beach season runs from Easter to November, and draws 6.2 million people through its seafront gates. Although July and August are hectic, the busiest time is October half-term, when the Blackpool Illuminations are still blazing. The park switches off its lights at the same time as the Illuminations in early November.
Finding and training seasonal workers for the demands of a park teeming with thousands of thrill-seekers is a big challenge for Leaper, but one she is tackling with vigour.
“First of all, the park has a fantastic, award-winning induction programme,” she says. Completing it is a condition of employment. It combines on- and off-the-job learning, classroom time and a treasure hunt. The evidence is presented in the form of a workbook, which has to be completed within a fortnight.
The Pleasure Beach has been working with other leisure operators and awarding body ASET to get the induction programme accredited. It will be a level 1 qualification known as an Introduction to Working in Theme Parks. By September, it should be on the National Qualifications Framework for other businesses to use too.
From the induction programme, seasonal employees at the Pleasure Beach can progress to vocational qualifications. Formerly, NVQs were their only option, but like many employers, Leaper has had to review their effectiveness and find a way of making vocational qualifications work for her.
“We still offer [NVQs], but we found that success in completing that qualification wasn’t always there because of the seasonal fluctuation in employees,” she says.
Leaper was looking to overcome the NVQ conundrum: its advantage – of assessing and rewarding how someone does a job in the workplace under workplace conditions – is also its downfall.
Her concerns stemmed from the difficulties of assessing people under workplace conditions when the leisure park is at full pelt. And some of the seasonal staff, such as students who have to return to college in September, have to leave before the park shuts down in November, and therefore cannot complete a qualification.
It may seem unusual to invest so much in the training of temporary staff, but there are three main reasons why it makes business sense:
- Temporary staff in front-line positions are the main public face of the Pleasure Beach – any training in customer care is bound to reap dividends
- A lot of the employees return to the Pleasure Beach every year, so the business will reap continued benefits from improving the skills of its workers
- In a tough seasonal recruitment marketplace, it pays to create loyalty.
“I have to be realistic,” says Leaper. “In the high season, when Blackpool is packed with visitors, other employers are out recruiting on the streets with cash-in-hand. It’s highly competitive.
“We have gone down the line of Vocational-Related Qualifications (VRQs),” she says. “We are targeting both permanent and seasonal people who can take the VRQs offered by the Hospitality Awarding Body (HAB).”
The VRQs will follow the ‘people’ side of the business, and cover three areas: customer care, selling skills, and dealing with conflict. HAB offers these qualifications in generic and hospitality versions, and Leaper will be running them both.
The VRQs, for which the Pleasure Beach will soon become a centre accredited by the HAB, are a manageable approach to implementing learning and standards.
“We needed to spend more time with our employees out in the park to develop their customer care skills,” she says. “We wanted to get across to our people that we are all sales people, and the VRQs are a nationally recognised qualification that will support us in this.”
Leaper is excited that the VRQs will be delivered in-house. As she explains, they will be delivered by people from the business who can convey the learning with “passion”.
“The delivery is from somebody who works on the park, who knows the park, is a specialist in training, and can play their part in bringing some ‘oomph’ to the park,” she says.
One of the benefits is that VRQs bring swift success, and success is a great motivator. The NVQs were no longer delivering results, because candidates were moving on, or the season was ending.
“The VRQs are in bite-sized chunks,” Leaper says. “They can be delivered in seven hours, but if we can bespoke them, we’ll be adding on a few hours and personalising them to the park.
“Ultimately, what it means is that you see employees progressing through this national qualification, whereas an NVQ can take an eternity.”
Leaper holds a raft of qualifications for training delivery, and is enlisting the help of her five staff in delivering the VRQs.
“It’s great that for core competencies like these, where I’ve got a fantastic training manager, myself and others, that we get the chance to deliver the training.”
After the classroom-style training, staff complete an hour-long test. “It consists of two scenarios. We can relate them to the Pleasure Beach, such as a selling skills question. They then have to answer multiple choice questions.
“We’re going to concentrate on what the syllabus says we have to cover, but once candidates have completed the tests, we will do a couple of hours in the format of a game (we’re currently brainstorming its design and content) as a consolidation of what they have learned.”
Her hands-on approach means that learning can be related to the workplace and fine-tuned to the needs or learning style of the audience. For example, around 200 seasonal staff will be recruited from EU countries this year, and so the classroom trainers must be prepared for cultural differences or confusion caused by the subtleties of the English language.
“You have to pitch it right, and lots of interaction helps,” says Leaper.
She has set out her priorities for getting the VRQs off the ground. Leaper is hoping that all direct customer-facing employees will go through the selling skills and the customer care skills qualifications, and that each department within the business will identify the key people who need to go through the conflict management courses. These people will be known as the ‘Priority One’ group. But time is tight. “We’ve got May and June to get the Priority One group through these,” she says.
While Leaper is busy implementing front-line skills, she also has to maintain the skills and professional knowledge of the permanent staff behind the scenes.
“There are nearly 200 people in the engineering department alone, for example, who are dealing with the maintenance of the rides,” she says.
Leaper and the engineering director use a colour-coded skills matrix to list people, skills, knowledge and qualifications in that department to ensure that staff are kept up to date in areas from risk assessment to working at heights.
NVQs will not be abandoned. Leaper hopes they will remain an option for permanent staff when such a training need is highlighted in an appraisal.
“If there is a permanent employee who is interested in an NVQ, the likelihood of their success is greater than with a seasonal employee,” she says.
The benefits of the VRQs should manifest themselves this season in the renewed confidence and attitudes of the staff. By the 2006 season, Leaper will know whether they have played their part in recruitment by encouraging the 2005 VRQ candidates to have another turn at the Pleasure Beach.
CV ALISON LEAPER
2004 Regional HR manager, Principal Hotels
2001 City HR manager, Le Meridien Hotels
1998 Regional HR manager, Principal Hotels
1996 Regional personnel and training manager, Principal Hotels
1994 Personnel and training manager, Norbreck Castle Hotel, Blackpool
1993 Personnel and training manager, Metropole Hotel, Leeds
1993 Training consultant, the Hotel and Catering Training Company (HCTC)
1988-1993 Management posts in various hotels
Homegrown managers win skills ticket
Leaper is keen to upskill permanent staff and is “half-way through” writing an in-house management training programme.
“Since joining this company, I have discovered that we have fantastic examples of people having been promoted from within, but who have no formal management qualifications,” she says.
“This isn’t a problem. But when they get to a management position, they haven’t had the training to deal with certain situations.”
Leaper has identified the key competencies and constructed a one-day introduction and a series of eight modular core competency training sessions to form an Introduction to Management Skills course, inspired by the Institute of Leadership and Management model. She hopes to run a training calendar throughout the season which will attract new supervisors and the like.
“By the end of the season, they will have had a thorough introduction to management skills,” she says.
At the senior end, established managers and directors looking for focused training in leisure park management and related business areas get the chance to attend Cornell University in the US, which is regarded as a specialist in the sector.