America's Roller Coast
Firelands’ partnership propels growth for Cedar Fair Properties
By Dean Schnurr
Summer means cookouts, swimming pools, baseball and sun-filled days. But on the north coast of Ohio, it also means one more very important element – roller coaster season.
The shores of Lake Erie are home to Cedar Point, arguably the world’s premier amusement park. With 72 world-class rides, including 17 roller coasters, kids’ areas, live shows and countless opportunities for fun, it is not surprising that Cedar Point has been named “Best Amusement Park in the World” for 16 consecutive years by the readers of Amusement Today.
Just a few miles to the east of Cedar Point is Bowling Green State University Firelands College, the regional college of BGSU located in Huron, Ohio. The BGSU Firelands campus opened in 1968 and is a direct result of community efforts to offer expanded post-secondary opportunities in the area.
In appreciation of that commitment from the community, BGSU Firelands remains actively engaged as an authentic partner committed to the growth and vitality of the region.
“We owe a great debt to the leaders of this community who campaigned tirelessly to have a college campus built in Erie County,” said BGSU Firelands Dean William Balzer. “It is a privilege to work collaboratively with the community to develop partnerships and programs that support the needs of the people we serve.”
Through these mutually beneficial partnerships, BGSU Firelands is able to further the goals of the University and also provide valuable opportunities to the community that may not otherwise be available. Cedar Point, and its parent company Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, represent one such partnership between the college and area business.
In 1999, Cedar Fair provided the leadership gift for the construction of a community and conference center on the BGSU Firelands campus. The Cedar Point Center at BGSU Firelands enables expanded opportunities for both traditional and distance-education courses, offers cultural enrichment and professional development programming for the community, and provides meeting space for area business and organizations (including Cedar Fair).
Not surprisingly, when Cedar Fair’s leadership team decided to strategically invest in developing a best-in-class workforce to strengthen its position in the competitive entertainment sector, BGSU Firelands seemed an obvious choice for a partnership.
“The collaboration started with a casual conversation at a meeting of a local hospital board,” said Balzer. He further explained that a colleague from the Cedar Fair senior leadership team inquired about BGSU’s expertise and resources to help in their transition.
The opportunity to build upon the relationship with Cedar Fair through the expertise of faculty, staff and students intrigued Balzer. Leaders from BGSU Firelands’ offices of Educational Outreach and Career Services were initially charged with development of the project.
Their immediate goal was to help advance Cedar Fair’s position in the market as the “Summer Employer of Choice.” This would be facilitated by designing and implementing a custom leadership development program for full-time and seasonal supervisors in order to expand Cedar Fair’s pipeline of well-trained and service-oriented associates.
“Strong leadership is crucial in the hospitality industry, as a leader has a major effect on our associates’ performance and thus, the quality of our guests’ experience at our parks and properties,” said Matt Ouimet, Cedar Fair’s president and chief executive officer.
Even at the onset, both Cedar Fair and BGSU Firelands realized that the partnership had even greater potential. With 14 properties in two countries and more than 30,000 employees during peak seasons, Cedar Fair had a variety of needs related to employee and organizational development.
According to Balzer, the project was an obvious fit for BGSU’s Center of Excellence in Developing Effective Businesses and Organizations (DEBO).
Ohio’s Centers of Excellence were established through a challenge to all state universities from the Ohio Board of Regents to define areas of study and research in which the respective universities excel. DEBO is one of five Centers of Excellence at BGSU.
“The goal of DEBO is to nurture talent and foster innovation and
success in businesses and organizations,” said Balzer. “Working with
Cedar Fair would provide the opportunity to share BGSU’s recognized
expertise in improving organizational performance and effectiveness in
a focused and coordinated effort designed to meet their
With the services of DEBO, the project immediately became multifaceted. The design team, now including members from both BGSU campuses, developed a proposal for Cedar Fair that included the original leadership training elements as well as applied research, to be conducted by faculty and doctoral students.
“We welcomed the opportunity to provide real-life research experiences for the faculty and students of BGSU while working toward our goal of providing every guest with a great experience,” said Ouimet, who became Cedar Fair’s highest ranking officer in 2012.
The BGSU and Cedar Fair partners decided on a limited pilot program as the initial phase of the overall project. The training component would be conducted solely at Cedar Point, and the research component would initially be administered at Cedar Point and Kings Island located near Cincinnati.
FUNdamentals of Leadership
While Cedar Fair is the best in class when it comes to operating
amusement parks, according to Cedar Fair’s Vice President
of Administration Craig Freeman, there is always room for improvement.
“We wanted to take our parks to the next level,” said Freeman. “It wasn’t about fixing something that was broken; it was about taking a great product and making it even better from a guest satisfaction standpoint.”
Cedar Fair recently transitioned to a new leadership team, and new administrations inevitably lead to new perspectives and fresh ideas. The leadership training program, later dubbed FUNdamentals of Leadership, was one of those ideas and Cedar Fair wanted a proven leader to develop the program.
“BGSU has a great reputation for high-quality education and the college is right here in the community. Reaching out to BGSU Firelands for our training needs seemed like the natural choice,”said Freeman.
The training component of the partnership would be spearheaded by Kelly Cusack, the director of educational outreach at BGSU Firelands and director of BGSU’s Centers of Excellence. Serving in a dual role for the University, Cusack’s skills and experience would be keys to the success of the project.
Cusack collaborated with BGSU colleagues to design and facilitate the pilot program, which was conducted on the BGSU Firelands campus exclusively with Cedar Point employees. Fifty full-time supervisors and 30 seasonal supervisors participated in the intensive five-week program.
Topics for the customized training program included effective communications, the multigenerational workplace, fundamentals of coaching, dealing with difficult situations, designing the guest experience, and much more.
“It was truly a collaborative effort and both partners–Cedar Fair and BGSU– were genuinely concerned for what the other party could gain from the experience,” stated Cusack, who has more than 18 years of experience in corporate and public sector training.
“For this training program to be successful, we knew it would be necessary to completely open the ‘books’ to Kelly so she could gain an understanding of our operations,” said Freeman. “It required a high level of trust in our partnership and we believe it has paid great dividends.”
The pilot was completed in the summer of 2013 and was met with great enthusiasm by all participants. Post-training assessments demonstrated a 98 percent satisfaction rate.
Ellen Frankart ’14, was a BGSU student working at Cedar Point as a games supervisor in the summer of 2013 when she was invited to participate in the leadership training program. She was very satisfied with her experiences in the program.
“I felt it was really helpful. We gained skills to help support our positions at Cedar Point, but those same skills will be easily transferable to future employment as well,” said Frankart, who majored in early childhood education.
Frankart graduated last spring and returned to employment at Cedar Point this summer while searching for a teaching job to begin in the fall. This marks her fourth season at the amusement park.
Based on the overwhelming success of the pilot, Cedar Fair elected to implement the program at all of its parks in the United States and Canada. The goal is to have all full-time associates in leadership positions complete the program by 2015, and to continuously offer the program to seasonal leaders thereafter.
Phase two was completed in March 2014 and included on-site training of an additional 200 full-time managers and supervisors of Cedar Point, Kings Island, and Canada’s Wonderland, located near Toronto, Ontario. Training for seasonal supervisors began in June 2014 and will continue throughout the summer. The next group of parks will implement the training in fall 2014.
“Ninety-five percent of our associates are employed seasonally and we understand that Cedar Fair is not going to be their final employer,” said Freeman. “We want to develop a culture that values strong leaders and provides our associates with skills that will benefit them in life and in their future careers.”
Daniel Keller ’72, ’79, chairman of the venture firm Keller Capital Ltd. and president of Kellco Investment Ltd., serves on the BGSU Board of Trustees and is former corporate vice president and vice president and general manager of Cedar Point. He said, “I am delighted that two organizations in which I have such confidence are working together to build a partnership that can serve as a model for statewide economic development and individual opportunity.”
Assessing Cedar Fair Associates
The BGSU Institute for Psychological Research and Application (IPRA) has been working with public and private sector organizations since 1987 to provide high quality, applied psychological services such as consulting, research and analysis.
As an affiliate of DEBO, IPRA led the research component of the Cedar Fair partnership. The research projects would also be conducted in multiple phases.
It was truly a collaborative effort and both partners – Cedar Fair and BGSU – were genuinely concerned for what the other party could gain from the experience.The goal of the first phase was to evaluate current employee selection and placement practices at Cedar Point and Kings Island, explained IPRA director Russell Matthews, an assistant professor in the BGSU psychology department.
“We conducted multiple samplings at the two parks,” explained Matthews. “The goal of this approach is to better understand the ebb and flow of the hiring process at the parks over the course of a season.”
The data collected by Matthews and his team will be used to improve employee performance and company hiring effectiveness. Data were also compiled on employee satisfaction levels, which is an area of vital interest to Cedar Fair’s administration.
“The end objective is to have our associates placed in positions within the parks where they are likely to succeed. We want them to be satisfied with their jobs, while creating memorable experiences for our guests,” said Freeman.
Several additional phases of research are either currently being implemented or planned for the near future.
To facilitate the ongoing research and data analysis, IPRA relies on the skills and abilities of BGSU doctoral students in the industrial/organizational psychology program, which is currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
The Cedar Fair partnership has afforded hands-on, practical experience to approximately 20 BGSU graduate students. Thaddeus Rada ‘13, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program, came to the project equipped with a unique perspective on the industry.
A self-proclaimed roller coaster aficionado, Rada has visited nearly four dozen amusement parks in the United States, Canada and England, and he has ridden 283 different roller coasters. Rada was excited by the opportunity to work with amusement parks, but he was equally enthusiastic about his engagement in practical research and the resulting applications.
“My team utilized a series of surveys to determine personal interests and characteristics of current seasonal employees. We used the data to create a profile of employees who could be expected to excel in a customer service environment,” Rada said.
A Lasting Partnership
Just more than a year into the implementation of both the leadership training and the research components of the Cedar Fair/BGSU partnership, all signs indicate success and enthusiasm for an extended partnership.
According to Freeman, the results from both the training and research have been very well received by Cedar Fair administration. “We are unified and unanimous in the belief that we are achieving the goals we strived for in this partnership,” he said.
Implementation of the FUNdamentals of Leadership customized training continues at various Cedar Fair amusement parks in the United States and Canada. BGSU will maintain a supportive role in the training and has certified several Cedar Fair employees to facilitate the program. In addition, Cedar Fair and BGSU are exploring new training initiatives and several other high-potential opportunities.
The work of IPRA also continues. BGSU and Cedar Fair are in discussions to broaden the research goals to include the creation of an employee engagement assessment tool and various other projects.
“The partnership has been a real success. It has been a
collaboration where both parties have benefited tremendously,” said
Balzer. “Equally important, the partnership embraces the vision of
those who established BGSU Firelands nearly 50 years ago – to bring
the best of BGSU to the area and to play an active role in the
advancement of the community.”