Member Highlight with Dashawnda Brown (Part Two)

She’s as confident, yet grounded, as any leader in the business. She learned the service trade at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, including a stint at the Reg Bev Wil. She’s Dashawnda Brown, VP of Suite Services at The Madison Square Garden Company.

  • Dashawnda Brown with Dennette Thornton at ALSD 2017.

Part Two: Bringing the Pizzazz to the Operation

Read Part One (Can I Start with How Fly You Are?) of our Member Highlight with Dashawnda Brown.

 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Speaking of leadership, tell us about your new role.

I’m super excited to have recently accepted a newly created position as Vice President, Suite Services, a role I have been in for four months. To set the table, I’ll note that most of my tenure at MSG was in the role of Vice President, Corporate Hospitality, a position in customer service, retention, and engagement of MSG suite customers.

The role was very vast. Imagine a venue with 250 events, essentially five teams worth of business – the Knicks, Rangers, and Liberty, plus our concert business and our sports properties business. For many events, the work primarily focused on the front end, but I wanted to spread my wings and suggest things we needed to do differently from the guest pathway into and out of the building and the experience we were delivering inside the suite.

 

Did you notice areas of potential improvement, or did your clients?

A little bit of both. Primarily a great staff in the corporate hospitality department with their pulse on the clients’ needs, a little of my creative thinking, plus some very vocal clients, whose suggestions I would bring up to operations.

The way we were set up, there was only so much I could do to affect the in-suite experience, as that side of the team wasn’t under my purview. Pushing the agenda from the other side of the house wasn’t always conducive or efficient.

 

So this role was conceived organically?

After about four years here, John Abbamondi, our EVP of Tickets, Clubs, and Premium Hospitality, invited me to lunch. There he was complimenting me on the successes we had, and I was sitting across the table poppin’ my collar thinking great, he sees the light!

“I make sure that the dream that our sales team sells is delivered in the suite, from street to suite and back out again.”

– Dashawnda Brown, Madison Square Garden

And then he starts talking about some of the challenges. I agree and point out some of the suggestions I’ve made, but I admit it’s not really my work to change certain things.

And that’s when he tells me there were several people on the executive leadership team that think it should be my work.

“We think you can do this new job,” he tells me.

[Laughing] My first response, in all honesty, was, “Yeah, no. That’s not what I do. I’m a little too fly for venues and facilities.”

He started to laugh and asked what I meant. And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m kind of sparkly. I like sequins, pizzazz. I’m too jazzy for that.”

We had a good laugh, but the kicker is that he said that’s exactly why I needed to have this job. He told me I needed to bring a client perspective to this operation.

 

And what did you say?

At the time, I said I didn’t know, but he encouraged me to go through the interview process. I talked to my now current boss, who’s amazing, Rich Claffey, Senior Vice President and General Manager, and to his boss, Hank Abate, Executive Vice President of Venue Management, who rocks!

We talked about things such as what our service proposition is like in suites. We talked about things like: What does our food and beverage situation look like? How do we display our food and beverage? What type of training do our suite attendants and suite runners go through? How do we ensure that we are providing the same internal personal service to the people who are providing service to our most valuable customers? How do we ensure we have great relationships with our unions?

It’s been a lot of intense learning for the past four months. Honestly, it’s been all customer service and sales, from an internal perspective, getting our group resourced so we have exactly what we need, ensuring that our staff feels heard and that they’re taken into consideration.

So that’s what I do – service retention and engagement from an operational standpoint. I make sure that the dream that our sales team sells is delivered in the suite, from street to suite and back out again.

As soon as our guests set foot on our property, I’m responsible for the first welcome and the last goodbye. My staff grew from 17 to 140! This is also my first time working with hourly and union employees, which has been a learning curve. But really, it’s the same work, just from a different perspective, making sure what we say we are and who we say we are shows up in the suite.

Dashawnda at the first annual NBA Awards with Dominique Wilkins, Chris Tucker, and John Starks.

 

How do you teach hourly personnel the overall culture you are trying to create at the Garden?

By walking the walk and talking the talk, while also being fair, upfront, and honest. In addition, I view our union as a partner versus an adversary. Our union is our labor partner.    

During my training period, I dressed as a suite attendant on two separate events to walk in the suite attendants’ shoes and have them show me the work that they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and the challenges they have to overcome.

I’ve sat with our event operations coordinator, Jimmy Fung, who’s amazing. He’s the catch-all on event nights. Any problem, any issue funnels back through his office, and he fans everything out. Our suite attendants only have to make a call to him about a spill, any issue big or small, and he handles it from there.

 

Was it your idea to dress as a suite attendant?

Yes, because I didn’t know the work, Amanda. I didn’t know the operation. I didn’t know the systems we used, the buttons to push. I didn’t know what it looked like, until they showed me.

 

It’s like undercover boss.

It was. I didn’t know people were taking their tongs home. I didn’t know that setup was done when teams were running through the in-game presentation for the night on the jumbotron and LEDs and checking sound. It’s dark 80% of the setup time, which blows my mind, but our staff was still getting it right. We have amazing suite attendants and suite runners at MSG. Some have been with the operation over 25 years.

The suite runners were stocking a dark suite. The house controls the lights in the suites, so you can’t even turn on a light. But our team was getting it right 95% of the time in the dark. That let me know how committed they are.

 

How were they trained previously?

Typically, a suite attendant would take a trainee for three events. Hands-on learning. It’s a good way to learn, but we are in the process of formalizing it. Now our staff will receive a training binder with standard operating procedures. For example, what your uniform should look like, what you can and cannot wear, how and when to clock in, everything’s in there down to the most mundane things.

“If our staff is happier, they’re going to give a better touch, a better service proposition to our guests, and everything elevates from there.”

– Dashawnda Brown, Madison Square Garden

Keep in mind, MSG operates its own F&B operation, so whereas a corporate F&B partner may have different training procedures, we are creating ours to fit our venue and our service model. We’re in the process of selecting up to four trainers, lead suite attendants, if you will. So our trainees will do four nights of training, with one person teaching his or her aspect of the business each night.

Meredith Estrada and Sonya Davies, Mangers, Suites & Catering, are my left and right hands on my new team. I couldn’t be successful in this new role without their support.

They select the attendants who train, and while tenure isn’t a prerequisite, I believe each suite attendant trainer has no less than four seasons with us. In addition, I have six new supervisors who recently joined my group, who are helping our attendants to elevate their game, but also buoying the entire operation. Each of them is a gem. I’m lucky to have such a great team!

 

So why not help other teams, take your training program to the industry?

Well, I’m in the process of writing a book. It’s called Treat ’Em Like Norm: Developing a Customer Service Platform that Sells.

It’s quite basic. It’s customer service principles that have worked for me, that I know will work for others, regardless of what industry they’re in.

Some of the changes we’re making are truly impactful for our staff and for our managers, and I feel like all the work I’ve done in my career and the four-plus years I’ve spent at MSG are for right here, right now, for this work, for this group, and it’s working.

 

Dashawnda Brown, VP of Suite Services, MSG.

Is your staff is taking note, working harder?

Yes, working harder and more earnestly. When I returned from All-Star Weekend this year, I was exhausted and looking ahead to a grueling March. I received a note from a suite attendant telling me how appreciative she is of the basic kindness and consideration we’re formalizing for our staff, and it energized me and motivated me to work harder on behalf of our staff. What you have to realize here is that it’s like applying a customer service approach to our staff who touch our clients. If our staff is happier, they’re going to give a better touch, a better service proposition to our guests, and everything elevates from there.

The next step is the product and the process. At Four Seasons, I was blessed to work with some amazing people. One of the things I was taught at Four Seasons was people, product, profit. When you take care of the people, then you put the right product in place, and the profit will follow. I’ve sort of expanded that to: people, product, process, profit.

 

Do your clients realize you’re putting these new processes in place?

Not yet. I think when they start to feel the warm personal touches and see my personality in the suites, they’ll know.

What I have to keep in mind is that many of our clients have suites in other buildings. Some of those buildings have all the new bells and whistles, so we have to continue to strive to offer the best service and amenities. We have to keep up, and frankly, I believe MSG should lead the way by continuously evaluating our physical product and our service offerings. It’s competitive out there, and I like to win.

Read Part One (Can I Start with How Fly You Are?) of our Member Highlight with Dashawnda Brown.

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