Minutes into class, the ebullient woman wearing a gold Mickey Mouse pin and a smile that won't quit talks pixie dust. Not just any pixie dust, mind you, but the stuff that makes Disney World magical.
As Baltimore prepares to welcome Pope John Paul II, 325 hospitality industry workers turned out for a seminar at the Convention Center yesterday to learn how to extend Disney-style welcomes to the 300,000 visitors expected.
Let the lessons begin. Disney University is in session, with Gwen Burch presiding.
"This, my dear friends, is the pixie-dust formula," she tells the class, ranging from hotel general managers to tour guides and entry-level busboys.
Flanked by helium Mickey Mouse balloons, Ms. Burch, an instructor for Disney's training arm, Disney University, spells out the keys to the Magic Kingdom: training, care, communication. It's a corporate philosophy built around creating a world of make-believe that's always immaculate, efficient, courteous and, above all, happy.
With participants working in teams to name Disney characters, giving one another back rubs, winning Disney "critter" figurines for right answers, the seminar blends a serious message with a good bit of frivolity and fun.
But it's no fairy tale, this seminar. It's regarded as one of the more innovative approaches to teaching customer service to clients such as Burger King, McDonald's, Coke and Pepsi.
Participants said they left impressed, with a heightened awareness of how to court and keep guests.
Denise Cmiel, sales and marketing director at the Hyatt Regency on the Inner Harbor, who brought along about 10 hotel employees, said: "The Disney approach had a very broad appeal to the entire crowd, and I think every hotel employee and every hospitality person got something out of it on different levels."
Edwin Sherwin, who heads the Maryland Restaurant Association's education and research arm, says it's crucial to build the city's reputation among tens of thousands of impending visitors.
Mr. Sherwin, who helped coordinate the seminar, which cost each participant $109, knows the rare horror stories all too well. -- The tourist complains about the food, and the manager comes out screaming at him. A stranger to light rail boards without a ticket and gets arrested. A conventioner asks a beat cop for dinner suggestions, only to be told it's unsafe to venture out of an Inner Harbor hotel at night.
"We have to get the message to anybody who has any contact with people from out of town that they have to know the value of tourism to this town," Mr. Sherwin says. "What you're trying to create in Disney World is a security, a magical place where you're away from the rest of the world. Wouldn't it be great to go to any city and feel that -- that it's really a special occasion -- from the police to the cab drivers to the restaurants?"
How to translate Disney World methods to Baltimore hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions during a weekend expected to pump $26 million into the local economy and place the city in a worldwide spotlight?
Common sense, mainly, with courtesy, thoughtfulness, attention to detail.
But it can't be merely dictated in board rooms by supervisors who too often have forgotten what guests look like, Mr. Dickson stresses: "The front line is the bottom line because that's how our guest perceive us."
Consider the Disney World housekeepers who decided in "quality-circle meetings" to do their part to help make kids smile and make them eager to go to bed. The staff started tucking Mickey Mouse or other stuffed animals into kids' beds. Pretty soon, it got to be a competition, and kids arrived in their hotel rooms to find Mickey, remote in hand, watching the Disney Channel.
People remember -- and pass the word about such niceties or lack of them.
Mr. Dickson invoked a quote from Walt Disney every employee knows by heart: "You don't build it for yourself. You know what the people want, and you build it for them."