Theme park giant Six Flags wanted to enhance the level of communication with employees, especially the seasonal team members who staff its 19 parks. Rather than rely solely on phone calls and e-mail to relay information about schedules and park events, Six Flags adopted an intranet portal for full-time employees and an extranet solution for seasonal workers, both based on Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010. The company will now be able to streamline communication and increase inter-park collaboration, which will ultimately result in a more positive guest experience. By using SharePoint Server 2010, Six Flags also will be able to develop in-house theme park–specific applications 50 percent more quickly and reduce costs because of increased employee and IT staff productivity.Situation
Every year, millions of people visit Six Flags theme parks for thrilling rides and family-friendly fun and entertainment. The company, with 19 parks throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada, is the largest regional theme park company in the world, employing approximately 30,000 seasonal workers.
Ensuring that Six Flags team members have the information that they need to perform at maximum efficiency has been a top priority for the company. Nearly every exchange, from the sharing of human resources information to refining work-schedule details, requires around-the-clock communication.
“We did have a couple of homegrown applications that we built to provide efficiencies information to our full-time work force in areas such as operations and human resources, but they had separate entry points and were inefficient,” says Sean Andersen, Director of Interactive Services for Six Flags. “And our seasonal employees had to rely on multiple forms of communication to receive important information about their daily work schedules and park events, which can frequently change.”
||Having centralized communication and information flow will help us be more efficient, which translates into a better guest experience.
Senior Vice President, Information Services, Six Flags
Six Flags determined that it needed to centralize its methods of communication with both its full-time and seasonal employees. The company also sought to increase collaboration among parks to allow management to share best practices. “We noted that multiple parks were facing similar issues independently,” says Andersen. “We held off-site events where managers from different parks could share knowledge and strategies, but there was no centralized method of communication. We wanted a method in place to allow park managers to turn to each other year round to quickly address problems.”
Because of the customized nature of the theme park business, the company wanted to stay ahead of the curve by looking for a platform that supported rapid application development without the need for much tailored custom development.
“Our strategy was to enhance many of the software applications that supported our parks, built on a centralized platform to tie together all the functionality,” explains Andersen. “Plus, this approach would allow us to quickly respond to employees’ requests for new and useful features, freeing us from the limitation of scheduling changes on a seasonal basis versus a year-round basis.”
Six Flags needed a different approach to communication and the way in which it supported that communication with technology. “We wanted to give all our employees a better way to find and share information, and also to set the stage for faster development by establishing a platform on which we could build future functionality,” says Andersen.Solution
In April 2009, Six Flags began to evaluate various products to help address its communication and development issues. The company’s two initial goals were to establish an intranet portal for full-time employees and to further develop its extranet for seasonal employees, building on the progress already made with an existing scheduling tool. “We looked at several options, from basic document management applications to social networking toolkits,” says Andersen.
Identifying the Key Technology
In October 2009, Six Flags saw a demonstration of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010. The company had some previous experience with an earlier version of the product, which had turned out not to be the best fit in terms of architecture and support requirements.
“But when I saw SharePoint Server 2010, I knew immediately that it was a different product from the ground up and that we had found the right solution,” says Andersen. “It was more focused on the end user and incorporated a lot of the user-experience improvements from [Microsoft] Office Professional 2007.”
The pressure was on, because Six Flags needed to launch the new intranet portal and extranet by the start of its busy season in May 2010. The company decided to bring in a technology partner that had SharePoint Server 2010 experience. “We were dealing with a product that hadn’t even been released yet, so it was critical that we find someone who worked closely with Microsoft,” says Andersen.
||Using SharePoint Server 2010 and Visual Studio 2010, we’ll be able to develop ticketing and other back-end applications that help our parks run more efficiently—and we’ll do so about 50 percent more quickly than before.
Director, Interactive Services, Six Flags
Six Flags chose to work with EMC Consulting, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. “We were impressed with EMC from the start,” recalls Andersen. “Its consultants walked us through SharePoint Server 2010 from an architectural perspective, showing us a different way of thinking about the functionality and processes related to the solution.”Establishing an Intranet Portal
Six Flags wanted an intranet portal that embodied its corporate identity yet provided a new experience for employees. Understanding that the success of such a venture is determined by the participation of its users, the company asked the Interactive Media practice within EMC Consulting to create a visually compelling display and streamlined information architecture.
The consultants set out to design an engaging portal that complements the role of Six Flags as an entertainment company while ensuring a consistent and sophisticated brand throughout the organization. Once complete, the portal will contain separate sites for each Six Flags park. Each site will include information central to that park’s day-to-day operations, such as weather-mandated ride-closure information, forecasted and real-time weather, performance schedules and adjustments, information about groups visiting the parks, and VIP alerts to advise park employees about celebrities and other important guests.
The intranet portal also will include department-level sites for collaboration, a self-service report repository, and a source for industry and Six Flags–related news. The new portal will not only publish the news on the intranet sites, but it also will make it easier for users to find industry news on their own, thereby keeping employees better informed.
To support the launch of the intranet, EMC Consulting determined that a medium-sized server farm with six server computers was optimal to support the Six Flags intranet: two Web servers and two application servers—all four of which are virtualized and run the Windows Server 2008 operating system—and two clustered database servers that use Microsoft SQL Server 2008 data management software and run the Windows Server 2003 R2 operating system. The architecture can be easily scaled to accommodate additional servers as demand for the intranet grows. Six Flags opted to have its extranet hosted and began working with a hosting provider to establish a similar infrastructure to support its needs.
As of April 2010, Six Flags and EMC Consulting are completing the first phase of the intranet portal. EMC Consulting developed the solution using Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2010 to create aspects of the intranet portal’s layout, templates, and master page. For customizations, including Web parts, the partner used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 development system and Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2010.Expanding the Extranet
The new extranet will provide seasonal employees with up-to-the-minute information related to the weather and their schedules. Six Flags designed the system to draw staffing information from the company’s existing scheduling application and redisplay it on the extranet using SharePoint Server 2010. “We also want to broaden the information available to our seasonal employees and provide an avenue for bi-directional communication,” notes Andersen.
Going forward, Six Flags expects to further develop its intranet, adding such resources as executive dashboards to make the portal a source for vital business intelligence. The company’s plans also include establishing a social networking component on both its intranet portal and extranet, using the My Sites functionality built into SharePoint Server 2010, so that employees can connect with each other and promote their capabilities. In addition, Six Flags intends to add a mobile component to the extranet so that employees can get up-to-date information from their mobile phones.
Six Flags anticipates that its use of SharePoint Server 2010 will help boost communication and collaboration within parks and system-wide, thereby improving operational efficiency. The organization also will have a platform for future development so that it can quickly respond to changes in the business. Ultimately, Six Flags believes that its adoption of SharePoint Server 2010 will have a positive impact on the experience of its guests.
||We’ve made a very small investment for SharePoint Server 2010, and we’re going to see a huge return on it.
Director, Interactive Services, Six Flags
“Having centralized communication and information flow will help us be more efficient, which translates into a better guest experience,” says Michael Israel, Senior Vice President of Information Services for Six Flags. Better Communication
By building a centralized foundation for real-time communication, Six Flags is making it possible for employees to be better informed about their own jobs and more knowledgeable about park activity and best practices within the ranks. At the same time, the company is making it easier for the corporate office to share information with large groups of employees.
“We’re eliminating the need for multiple communication points—such as separate park-based employee Web sites, e-mail information, and phone calls—which is a tremendous advantage to us,” says Israel. “The central point of information flow along with the ability to communicate to full-time and seasonal employees will result in a tremendous asset to us for the 2010 operating season.”Increased Inter-Park Collaboration
Six Flags also is providing an easy means of inter-park communication so that employees can work together to creatively solve problems and proactively take steps to avoid them. Says Andersen, “Having the flexibility to either post information by park or by department allows us to share best practices and programs with peers in a specific department.”
Improved Guest Experience
The changes that Six Flags is making to improve consistency and communication will heighten the enjoyment of the company’s guests. “Well-informed employees can be in the right place at the right time to help guests have an even better experience at all our parks,” says Andersen. “That may mean answering a guest’s questions with greater accuracy or being on hand to serve them more quickly, because we can adapt our staffing levels in response to real-time park information.”
Faster Application Development
Six Flags is taking the steps necessary to establish a digital platform from which it can quickly launch future functionality. The solution integration features in Visual Studio 2010 enhance the development experience with SharePoint Server 2010.
“Using SharePoint Server 2010 and Visual Studio 2010, we’ll be able to develop ticketing and other back-end applications that help our parks run more efficiently—and we’ll do so about 50 percent more quickly than before,” says Andersen. “With technologies like these in place, we can make a complete change in direction as to how we manage development projects.”
Creating new functionality is so much easier with the rapid application development infrastructure that the Six Flags application development team will be better able to respond to employee requests as well as to strategic business needs. The application development team may even be able to enhance or add applications mid-season, which was not possible in the past. “Additionally, we’ll be able to change reports and move to posting them for better availability, rather than running reports every time one is needed,” says Andersen.Low Total Costs
For Six Flags, deploying SharePoint Server 2010 will result in significant cost savings because of a reduction in third-party licensing costs and a reduced reliance on outside services and development. “For instance, now we can build and share applications among all our parks, rather than paying third parties for individual park solutions. We’ll also experience cost reductions from the overall efficiency of managing a single system,” says Andersen. “We’ve made a very small investment for SharePoint Server 2010, and we’re going to see a huge return on it.”
Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010
Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 is the business collaboration platform for the Enterprise and the Internet.
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