‘Let’s go to the Ex’

Canadian National Exhibition hires 1,200 staff every year – here’s how they do it

Each year, some 1,200 summer staff are hired for ‘the Ex’ — the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), which runs from mid-August to Labour Day in Toronto.

Traditionally, the vast majority of applicants are teens and young adults between the ages of 14 and 24. For many years, the CNE was part of Exhibition Place, which is spread across 192 acres on the city’s waterfront.

In 2013, the CNE became organizationally independent and, as such, responsible for its own hiring. From a synergy perspective, Exhibition Place continued to provide security and IT support to the CNE, while the CNE provided customer service training for Exhibition Place’s 600 summer staff.

As a result, the CNE needed a summer staffing team to recruit some 600 people and deliver customer service training to a combined 1,200 summer staff. I worked as an HR consultant to build the necessary structure and orchestrate the project.

The first step was hiring two students for the position of junior recruiter, whose role was to assist with the recruiting of seasonal staff and provide administrative support. Out of 178 applicants, a student from the University of Guelph and a student from Ryerson University were chosen. The three of us formed the Summer Staffing Office (SSO) and set up shop in the press building and food building.

The second step was putting structure in place by building an online portal to funnel thousands of applications. This portal was hosted by an external service provider and, for the applicants’ comfort, designed to closely resemble the CNE website.

It was easy to navigate and had five tabs: home, history, FAQs, tips and jobs. The tips tab offered information on resumé writing and how to prepare for interviews. The jobs tab gave access to 30 different positions, each with a job summary. In a few easy steps, applicants could create a profile, attach their resumés and go through a questionnaire, with about 18 questions tailored to each job.

The questionnaires were a crucial element as the answers were weighted. For example, if candidates applied for a customer service job, there was a question about customer service experience. If people had zero months’ experience, they’d get zero points. Three months was worth three points, six months, six points and so on. If people applied for a ticket seller position, the questionnaire asked about cash handling experience. And if candidates applied for working with Lost & Found Children, they’d be asked how much child-care experience they had.

Once people submitted their applications, the applicant tracking system ranked candidates based on their scores, indicating fit for the job. This allowed the SSO to focus on the top five to 10 per cent of applicants for each position and review their resumés. The online portal was opened in April and, over the next several weeks, it attracted 14,000 applications.

The CNE’s core business is one-on-one interaction with guests who come to have fun — seniors, adults and especially kids. It’s about delivering a top-notch customer service experience to each individual guest so they come back and say good things about the fair. Therefore, the SSO focused on selecting candidates who enjoyed interacting with people and had a customer service mindset.

In screening the resumés of the highest-ranked candidates, the SSO used the following criteria: relatively few spelling and grammatical errors (showing attention to detail); relevant work experience; a position on the dean’s list or honour roll; qualification for scholarships; recognition as an employee of the month; volunteering for disaster relief in Haiti; tutoring other students — anything that set them apart from others and showed dedication to whatever they had undertaken.

Considering past performance as a predictor, the SSO expected these candidates to apply the same effort and mindset to working at the CNE. Those applicants who most closely fit the profile of the job they applied for were invited to group interviews.

The straight goods

A widely known HR statistic is that new hires tend to quit in the first few days on the job, usually because the job turns out to be completely different from what they expected. The SSO decided to prepare applicants for the actual work as much as possible. Posting a summary of each job, using job-related topics in the questionnaires, explaining what each job entailed and using real-life examples during interviews all helped in managing candidates’ expectations.

Thanks to a structured screening process, the SSO logged an overall success rate of 6.5 hires out of every 10 candidates interviewed. Another success factor was delegating much of the actual interviewing to the junior recruiters; during these structured interviews, there was a lot of laughter and an easy flow of energy as students connected with students.

Customer service training

The next area of concentration was customer service training. Survey feedback from previous years showed summer staff had consistently asked for more job-specific training. The CNE used to assemble hundreds of new hires and re-hires into large rooms and present fairly generic customer service training.

To address this feedback, the SSO proposed a different strategy — train summer staff in much smaller groups and offer content that was tailored to the needs of each department. To achieve this, the SSO liaised with each department and asked about which situations summer staff could expect to see in each job, once they were actually deployed to the front lines.

Drawing on their vast experience, the departments came back with a wealth of real-life scenarios and the best ways to handle these. This resulted in 27 training sessions with content tailored to departmental needs, plus three separate sessions for supervisory staff, all including role play.

Front-line staff were trained on interacting with guests through authentic examples, emphasizing that each of them would represent the CNE in the eyes of every single guest. Supervisors were trained on topics and situations specific to their jobs, such as handling conflict between staff members, escalating and de-escalating complaints, taking corrective action, recognizing staff for initiative and great service and, finally, evaluating performance. As a result of this customized approach, satisfaction with training increased by 42 per cent.

This strategy was warmly supported by the CNE’s senior management. General manager David Bednar made a point of addressing the 1,200 summer staff as they all attended one of the 27 customer service training sessions. His presence alone signalled to the summer staff that their effort would be crucial to the success of the fair. In his speeches, Bednar emphasized that the skills they gained during the fair would be transferable to every future job they would hold.

Successful results

The combination of solid recruitment and needs-based training led to ultimate success, manifested in a 56-per-cent decrease in turnover during the fair. In addition:

•88 per cent of the summer staff were satisfied with their supervisors’ support.

•The rigorous pre-screening resulted in a 40 per cent reduction in the number of group interviews.

•Based on the evaluations that the supervisors completed, 87 per cent of summer staff qualified for a return in 2014.

The key to successful hiring and training on this scale is, ironically, to focus on the micro-level first. In the recruiting stage, the SSO detailed what each job entailed and then screened applicants for the right mindset and skills. Once people were hired, they were trained not to look at 1.4-million guests as one large mass that would settle for one-size-fits-all, but to approach each guest as an individual with specific needs and expectations.

The tailored approach was subsequently reinforced during the 18 days of the fair itself, through the Above & Beyond recognition program. After being nominated by their supervisors, no less than 100 people were recognized — not for doing their jobs (because that was covered by their paycheques) but for applying their customer service mindset and doing something special for individual guests.

By putting a lot of effort into building a solid structure, you can reap rich benefits down the road.

Evert Akkerman is a Newmarket, Ont.-based HR professional who has worked extensively in the private and non-profit sectors and is founder of XNL HR. He can be reached at [email protected] or (289) 338-4001.

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