ST. PETERSBURG — The ballroom full of Hampton Inn managers had just waded through a discussion of "what Hamptonality means to you'' when a side door opened and out popped Mick the juggler, Gordon the poet, and Rosie and Lloyd, a mime/one-man band/magic act straight out of The Ed Sullivan Show. ¶ And that was just the warm up.
Carr Hagerman, a former street performer who has played the Rat Catcher at Renaissance festivals, bounded on stage and managed a standing ovation before he even started. Simply by asking for it.
Hagerman is a motivational speaker — he prefers workplace consultant — and on this day earlier this week he was delivering his pitch at the Bayfront Hilton, part of a national, 19-city tour he and his 12-member company of actors and support people are doing for employees of Hampton Inn, part of the Hilton chain.
"We've heard it all before, right?" he asked. More than a few of the 300 or so managers nodded their heads. "We overwrite and over-script everything. Customer service happens naturally." And off he went, extolling the virtues of spontaneity.
For many, the image of a motivational speaker falls somewhere between Tony Robbins, the personal power guru, and Matt Foley, the Chris Farley Saturday Night Live character who warned that non-believers could end up "living in a van down by the river!"
Hagerman's message is less dire. Look the client in the eye, try to have a little fun and turn unforeseen problems into opportunities. Just like successful street performers do.
The front desk is to a hotel owner what the pitch area is to a street performer, Hagerman said. Not only is it usually the first contact a guest has with the staff, it's a stage. "The same elements apply."
The performance can be a hit or a flop. Hagerman showed photos of two street performers, a juggler and a guitar player, who had no crowds around them. It had nothing to do with their level of talent, he said, and everything to do with their willingness to engage their audience.
Contrast that, Hagerman said, with a photo of a man dancing to Michael Jackson music. "He was terrible," Hagerman said. "And he never spoke to the audience. But he had natural energy, he was passionate, and the crowd was drawn to him because they wanted what he had."
In a coffee shop after the program, Hagerman said he saw a connection between greeting people entering a Renaissance festival and drawing them to a sales counter. In 1998, he began working with Charthouse Learning, an educational documentary film company that produced Fish!, a workplace management system. That led to a collaboration with author Stephen Lundin in Top Performer, a book that applies street performance techniques to sales and service.
Hagerman is 49, lives with his wife outside Minneapolis and has been hired by American Express, Wells Fargo, Apple Computer and others to deliver his sidewalk sales message.
But will it stick?
"They all have buzz words and slogans, and we'll forget them five minutes later," said Lana Aylwin, general manager of a Hampton Inn in Naples and a 25-year veteran of the business. "But he was different.
"Look, we all have beds and curved shower rods. And most of what we do is scripted," she said. "His whole message was throw away the script and be yourself, which I think would work for any business."
In the ultra-competitive hotel business, Aylwin said, separation from the pack is key. Maybe, she said, this is one way to help do that.
"I'm going to go back and look at the scripts,'' she said, "and let my people have fun."
Reach Tom Zucco at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8247.