Tips on Handling Difficult Guests at Your Recreation Facility

Any facility open to the public will have a few guests who are not happy with the services rendered. I think this is a reality in life. As arena professionals, we have to deal with these issues in a manner that encourages repeat business. We cannot just ask them to leave, and we have to make sure our staff is trained in our techniques as well. No manager can be at the facility all day every day, and frequently well trained staff can defuse situations as they occur.

In the recreational facility industry, we have to remember that parents make a significant investment in their children. This investment turns parents into highly charged emotional individuals. One parent, whose child stopped skating, confided to me that she was now able to buy a new car and move into a nicer house since she wasn't spending large sums on skating anymore. Since parents make significant sacrifices to keep their children in skating, we have to treat them with upmost respect while understanding that the charged emotions can lead to more complaints.

Sometimes staff can create a threatening environment from being too quick to ask people making disturbances to leave. An additional factor in threatening environments can be rigid rules and regulations creating polarization, where staff think of themselves as being on one side, and guests are on the other side. Facility rules should be stated as 'Codes of Conduct' to avoid polarization and potential legal issues. Polarization always leads to conflicts, which are bad for the facility. Management has a front-line role in creating firm, but flexible structures (Safety is an exception to this rule) that all stakeholders can live with.

I rounded up a few winning strategies good for managers and owners to apply in difficult guest service situations. Your actual results may vary.

Kill Them with Kindness

This technique works every time. Your difficult guest creates staff groans when coming through the door. The staff refuses to talk to this person, because he/she is so rude. This is the person who should be singled out for caring guest service. Frequently I receive tickets for shows and sporting events for the civic center down the street. One day I took four hockey game tickets and gave them to our most difficult, rude guest. My staff looked at me like I was crazy. Our guest went to the hockey game, became grateful, and now treats everyone with respect. Killing them with kindness is counterintuitive, but incredibly effective.

Get Friendly

Whenever I see our difficult guests, I go out of my way to greet them and make their time here special. Frequently, I hear the complaint of the day and I am able to fix or deflect the issue before more problems occur. Sometimes our difficult guests comment on legitimate issues, which I then fix quickly. If the issue is not legitimate, I employ the listening technique and offer a reasonable solution.

Listen Listen Listen

Always listen to the guest making a complaint. This is the time where he or she needs to get out what is bothering him or her. Many guests tend to make the same complaint 5 times before he or she is willing to accept a solution. As a managers, we need to listen to the complaint and not offer a possible solution until the fourth time the guest makes his or her case. Once the proposed solution is integrated into the fifth complaint, we know the guest has accepted the solution and can move on.

Be the Fairy Godmother

We use guest passes effectively. When something goes sideways, the guest is upset, we offer a guest pass to smooth the choppy waters of discontent. Sometimes a minor discount on a program goes a long way too. We usually try hard to use discounts on items that do not have a large intrinsic value. Discounting or giving away pro-shop items never works because they cost cash to bring in. The warm feeling our guests get from a minor discount or guest pass far outweighs the small amount these items cost us.

Sometimes, being a fairy godmother means giving a cash refund even on a program that has a no refund policy. When the guest gets his or her money back, the facility has no further obligation. This sets the clock back and clears the deck in case further problems arise. Every once in a while making an exception to a policy also helps the guest feel happy about the facility.

The fairy godmother technique works even when other methods won't. Guest also feel special because of this method, and that always helps when complaints are involved.

Involve the Guest with the Process

Sometimes guests are consistently unhappy or rude to the counter people. Either way there is a problem somewhere in the chain. We've found that involving the guest with the operation sometimes helps. Frequently guests have time and want to help. When this combination occurs, getting the guest involved in the program helps. One guest was particularly rude, but when we talked him into purchasing used CD players for the facility, he came on board and treated people politely. Being part of the team makes a huge difference and removes the polarization of different parties taking different sides.


By far, the best solution to difficult guests lies in preventing complaints in the first place. There is no substitute for clearly written and posted codes of conduct, clear but flexible policies for employees, and guests who know what to expect. If everyone has reasonable expectations, knows what he or she will get for the price of admission, then we have provided an appropriate framework within which everyone can have a great time.

Vary your plays for guest satisfaction. After a while, you'll know the best times to play the Fairy Godmother, and when to Kill Them with Kindness. All of these methods work, they have different degrees of success depending the person and the situation. Keeping that 1% of patrons happy always helps, because a bad apple will always spoil the barrel.

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