The Never-Ending Race for Better Customer Service

Arlington Park’s Tony Petrillo extends the seasonal business into a year-round venue

Tony Petrillo is not a man who enjoys sitting still. It’s a good thing too, because he and his staff at Arlington International Racecourse are in a tight race for entertainment dollars.

Arlington hired Petrillo in 1994 as a business analyst for its Illinois-based racecourse venue, and his role has been evolving there ever since. He first served as a strategic partner to the president in real estate diversification and developed off-track betting locations. Five years later as director of facilities and operations, he took on the company’s capital budget and strategic business initiatives.

Having been then named vice president of facilities and operations, he not only supervised facilities, housekeeping, security, and track and turf departments, but he also oversaw the design, planning, construction, and maintenance of the entire 325-acre facility. Now as general manager, a position he assumed in 2010, he has full operational control. “Through all the roles I’ve had before, I was able to understand the culture and identify where the communication gaps resided within the organization among all those different levels,” Petrillo says.

If there happened to be a department or job Petrillo wasn’t familiar with, he jumped right in to learn. “I’m very much a hands-on person,” Petrillo says. “To understand a person’s job, I went out and did that job so I knew the tools and resources needed to do that job.”

Gaining a tremendous amount of experiences, Petrillo began cross-training personnel so every track employee understood each other’s responsibilities and needs. Then he went further, establishing vision groups that would be responsible for developing new strategies and redefining the company from solely a thoroughbred racing venue into a summer entertainment destination for all ages.

These vision groups consisting of a cross-section of employees work together to find strategic solutions to establish Arlington as one of the top ten entertainment destinations in the Chicago area. “It forced people to interact with one another,” he recalls. “And it provided ownership within the organization for more strategic thinking that hadn’t been available to them in the past.”

As soon as these vision groups went to work, Petrillo says he noticed an uptick in teamwork across the entire organization. Long-time employees who had spent their whole careers limiting themselves to their specific jobs suddenly reached out to collaborate with employees in other departments. Job performance rose dramatically as well throughout the company. “It led to a lot of promotions from within,” Petrillo says.

It showed Petrillo that many employees were highly motivated. For those who needed more training to achieve their goals, Petrillo established a professional development program in 2011. The upside of the internal promoting was maintaining a workforce that understood the culture of the company intimately, which was key to another initiative Petrillo champions.

Arlington, he says, has long held a reputation for delivering on the customer experience since current owner Richard L. Duchossois led an Illinois investment group in purchasing the track in the early 1980s. Every year, however, the number of entertainment options for residents in the Chicago area grew, placing greater importance on the customer experience. “We talk about our customers as guests,” he explains. “We want to provide the type of hospitality they’d get if they walked into our own homes. We need employees who understand that. When you do, it’s easy to execute as a team.”

Seasonal staff are trained and tested to ensure they’re on board with the company culture as well, which becomes imperative during one of Arlington’s most popular events, Arlington Million, which takes place every August. Petrillo stages practice and soft openings before every racing season to make sure everyone knows what they need to accomplish.

Meanwhile, Petrillo has worked to make Arlington International a destination for more than just horse racing. During the fall and winter off-season, he fills the track’s calendar with trade shows, corporate meetings, and holiday parties. “We have something every weekend here at Arlington that is not racing specific,” he says. “There are wine festivals and food truck festivals. We’ve partnered with major professional sports teams in Chicagoland to host events.”

The National Football League’s Chicago Bears, for instance, have a theme day at the park, where the Super Bowl trophy is put on display and current and past players sign autographs. Petrillo says the venue also does a similar event with the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks. “Every Sunday, we have a family day in the park with pony rides and petting zoos,” he adds. “We have a ‘Horses and Hounds Day,’ when we partner with the local humane society and hold pet adoptions. We’re very family oriented. We try to reach all different demographics.”

None of those initiatives would work if the logistics were a chore for customers, which is why Petrillo has leveraged technology to make everything from ticketing to betting as fast and easy as possible. “Our online ticketing system is just like what the airlines use,” he says. “You can upgrade, change packages, and buy reserve seats. We added in-seat food and beverage ordering in one location this year with the goal to expand the use of GPS tracking so our servers can bring food to you no matter where you are.”

In a nod to the power of social media, Arlington has several selfie stations, where guests can take and post photos to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Petrillo fosters this activity by staging contests and presenting prizes to those who retweet Arlington’s posts. “This really works with young people and when we have wine festivals, where the median age is thirty-three to thirty-five,” he says. “We see a number of Facebook photos go up and tweets about those festivals, where it’s very much a social event. We try to use that as a multiplier for the tweets and posts we’re putting up as well.”

Petrillo and his team of motivated and empowered employees are coming up with new ideas every day. Their race for more customers is never over.