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Doing analytics the Disney way

The Walt Disney Company’s head of solution integration tells how analytics helps to personalise the customer’s Disney experience, and how tech plays a leading role in The Lion King’s Broadway success

The Walt Disney Company is continuing to ramp up its investment in data analytics to improve the customer experience across some of its key business units. 

The company’s businesses include parks and resorts, media networks, studio entertainment, and consumer products and interactive media, but analytics is used mainly for consumer and guest experience across its parks and resorts. 

“Analytics is key to keeping customers’ experience high so they can get the best possible visit – we want them to be happy and tell their friends,” Teddy Benson, Disney’s head of solution integration, told delegates at the SAS Global Forum in April 2018.  

Disney’s team includes 1,000 people, plus suppliers, working on analytics-related tasks, with “pockets of people doing various tasks, from facial recognition to data punching”, says Benson.

According to Benson, Disney does not have a “data unicorn” within its team. “It’s hard to find a single point of expertise,” he says. “We don’t have a lynchpin – we divide the team and cross-collaborate.”

You might think a huge organisation like Disney would have data analytics nailed down, but according to Benson, the company is evolving, keeping an experimental mindset.  

“We do proofs of concept almost like startups,” he says. “We take a small budget and look at the risk, do a few investments with various levels of success and see how far we can get to within the realms of the architectural design we have.”

But that is not to say the company is new to analytics. Disney has been using machine learning in some form over the last seven years – but that doesn’t mean the task of demystifying some concepts is over.

“You also have to understand how to tell a story,” says Benson. “There is a lot of mystery around related things like machine learning and artificial intelligence, so we are trying to express it in a clear fashion and educate people, because there are lots of buzzwords around.”

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Something that illustrates Disney’s commitment to analytics is its own annual data and analytics conference, which will take place in August 2018 and is set to attract more than 1,300 executives, managers and analysts representing over 200 companies and universities, plus all segments of the Walt Disney Company. 

The event covers an array of analytic disciplines, including revenue management, pricing, forecasting, marketing analytics, customer relationship management (CRM), research, technology, data management. and decision science. It is an opportunity to discuss not only what is being done at the company, but also what is happening in the data universe as a whole.  

“At our analytics convention, we expose ourselves to Disney internally, but also to the outside world,” says Benson. “We talk about everything from electric cars to healthcare, so it’s great to bring different people together to talk about all those topics.” 

Commenting on the future of data projects at the firm, Benson says: “Disney is close-lipped about its IP [intellectual property], but is very good at staying ahead of the competition.”

The executive says the company will continue to invest in new analytics capability, but also in areas that have already proven business value. 

Broadway analytics

One of these areas is pricing and revenue management. The technology, which helped The Lion King generate the highest box office revenues in Broadway history despite being staged in a smaller theatre and having a shorter run than other popular shows, will continue to be enhanced. 

“By far, [The Lion King] was the most successful Broadway show ever – Disney turned this into a science,” says Benson. 

“We take a page from the airlines’ book on how to do revenue management. As tech evolved and grew, we grew as well in terms of precision around how many days guests stay, incentivising people and promoting offerings. 

“Personalisation is very big – the idea being that the experience is catered to them.”

That tailoring – one of the key areas of work for Disney’s analytics team – could involve, for example, suggesting activities to guests considering factors such as weather, the number of people in queues and specific times of the day, in order to avoid stressful experiences such as queuing up for long periods of time, all the while offering products and services that can be relevant to customers. 

According to Benson, crucial to generating results in analytics is sustaining core development and investing in people, as well as keeping in touch with the market evolution.

“We downplay our success, but it’s a never-ending battle,” he says. “The idea is that you are never done or complete, as data is very much like a living entity that grows and transforms.”

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