Gardaland Resort: Memorable and Sustainable Experiences for Adventurers of All Ages

Elisa Gonzo Senior Hotels Excellence Manager At Gardaland

We had the pleasure of interviewing Elisa Gonzo, Senior Hotels Excellence Manager at Gardaland.

Gardaland Resort is Italy’s favorite destination for fun-related short stays. It has it all: an amusement park with world-class attractions, various high-quality accommodations, and a strong commitment to offering unforgettable experiences. Gardaland Resort is a popular destination for Italian and international visitors with a wide range of attractions and services.

B: Hi, Elisa. Could you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path?

E: My path in the world of hospitality has been quite unique. I earned a master’s in Communication Sciences from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, specializing in organizational management and innovation. First, I embarked on a professional path that took me to the healthcare training sector. In 2007, I had the opportunity to start my journey in hospitality as MICE at the Molino Stucky Hilton in Venice. Later, in 2009, I took another step forward in my career, joining Gardaland Resort as a Meetings & Events Manager. In 2013, I started in the emerging role of Guest Relations Manager, which morphed into the current position of Senior Hotels Excellence Manager.

B: Could you share more details about the evolution of your role and how central it has become within the company?

E: When I started in 2013, my role was still developing and was often misunderstood. Over time, this role has become essential in our corporate strategy. Today, we no longer just strive for service excellence; we talk about “People Excellence,” a concept that connects our guests’ experience to the importance of the people in the organization. We are gradually embracing this approach, turning excellence into a genuine attitude that guides our strategic decisions.

B: Gardaland Resort is part of Merlin Entertainments, one of the world’s leading amusement companies. How did this impact Gardaland’s strategy? 

E: Gardaland Resort has been part of Merlin Entertainments since 2006. It is a global group second only to Disney in entertainment, which owns renowned brands such as Madame Tussauds, London Eye, and Sealife Aquarium. Recently, our internationality has grown significantly through the 50% Merlin acquisition by the Christiansen Family of Lego. This has inspired us to become a genuinely international entertainment tourist destination. Our prime location on the Veronese shore of Lake Garda has made us a “short break destination” for families looking for a unique and fun stay in a theme hotel in Italy, allowing them to visit Italy’s leading amusement park.

B: Managing a complex entity that is both an amusement park and an accommodation facility is certainly challenging. How do you balance between meeting guests’ emotional expectations and maintaining high operational standards?

E: Managing three accommodations that are part of an internationally renowned amusement park involves a double challenge. On the one hand, we have to exceed the emotional expectations of our guests, offering them an unforgettable experience; on the other hand, we have to prove our credibility through sound hotel procedures and operations. Despite the common, often mistaken, perception that amusement park hotels may fall short of traditional chain hotels, the reality is different. Given the large number of stays we handle and the need to provide quick service to our guests, our internal procedures must be extremely efficient.

As a seasonal property with a long and steadily growing season and given the number of rooms (475 family rooms), we have to deal with a high flow of guests on a daily basis. The check-ins and check-outs can peak at 300 per day during high season.  From an operational point of view, the daily challenges are many, so clear procedures and a high dose of proactivity are essential to make sure we give our best.  

The most significant challenge is balancing operational credibility with the emotional side. Our guests choose Gardaland Resort for a specific experience and are not willing to compromise. We try to simplify the complexities through clear and immediate communication while maintaining constant alignment with colleagues at Gardaland Park, LEGOLAND® Waterpark and Sealife Aquarium. This ensures that our guests’ experience is integrated smoothly and consistently, in a serene, friendly and fun mood.

B: Given the focus on quality and consistency at Gardaland, what specific initiatives or programs have you implemented to ensure excellence in hospitality within your hotels?

E: We have implemented several targeted initiatives, placing the guest experience as our top priority. First, we have identified our customers’ Buyer Personas and carefully analyzed their expectations. This allows us to identify areas that require improvement and further customize the experience for different customer segments (for example, the customer’s nationality).

A key element of our approach is managing everything proactively. We involve all departments in breaking down problems and assigning responsibilities, addressing issues in depth instead of treating them superficially. The main initiatives focus on three main aspects:

Operations: We conduct cross-departmental sessions with the various departments to ensure that procedures and processes are linear, efficient and effective.

Training: We have established a Gardaland Academy to train seasonal staff, with a special focus on Guest Excellence. Key staff from the Room Division and Food & Beverage departments, receive specific training and participate in regular refresher sessions with their team leaders.

Communication and Sharing: We encourage guests to share any feedback or criticism. This helps us to assess the best solutions for managing the guest experience and addressing specific situations. Sharing critical issues raises awareness and allows us to seize the opportunities that arise from each challenge.

In summary, we work carefully on these three areas to ensure that operational excellence and the emotional experience of our guests are always at the highest level.

B: How do you manage the Food&Beverage (F&B) part within a reality like Gardaland?
E: Our F&B Manager, Dario Stragapede (Vice President of the Veronese Chefs Association and member of the Italian Chefs Federation), plays a key role. His responsibility covers the supervision of all food and beverage areas, with a focus on our two main restaurants: the Wonder Restaurant, with about 500 seats, and the Tutankhamon Restaurant, which offers about 380 seats and is also open to the outside public.

All restaurant services are managed in-house and are ISO 22000-certified. Our primary goal is to provide a wide variety of food options that can satisfy an extremely diverse clientele. We are committed to offering healthy foods and ensuring food safety. For example, although we do not have a dedicated kitchen for celiacs, we clearly explain to our guests how we ensure their food safety, usually impressing them positively with our attention to details.

Our main commitment is to offer safe meals for all, with catering services that take into account international needs but also have a touch of Italian authenticity, much appreciated by our foreign guests, especially when it comes to our pizza.

B: How do you monitor and measure the guest experience within your hotels? What metrics do you consider most significant in evaluating the success of these initiatives?

E: We primarily use the corporate metrics provided, called Merlin Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which include questionnaires that can be filled out at various touch points to measure the memorability of the experience. These metrics provide a point of comparison between different facilities in the group and allow for cross-cutting evaluations.

One of the most relevant metrics is the NPS (Net Promoter Score), which measures the likelihood of customers to recommend the facility to their friends and family. The NPS is an important indicator of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

In addition to corporate metrics, we use the TrustYou platform to assess hotel sentiment by monitoring guest comments and reviews. This helps us detect aspects that might escape traditional metrics.

We also make use of “Mystery Guest,” which assesses both operational and emotional aspects of the guest experience. These approaches allow us to gain a comprehensive view of the guest experience and identify areas that need improvement.

B: What are the key elements that contribute to a positive reputation for a hotel? How do you manage online reviews and guest feedback to maintain a good reputation?

E: Key elements for creating a positive hotel reputation include accepting and handling guest feedback honestly. We spend time reading all reviews, including negative ones, to identify opportunities for improvement. We carefully analyze each situation to understand what did not work and what areas require improvement. This process helps us to effectively enhance and manage our reputation.

B: What are the main trends and innovations that you foresee impacting hospitality in the coming years?

E: Gardaland will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary, and the mission is to embrace future challenges, focusing especially on innovation and sustainability.

On the hotel front, we have implemented several sustainability initiatives. In the past, the introduction of dispensers in rooms was a “bold” choice that caused us quite a few negative reviews. Our main task at the time was to explain to customers that this choice actually represented an improvement in service, as we offered high-quality products and promoted sustainability through a revolution in packaging. Over the years, we have since added numerous other actions such as offering ecological suggestions to guests during their stay, such as avoiding the change of unused linens. Other projects include recycling options in the resort’s common areas, and electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lots. Currently,  we are reconsidering to re-design all our green spaces by reducing the use of seasonal flowers in our gardens to curb water consumption.

We are also engaged in circular economy projects and preserving our lake through the corporate Sealife Trust. As for suppliers, we try, whenever possible, to use short chain, zero-mile and artisanal products, especially in the catering sector.

B: How do you envision the future of Gardaland?

E: Gardaland is looking to further diversify its offerings. From an amusement park, it has evolved into a “short break destination” and perhaps in the future may become a mega resort. The goal remains to offer memorable experiences and to be the best possible place for the people who experience it, whether they are guests or employees.

Gardaland has also taken significant steps to improve customer service, such as digitization, automation, and the implementation of web check-in, which has involved an internal reorganization in the Room Division, improving processes and reducing wait times and inefficiencies. We have converted the reservation office to hotel customer care by simplifying booking and check-in/check-out processes.

As of this year, our hotels are cashless, with the front desk and some other areas as the only points for accepting cash. Visitors have the ability to use e-bracelets, in addition to cards, for electronic payments. Automation and digitization are enabling us to optimize processes and performance, and focus our operators’ attention on more specific and detailed customer care activities, avoiding depersonalization of the experience.

With the active involvement of Francesco Quartaroli, Guest Excellence Manager of Gardaland Park, Sea Life Aquarium and LEGOLAND® Waterpark, we created the Gardaland Academy. This is  an initiative aimed at training seasonal staff. More than 1,000 seasonal employees from the different divisions throughout the Resort are involved. The training is based on the mission of Gardaland and Merlin: to provide memorable experiences and to learn how to listen to the voice of the guest. Sharing common goals and a passion for our craft are the foundation of Gardaland’s success and always will be.

We are only truly satisfied when we see our guests of all ages happy and excited, with that special sparkle in their eyes of someone who is fully experiencing the magic of our resort.

A: If you had to describe Gardaland in a single sentence what would it be?

E: Our motto is simple and straightforward, an invitation to discover a world for everyone, inclusive and fun, in a nutshell…Welcome to the Big Fantasy Adventure!