How the Secondary Guest Can Make or Break Your Business


When Walt Disney started out as a young entrepreneur in the 1920s, he wasn’t sure where his fledgling business would take him and his brother, Roy. He just knew that he wanted to entertain people of all ages. It was Walt’s focus beyond his core consumers (children) that truly sustained him and his company through good times and bad — a focus that remains the cornerstone of The Walt Disney Company today.

Disney is renowned for its ability to surpass the expectations of children first and foremost, but it’s our focus on what we like to call the “secondary guest” — someone who frequently interacts with, or exerts influence over, a product but may not be considered a core consumer — that we believe sets us apart from other entertainment companies. If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, taken a Disney cruise or sat through a Disney Pixar film, then you know that our company is committed to entertaining people of ALL ages, everywhere.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — of course Disney can entertain people of all ages, everywhere. They’re in the movie and theme park business! But the truth is, this concept works in almost every industry. At Disney Institute we’ve helped clients integrate Disney’s best practices into health care, retail, food and beverage, and even manufacturing. Because the truth is, how you position and sell your product or service is just as important as what your business is selling.

Recognizing Your Secondary Guest
Prior to the opening of Disneyland in 1955, theme parks didn’t exist. Children went to carnivals, which were often scary places with scary people and even scarier safety standards. They also weren’t much fun for adults. Walt dreamed of a place where he, his wife Lillian and his two girls could have good, clean fun together.

Walt’s idea was an obvious success that led to the concept of the secondary guest — in this case, himself and his wife, Lillian. We continually work on this concept every day, always trying to find new ways to surprise and delight adults as well as children. There are a variety of ways we do this, but nothing outweighs the impact of our employees, or cast members as we call them at Disney.

Cast members are trained to speak to guests, not at them. For example, they bend down to speak to a child at his or her level. This does two things: it makes the child feel important and involved, and it makes the parents happy because the child feels special. Cast members are also trained to proactively seek out guest contact, especially with those who seem lost or frustrated. Days at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., can be very long and exhausting. A cast member who sees a crying child and a clearly anxious adult is encouraged to approach the child and suggest a game, or offer assistance in finding a cool place for the family to rest for a while. This simple gesture can help the child and the parents relax and refresh so that the family can begin enjoying their day again.

Now, think about this concept in your business, where perhaps a child is the secondary guest. If a mother comes to your retail store and an employee is rude or dismissive to her child, is she likely to make a purchase? With today’s increased competition, she is more likely to simply leave, and possibly never return. Now imagine that your employee strikes up a conversation with the child and offers her a few crayons and a coloring book to play with while the mother is shopping. In this case — with time to focus and examine all you have to offer — mom probably makes that purchase. Even better, she comes back over and over again, bringing her child every time. Her child, a daughter, comes to remember the store fondly. She may begin shopping there herself when she’s old enough.

Each year we receive thousands of guest letters that share with us how a cast member went out of his or her way to make everyone in the party feel special and because of that, they will be back. In fact, we have quantified and correlated these interactions with higher levels of intent to return and to recommend — key drivers of growth and profitability.

Putting it to Work
The bottom line is that small business owners can easily apply the concepts we use at Disney because most of them cost little to no money to implement. It’s really about adjusting the company’s mindset to make sure everyone — managers and employees — understand their role within the organization and treat everyone as a guest and a potential customer.

Every person who interacts with a business becomes an ambassador for his or her experience. If long-time patrons appreciate and value their experiences, then their children and grandchildren are also likely to become loyal customers, who then refer friends, neighbors and business associates.

Disney continues to be successful with these strategies because we understand the importance of communicating and delivering value to all our guests. Exceeding expectations by providing an unparalleled experience to your core and secondary guests will increase intent to return and to recommend, creating your own economic “circle of life.”

Bruce Jones is programming director of Disney Institute, the professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company. He can be reached at bruce.i.jones@ For more information on Disney Institute, please visit