Five questions for a professor from the happiest place on earth


Eric Olson, assistant professor in apparel, events and hospitality management. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Eric Olson, assistant professor in apparel, events and hospitality management, is new to the classroom but not to events planning. Luckily for his students, Olson brings first-hand work experience, knowledge and training to his classes from his former employer, the company that has "be our guest" down to a science: Walt Disney World.

The basics

Name: Eric Olson
Position: Assistant professor in apparel, events and hospitality management
Time at ISU: Almost six months
Previous location: Sunny Florida, earning his Ph.D. from the University of Central Florida, Orlando

How did you end up at Walt Disney World and what did you do there?

After I finished my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, I jumped in my car and moved down to Florida. I always wanted to live in Florida, so I started working for Walt Disney World Co. and I was there for a little under six years. I absolutely loved my job there.

I had about 12 different roles or jobs. Disney is a company that is very dynamic, so you move around a lot. You're pulled for special projects here and there. I started working the frontline in attractions, either working in a theme park or a resort. Disney promotes almost completely from within, so I moved up the corporate ladder, so to speak. I spent some time in the marketing department as well, focusing on larger signature events like the Disney Marathon, the Food and Wine Festival, and the Flower Garden Festival.

So, why leave?

I always knew I wanted to be in the classroom, I just had that drive. Disney University is their training and development program. I taught a lot of classes there. I enjoyed the teaching experience. The other side of that, of course, is the research. I started playing around with some research components, and I was like, "yeah, I need to get my Ph.D. so I can get those skills to contribute to research."

Speaking of your research, you look at the impact of online reviews, especially negative ones, on businesses. Why should managers pay attention to online reviews?

Online reviews are really interesting phenomena that have impacted the service industry the last couple of years. Reviews are a way managers can get informal feedback to improve an operation. In some online review sites, like and, managers can respond in that forum to state their side of the story, in the case of negative feedback. One of my studies showed that consumers are more likely to choose a service provider if a manager takes the time to respond. If managers show they care, and take the time to address the situation or give information about why the negative situation occurred, the consumer is more likely to respond favorably. Some smaller organizations, such as restaurants, don't have the resources or time to respond to reviews, so that's very challenging for them. My research right now is looking at what they should do. Some small businesses have hired interns to monitor online reviews. My professional opinion is that you need to have some sort of infrastructure in place that looks at online feedback. And especially in the case of negative reviews, managers need to have some sort of response.

How do you translate your Walt Disney experience for your students studying event management?

I pull from my experiences at Disney all the time within the context of the classroom. An example would be talking about the Disney training program and event production. I pull in a lot of case studies, personal examples and guest speakers through my contacts. I often connect my students to my contacts at Disney. Students enjoy hearing practical, real-world experience and they seem to respond pretty positively to that. But I always drive home the point that Disney is a public company. Their main goal is to increase shareholder wealth. Everything they do, every decision they make, keeps that goal in mind. Disney is a business.

How can smaller businesses emulate a corporate giant like Walt Disney World?

The first thing is to experience a company that provides excellent service. Another thing is paying attention to something called "servicescape," which is how the physical surroundings impact a guest.  One thing you'll notice about Disney theme parks is that when you walk in, all their light bulbs are on and working and the paint on the walls is fresh. All those physical elements impact a guest's experience. Disney is fantastic about having garbage cans everywhere. The story behind that is Walt, himself, would walk through Disneyland in California eating a hot dog. When he finished the hot dog, there had to be a garbage can exactly where he was standing so he could throw his wrapper away. Those kinds of little things that Disney does are things that other companies can pick up, too.