Vice President of Guest Experience, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena

David Garcia leaned on his personal Disney experience to help transform the culture for three big league teams in his hometown of Atlanta. 

In his role as vice president of guest experience for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena, Garcia touches all aspects of event operations after the NBA team combined its premium and guest services departments into one group under Hawks owner Tony Ressler. 

The Hawks hired Garcia after he spent about three years as director of fan experience for AMB Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC of MLS, and operator of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

For Garcia, 33, the common thread for both positions was The Walt Disney Co., where he took a job out of college as a financial analyst in Orlando. Over the past 20 years, multiple teams have consulted with the Disney Institute to improve the customer service at their facilities. Garcia saw it firsthand during his interview process.

“It’s a strong connection,” he said. “It all comes down to the way I was recruited at Disney. I thought I wanted to be an investment banker, but that didn’t work out, thankfully, because I would have hated it. I applied at Disney as somewhat of a joke. I didn’t think I would work there.”

It was no joke. From the time Garcia got picked up at the airport by a chauffeur holding up a sign with his name on it, to the steak and salmon dinners at Disney restaurants and his Epcot Boardwalk hotel room, to getting a backstage peek at the Chronicles of Narnia wardrobe and viewing the nightly theme park fireworks displays, his multiday interview was one continuous “wow” moment.

“The moral of that story and what I realized later is that it all went back to that experience,” he said. “It got me hooked and then what they did in the culture on a daily basis is what gets you to believe and buy into. That’s what’s driving what we’re trying to do here, put the guests at the forefront of everything we do.”

It’s a philosophy that initially spread to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Garcia was on the ground floor of facility development and helped form a new value concessions model for AMB Sports, featuring $2 hot dogs, soft drinks and popcorn and $5 beers. It’s proved to be successful for the organization, resulting in a greater number of transactions and higher revenue compared with Falcons games at the old Georgia Dome, More teams across sports have adopted a similar model at their facilities, including the Hawks.

“In general, the home viewing experience is strong, but there are some things that our buildings can offer that you can’t get at home — that social connection, energy and atmosphere at a live event,” Garcia said. “But over time, what’s happened is there have been too many barriers that got in the way of an enjoyable experience.”

The high cost tied to buying food and drink at a live event was one thing AMB Sports officials thought they could change to create a better experience, he said. Two years after the stadium opened, NFL and MLS fans enter the building earlier and spend more money, Garcia said.

“They found that it had an impact … because you had that goodwill, everything else felt a little bit better as well,” he said. “One of the things I did when I came to the Hawks was to bring that same model. It’s a different building from an operational perspective with higher volume. If the lines are long, it’s not a great experience.”

State Farm Arena became the first NBA venue to adopt the fan-friendly concessions pricing strategy and it’s paid off for the Hawks. In the NBA’s most recent season-ticket holder survey, the team ranked No. 1 in food and drink.

The Hawks hired Garcia in April 2018, and one of his duties was to hire a crew of event supervisors and game-day workers. The team’s offices in downtown Atlanta overlook Centennial Park, and Garcia found himself staring at the park’s Ferris wheel. His Disney instincts kicked in. Riding the wheel would be a cool place to interview people, he thought, which is what the Hawks did in hiring 50 people as supervisors.

The quirky interview process extended to the nearby Georgia Aquarium, where the Hawks interviewed folks for 100 part-time positions in a space where whale sharks and manta rays passed by overhead.

“It actually made it a lot easier for us to hire people, because if you don’t have a smile on your face in that situation, you probably were not going to be a good fit for what we were looking for,” Garcia said. 

This summer, Garcia will be evaluating 5,000 fan surveys to see how the Hawks can improve their operation after State Farm Arena completed a $183 million renovation last fall. He also initiated an innovation lab where team leaders meet off-site to discuss new ideas and concepts.

“It’s about how we continue to grow as an organization in a way that still fits our overall purpose,” Garcia said.