Web Exclusive | February 2013 | By Kevin Hardy

Subway’s Virtual Reality

New store simulation game could be a promising franchise tool.

Subway's Global Challenge helps young leaders learn more about the business.
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It’s being compared to the Sims computer-game franchise and Facebook’s infamous Farmville game. But Subway’s new competition, which has participants creating their own virtual stores online, is handing out more than just token points; the program is also successfully engaging young entrepreneurs, giving the company an early look at talent, and offering prospects a quick and free education on the world’s largest quick-serve chain.

A joint effort with Young and Successful Media, the Subway Global Challenge has hundreds of contestants across the world competing in a weeks-long business simulation game. At stake is a trip to Washington, D.C., and Subway’s Connecticut headquarters to meet with president Fred DeLuca and other executives.

The opportunity to get noticed by the Subway leadership team might be the most enticing part of the Challenge for participants. Organizers expect the competition to open doors for prospective employees, whether they’re potential franchisees, corporate officers, or even crewmembers. While competitors will surely learn a great deal about the Subway story, the Challenge will also provide a basic education on the quick-serve industry and franchising.

“This is an opportunity for the company to say they know that some of the most interesting people in their company are young people.”

“They’ll learn about franchising. They’ll learn about Subway. And they’ll learn about what opportunities are like out there, whether it’s about Subway or other franchises,” says chief development officer Don Fertman. “It’s fairly wide in scope.”

The competition, which runs through the end of March, challenges participants to design their own virtual store, monitor and drive sales, create a promotional video, and complete an online interview. Along the way, contestants are taught and tested on their knowledge of the business.

Many existing Subway employees with big aspirations are also participating in the Challenge, though employees aren’t eligible for the top prizes. Fertman says company leaders will pay close attention to the five winners who earn the trip prize and to the many others who excel at the online game. Letters of recommendation, meetings with department heads, and possible promotions could await those who show promise online.

“Our intention is to spend a good amount of time with them,” he says. “They’ll learn a certain amount by doing the virtual store. But they’ll really get to understand the full scope of the operation by coming to the headquarters. Ongoing, I’m expecting a mentoring relationship.”

Subway’s virtual game—online at www.ysn.com/subway—is drawing people from all over the globe, says Jennifer Kushell, owner of Young Successful Media, which produced the game and an earlier documentary telling the story of Subway. It’s that story, of DeLuca starting the chain as a 17-year-old, that sparked an interest in tapping into the promise of young people across the globe, she says.

“They recognize [that] just like Fred, who was 17 when he started it, there are a lot of young, talented people out there,” Kushell says. “This is an opportunity for the company to say they know that some of the most interesting people in their company are young people. They know that there are lots of other people in the world who haven’t had a chance to prove themselves yet.”

The Young Successful Media documentary was sent to colleges and business schools around the world for use in studying the Subway model. Organizers see the virtual challenge as a natural extension of that effort. Kushell says both initiatives are designed to showcase the wealth of opportunities a massive company like Subway has to offer, as well as give outsiders a look at the complex ways the business operates.

“They think it’s just an hourly wage job,” she says. “They think about the store, but they don’t think about the massive infrastructure that it takes to supply, manage, and communicate with 38,000 different stores around the world.”

Participant Chad DeBuff is already familiar with many of those challenges. At 21, he’s already held multiple roles within Subway restaurants and is now serving as a store manager in Billings, Montana.

But DeBuff is hoping that proving himself online with the Subway Global Challenge will improve his chances at getting noticed—and maybe even hired—by the corporate office.

“I’m just hoping that it will bring me in more with the company,” he says. “I hope they’ll already have my name in the back of their head.”

Having started as a high school senior in Subway stores, DeBuff says he believes Subway’s culture already values its youngest team members, and that he finds inspiration in DeLuca’s own story of starting as a teenager.

“It definitely gave me hope that I can work my way up to anywhere I want,” he says. “They know that whether you’re young or you’re old, that you have the capability of running a store or working in corporate.”