There’s never anything to do in your own hometown

Here’s one of the challenges with young frontline staff- they always think there is nothing to do in the area. In fact, I had a student that I have been training for a position in the hotel industry tell me she didn’t know why anyone would even come to her hometown! And this from a resident of a town with women’s history, wineries, state parks, lakes and the Erie Canal! But her view is not unique. I think that many staff feel that way if they haven’t had the opportunity to see their hometown through a visitor’s eyes. As tourism professionals, our job is to make sure they have the experiences and information they need to sell the area and inform guests about all there is to see and do. Here’s some ideas to consider for getting front line staff fired up about their destination:

– Develop Frontline FAM (Familiarization) tours. This is a great way to get a lot of staff to see many places in a short amount of time. However, for this to be effective, managers must be willing to pay the frontline staff for their time on the FAM. Very few frontline staff are motivated without it, but it is a worthwhile investment. The payback will be when your waitresses or front desk employee can tell guests about an attraction they have visited. These FAM’s are most useful at a time just before the busy season hits; your employees have been hired, but are not working full time yet.

-Establish a reciprocal program with other attractions. Ask local attractions to give 2 passes for each interested employee. That way an employee can visit the attraction with a friend or family member. Ask employees to write a one page review of the visit and post it near the time clock so everyone can read it. You should extend this invitation to everyone – from the dishwashers, to housekeeping staff to the groundskeeper. Some staff might need help writing a review -please provide the help. Not only will it be seen as an employee perk, but your other staff will know who to ask about different attractions.

– Have a Chamber staff member or Visitor Bureau member speak at your next employee meeting. They will be happy to attend and will bring visitor’s guides and answer questions. It is in their best interest to have residents who understand their jobs and can help to promote the destination.

– Create a Frontline Passport Program. This is a booklet with various stops of the area listed by page. Frontliners will have their passport stamped at each location. Completed passports can be submitted for prize drawings. There can be sponsors for this program, which will help offset printing costs.

All of these ideas are not one time events.  The hospitality industry has a very high turnover rate and the same programs should be run every year. Knowledge of your area and the ability to answer visitors questions is a valuable asset for any frontline staff. Involvement in these programs could also result in a certificate for attendance and participation. A potential employee could use that document  in job interviews to show that they have made a commitment to learning about their hometown. And that’s a win-win for all of us.


Do you want International Visitors in your Small town? Think Big!

Many Americans think that international visitors to our country only want to see the big cities such as NYC, Las Vegas, the Disneys- both East Coast and West, and the National Parks. After that, what else is there to see? Those destinations are also the ones with big marketing budgets, so we can’t blame visitors for wanting to see these places when they vacation in the U.S.  But there has been a growing trend for visitors to want to see the real America- small towns, friendly people and interesting attractions and activities that they can talk about back at home. So what can smaller destinations do to be noticed and attract this type of visitor? FIT’s, or Foreign Independent Travelers, tend to stay longer and spend more. They are more likely to buy bottles of wine with meals, shop for all kinds of items they can’t get back home, and often stay midweek.  Here are some helpful ideas to consider: 

1. Language Barrier. By the time most international visitors decide to venture out to the rural areas of our state, they have been to the U.S. several times and speak English well. Most children take English classes and like to practice while they are here. For those guests who do not speak English well, just remember to speak slowly and clearly (not loudly!) Maps and brochures are handy for pointing things out. And don’t be embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves by simply saying  “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.” 

2. Big picture. As lovely as your destination is, most international visitors are here in the states for up to two weeks and will plan on seeing several states. That is why it is important for you to be familiar with other destinations throughout New York, New England and Pennsylvania. That is where most of the visitors coming through Upstate NY will also visit. When is the last time you traveled to Niagara Falls, NY? It is a huge draw for the international market and you should definitely be familiar with all there is to offer. My favorite spots? Cave of the Winds, Maid of the Mist and the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. There is a free shuttle that travels through Niagara Falls State Park. Other sites you should be familiar with are Corning, and Lancaster PA, which is popular because of the Amish population. 

3. Booking. Unlike Americans, most international visitors still use travel companies and rely on their travel agents for ideas and to make their travel arrangements. However, they do use the internet for searches. Make sure your website is up to date and has crisp photos. Your business is often competing with options in Spain, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe. There is a free website widget called Babelfish which will translate the text on your webpages into 12 various languages. It’s not perfect, but it does work pretty well. 

4. Timeframe. The international market is complex, with several layers of intermediaries from regional and state marketing directors, to receptive operators here in the U.S. who put together the driving tours and then sell them to tour companies overseas. It takes a few years once you have decided to pursue this market before you will see the benefits. I started working with an Israeli tour operator in 2006,  and brought him to NY in 2008 with some of his top tour agents  to see what Upstate has to offer. He just completed another tour with top media from Israel in the spring of this year and now business from Israel to Upstate NY is taking off. But it has been a long process. 

5. Education. Because this is a complex market, it is best to take advantage of any and all training opportunities that your state tourism offices offer. I Love NY, along with the Erie Canal, is sponsoring a series of ‘Tourism Readiness’ Workshops across the state at the end of the month. It will be a great way to learn how the process of promoting tourism to the world is accomplished, at what you can do to reap the benefits. 

If you think that international tourism is too small a market to pursue, I will leave you with these  recent charts from the U.S. Department of Commerce. International visitor spending has grown every month this year, and as of May, was contributing almost $11 billion dollars to our economy. Do you want to start taking advantage of that market?

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis (June 2010).


Geocaching – a wonderful marketing tool for Rural Destinations

Geocaching is an outdoor activity that is quickly growing in popularity in the U.S. It is often called a “hi-tech treasure hunt” since it involves the use of a handheld GPS unit. Participants plug in coordinates (latitude and longitude) and walk to that location in search of a ‘cache’ which can be as large as a shoebox or as small as a film canister. There are usually small trinkets inside and a log book to record your visit. Geocaching is great for families, individuals, couples and groups looking for a fun reason to explore the outdoors.

It’s a great marketing tool for rural destinations for several reasons. First, it does not require a lot of research or advertising. The website will show you a list of existing geocaches by simply plugging in your zip code. You can find them and place small tokens or marketing collateral such as wooden nickels with your destination logo and website.  Pencils with your logo/website are always welcome as well.

Secondly, I find that local geocachers are very helpful and are willing to help you place a cache. There are rules that geocachers follow in order to have the cache be placed on the Geocache website so I have found it is best to take their advice. This means no placing geocaches within a certain distance of an existing geocache, and as one NY Geocacher with the geocache name of sapience trek told me  “keep the cache free of business names, any sort of interactions with merchants, requirements to go inside a business, promotions, recommendations, that sort of thing and you should be ok.” So while you can promote your downtown area with geocaches, you cannot promote individual stores.

My friend Joshua Noble, Director of Tourism for the  Kingman Arizona Chamber of Commerce started a geocaching program in his town last year. It is located along  the fabled Rt 66 and he has found success with his efforts. As this article in the Kingman Miner newspaper says:

Geocaching may sound like a niche hobby, and it essentially is. But those who practice it are dedicated, and Noble said he has encountered a number of geocachers who go out of their way to find as many caches along their route as they can. “You definitely get a feel for where people are coming from, and it seems to me it enhances the experience and is more likely to bring people back than some text and images in a magazine somewhere,” he said. “Between different materials to put a dozen of these together … it costs me $50, $60. And I’ve already gotten more feedback than I get from ads that are $500 to $1,000.”
The handful of caches Noble has already placed have gotten online kudos from geocachers as far away as Germany and the Czech Republic.
“The nice thing about it is, the crowd you’re bringing in is environmentally conscious and socially conscious,” Noble said.
“They have a sense of respect, because they want to see the hiking trails stay and they want to see these historic sites preserved. So it’s definitely a good group of people to promote to.”

Frontline staff and the art of giving and getting directions

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am working with a group of unemployed women to teach them work readiness skills for the front line positions in the hospitality industry. We work with a great textbook, workbook and videos that provide accurate information about how to perform positions at the front desk, banquets, restaurant, housekeeping and maintenance. I also added two other activities into our day last week that I think would be helpful for any manager to work on with frontline staff and both involve directions.

The first activity we worked on was personal goal setting. Although this seems to have nothing to do with the curriculum at hand, I think goal setting is helpful to give you the ability to see past the bad days and help you remember why you are trying so hard. I was given a goal setting document years ago that has been very helpful to me. Goal Setting can be used by anyone. I like it because it has simple directions – choose a specific objective and put a date on it.  The example that President John F.Kennedy set ” By the end of the decade, we shall land an American on the moon and bring him back safely” shows both the specific objective and a date.  My students set goals such as completing their G.E.D’s, getting a driver’s license and getting a full-time job.  I told them to put them on their refrigerators at home so they could see those goals every day.

The other project we worked on was learning how to give directions to visitors. First, we had to get over the thought that there is nothing to do in the Finger Lakes and start thinking of all the places visitors might want to see. Then we put a regional map on the table and looked at main roads, major attractions and how to get there from the Holiday Inn Waterloo, where they are interning. We practiced saying “turn left” instead of “go that way”. We quizzed each other on main roads and route numbers. We pretended I was a visitor and that they had to give me directions to all kinds of places -airports, wine trails, restaurants and the outlet mall. It was fun and we ended up showing each other where we lived as well and how we drove to school each day. One of the students sent me a text message after her first day at the front desk to tell me she had to give directions to a guest and she thought I had sent them in as a test!  She said she knew just what to do and boy, did I feel proud! Being able to communicate with visitors effectively and give them the information they need is a very valuable front line skill and spending some time every season refining and practicing that is a great idea. Share some goal setting tips at the same time and you will learn a lot about your staff.

The challenges of Front line staff

The hospitality and tourism industry is heavily dependent on frontline staff- those employees who meet and greet the customer and help set the stage for a good or bad experience. So why do we pay them so little and why is there such high turnover?  Is there hope of advancing from a frontline position to management at some point?

I have just begun teaching a START program for unemployed individuals in several Finger Lakes counties. This program was developed by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. It includes classroom time with textbooks, a student workbook, and videos along with my stories of working in the industry. It also includes a partnership with a local hotel so the students can get actual work experience in the different departments of a hotel. It is an ideal workforce training program.

So why do I feel frustrated and a bit discouraged?  Any of my readers who have worked with frontline staff know that their personal life issues often intrude on their working hours. Most of my students are young single mothers who are also studying for their G.E.D’s at the same time. A noble goal and a necessary one.  Their upbringing and decisions have gotten them to this place and they have  huge obstacles to overcome. But it seems like they signed up for this program with the goal of obtaining a job and some job skills.

 I can see that they are capable of so much, and then they all start taking time off for various appointments or not showing up at all. I have tried to impress on them that punctuality and responsibility are the most important skills to posses in this industry. We have talked about how each department functions as a team, and if one banquet server does not show up that it affects the amount of work each of the other servers has. I told them they have to think of their internship as a way of being screened for a job. And still they are telling me all the days they won’t be able to work. One young mother tells me that everything she does, she does for her daughter. And then she tells me she didn’t go to her part-time job, didn’t call in, and was fired.  How does that help her daughter?

When we toured the hotel property yesterday, one of the students asked the Director of Engineering ( head of the Maintenance Department) how long it took him to become a manager. When he answered ’10 years’, I think I saw disappointment in everyone’s eyes. It would be necessary to work 10 years at close to minimum wage to become a manager? That is a long time to wait.

And then there are issues that most of us never have to deal with – lack of transportation, or limited funds that make it a challenge to just purchase khaki pants for their internship days.

So will all their personal issues and lack of workplace skills such as personal responsibility keep them from success? I am going to do my very best to help them overcome those challenges with my industry expertise and guidance into how they need to act. I hope they will show up at class and at the hotel with their positive attitudes. Wish us luck.

Working with interns- 9 tips for a great experience

Spring and summer bring the high school and college students out looking for summer internships – either as a way to make money or a way to fulfill a college credit requirement. Interns hope to learn about their chosen industry through the jobs they perform, and employers hope to get some free or inexpensive help during the busy season.  I have had many interns  over the years in my various positions. What I have learned is that it takes a lot of work on my part in the first half of the internship in order for it to be successful. Your intern deserves to get part of your time each day, in order to learn why they are doing the tasks you have assigned them. And it’s ok to assign them scut work- its important for them to learn that you are never above peeling labels, or collating brochures when there is a deadline. At the same time, they deserve to be assigned some projects that will look good on their resumes and help them to discover if this industry is for them.

Here are some reminders for employers and interns:

For employers:

  • Your intern is not a free employee: you are responsible for teaching them something every day and answering their questions.
  • It is acceptable to hold them to the same standards as you would an employee, i.e. dress code, behavior standards at work and level of work quality.
  • You should try to take your intern to meetings or events outside the office setting. This broadens their horizons and makes you a hero.
  • Be prepared to document their work and write a review at the end of the internship. This is easier if you keep a running journal or file on their work experience.


For interns:

  • Remember that your actions and behaviors are being seen by a potential future employer or reference.
  • Offer to take on extra assignments and never say no when asked to perform a seemingly menial task. That kind of help will be remembered.
  • You are in an office setting, not a college classroom. Dress professionally. Ask your supervisor if you are not sure of the dress code. It’s always better to be more professionally dressed than not.
  • Sometimes your employer will be busy and will not have the time to help you. Don’t take it personally and ask someone else for help or work on another project.
  • Send a hand written thank you note at the end of your internship. They are rare and will be remembered.

I always learned as much from my interns as they did from their experience. So thank you to Amanda, Hillary and Samantha, three of my favorite interns. They are the hardest working and most impressive young ladies I know. Your hard work always made me look good!

ipod= I learn

The new iPad was released a few weeks back and the early adopters are eagerly showing theirs off to those of us who aren’t quite as cool. But to be honest, I am still not over how wonderful an iPod is and how it has changed the way we can receive information. I received a video iPod as a gift several years ago and downloaded music onto it like everyone else. It was fun listening to music on my daily walks and I enjoyed having it on long flights and waits at airport terminals. Then I downloaded some favorite tv shows and that gave me something to watch when I was sitting in airports. As I started exploring online, I realized there is a vast amount of information available for little or no cost, if you will just take the time to find it. My goal in this post is to save you some time and share some of the interesting places you can go to turn your iPod into a teaching tool for you and your business.

First stop is the iTunes store. Podcasts are a source of all kinds of information – delivered onto your iPod every time you plug it in and synch it. There are PBS shows, both radio and tv, gardening podcasts ( I learn lots from gardenfork), language courses, yoga stretches to try, cooking shows and travel podcasts. All free!   A more recent addition to the iTunes store is iTunesU, where colleges and universities  can post courses – lectures, powerpoints and videos that can be downloaded. Imagine how cool you will sound when you tell your friends you are taking a course on Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs from Stanford. I just signed up a for Web 2.0 Marketing Communications class taught by Professor Kristine De Valck, of HEC Paris – Europe’s top Business School. These are all free and the depth and breadth of courses being offered is amazing to me.

Another new tool I found for my iPod is at my local library. Although the Honeoye Public Library will never make anyone’s greatest public library list, it is a jewel in our small rural town. And now they offer a terrific service- you can download audiobooks directly onto your computer and then onto your iPod. I had to download a free software program called Overdrive Media console. Once I had that, I browsed through the online titles available for download. I simply put in my library card number and the title began to download. I didn’t even have to travel down to the library to get the book!  And now I will be able to listen to a book on my walks and learn while I am exercising.

One last way I have used my iPod: as a travel guide when traveling. I found a great website for Audissey Guides several years ago before a trip to New Orleans. I downloaded the NOLA guide and my daughter and I had a great time following the tour down small alleys to little hidden getaways that most tourists wouldn’t find. They have changed their business model – when we downloaded the tours, it cost $15 which was well worth it; now they are free!  I’m not sure how they make their money but its a great way to use your iPod on your next trip and learn from the locals.

So for those of you with iPads, I say good for you!  I am still using my good ol’  ipod every day and learning something to help me be smarter and more interesting. Hope this information has helped you as well.