Customer Service- the Tourism industry’s key to success

My first experience with customer service training came when I lived in Maine and was hired by LL Bean for a position as a phone representative during the busy holiday season. I was impressed with their training program – 40 hours of class work before we were allowed to even start taking phone calls. We were taught how to engage the customer, handle complaints, and proper phone skills. We were also taken off the floor periodically for individual feedback.  I remember being impressed that the trainers would start the session by telling me something I did well, then telling me something I could work on to improve, and end by reinforcing my successes. Little did I know that was a basic management technique – I just thought it was nice to look forward to reviews!

Leon L. Bean’s famous words defining customer service, “A customer is the most important person ever in this company – in person or by mail” weren’t just a slogan – they were how the company was run. To this day, the laminated copy of that slogan has been on my office walls wherever I have worked; a daily reminder of how to be successful.

My next evolution in understanding the importance of customer service came when I was hired as the Director of Sales at Steamboat Landing, a conference center and home to a seasonal paddlewheel boat operation in the Finger Lakes. I learned the best way to increase sales was to develop relationships with my customers. My natural ability to turn strangers into friends, translated into record bookings for both the boat and the conference center. I worked with corporate groups, wedding parties and motorcoach operators and quickly learned the specific needs of each type of business.

I was hired by Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance  in September 2003, and was excited and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what I was responsible for promoting. In my role as Program Director, I was responsible for promoting attractions and lodging, along with the destination. A research study showed that one of the perceptions of the Finger Lakes was that people were not friendly. I took that point on as a challenge, and began several programs to alleviate that.

First, I took over the operation of the Finger Lakes Tourism Institute. I re-formatted it into a 3 day educational program, with the first day being dedicated to customer service training. I priced it at an affordable $35/person and  held firm to a rule that managers must attend with staff. I did not want frontline staff getting excited about new ideas and customer service and not have their manager to help them follow-up. I did have some resistance to that each year, but it was always good to see the managers and staff enjoying themselves in a different setting outside their work environment.  A follow-up survey conducted in 2007 showed that one of the top 3 reasons people enjoy visiting the Finger Lakes was due to the friendly people. I believe the changes I implemented at the Tourism Institute contributed to that change.

Today, as the owner of a consulting company, my service is what sets me apart. I remain passionate about the tourism industry and its ability to connect people all over the world. Friendly, informed frontline staff are the most important element in the tourism industry’s success. I am committed to a career that supports their efforts.

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If a picture is worth 1000 words, how valuable is YouTube to your destination?

I recently read that YouTube is second only to Google in terms of where people search for information. Younger people talk about using YouTube and typing in a subject and watching the videos that appear, instead of doing a Google search. So I decided to try it. Look what came up when I searched for ‘Adirondack Hotels’. Now the Sagamore is a big property with lots of advertising dollars, but places like the Big Moose Inn are family run and are always budget conscious. And once you click on the property, there are additional videos to watch about the destination – you can really get a feel for the property by the videos and the comments. I worked at an old-time resort on Big Moose Lake called the Waldheim, which is still in operation. One of their guests has taken it upon themselves to produce a video of the Waldheim and post it. You can see that past visitors and staff have added their memories as well. And the Waldheim didn’t have to spend a penny.

So – two thoughts for today: if you are in the tourism industry, do a YouTube search on your business and destination, you might be surprised. Secondly, get a video camera and start shooting. Encourage your customers to do the same.

The Power of Travel Coalition – Together we’re Stronger

The tourism industry in the United States employees over 10 million people, which according to Roger Dow, President of the US Travel Association, is “one in nine American workers in an industry that is 2.5 times the auto industry and a top 10 employer in nearly every U.S. state”. But most of us are small business owners who don’t have extra time to lobby our elected officials for policies and laws that assist the travel industry. This is where the Power of Travel Coalition is going to help us. They have developed a Virtual Travel Town Hall that will allow us to ask candidates questions specific to the travel industry. Here in New York that includes Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillebrand as our Senators, and if you are lucky to live in my part of the state, no Representative in the House at the moment; but candidates will be forthcoming.  From August 12-25th, the site will be accepting questions from us. And then from August 30-September 10, we can all vote on what we consider the top questions. They will then be sent out to candidates to review and answer. What would you like to ask? Is it an employment or tax issue that seems ridiculous to your small business? I will ask what can be done to make the entry process for international visitors more friendly and welcoming, as opposed to the siege mentality that many visitors must endure. We can’t very well ask people to come to our country and spend their money if we are rude and demeaning to them the moment they step on U.S. soil.

If we do not take the time to show our elected officials how large and important our industry is, we will have no one to blame but ourselves come election time. Get involved!

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).

 

Vacation Rentals in NYC in Jeopardy- who’s next?

 Vacation rentals have become very popular in the last 5 years. I think there are several reasons that spawned the trend- the economic boom created opportunities for many people to buy second homes, potential vacationers became more comfortable with researching and booking online, and the trend to be more like a local instead of a camera toting tourist has grown. The days of twelve countries in twelve days has turned into a week at a rental on the beach, in the woods or a studio in downtown Manhattan.

It has been a wonderful business opportunity for many since that extra income stream can come in handy. There are books, websites and seminars devoted to learning more about managing vacation properties. Advances in the internet have made sites like VRBO, HomeAway and Airbnb easy to use whether you are an owner or prospective renter. Communities benefit as well. In rural areas like the Finger Lakes where there are not enough hotel or B&B’s to accommodate all the summer visitors, vacation rentals are a perfect solution. Visitors spend money at attractions, dine out and shop. They are an important part of the visitor marketing mix.

There are always stories of rowdy rental customers and damage done to properties, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. All in all it is a great but small economic boost for many families and businesses. But now New York City seems to be taking strong measures to make any rentals under 30 days illegal. This blunt and shortsighted measure was supported by the Hotel Association of New York City and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, obviously a much better organized and funded group than an assortment of individuals scattered throughout the five boroughs.

In this online article  Governor Paterson stated: “This new law fixes problems caused by illegal hotels and improves quality of life in traditional residential apartment buildings, while also meeting the needs of visitors. By removing a legal gray area and replacing it with a clear definition of permanent occupancy, the law will allow enforcement efforts that help New Yorkers who live in SRO (single room occupancy) units and other types of affordable housing preserve their homes.

“My office, the bill sponsors and the City have agreed to support a chapter amendment that makes the effective date of this law May 1 of next year. By making the effective date of this law May 1, 2011, property holders, business owners and not-for-profit corporations will be able to adjust the uses of their properties to the provisions of this law, or to dispose of the properties at issue so that they may find alternate sites for their current uses.” The restrictions apply to “Class A multiple dwelling buildings” and the bill was backed by New York City Mayor Bloomberg, who saw the measure as a means of cracking down against illegal hotels.

These new restrictions do not “meet the needs of the visitors” who cannot afford the expensive hotels, or are looking to stay in a hostel (yes, they are affected as well) or to live like a New Yorker for a few days. The delay in enacting the bill might provide organizations like Trip Advisor the time to strategize with the Vacation rental booking companies to develop a strong strategy to encourage  voters to make sure the bill is overturned.

In a bulletin to rental property owners in NY State, VRBO states: “But the bill effectively takes what has always been a legal activity—renting one’s home on a short-term basis—and makes it illegal. This law would prohibit any vacation rental in the five boroughs even if it is rented with permission of the co-op board, the condo association, or the building owner. The law makes it illegal for the owner to decide how to best use his property.

The most troubling aspect of this bill is that it will not end the practice of short-term rentals, but it will drive them underground. The City of New York will lose the tax revenue generated by these formerly legitimate businesses and travelers who stay in them will be put at risk.”  Bill S6873 is a bad piece of legislation that will prevent property owners from being able to make choices. I am concerned that if this bill is not overturned, then other areas of the state will start looking at how to legislate and control this important piece of free enterprise.

Today’s niche tourism segment- psychics, mediums and Ghost Hunters

Have you ever stayed in a hotel that forbid seances?

Yes, it’s true. I just returned from an overnight stay at Lily Dale Assembly,the world’s largest center for spiritual development and the practice of the Spiritualist religion. For 131 years, Lily Dale has offered a world-renowned summer program of lectures, workshops and other activities featuring best-selling authors, leaders in academic and scientific research into psychic phenomena, as well as the world’s most powerful mediums, teachers and healers. Lily Dale is widely known as a place where knowledge and enlightenment converge in ways that deepen faith and heighten awareness. The energy of the universal life force can be felt, experienced and developed here in this serene 19th century lakeside community surrounded by towering, old-growth forest.” 

Now I am not a Spiritualist, but I know this is a very popular destination in Chautauqua county for people from all over the country and the world.  My beloved aunt has been coming here for decades – the same aunt that taught me how to use a Ouji board at age 8  and showed me  how to levitate the neighbor kids using only our fingertips. So I knew a bit about what I was getting into but I thought ‘what the heck’ and went with her and my mother. 

It’s a small self-contained village on the shores of a small lake. There is an admission fee to enter the village and once you are inside, you don’t need to leave. We stayed in the Maplewood, a small, three-story wooden building that could be part of a movie set. My aunt assured me that the room she reserved for me was not haunted like many of the rooms were. They were very basic rooms and most of the guests congregated on the rocking chairs on the front porch and chatted. The village also had many small cottages, most of which are homes to registered mediums, or people who connect with spirits. The mediums have little appointment books on their front porches and you can sign up for a reading. Many of the guests seem to come back every year to meet with their favorite mediums and there were stories galore on the porch about messages that were shared from beyond and things that had come to pass just like they were told.  

 There are services and meetings open to everyone where mediums will speak to people out in the audience- just like a John Edwards show.  A medium called me from the crowd and told me that I would be creating things and that I act as a role model for many. Well, I could buy that.  There are no fancy restaurants in the village- just a cafeteria, an ice cream stand and a coffee shop. There are several gift shops that sell crystals, books, and all kinds of psychic materials. 

There are special events throughout the summer and Saturday night was a presentation by the stars of the TV show “Ghost Hunters”. Apparently Jason and Grant are both from upstate NY and so Lily Dale is a natural fit for their involvement with the paranormal experiences they cover. The crowd at that show was diverse- elderly guests along with young people sporting all types of tattoos and piercings. 

Maybe it was the fact that there were no phones or TVs, or the fact that it was so peaceful by the lake. But I felt rejuvenated by my trip and I realized that there are so many reasons that people travel that we aren’t even aware of. It was neat to step into another world for a day.

National Travel and Tourism Week

National Travel and Tourism Week has been celebrated every May since 1984. This is the industry’s yearly chance to speak about the economic importance of tourism for our local and national economies, as well as highlight all the people who are directly and indirectly impacted by visitor dollars.

For instance, did you know:

– More than 10 million people depend on travel for their jobs.

– Spending by travelers generates $111 billion (yes, with a B) in tax revenue for local and federal governments. The average American pays $950 less in taxes each year because of visitor spending.

-International visitors spend more and stay longer than any other visitors, on average about 16 nights with spending in excess of $4,000 when they visit. International visitors are especially important to New York State tourism businesses- NYC is the primary port of entry for most international visitors. A lot of effort is put into educating international visitors about what is beyond the boundaries of Manhattan and give them compelling reasons to travel to other parts of the state.

-Money spent on promoting tourism usually yields a ROI (return on investment) of $5 for every $1 spent. That is why tourism marketing should be thought of as a community investment, not a cost.

Besides all the facts and numbers behind tourism, there are other important reasons for people to travel. New experiences, understanding different cultures, taking part in unique activities or taking the time to just relax and rejuvenate are some of the many benefits that travel provides.

Many communities are planning on holding rallies, and cities like Abilene Texas have some great videos showing why “Travel Matters“. The U.S. Travel Association has dedicated a portion of their website to the activities going on this week and even has a page on Social Media tips for promoting this industry wide event. So take a moment or two this week to think about how important your contribution to the travel industry and the US economy really is. We wouldn’t be one of the largest industries in the country without everyone’s participation!