Elance + Skype=my virtual assistant in the Philippines

As a small business owner, I am always looking for ways to work smarter. I have written about Elance in the past and how I used this freelance site to find a terrific graphic designer who helps me with all my client’s logos. And Skype is useful for anyone making calls overseas, or for video conferencing with groups for free. 

I recently decided that I needed some professional help in getting more readers to my blog. I have read a bit about best practices and that I should list my blog on websites such as blogcatalog, but I also knew that in order for me to be really successful in finding more readers, I needed someone who already had experience navigating this world. Enter Elance again. I posted a job for a virtual assistant that could help me leverage my blog and gave some specific goals I had in mind. I received several proposals and went with a company based in California called SmartPartners. I chose this firm because their response to me was well written and it seemed to be a woman-owned company. What I didn’t realize right away was that my assistant Regina, was located in the Philippines. It has worked well so far. She sends me requests for information and I answer by the end of my day. The next morning I will have a response from her.  We used Skype to speak at 7:30 one day last week – a.m for me, p.m for her.  She has submitted my blog to additional directories and has found a group of tourism marketing blogs that she wants me to start commenting on, in order to drive more readers to my blog. These are all activities that I could have figured out, but she is quicker and more experienced than me in this arena, which allows me to do what I do best.

I was thinking how easy this whole process has been and I marvel at how many tools are available to us through the internet. It has never been easier to start a small business. There are all kinds of people all over the world waiting to help you. And thanks to Regina, my blog has gone from a grade of 17 to a grade of 94 on bloggrader.com. And that’s a success in any language!


Tourism and Numbers – surveys on the Erie Canal

Numbers don’t lie; that’s what makes them so valuable. So for the tourism industry, which is in the business of delivering experiences, measuring success and change can be difficult. But it is important to start somewhere and at least start tracking a few elements of your business. The Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor has done just that. They recently released a study titled “Economic Impact Report- East Region Case Study.” In 2008 the Corridor ( an area encompassing 524 miles of Upstate NY) developed and administered a survey, which generated 800 responses. Further investigation showed that over 60% of the respondents visited the Eastern portion of the corridor, so it was decided to focus the analysis on this region.  The Heritage Corridor staff could have decided that the sample was too small, or too skewed to the Eastern region to provide any real answers. But sometimes you have to start where you are, not where you wish you were.

So by undertaking the analysis, they did get valuable information. They have a picture of their typical visitor – an adult aged 46-75 with an income of $75,000 or more per year. Most of the visitors are day trippers and 54% of visitors are repeat visitors. For those of you in the tourism industry, you know that day trippers are not as valuable as overnight visitors ($33 spending per party for day trippers, vs $361 per party for overnight visitors) and you would ideally like more first time visitors than repeat visitors. But even this information is helpful because it will help chart a direction to encourage more spending and more new visitors.

So today think about what you would like to measure – more business from a certain target market, more spending per visitor, or more phone calls to your front desk? Start measuring where you are today- you will be glad you did.

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.

Are there weddings in your business future?

I worked as the Director of Sales and Marketing at Steamboat Landing, a lakeside banquet and conference center in Canandaigua for three years. I booked the weddings for both our 235 seat banquet room as well as our 110 passenger paddlewheel steamboat. I sat through endless meetings with brides, fiancées and their mothers trying to decide on napkin colors, centerpieces, menus and other arrangements. Some families were painful beyond measure, some were so wonderful I cried at the reception along with everyone else. But there is no doubt that weddings can be a big revenue stream for many locations. The website costofwedding will allow you to get an estimate for all the expenses incurred at a wedding based on the zip code of the wedding location. In Canandaigua, the venue and catering cost averages between $7,520- $12,534, with many weddings ending up paying closer to $20,000 for catering and the venue when you include professional wedding planner services, upscale products and unique services.

The recent economy has encouraged couples to look at unique venues; those that are more cost-effective and less formal. Do you have space that would lend itself to a ceremony? Spring Lake Winery, on the Niagara Wine Trail, has evolved into a wonderful wedding venue. They found that brides would ask if they could hold their ceremony on the grounds, and the business has evolved into a major piece of their website. They also know their strength is their location; they don’t try to provide food service or flowers, or a band. They can provide the wine, and this is a great way to get new people to try their wines.

If you are considering stepping into this world, it is very important to write down all your policies and develop a contract. Brides tend to want everything their way and it helps if you can refer to a document that says you can only accommodate 100 people, or that your town’s noise ordinance requires music to end by 11pm. The Granger Homestead in Canandaigua has one of the best policy and pricing information packets I have ever come across. It is clear and easy to follow. I am sure my friend Lonna, the Director of Marketing and Events at Granger, wouldn’t mind you borrowing some of her wording for your facility.

Weddings can be another way for your property to create revenue. Start slowly, ask questions of other wedding venues and have fun. Or at least write down the stories – only others in the wedding industry will ever believe you!

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.

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).


Battling Procrastination with a little book

The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield has changed my workday. This small book, with one page chapters, tackles the problem we all face: fighting ourselves to get our best work out into the world, instead of putting it off, or finding other things to do instead. If you are in business for yourself, I think this should be the next thing you read. It really made that much difference for me.

In a nutshell, this book is about Resistance. That which keeps us from moving forward. Procrastination is the classic form of resistance, but this book explains that it also comes in much more subtle forms as well, all designed to keep us in mediocrity. It comes in the form of small voices in the back of your mind, telling you that you really don’t have what it takes to run a business. Or well-meaning colleagues and family members who tell you that you should probably try to find a real job, instead of going it alone. Rationalization is a strong form of Resistance, probably because it has elements of truth.

But what this book teaches is that if you just sit down and get to work, miracles occur. Your business plan starts to take form, new clients show up and all of a sudden, people ask if they can work with you. And it’s all because you battled Resistance and won. In referring to a quote by Somerest Maugham, Pressfield writes  ” Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his. He knew if he built it, she would come.”

This book helped me see that some  of the work I do was keeping me from accomplishing the most important work that would move my business forward. So once I was able to see it as a form of resistance, I removed it. I have a weekly staff meeting with myself on Monday mornings to get my head in the game and see what needs to be accomplished by Friday. I cross off my assignments as I complete them and challenge myself with sales calls to keep me focused on growing my business. When you run your own business, you are often so busy dealing with the urgent that you don’t take care of the important.

This little book gives you a tool to move your business forward. I hope it helps you.