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!

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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.

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!

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.