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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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.

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 geocaching.com 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.”

Social Media for Tourism Businesses- Ignore at your Peril

Newspapers, televisions, websites. At one time, all these means of communication were new and untested. People said they wouldn’t last, or they were a waste of time. Then they quickly became the preferred method of reaching out to new and existing customers and the advertising world changed. That is what is currently happening with Social media- sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Foursquare. Have you ignored them up until now or are you embracing them in your marketing strategies for 2010?

Many tourism  business owners say the same thing- I have no time. I am so busy running my business that I don’t have time to waste online looking at what everyone else is writing on their Facebook page, or tweeting about. However, that is where many of your customers are spending their time. Over 400 million people have a Facebook page and 50% of them check it at least once a day. Here are some other interesting facts about Facebook users:

  •  The 35-54 year old demographic is growing fastest, with a 276.4% growth rate in 2009
  •  The 55+ demo is not far behind with a 194.3% growth rate
  •  The 25-34 year population on Facebook is doubling every 6 months
  •  There are more females (55.7%) than males (42.2%) on Facebook
  • The largest demographic concentration remains the college crowd of 18-24 year olds (40.8%) which is down from (53.8%) six months ago.

Twitter is a fast growing application as well. People write short (140 characters or less) sentences, or share links to online information. The perception is that people just write silly things like “I am drinking coffee and reading the paper”. True, some people do, but I suggest getting an account and ‘follow’ people in the tourism industry such as  @usatourismboard, @travelmediaguru , @nytimestravel , @sallykberry (that’s me!)  and tourism businesses at your destination. You can establish yourself as an expert in your business sector, and have a new way to reach out to customers. Research has shown the websites that have links to Facebook and Twitter accounts are seen as more professional and reliable businesses.

These social media accounts are free and there are many organizations that are currently offering social media courses to help you get started. Set yourself the goal of becoming familiar with these applications before the end of the year and you will be giving your business a competitive advantage.

Hospitality Managers – can u txt?

Three months ago I would not have written this post for several reasons. First, I believe communication via text message is limited at best- it’s even harder to interpret people’s meanings than an email. Secondly, I think managers should speak directly to their staff whenever possible; texting seems like a way to avoid actual conversations.

However, I have changed my mind and now think that all frontline managers should be texting their employees as a way to build relationships, establish lines of communication and to show them you are willing to communicate with them in their world. What changed my opinion? Several things.

First, in teaching a group of unemployed and underemployed individuals about the hospitality industry, I learned that everyone has a cell phone – no one has a landline. They are not fancy smartphones, but simple cell phones. Prepaid phones do not require the credit check and stable housing situations that a landline requires.  At least one student has a phone that was limited to text messaging only – she couldn’t afford the phone option. So for me to communicate with her after class, I had to text her. I found that when I started texting each of them, they became more comfortable with me in class and would text me with questions or issues over the weekend. They would send me a text if their bus was running late. That they were being responsible in reporting in impressed me. Now I don’t text nearly as fast as my teenage daughter, but I am willing to work at it.

Speaking of my teenage daughter; she works as a busser at a local hotel restaurant. Her manager, a young man in his 20’s, sends texts to the waitstaff on a regular basis. He informs them of schedule changes and asks if someone wants to work an extra shift. Considering that all the bussers are teenagers, this makes perfect sense. You can be sure they get their messages and they are usually quick to respond.

The subject of cell phone use at work has caused  frontline managers many headaches. When frontline staff are working, they should not have their phones. They should be left in a car or an employee locker to keep them from checking in and sending messages on company time. But they also have great value in today’s world. Managers would do well to ask their staff to give them some texting lessons and use texting as a 21st century way to keep in touch with their staff.

Delivering Happiness- A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose

I didn’t come up with that wonderful title myself; it is the name of the newly released book by Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos. I was one of the bloggers chosen to review his book and received a copy several weeks ago.

As I was reading, I kept thinking: should I write about this theme, or talk about this story and how it would resonate with my readers. Should I just do a summary review or pick one chapter and talk about why I liked its message. I kept a list of the pages that had a phrase or paragraph that I thought was important to remember. So here goes: page 85,98,119,137,143,150,173,177,179,187 and 197. I’ll pick a few and let you look up the rest when you get a chance to read this book ( you can order it from Amazon).

One of the first things that I noticed while reading the book was how simple Tony’s writing style is. It was not full of multi-syllable business speak, or lots of technical terms. It sounds like you are talking to your next door neighbor over the fence- very easy to follow. Even though Zappos is technically a large company, the book has many lessons for small business owners. The early days at Zappos had huge cash flow issues, problems with their warehouse and unforseen problems that came at the worse possible times. Tony said at one point they were in a race against time  – trying to make their limited money last until sales picked up. Sound familiar?

One of the lessons I took away from reading Delivering Happiness is for a business to decide what their core competencies are. One of the goals at Zappos was to sell $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010- a goal they actually achieved in 2008.

Tony says ” Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money and resources into three key areas: Customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development(which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team). Even today, our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline (which we refer to internally as “BCP”) are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run. Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

I will save the discussion on their theory that spending more money on customer service and its 24/7 call center is smarter than spending money on advertising for another blog post.  Also, their theory that the role of a manager is to remove obstacles and enable his/her direct reports to succeed. Simple but brilliant. Check out the website for the book –Delivering Happiness . Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!