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).


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.

Loving your job- lessons from my septic men

For those of you who live in the lands of sewers and public water, let me explain septic systems. It’s basically a huge holding tank buried underground adjacent to your home. Everything that leaves a drain ends up in the septic tank which is why it needs to be pumped out regularly. As you can imagine, it’s not a glamorous job, but it is a vital industry in the  country. I recently saw a septic pumper truck with the saying ” We’re Number #1 in the #2 business.” Guess it helps to have a sense of humor as well.

George and Don, Septic Men of Excellence

Which brings me to the subject of this post. I have had the septic system in my home pumped by two older gentlemen since I bought the house 15 years ago. I thought they were elderly when they first came to help me in 1995- and here they are in 2010 still keeping all the homes in the Bristol Hills humming along. Don Sherman, the owner, is 83. His partner in crime, George, is 82. They stay busy working almost every day. I always take the time to make them a cup of coffee and sit and chat with them. I am interested in people that really love their job and what makes them feel that way. These two love what they do and have known each other since they were young boys. They are like the original Odd Couple- they tease each other and finish each others sentences, and its obvious they are good friends.

Don told me ” I don’t vacation much or do anything fancy so I enjoy getting out to nice places and getting to visit with friendly people”.  George likes to chat and he is always full of good stories and opinions. My interactions with them always leave me feeling good and happy – and isn’t that the sign of outstanding customer service? So I think these two gentlemen have set the bar very high. They love their jobs and do all that they can to keep their customers happy. If they can find purpose and happiness in serving others, shouldn’t the rest of us be able to try to do the same?

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.

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.”