The Culture of Service

My recent trip to Europe yielded many new perspectives. One of the biggest things I learned was around the notion of “service” and my expectations as a Canadian guest/customer.

Customer and visitor experiences are complex, but most agree that the journey starts with expectations. Coming up to my trip to France, Germany, and the UK,  many people warned me about France.  Through close friends (including someone who is French, raised in France) I had been warned many times to expect rudeness. A couple of days before my trip, an acquaintance posted a picture on Facebook of striking Louvre security staff with a caption around how of all the places he had visited, Paris was his least favourite (along with some expletives). The frustration was palpable. 

Based on this expectation I was overwhelmed at how pleasant my interactions in France were! To be fair, I stayed in an Airbnb for the majority of the time. And maybe it’s because I speak the language — but I found Parisians to be friendly and helpful; albeit I had to engage them a little more than at home. I was worried service staff would snob my French but … pas du tout! We ate lunch in a high end restaurant with no reservations (I walked in drenched from the rain, two kids I tow); nothing but polite and attentive service. We had pastries in a very popular touristy cafe and my gratuity was met with sincere appreciation. The ladies who worked at Berthillion waved us over when they saw us joining a longer line-up across the street, yelling “we sell the same ice cream here!”

Exceptional service is proactive and ‘wows’ the guest. An experience with what I would call “service excellence” took place at Gare de L’est train station in Paris. Their customer service desk prioritized people leaving on a train same day, using a “take a number” kiosk with a welcome screen in all languages, where “are you leaving today?” is the first question. While waiting for my number to be called an agent approached, asked what language I spoke, and reviewed my tickets (my concern was that the seat numbers looked like I would be sitting apart from my young kids). She quickly explained how the numbers worked, assured me we would be together, was proactive in explaining the boarding process, and mentioned that if I had any issues to ask the conductor who would be in the car.

Adequate service is not enough. By contrast, I had a very tough time in Germany. The restaurant where we ate dinner in Frankfurt our first night was efficient, but not friendly. The two servers engaged in the classic chit chat with each other, their backs turned to the dining room while we were waiting on drinks, our bill. It was a buffet, so not much service took place to begin with. I paid in cash with a 10% gratuity and the server seemed to wait, pointedly, for me to put more money in the tray. A hard pass from me.

Customers go through an emotional journey with a brand or destination. The following day we had a very stressful time at the Frankfurt station. We slept in a hotel across the street to ensure a smooth morning and arrived with more than an hour to our stated departure time for a train to Nürnberg. I searched in vain to find a kiosk to print my tickets as advised in my booking email. After lining up at information and chancing upon a sign at the front stating “we do not issue tickets” I trucked over to the travel office with my four-year-old in tow, advising my nine-year-old to sit on our bags and not move for any reason.

NOTaticket
I’m pretty clear this is not a ticket. 

I walked into the travel centre and, upon entering my info into the kiosk, I received an error message. A staff person tried to help, but couldn’t figure it out. So I went up to take a number. The machine was broken (according to the sign) so a woman handed me a printed number from behind her counter. While the number was random, after 30 minutes I noticed that other passengers seemed to be prioritized. I inquired at the desk – did they advance people traveling same day? I was met with a firm no.

Finally my number was called after 45 minutes. Had I known the wait would have been so long I would have run back to check on my daughter but I had to trust she was okay or risk losing my spot.

What took place at the counter was frustrating. I took notes as soon as I could because it was so antithetical to everything taught in service courses I still struggle to unpack it:

Me: “Hello, do you speak English?”

Ticket Agent: “Yes.”

Me: “My train is leaving in 20 minutes and I need to print my tickets. I’m a little stressed out because my daughter is sitting with our bags at the other end of the station. The kiosk didn’t work, can you help me?” (presents cell phone with email on screen)

Ticket Agent: (reviews email quickly) “This is your ticket”.

Me: ‘No, it says on the email to print it at the kiosk at the train station, but the kiosk didn’t work.”

TA: “You should use this email as your ticket.”

Me: “It says this is not a ticket.” (gestures to “this document is not valid for travel” in the email.)

TA: “I cannot help you, this is not a (rail company name) issued email. You should have purchased the ticket direct from us.”

Me: “I see. I didn’t know that when I was in Canada. But this is for a (rail company name) train. Perhaps you could look me up by name since the number didn’t work?”

TA: (enters last name) “No you are not in our system. You should call the number on your email.”

Me: “I’m afraid that’s not going to help with the train leaving so soon. Can you try something else?”

TA: “No, I’m sorry, you should have bought the ticket from our website. There is a number in your email and you can call it.”

Me: “Yes, I’m sorry but its the middle of the night in North America. Isn’t your company running the train?”

TA: (Blank stare).

Me: “I see your company logo, but there are other train companies operating out of this station. Do I have the wrong one? Who is in charge of the train?”

TA: “I don’t know what that means.”

Me: (holding back tears) “When I fly on an airplane, let’s say it’s an Air Canada flight. Or a Lufthansa flight. Those are the airlines in charge of the flight. Is your company not operating the train today?”

Finally another agent came to figure out what I was asking. She asked to see my email, and after insisting that yes, I had the correct company, and that the email was my ticket (and then being shown it was not a ticket) she asked me to go and use the kiosk as directed in the email.

Me: (looking at clock, more tears of frustration in my eyes) “the kiosk is the first thing I tried an hour ago and your colleague over there told me to come to this area”.

The second agent then re-scrolled through the email and quickly found another number next to my name. Bingo. Tickets were printed, put in an envelope, and handed to me without a word.

With paperwork in hand, I grabbed my daughter, loaded up with bags, and we made our way to the platform. It was rather busy, and as I scanned the tickets I noticed I did not have any boarding information comparable to my prior trip. No seats, no car. After flagging down a staff member on the platform, he told me how to watch for the correct car (those marked second class on the overhead sign) and that as a ‘no reservation’ passenger I would have to find a free seat. When we boarded it was another set of issues.

The journey with a brand involves multiple touchpoints. After being kicked out of the first set of seats, I placed the kids in one apparently free spot with our bags piled up and walked through the car to find the conductor. After waiting for him to scan tickets at the front and confirming he spoke English I asked how to identify a free seat.

Conductor: “You need to find an empty seat.”

Me: “Many of the seats are empty but they appear to belong to passengers.”

Conductor: “An empty one!”

Me: (Blank stare)

Conductor: “Look above the seat, if it is …”. And here he broke into German words.

I roughly gathered what he was saying; that the seat needs to be empty and have a blank sign above it. Back into the car I went. Oof. No seats anywhere together. I found one kid a window seat next to an elderly lady (I lifted him over her to place him in the seat since she did not move). I plunked the other kid in a nearby reserved but unoccupied seat as I came to figure out that seat was reserved starting in Hanau, the next stop.

ItsASystem
Any guesses what this means? (I googled it afterwards).

All the other seats in the car were occupied. I took a moment to stand with the rest of our bags in the hallway by the restroom, sweating from the ordeal. At that moment the older woman walked my son up to me. He was in tears, he wanted me back in the car. I went back into the car to retrieve his things, thinking he could sit with me in the hallway while I devised a better plan or found more seats in another car. At that moment, a mother gave up her seat across from her daughter and moved to the unreserved seat. I sat my son in my lap, fed him lunch, put him back in the seat for a moment to move my daughter to the next car, and then moved her back again after we passed Hanau and the musical seats repeated.

For most of the rest of the time in Germany I was VFR* and thankfully didn’t have to concern myself with relying on service professionals. The friend I was staying with was quick to sympathize, having had similar experiences herself. Her husband tried to explain this could have all been avoided had I booked directly with the railway — until I showed him the search results as they appeared on my phone. Ten links to third parties before the direct option showed up. He agreed at the very least they could benefit from some SEO and AdWords.

The customer is frequently wrong. I know how frustrating it can be, as a service agent, to have guests who haven’t done their homework (as clearly I had not). But as tourism professionals, it’s our job to orient customers to our processes in a friendly way. So I would invite the staff of that train company to check out the following steps of service recovery, and stat:

  1. Apologize. You can be sorry for the person, and their situation, without having personally caused it. “I’m sorry you’re having issues.”
  2. Attune. Get in touch with the person’s emotional state. “It must be stressful travelling in a foreign country with young children.”
  3. Take ownership. To the best of your ability, commit to solving the problem. “I am going to do my best to find a solution.
  4. Determine the cause and scope out options. “It appears your ticket was issued by a third party travel company. I’m not totally familiar with their procedures. Let me take a minute to read through this email.”
  5. Offer options. “First let me try all the numbers in here to see if I can issue you a ticket. If that doesn’t work we may need to call the company that sent you the email. I can do this on your behalf or I can phone them and hand you the phone.”
  6. When in doubt, proactively call on your team. “Before we call them, why don’t I see if a colleague has encountered a similar problem.”
  7. Be ready to ‘eat’ the costs to make it right. “Even though we didn’t cause this problem, we will issue you your tickets and deal with this at our end.”
  8. Help the customer avoid the same problem in the future. “Going forward, here is a brochure with how to book trains using our website.”
  9. Help the customer avoid any future problems working with your company. “Since you’re new to travelling with us, please note there are no seat numbers on your ticket. This means unreserved seating. Reserved seats will be indicated by a red light over the seat with the name of the passenger’s destination. Find seats with no red signs above them.”
  10. Ask the customer whether that solves their problem. “Now that you have your tickets and know how to find a seat, is there anything else I can do for you?”

Service challenges aren’t rocket science. But now that I’ve experienced this type of issue myself I feel even more pumped about customer service training back home!

Lol
PS: after my ordeal with the tickets, I ran into McDs to grab the kids’ lunch and naturally, they don’t have a customer bathroom; I actually laughed out loud. 

*VFR – visiting friends and relatives, not staying in hotels, and frequenting attractions and restaurants with the help of their local hosts

Giving Back: How volunteers shape a destination

I’m visiting a branch of my family tree for this post about the role of local volunteers in shaping a visitor’s experience.

Today’s post is about my mom, Patricia Fraser.

Born in Vancouver, and raised in Grand Forks, mom returned to the city in her 20s and hasn’t looked back. With her recent retirement offering up more spare time, and an enthusiasm for our hometown that can’t be beat, she was recently selected to be part of the Tourism Vancouver 200-volunteer strong visitor services team. I asked for her thoughts on the contribution she’s making to our industry.

TN: How did you become a Tourism Vancouver volunteer? 

(Before she can answer, a British couple come up the Skytrain escalator. Initially they say they aren’t looking for anything but after a moment it becomes clear they’ll need to know how to get to the airport.)

“This whole process started two years ago, when I was first getting ready to retire. I applied but it was the wrong time of year. The intake is in March, then you go for interviews, train in April, and you’re out here in May. This time I applied at the right time, with my resume and cover letter, and I was called in for an interview.  I also had to complete some short tests.

The season for us is pretty short, May to October.”

TN: What would you say is your motivation for doing this kind of work?

“Well, I live here and I like to see Vancouver do well and I think Tourism is a fantastic industry and I want it to succeed. Certainly being down here greeting people gives you an appreciation for the tourism business — and it is a business.

Plus it gets you out of the house, and you get to meet people from all over the world … and stand out in the rain (laughs).

You also get a cool jacket and a shirt and a hat.”

TN: What are the biggest perks of being a volunteer?

“Outside of the jacket and the hat? No, I’m kidding. The best and most surprising thing is this perk I didn’t even realize existed, something called the privilege card which gives you access to events and attractions. So, if I want to take my grandkids to Playland I can get in for half price. To get the card, volunteers and staff have to visit at least 15 attractions and two neighbourhoods and some hotels and things like that in order to complete their passport and get their privilege card.

Next year when I don’t have grandkids to babysit as often I want to get all 40 stamps!

And the whole idea of treating your city as if you were a tourist is so great, the 15 things I’ve done, I probably wouldn’t have done in five years let alone a few weeks. I thought the perks would just be giving back and doing something for the city, which certainly is happening but I didn’t think I would be rewarded in this way.”

TN: What’s the weirdest question you’ve gotten from a visitor?

(Laughs). “Just before my break I had a nice couple come up asking how much it costs to take the ferry to Vancouver Island. So I said ‘do you mean, to drive out to the ferry terminal outside the city and take the ferry for over an hour to get to Victoria?’

And of course no, they meant the Seabus to North Vancouver, which they thought was Vancouver Island.

Also people frequently gesture over to Stanley Park and say ‘oh, so that’s Vancouver Island?’ Which, it’s not (and also it’s a peninsula), but you can see where they might think that.

68DE03A5-3747-4E64-B164-E5BD1662711A
Good old fashioned metrics.

TN: How do you think Tourism Vancouver’s visitor services team shapes the guest experience?

I only see my end of it but I know there are wheels within wheels because of the whole tourism challenge, which is brilliant. All the different businesses and organizations that belong to Tourism Vancouver, all of the coordination, to get everyone involved in visiting others’ attractions, it must be quite the undertaking.

And the city is going to welcome 1.5 million visitors just through the cruise terminal this year, so to have us on the ground, waiting … you once told me about someone from Tourism Squamish saying they had to be like eagles, scooping the tourists up … well we’re kind of like that. Perched here, just waiting for people who have a need.

This morning there was a man grumbling about how ‘signage here is terrible’ and it was really affecting him, he was frustrated. Certainly the city has some challenges, some weaknesses and we’re the team on the ground filling in those weaknesses and solving the issues as they come up.

The volunteers themselves are always trying to find a way to spot things to address with guests. Today someone on my team said ‘make sure you stop people with suitcases on their way into the station’ because in their experience those visitors think this is the entrance to the Canada Line to the airport. I can redirect them to a better entrance.

And if someone has an hour you can send them to Flyover Canada and if they only have 15 minutes, you can send them down to Harbour Air to watch the float planes take off. Things like that.” 

TN: It’s 2019. No offence, but why couldn’t a kiosk offer what you do?

I just don’t see how it would be possible because what we do is proactive, rather than reactive. A lot of times we see people and they don’t know what they want. So we see people taking selfies and offer to take their photo together. We see someone who’s older with a walking difficulty like I have and I tailor the recommendation so they can avoid stairs. You see people who look confused and offer help.

And this is locals as well — today it’s a bunch of families looking for the dinosaurs which is over at VCC West. So a friendly face to recognize them and say “oh, are you looking for the dinosaurs?” on a rainy grey day, with all this congestion down at the terminal, it makes it better for everyone.

It’s great to be proactive where we can. One of the issues with cruises, sometimes people are used to being accosted with salespeople as they disembark in other ports, things like time shares, so I have to tell them I’m a volunteer right up front. 

On our lunch break these two ladies saw our uniforms and asked about changing money and we had a list handy, as well as letting them know how to withdraw Canadian cash from an ATM. We also mentioned to them that the currency exchanges might have limited hours or be closed — we know it’s a holiday, but they don’t.

(At this moment mom spotted a couple looking at the transit map. She directed them to the Seabus terminal and gave them a tip on how to watch the city spring up around them from a particular seat.)

So there’s an example of a couple who thought that this was the entrance to the Seabus when it’s much better to walk around to the main station entrance.

People don’t know when they’re taking the bus they can use their credit card, but it’s one card per person and you can proactively tell them these things you pick up along the way.

And ultimately we can direct them to the full service Visitor Centre around the corner where there are many languages spoken, they have salaried staff there ready to help and even offer them ticket purchases and deals on attractions.

So I think that kiosks and technology can play a part but there’s nothing like have a person, a resident, who’s giving of themselves for free, explaining the best way to get something done.”

That’s my mom’s take on the role of volunteering in the visitor experience. For more info on Tourism Vancouver’s volunteer opportunities visit https://www.tourismvancouver.com/about/volunteer/ 

Does your community use volunteers to enhance the guest experience? Share your feedback in the comments. 

Drinking the Airbnb Kool-Aid

One of my lesser-known tourism hustles is the Airbnb I run in my basement. My TV room, to be exact.

This little space is comfortable, clean, centrally located, and a great way to offset the fact I’m a single mom carrying a Vancouver-sized mortgage. It also doesn’t displace any long-term rental inventory since, seriously, it’s a TV room in my basement.

So imagine my delight when our dean suggested that faculty and a handful of students attend a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon featuring Chris Lehane from Airbnb. Chris is the senior VP for policy and, frankly, a dynamic and cool speaker.

It’s clear that, in his own words, Chris has started drinking the Kool-Aid at Airbnb, and as a host I’ve been enjoying it for some time. Here are some of the points raised during his presentation.

We live in a time of significant global challenge. 

The first challenge Chris mentioned was that of economic inequality. Today the 26 richest people on earth own as much as the 3.8 billion poorest … a divide that is growing as we see the emergence of AI and the loss of up to 40% of jobs to automation.

The second challenge he addressed was that of conflicts, whether intra-state (Venezuela, Syria), through cyberattacks, the online polarization of people and viewpoints through social media, and the displacing of billions of people due to unrest.

The last challenge he mentioned was that of global climate change, which in the last four years has seen the hottest temperatures on record, and closer to home (both ours in BC and his down in California) has contributed to annual ravaging wildfires.

It’s no wonder, according to Chris, that the world is now sinking to a ten year low in happiness.

Travel has a a role to play in addressing these challenges. 

Chris explained that travel has a rich history of contributing to migration and immigration and cultural exploration. He shared a picture of Burnaby-born hockey hall-of-famer Joe Sakic explaining that the movement of people has real benefits (in this case helping the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, twice).

He then shared the Confucian quote that “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”. Bonus points for going from Sakic to Confucius! This part of Chris’ presentation resonated with me — as some of you might know my father is an immigrant and I’ll spend part of this summer going back to the town of his birth.

Chris talked about historical names for travel and its impacts including the Ancient Greek “philoxenia” – the opposite of xenophobia, a love for strangers and an eagerness to be hospitable.

This is where Airbnb comes in.

Airbnb’s mission is that anyone can belong anywhere. Chris was quick to address the fact they’re a disruptor and that new technologies always lead to disruption. And he was clear that in this new digital era we’ve seen the emergence of platforms that are larger than any one country in terms of population and yet, at times, highly unregulated.

He presented different platform models — hierarchical, ad-based, the short-term labour model, and finally the community-based model (people to people) that tracks back to the original model of capitalism, in his opinion.

Chris shared the story behind Airbnb, of a couple of students offering air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment to pay their rent. In his view, the core of Airbnb has always been about disrupting FOR humans, not being disruptive TO humans. He credits the founders’ art student backgrounds in that they wanted to build something 100 people would love instead of something that 1000 people would like.

I’d say, in that regard, they’ve been successful. Today on Airbnb:

  • Six guests check in every second 
  • There are over five million listings
  • They’ve seen 15% growth over the last year in Vancouver alone

Their future, according to Chris, is as an end-to-end travel platform that facilitates how you get somewhere, and where you stay, who you spend time with, and what you do while there. The ‘Airbnb experiences’ catalogue alone has grown to 20,000 experiences in 1000 cities since it was launched.

It was the transportation vertical (how you get there) that got my attention. Airbnb is proposing to use existing infrastructure to help legacy businesses tap into wider consumer markets (e.g. rail travel) while encouraging innovators to bring their ideas to market.

Another passion of mine is destination development policy. Chris’ particular area of work focuses on exactly this — Airbnb’s commitment to help evolve policy, pay their share of taxes, and share data.

He says their next focus will be the office of healthy travel. Tourism already makes up 10.4% of Global GDP, so why not grow the industry sustainably? Chris spoke about Airbnb contributions including:

Investing in community development, like in Maharashtra India, where they partnered with government to help locals start up immersive homestays in the region.

Enhancing experiential authenticity while increasing spending in neighbourhoods —44% of which stays in the micro community where guests spend the night. In 2017 that meant an increase of  $107 million in spending to Vancouver restaurants.

Supporting diverse experiences by providing guests an opportunity to stay in non-hotel districts and rural areas.

Being inclusive, where currently 55% of hosts are women, and the fastest growing cohort of hosts are seniors.

Creating traffic to underserved areas through initiatives like their Cape Town partnership, and working with the NAACP to develop hosting capabilities in urban communities.

His final words were on the ways in which Airbnb is creating sustainable options simply by using existing buildings (millions of empty homes), in the place of new construction. For example massive events like the Rio Olympics saw an increase in hosting, which diverted the need to build up to 257 new hotels for the event.

Chris Lehane clearly “drinks the Kool Aid” on Airbnb. Vancouver is drinking it too. In 2018 the City and Airbnb signed a historic agreement to recognize and regulate home sharing, which was shortly followed by an announcement of a first-of-its-kind partnership in Canada with Tourism Vancouver.

I’m starting to drink this Kool Aid too. Are you? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

All Fired Up!

This Tuesday morning I joined fellow tourism nerds at a Tourism Vancouver presentation of Alex Hunter: The Art and Science of Wow.

Alex is a former Virgin America executive who travels the world as a branding and customer experience expert and keynote speaker. He’s also the host of Attaché, an award-winning online travel show, which brought him to the Vancouver Playhouse main stage.

Alex is a phenomenal storyteller; it’s challenging to take his fluid ideas and anecdotes and pull them together into something cohesive, so here’s what stood out for me:

The Internet Ruined Everything

Maybe it’s because Alex is a fellow Gen Xer who remembers the good old days of pay phones and print ads, but his statement that “marketing was the easiest job in the world until we ruined it with the internet” really struck home. He pulled up the following ad which summarizes the kinds of things Madison Avenue used to be able to get away with:

objectifying_4.jpg
That’s a firm nope from me, bucko.

The internet comment was tongue in cheek, but he’s right that the good old-fashioned decision-making funnel has been obliterated. We can’t grab consumers with a big message (sexually harass her and you’ll be cool), hit them with some PR/evidence (doctors recommend Tipalet), and then do a little price-based sales promotion to nudge them over the line (Tipalet: now 2 for the price of 1).

Consumers today are in a cycle with more points of engagement. Marketers must strike a reasonable balance between pre and post purchase connection because our targets are not in a funnel, they’re on a see-saw adding and subtracting brands under consideration in any given moment.

We’ve moved from a push to influence at the “consider” and “buy” stages to an emphasis on talking with (not to) our customers at the “evaluate” stage (even if that means exposing them to other brands) and at the “advocate” step (encouraging sharing with their sociograph in person and online).

The Loyalty Loop

So if there’s no funnel, Alex argues, we need to pay extra attention to loyalty, which has been something of an obsession for him. The ultimate goal is to get your consumers into what he refers to as the “loyalty loop”.

You can’t have loyalty without someone feeling something, or in the words of Matthew Weiner on Mad Men:

“You feeling something. That’s what sells.”

Alex then called out Apple users (guilty as charged). When I remember back to my switch from the frugal but frustrating combo of a Microsoft Surface and a Samsung cell phone to a MacBook and iPhone in one day, I recall feeling free and relaxed.

And since that day, when I interact with Apple, I know I’m taken care of. I know where to go to get my problems solved, and they’re solved promptly, frequently exceeding my expectations. Prior to this, the tech devices in my life were a source of stress and confusion. Say what you will about the corporation, but Apple really does handle UX very well. By helping me to chill, they’ve got me in the loop!

IMG_1852
Alex Hunter and the Loyalty Loop (yes I snuck this shot)

Emotion is Greater than Reason

Alex also introduced us to Dr Donald Calne. Well, not personally, although Dr Calne apparently lives in Kamloops. Calne is a neurologist who discovered, through scientific study that:

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”

So if we want our guests, visitors, and customers to conclude something about our destinations and businesses, then we can use reason. But if we want them to take action, we have to appeal to their feelings.

Hunter’s example was that of Coke vs Pepsi (specifically Diet Coke in his case). As a Coke drinker, I understood his story immediately. Because if somebody offers me a Pepsi as an alternative I feel incredulous and, frankly, insulted.

Coke is a special treat. It’s birthday parties, summer vacation, going to the movies in a real theatre, and Christmas dinner. Pepsi is … overly sweet Coke substitute. I will stick with water if that’s the only option.

As Alex puts it, “if brown water in a can can produce that reaction, no product or service is immune.”

The Small Stuff

Back in ye olden days, when I was a kid (so, the 1980s), businesses used to interact with consumers one-on-one. This is another thing the internet ruined, for a spell. We got so fixated on broadcasting wider and wider on the web, that we lost this connection. But we can get it back.

And it’s not that hard to do well. You’ve heard my example of being bowled over with the gift of well-timed water on a WestJet flight. And Hunter is loyal to a hotel in New York City where, time after time, they’ve stocked the fridge with Diet Coke, left a basket of his favourite snacks, and a handwritten note. The first time it was a surprise (based on a questionnaire he’d filled out). But they treat him to this every time he stays – prompting the comment “I am no longer a transaction, I’m not just a room night, I’m a relationship.”

We Are Magicians

We have all this data and the capacity to use what we know to create delight. And so many opportunities (touchpoints) to do this online and in person. But Alex cautions us NOT to tell our guests how we do it. He shared the story of a famous airline that used iPads to produce out-of-this world personalized greetings and experiences for their guests. Except in a PR move, they published a white paper on how they did it. They ruined the trick (“you don’t love me, the iPad told you”), and forgot the context of the relationship. To create magic for the guest, never forget that you are a magician.

IMG_1856
Just a few of the touchpoints for an airline customer.

The Handwritten Note

Take the time. Get the pen. Write the note. And for the love of everything, if you’re going to do a mail merge, do it correctly. Alex quit banking with an institution that sent him a “Dear null null” letter. I’ve broken up with a car dealership that uses my two middle names in all their communication. Get these things right the first time.

People Remember How You Make them Feel

There were so many nuggets in this presentation and the Q & A that followed. Ty Speer joined Alex Hunter on stage and they wrapped the session up with a from Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Alex Hunter made me feel excited to work in tourism, excited to bring the magic to my students, and pumped to be a better businessperson and host. You can check out his website here, or follow him @cubedweller

The future of tourism: social cultural enterprises

One of the best experiences of my trip to Vietnam was participating in a cooking class called Oodles of Noodles run by Streets International in Hoi An.
Doang was the first up from the Oodles of Noodles team. She taught us about the program and asked us to “please correct our English so we can learn”. Throughout the experience all the hosts were very good at interacting with the group. “We need your help to learn. You will do that, yes?” “Yes!” we all promised.
Next we watched a short documentary about Neal Bermas’ vision for Streets International. They conducted research to find the right city and chose Hoi An due to the high levels of visitation and its history as a multicultural port and culinary destination. Their goal is to launch careers in hospitality.
The program provides participants with full health care, lodging, and three meals a day. These are orphans, children from HIV backgrounds, or formerly trafficked and prostituted people. The facility has a working kitchen, a classroom for culinary lessons (both internal and external, like ours), and a 16-station computer lab for learning English.
The cooking class that followed the program description was immersive and entertaining.
Nho
Nho the noodle expert

A young woman named Nho taught us about noodles and I now consider myself a rice noodle expert. Dai from Hanoi did a demo which was also broadcast on a TV for the people at the back.
M Nhi is from close to Sapa. She taught us to count down in Vietnamese as well as guided us through the noodle making process at our table. Our noodles were combined with a charcoal broiled variety to make a smash cake which made a delicious appetizer.
The tables were then wiped down and we were served the local specialty prepared by the culinary students.The entire group agreed that the meal, the service, and the cleanliness of the facility far exceeded anything we had experienced so far.
Streets International also runs a restaurant, one that is designed to stand on its own. The servers, hosts, and culinary team are all program participants.
Recognizing that front-of-house trainees receive the lion’s share of immersive language and hosting experience, Streets International also partners with local tour operators to offer tours led by back of house staff. These tours allow budding chefs to take guests through Hoi An, where they practice English and share the culinary history of the destination.
Intake for this program is every nine months. So far 250+ youth have graduated and there are more job offers (high end restaurants, resorts, etc) than graduates. A second location recently opened in Hanoi.
My experience of Hoi An was one of a busy destination, one where popular sites were choked with tourists barely grasping the significance of what they were seeing. While at times I experienced the dreaded ‘overtourism’, the afternoon spent at Ooodles of Noodles was educational and entertaining – all while making a difference in the lives of young people.
This is the future of the industry as far as I’m concerned and a model for tourism done right. I’ve already challenged my soon-to-be tourism graduates back home to explore this model and see how they could bring it to BC.

What makes a Super Host?

This summer my family and I pulled into our motel after a long day on the road. There had been an accident on the highway. We were cranky, and tired. The kids were DONE.

We stumbled into the office to check in, and a friendly woman appeared behind the counter. She offered my kids a glass of water and checked us in immediately. Five minutes later we were hydrated, settled in our room, and had the name of the best place to order a pizza.

It’s times like these that make me glad we live in a province of exceptional service providers. Tourism is about experiences, and the more we can foster remarkable front-line interactions, the more our guests are likely to recommend us.

Why do recommendations matter? Beyond TripAdvisor and other review-based platforms, recommendations are the heart of metrics like the Net Promoter Score, a tool whereby your detractors are taken from the promoters to give your experience an overall score. This score can be negative! It’s especially hard to achieve a positive score when you have multiple neutral customers. They don’t count in this calculation.

NPS is being used by Destination BC, Tourism New Zealand, and many other major brands.

One of the keys to helping BC achieve high scores with our visitors is consistent, industry-driven customer service training. That’s why it’s so exciting that go2HR has re-launched SuperHost, a training program first launched in 1985 in preparation for Expo86.

I recently had the privilege of piloting SuperHost with my students in the BCIT tourism marketing program. It’s a hands-on way for new entrants to the industry to learn what it takes to deliver remarkable experiences. The activities are fun and memorable.

Want to learn how you, or your team, can get the SuperHost designation? Visit https://www.go2hr.ca/training/superhost-customer-service-training for more info. Or contact me to set up a workshop!

 

 

Travel Through Tough Times

I’ve been going through a tough time lately in my personal life. It’s not something I can share about here … but I’m okay, the people I love are okay, and it’s going to be okay.

That said, this rough patch is starting to make me reflect on the way travel can be used to get through tough times just like these.

It’s not always possible to go vagabond when the going gets rough – but just the promise of a future trip is something that can help us get through.

For me, it’s a tour I booked last August that doesn’t take place until March 2018: my daughter and I are going to Vietnam!

It started as an attempt to plan an intergenerational journey with my dad and the planning ended with just the two of us signing on the dotted line. We’ll catch dad on the next one.

Ah, Vietnam! For twelve days my little girl and I are going to eat noodles, swim, visit monuments and historical sites, sleep on a boat, take an overnight train and hop a puddle jumper over rice paddies. We’re going to practice our French if we can, and eat all the pho. Did I mention there will be noodles?

When I get through a long day of teaching and come home to a pile of marking – only to be faced with another personal hurdle –  I go over to the G-Adventures site and read through our itinerary.

Travel gives us hope. It gives us something to look forward to. And, yet again, I’m reminded why I work in the best industry on earth.

My biggest career regret? Not working in hotels!

This will be a short one, but worth posting in my opinion because it comes up so often with my students. I don’t believe in ‘regrets’ per se – I think all of our actions lead us exactly to where we need to be.

But if I could pick one do-over from my early career it would be to get a job in a hotel!

Accommodations and food and beverage (F&B) make up roughly 80% of the tourism sector in Canada (and arguably in most countries). While I have extensive front-line and management experience in F&B, I have never worked in a formal accommodations setting (outside of caring for paid guests to my home).

The first interview I did out of school was at a lovely boutique hotel with a serious arts pedigree. I interviewed for an entry-level marketing position. I spoke with the GM! I didn’t get it because I didn’t have any hotel experience. To sell a hotel, the GM explained, a person needs to understand how it works.

Kind man that he was, he encouraged me to apply as a bell person for the summer. Unfortunately my ego (and, let’s be real, the cost of living in Vancouver) got the best of me and I never pursued it.

As it turns out, I got an amazing first job in the industry and parlayed it into a pretty sweet career.

But at the end of the day, I wish I had lugged bags that first summer. It would have made my options that much broader.

Do you have a major career regret? Hit me up here or on twitter to share!

 

A tourism nerd chat with Brian Dean

Earlier this summer I was introduced to a cool local program called “Kidsworld, where Vancouver-area families can buy a pass to a different summer attraction each day, for only $50.

The program is a win-win for families and attractions alike, keeping kids busy on a budget while exposing parents to a world of activities in their backyard.

I was so intrigued by the idea, and the operation, that I had a chat with Brian Dean, the one-man-band behind Kidsworld. I’m going to share this with my entrepreneurship class this fall; it’s a great story of how tourism businesses are started and sustained with lots of hard work and passion.

Tourism Nerd: How did Kidsworld get started?

We’ve been around for 25 years, ever since another man named Brian built the program slowly from the ground up. His background was in tourism and his wife was a school principal and they were passionate about meshing educational opportunities with a way for families to spend quality time together around the city. The program seemed to fill a gap with what was available.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine connected us – the ‘original Brian’ was looking to retire. I had been the Program Director of Keats Camps, and while I love the camp, it wasn’t sustainable because you have to move away to an island a few months a year. Before that I was a youth worker on the North Shore. I had been on the search for the right entrepreneurial activity for years. My passions lined up with Kidsworld … this was it!

You mention passion, where did the money come from?

The founding Brian grew Kidsworld organically over the long term, without investors, but also without any goals in terms of growing the business to a specific size or to turn a specific profit. That means the model of the business has the potential for growth in multiple ways.

I purchased the business for a reasonable sum of money that I had saved over the years (as I was looking for an entrepreneurial venture). This business doesn’t have much overhead, and I used my savings to get me through the first year without having to generate much income.

My desire is to learn the business through-and-through for a couple of years and then focus on healthy growth.

What’s your academic and business experience?

I have an undergrad degree in youth work and a Masters of Leadership – which was a great fit because it paralleled an MBA but focused on vision, leadership, and entrepreneurship rather than managing existing systems and people. My years at Keats Camps involved hiring over 100 staff, training them, running the summer operations (and being responsible for almost 400 people a week mostly under the age of 22). I am also on the board of a not-for-profit (church), and have worked as a consultant.

What’s a day in the life for you?

The thing with running your own one-person company is you’re responsible for everything! From the business side to logistics (registration, checking families in on site), to being the face of the organization, there are a lot of hats. With that said, I love that I work from home, and am flexible as my own boss. The hard part is that you never feel like you can leave work behind, because you’re the only one making in happen.

From September to June, my role is focused on networking with organizations to set up events. We have summer events, and weekend events throughout the school year. On event days I’m present to build rapport with the host organizations and the families.

What’s the biggest challenge about running a company like Kidsworld?

There are two major challenges.

First, as I’ve said, I’m the only person. Mentally that’s very draining – to have your livelihood in your own hands, to have the expectations of hundreds of others for you to do a quality job. It’s hard to take a couple of days off, as emails add up and you feel responsible to respond quickly. It’s also hard because I need to become good in the areas where I’m not naturally gifted; for example graphic design isn’t a strong suit but with my budget I need to learn to create good content myself.

Second, I’m constantly searching for new organizations to partner with. Between our two programs (Summer and school year), we work with closer to 100 organizations! That’s a lot for one person to network, arrange, maintain relationships, and be on top of. Very detailed notes are needed to keep it all together. There are a lot of organizations in Vancouver, but setting up partnerships with so many is not an easy task.

So then what’s the biggest reward?

I love many aspects of my job. I waited for this opportunity because I didn’t want to be motivated mostly by money. I want to make an impact in people’s lives and support families. So much of a healthy society seems to stem from having healthy families. Kidsworld allows me to build a business, which I’ve always wanted to do, while also making a tangible impact in people’s lives.

On the business side, the greatest reward is I have learned a lot and met a tonne of great people. I feel like I know everyone in Vancouver at this point, and each day I learn about how I can improve my own business.

Any advice for tourism students and future entrepreneurs?

Be passionate about your chosen area of work, whether it’s as an entrepreneur or otherwise. You spend a lot of your life at work, even more if you consider how much it can be on your brain. You have to believe in the importance of it. I strongly believe the best entrepreneurs are those who also make the world a better place as they build their business.

Entrepreneurship is 99% figuring it out as you go. It’s taking a step forward. You don’t need it all together beforehand, just a willingness to learn, ask for help, and to try your hardest.

Make sure you love it before you invest your life into it! There are a million different avenues that entrepreneurship can take you. It’s an exciting and exhausting journey, so invest yourself in something you’re passionate about.

You can find Brian at venues around the city from attractions to museums to parks as he works with Kidsworld families and partners while building his business. Learn more about Kidsworld here: www.kidsworldprogram.com.

WestJet: It’s the Little Things

Full admission, this is a love letter to WestJet, for which I have received zero compensation. For the uninitiated, WestJet is one of Canada’s two major airlines.

Dear WestJet –

As a tourism professional and customer service trainer for BC’s WorldHost program, I speak frequently about “touchpoints” and how these are critical for creating “remarkable service”. Here are a few of the small ways your team impressed me during our recent vacation to Manitoba:

1. Help at check-in! At both airports WestJetters were available to help us at the kiosk, figure out what to do with our carseats, and get us off to security in time. At no point did anyone make us feel stupid – they said encouraging things like “no problem, this is a little confusing” and “don’t worry, you’ve got time.”

2. Warm smiles and “thank-you”s throughout. On the way back our flight was delayed and each WestJetter we encountered thanked us for our patience. This includes the staff at the gate doing check ins, the crew members disembarking, and the crew that welcomed us aboard.

3. Constant updates. While our flight was delayed (by 20 minutes) we received multiple verbal updates on the situation. We were thanked for our help in boarding quickly. At one point a flight attendant noticed something on the wing and one of the pilots came back to check it out. There was an announcement before, during, and after this check, making us feel safe and valued.

4. A glass of water with our pre-ordered meals. When our meals were delivered the attendant brought us each a glass of water, explaining that beverage service would start later. This cost the airline next to nothing but made a huge impression with me. The attendant took a moment and thought “I bet this family would enjoy a drink with their meals, and this is what I can do to help.” It was at this point I turned to my spouse and said “only on WestJet!” Yes, I ‘remarked’ about the service I received. Remarkable service!

5. The “sandwich incident”. Once in the air, the couple ahead of us ordered two ham sandwiches during beverage service. They were extremely (!) upset to find out that there was only one left. The attendants were gracious, apologized, and made comparable menu suggestions. They gently explained that pre-ordering is the best way to guarantee an item is on board as different flights have different capacities. And then, minutes later, an attendant appeared with a ham sandwich (a customer up front had changed their mind). The previously irate customers enjoyed their free sandwich and commented to each other (remarked, even) about the great service on board.

Now these are all little things. Of course the big things were handled – safety, timeliness (even with the delay all connections were made), our baggage arrived as promised. This is a great departure from my experience with other major airlines, where I’ve experienced:

  • Getting stranded in a stopover city with a baby and having to negotiate for a hotel stay and meal vouchers
  • Getting stranded in a departure city while four months pregnant with no updates, no accommodations, and no help
  • Waiting over an hour for a carseat, not being able to locate help, and finally receiving said help after 90 minutes

Sadly the above list could go on and on. There’s no question that airline travel is a tricky business, with razor-thin margins and unpredictable conditions. WestJet is getting it right by making sure that everything, especially the little things, are handled well.