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.

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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. 

Back-to-School (already overcommitted)

So in case your Facebook feed didn’t pile up with pictures of little back-to-schoolers on Tuesday, I’m here to remind you it’s that time of year again!

It’s the time of year I:

  1. Completely panic
  2. Realize that I am the teacher
  3. Promise not to take on too much
  4. Take on way too much

Here’s a list of commitments that I entered into over the summer, and am now realizing might be impossible to meet:

  • Elected member of the BCIT Education Council (EdCo)
  • Member of the programming committee
  • New volunteer at Kudoz
  • Volunteer member for the BC Hospitality Foundation scholarship committee
  • Member of a cool new committee to do with the Tourism Industry Conference (TIC is my jam, as you know)
  • Member of the selection committee for a new Associate Dean for our department
  • And assistant coach of the marketing team for JDC West

Of these, I have decided to drop the last item (coaching) because mercifully another (more qualified) volunteer stepped forward out of the woodwork. That’s great, because as an instructor I’m now having to go from public speaking hibernation to ‘on’ several hours a day. And plan. And prep. And parent. Also apparently I have a social life?

Don’t let the calm-and-poised instagram post fool you, folks, I’m low-key freaking out over here. Next post I hope to address some (relatively healthy) ways I’m trying to cope with the stress.

What are your ways of dealing with back-to-school stress? Hit me up in the comments.

 

 

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.

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.