"The beautiful lake."
"The fun festival."
"The friendly people who helped us out when we got lost—and told us about all the great things to do in town!"
When visitors recall a memorable trip or vacation, they talk about three things: What they saw; what they did; and the people they met. But not just the staff at the resort or the canoe-rental place. Community members, too.
"Every resident, not just tourism employees, can affect a visitor's perception of your town," says Cynthia Messer, Extension professor with the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center. This means every resident is essentially a partner in customer service.
Good customer service is important in every business. But it's especially significant in tourism, which thrives on word-of-mouth reports to family and friends. And now through social media, too.
"When a visitor has a top-notch experience, word gets out," Messer says. "The reverse is true, too. Even one negative interaction or experience can result in bad word-of-mouth." And perceptions linger. A study done in the 1980s by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs shows that an unhappy customer remembers a negative incident for 23 1/2 years—and talks about it for 18 months. Think how many people will hear about these experiences given social media!
Residents sometimes view tourism as frivolous or of little economic value. They might focus on the negative perceptions of low-wage jobs, seasonal employment, traffic congestion, and increased housing costs. But well-targeted and ongoing community relations can educate residents about the potential positive impacts of tourism and guide community perceptions.
"Tourism has the opportunity to bring communities together — to instill a sense of community pride and knowledge of their history," says Tourism Center Director Ingrid Schneider. "The most important thing is to involve the community in tourism planning. You can't have a successful tourism endeavor unless the community is with you."
A community can build local support for tourism in many ways. Local media, community forums, public speakers, and social media can be used to inform residents about benefits and costs.
Residents also should be given ongoing opportunities to voice their ideas and concerns about tourism. Neutral third parties, such as Extension educators, regional planning staff and professional meeting facilitators, can assist with these meetings in an unbiased manner. Such meetings are a valuable part of the center's Tourism Assessment Program to help communities discover their tourism potential.
Some communities give residents "familiarization tours" of local attractions and services to keep participants up to date on what's happening with tourism so they can be helpful when visitors arrive. (It's also a good idea to conduct the same tours for frontline employees, businesses, and other interested parties.)
The resort communities of Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado, effectively enlisted local residents as welcoming hosts to visitors through a program it calls the "Faces of Aspen/Snowmass." Among other things, the program seeks to inspire locals to consider their role in how the community presents itself to visitors, and to create champions of customer service through rewards and incentives.
The approach has paid off. As of 2010, Aspen boasted a 75 percent return rate for visitors — due in part to the Faces program. "When an entire community consciously works together to deliver outstanding guest service, remarkable things can happen," says Dorothy Frommer of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce on the "Faces" website.
Communities that can't afford a wide-ranging program like Aspen's still have many options for encouraging support for tourism by residents, as well as government and local business. These include community cleanup days, volunteer and resident appreciation days, speakers' bureaus, and special events. These events also provide opportunities for informing residents about good customer service skills .
Two pieces of advice
However community leaders decide to build local support for tourism, Messer offers two pieces of advice. The first is to practice two-way communication. "Be ready to listen, cooperate and compromise," she says. "Develop meaningful relationships with residents, and they will begin to understand their role in creating a positive image that drives tourism success."
Messer also notes that building local support for tourism requires patience and persistence. "It's all about changing the culture of a community," she says. "And that takes time."
Tourism development starts with quality information. Extension and the Tourism Center can help with educational programs, consultations and research. To learn more:
- Purchase the Community Tourism Development Manual, which applies theory to real life — delivering the essentials of planning, developing and managing tourist destinations from a community standpoint. Based on extensive research, this 250-page manual takes you step-by-step through the process of developing local tourism with narrative text, case studies and worksheets.
- Review information on the Tourism Center website, including Research Reports.
- Talk to your local Extension educator about helping your community implement a quality service initiative through the At Your Service Program.
- Take advantage of programs offered by the Extension Center for Community Vitality.
Reviewed in 2011