How may we help you? Tourism’s future in the hands of frontline workers
It’s a conundrum the best minds in tourism have been trying to crack for decades.
Despite all the slick marketing and creative branding campaigns, the tourism reputation of the region ultimately lies in the hands of a frontline workforce who may have no idea where to find pick-your-own strawberries, what this quilt trail thing is all about or even directions to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“If someone arrives here and that’s the first face they see, obviously a friendly greeting goes a long way to make a good visit. But it’s also being able to tell that visitor about the area and what is available — where to eat, where to shop, where to go for entertainment, and just being knowledgeable about the county overall,” said Lynn Collins, the director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
But it’s tough to get that knowledge in the hands of rank-and-file tourism workers — especially those making $8 an hour in a seasonal job that will run its course come October, and especially when they’re spread out among hundreds of motels, restaurants and gas station counters.
It’s also a challenge to get the disparate tourism businesses to see the big picture. The guest experience they each deliver helps the whole, and eventually trickles back down to them.
“That guest could extend their stay or come back at another date, or make them want to tell their friends and relatives,” Collins said.
Lyndon Lowe, the owner of Twinbrook Resort in Maggie Valley, said being able to sell the area is often the lynchpin in turning a guest inquiry into a reservation.
“I can almost always turn every one of those calls or emails into a booking for my property because I have the knowledge they are looking for,” said Lowe, the chair of the Haywood tourism agency board.
But the job doesn’t stop there. Once guests arrive, Lowe expects his staff to be versed on things to do here, and guide them toward things they’re interested in.
“From the museums to whitewater rafting or hiking or just scenic drives, our staff is trained to make sure they are out and about and enjoying themselves,” Lowe said. “It is crucial for them to see how much there is to do so they realize they need to come back and spend more time because they only saw a fraction of what there is to do here.”
The Haywood County tourism authority has tried different strategies to reach front-line workers in tourism fields and turn them into a legion of travel concierges.
The tourism agency produces a plethora of brochures on everything from hikes to scenic motorcycle rides to agritourism sites. Tourism staff has also developed sample itineraries that frontline workers can keep on hand.
“From outdoor adventure to families, if you are foodie, if you are interested in the breweries — there is something for everybody there,” Collins said of the itinerary themes.
The tourism agency also launched an online calendar of events to showcase things to do, from clogging shows and theater to weekend festivals and bands at microbreweries. The calendar is emailed to hotel owners each week as part of a tourism happenings newsletter.
But it still takes initiative on the part of tourism business owner to get it into their staffs’ hands.
“The ownership and the management of these properties need to make their personnel aware of the resources,” Collins said.
Ultimately, the tourism industry needs to pull together and realize they are all in it together, Lowe said.
“We are not competing with each other for this guest, we are competing with much larger tourism organizations with greater marketing power than Haywood County,” Lowe said. “We do a better job collectively than we used to, there is no doubt about that. But as a whole we have to do a better job. It will benefit everybody in the county.”
‘Give them a pickle’
Lately, Haywood County’s tourism agency has been brainstorming ways to facilitate boots-on-the-ground education for the frontline hospitality workers.
“We would like to help the hospitality owners with that type of training. We hope to step up in the future and make that easier for them,” Lowe said.
The tourism authority has occasionally offered free training sessions for hospitality workers — like a recent how-to on catering to group travel — but there are a lot of barriers to overcome.
Even if you manage to get philosophical buy-in from tourism operators for training sessions, there’s a very real logistical challenge: tourism operators have to figure out how to man the fort while their staff is all gone for a training. It’s even tougher for mom-and-pops.
“So many of our businesses owners are self-employed, so maybe they can’t take the time to do this because they run their own businesses,” Collins said.
There’s also the upfront cost. While the tourism agency wants to offer frontline staff training for free, business owners still have to pay their employees’ hourly wages to send them to the training sessions.
And that can be a hard sell given the revolving door of seasonal tourism employees, which can also make it feel like a futile undertaking for the business owner.
“There’s turnover, so you invest in these people and who knows if they will stay for six months,” said Beth Brown, a photographer in Maggie Valley who serves on the tourism agency board.
In an ideal world, Brown envisions a training session that packs frontline tourism workers on a van and takes them around the county to play tourist for a day.
“They could go to the places they see in the brochure, but they don’t know how to get there or what it looks like — so they can actually talk the talk,” Brown said. “That would be my dream, to provide more of that hands-on experience so they can talk confidently and with experience.”
In these maddening days of lightning fast Tweets and the Holy Grail of a five-star Google review, tourism workers have to have their game on every second.
“The most important customer is the one standing before you at any given moment,” said Nick Breedlove, the director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. “If you do something good they will tell a few people. If you do something bad, they will tell everybody they know. If you give them an experience that resonates with them they'll share it on social media and post a picture of their meal or a burger and beer they just had, encouraging others to visit.”
The training concept Haywood County tourism leaders are pondering — one that elevates rank-and-file workers to the role of travel agent — is a novel and even lofty concept.
But it’s not the only workforce challenge tourism leaders in the region are tackling. After years of lamenting the region’s inconsistent marks in hospitality, courses aimed at imparting basic hospitality skills are cropping up. Southwestern Community College has developed a short course in hospitality training that’s only several weeks long.
“SCC has made great strides to develop a curriculum for the hospitality sector to provide hoteliers with a quality, skilled workforce, and to teach them those skills in a short time frame,” Nick Breedlove said.
Community colleges often pride themselves on meeting the workforce and labor needs of the local economy, whether it’s training police officers or plastic injection molding workers. The hospitality training module shows that the historical stigma of tourism as a fallback job or economic last resort could be fading at last, and tourism claiming a rightful and legitimate seat at the table.
“Tourism is vital to our economy,” Breedlove said.
Goodwill Industries has also added hospitality industry training to its lineup of workforce development courses.
“Want to work in an industry where a smile, bubbly personality and patience can be worth more than a college degree? Consider career options in the hospitality industry,” reads a flyer advertising Goodwill’s hospitality career path training.
Rob Hawk leads the region’s longest-running hospitality training program known as Qualla-T, developed over a decade ago to improve the frontline hospitality industry in Cherokee and surrounding communities.
Hawk, the cooperative extension director in Swain and Jackson counties, is the last one carrying the torch for the Qualla-T training module.
The cultural norms in Southern Appalachia aren’t always conducive to hospitality. In Cherokee culture, for example, making eye contact with strangers is uncomfortable at best and downright rude at worst. And mountain people of Scots-Irish descent still harbor an inborn skepticism of outsiders that has been passed down in their clannish DNA.
Today’s society doesn’t really impart the virtues of goodwill and human connections with others either.
“It’s things we learned about hopefully as a child or from our grandparents but we get caught up in the present-day culture that is not always hospitable,” Hawk said.
In the Qualla-T course, Hawk uses the slogan “Give them a pickle” to sum up the hospitality mentality. For example, a waitress who offers a customer a tea refill to take with them.
“That is an added value, an amenity. Give them the pickle. Give them something extra. It doesn’t have to be something tangible. It can be intangible,” Hawk said. “The pickle can even be insider tips on fun things to do in the area, like a local swimming hole or pick-your-own farm.”
Sometimes, it can feel like the person on the other side of the register or front desk is setting out to make your life miserable.
“You can make their day or break their day,” Hawk said.
Hawk uses a personal example of a week-long camping trip he took in Vermont. Every morning, he rode his bike to the same diner for breakfast. His last day, the staff packed him a bag lunch and gave it to him for free.
“That was just who they are,” Hawk said.
Qualla-T is not just for tourism businesses. Everyone from florists and pharmacists to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroads ticket-takers have appeared in Hawk’s program.
For the tourism proprietors though, carving out the time even to better their own business is tough.
“People just can’t do it,” said Hawk. “I try to do the training before the season kicks off, because in the summers there’s no way. Businesses are busy. They don’t have the workforce to cover for each other.”
When the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area recently offered a five-hour hospitality training workshop in Haywood County, Kivonc Senocak, the manager of Four Seasons Inn in Maggie Valley, bit the bullet and made it happen. His wife made beds and answered phones for the day so he could bring their housekeeper and front desk clerk along to the workshop. It cost him $200 to cover their hourly wages and registration fee, but it was more of an investment.
“That will show back up on my revenue and show up on my occupancy,” Senocak said.
The training was technically geared at managers because business owners like Senocak are rarely able to part with their staff for an entire day.
“Every accommodation doesn’t have the ability to send staff to training, which can be costly and out of their reach,” Breedlove said. “Their goal in creating this workshop was for mid- and high-level managers to attend and take these training ideals back to their staff.”
Tourism wages usually aren't great, on par with any lower level retail job. But Breedlove said front-line staff in the hospitality industry can be motivated if they feel like valued team players who are part of something larger than themselves.
“For a housekeeper, they wake up every morning and make beds, but they play an integral role in tourism and delivering the customer experience for a tourist visiting Jackson County,” Breedlove said.