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Blue Ridge National Heritage Area tackles the $50,000 question of hospitality training

fr BRNHAThe tourism industry doesn’t always agree on much. They argue over the best logos and ad campaigns, whether to fund this festival or that one, and who has the best continental breakfast.

But Angie Chandler found resounding agreement among tourism operators when it comes to their top challenge.

“Hospitality training was identified as a critical need in Western North Carolina,” Chandler said, citing responses in a recent survey conducted across the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. “Hiring qualified employees was their number one challenge. Providing training was the number two challenge. Retaining qualified people was their number three challenge.” 

Chandler, executive director of the BRNHA, set out to do something about it.

Over the past month, the BRNHA has gone on the road with a hospitality training program aimed at giving tourism managers the tools they need to channel better customer service among their own staffs. 

“Sometimes the frontliners are very transient. Hopefully the managers would come away with the tools to help train new frontliners. The idea is that management needs to have this cultural shift,” said Jill Jones, director of marketing and communications.

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Sessions were held in four counties — including Haywood and Jackson counties — and attracted more than 160 people from the tourism sector in all, from major resort managers to indie coffee shops. The keynote presenter at each of them was from the Biltmore Estate, which is nationally renowned for its guest service culture coined “Gracious Hospitality.”

Those attending the training module raved about it, but it’s unclear whether it can be replicated on a larger scale or recurring basis. 

That’s because the BRNHA spent $50,000 in grant funding to put on the four trainings, each of them five hours in length.

That’s a lot of money to reach 160 people with five hours of instruction. Here’s a breakdown Chandler provided for where the $50,000 went.

• $10,000 went to the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to cover its administrative role as the project manager.

• $16,000 went to the Biltmore Estate to conduct the training sessions.

• $6,000 went to a contractor who developed and coordinated a survey to assess hospitality industry needs before the session, and a follow-up survey to gauge what attendees gathered from the session.

• $6,800 was for marketing and promotions, from the design and development of training booklets to printing invitations (900 invitations were sent by mail to tourism operators.)

• $3,000 was for follow-up webinars to provide continued outreach to attendees of the session over the coming year.

• $4,000 was to print the supplies and material.

• $4,000 was for drinks, snacks and lunch for the attendees.

Grant funding included $33,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $15,000 from the Duke Energy Foundation and $2,000 from the Blue Ridge Electrical Cooperative.

In addition to grant funding the heritage area got to put on the trainings, participants paid a $35 fee as well to help cover costs, and community colleges offered free use of their campuses to host the workshops.

Remaining funds, primarily from the attendance fees, will be used for mystery shoppers to followup with attendees to the workshop and see what kind of service they get, and whether the training was effective.

Chandler said the team spent countless hours to put together a quality training module. It was expensive to create and implement, but she hopes it is something the region can continue to replicate now that the groundwork has been done.

“We feel like with this program we have created a model. We have several other counties who have come to us expressing interest. We won’t have the grant, but if a community thinks it is important there are ways to help fund something like this,” Chandler said.

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