|By John C. Drake, The State, Columbia, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 21, 2004 - They are Columbia tourism's first responders: hotel desk clerks, waiters and cab drivers.
And they hold the key, tourism officials say, to whether the city's effort to market itself as a place "Where Friendliness Flows" succeeds.
On Tuesday, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau began a series of classes, funded with restaurant tax proceeds, to teach those front-line communicators the art of being friendly.
"I think I'm friendly naturally," said Lance Reardon, 35, a bellman and shuttle driver for Clarion Townhouse Hotel & Suites.
Still, he said, it helps to have a refresher in the professionalism, tact and confidence it takes to be friendly in the face of weary travelers and unsatisfied guests.
After four one-hour classes, several tours of city attractions and successful completion of out-of-class assignments, Reardon will graduate and officially be "certified friendly."
He and the other 21 students in the initial group represent businesses that already have been involved in developing the friendliness slogan. They include EdVenture Children's Museum, the City Center Partnership and the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, among others.
Douglas O'Flaherty of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina said he hopes the "guinea pig" group can tell officials whether the curriculum will indeed generate more friendly employees.
The classes were sparked by the new slogan, but the effort also is important with the city's convention center opening in September, officials say.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau is paying for the classes with revenues from the city's hospitality tax. Employers agreed to pay employees for time spent in training. The total price tag for four groups of students over the first year is about $8,000 said Dave Zunker, the bureau's marketing director.
Tourism officials say one of the most valuable parts of the training will be the tours, designed to familiarize employees with the city's attractions.
That's so employees will be armed with suggestions when people come to the front desk of a hotel asking "What is there to do here?" Zunker said.
Deborah Maddox, a 20-year-old USC student who is originally from Maryland, said that has been the most helpful.
She said she already knows the value of friendliness when encountering impatient visitors to EdVenture, where she works at the front desk.
O'Flaherty said the key is to make sure employees maintain the smile, professional appearance and accommodating attitude with every customer. "It does matter."
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