|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 21, 2008 - When W Hotel general manager Marylouise Fitzgibbon plays host later this month to a French meeting planner she hopes to do business with, she could settle for learning a few quick French phrases or seek help from Atlanta's French consulate.
Instead, Fitzgibbon is assigning four members of her leadership team to conduct the entire pitch in French. From running down the hotel's features to explaining the prevalence of Peachtree in the city's street names, W Buckhead is going Gallic for the win.
"It goes beyond making them feel like home," Fitzgibbon said. "It's about services and experiences."
Atlanta hotels, hoping to attract international tourists who see the United States as a cheap getaway because of the weak dollar, are stepping up their game to compete. Gone are the days when the effort to appeal to foreign visitors meant meager translations of "welcome" in their native tongue.
Now when international visitors stay at Atlanta hotels -- especially those that are upscale -- they're more likely to run into front desk agents, security officers, wait staff and managers who speak everything from Croat to Mandarin.
In fact, general managers at many of the city's biggest properties -- from downtown's Twelve Centennial hotel to Buckhead's St. Regis -- hail from abroad.
"For guests, if you can speak their language, it puts you heads above the rest," said Ronen Nissenbaum, regional vice president of operations for InterContinental Hotels and Resorts, owner of the Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Hotel Indigo brands. Languages spoken at the company's flagship InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead include Hebrew, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Polish, Arabic, Mandarin, Swiss-German, Malay, Turkish and Russian.
"Having a staff that speaks several languages is definitely an asset," Nissenbaum said. Nissenbaum, who is Israeli and German, is the former general manager of the InterContentinental Buckhead and has worked in Israel, Paris and Berlin. He is fluent in English, French, German and Hebrew.
Atlanta hotels are hoping to increase the numbers of international visitors as a way of buffeting a slowdown in occupancy from American tourists and businesspeople, hospitality leaders said. The economic slowdown has forced conventioneers and tourists alike -- the lifeblood of Atlanta's $11.4 billion hospitality industry -- to tighten their belts.
While international tourists are seeing economic difficulties of their own, many still use currencies that are stronger than the dollar.
During a recent visit to Atlanta by representatives of tour companies looking to bring Chinese visitors to America, Sam Zhang, tour operator for China CYTS Tours USA, said, "This year most of the attention is on the U.S. The U.S. is the top destination for China, more than Europe, because there is a very good dollar-to-yuan ratio."
The average Chinese visitor spends about $4,000 per visit, he said.
Fortunately for Atlanta, much of the foundation of what international tourists need to enjoy a visit here was created during the 1996 Summer Olympics, said Bill Howard, vice president of marketing for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. That has been heightened recently by the anticipated merger of Delta and Northwest airlines, which would give the city access to every part of the globe.
"Everything we do, we have to think internationally, we have to think globally," Howard said.
Janice Cannon, vice president of brand management at InterContinental Hotels and Resorts, said an international staff is also important to cultural awareness and sensitivity. For instance, a diverse staff helps keep everyone on their toes about common gestures in America that might be considered offensive elsewhere. It also increases awareness of cultural sensitivity to food and the importance of holy days.
"It really is a global economy," she said.
Having worked all over the world, from Tunisia to Asia to Aruba, John Reilly, general manager of Twelve Centennial, has earned an appreciation for addressing different levels of service. German visitors, for instance, are more interested in precision and efficiency in their hotel stays while Americans want lots of communication.
"The reason I worked in so many countries is I wanted to be more culturally aware," he said.
For others, a multilingual staff is not only smart business, it's expected.
"That's what we are known for," said Simon Rusconi, the Swiss-born general manager of the St. Regis Atlanta, adding that Atlanta's growth as an international city was one of the reason the storied brand decided to locate here. "We know we can attract international guests."
It's not just American hotels that benefit from a diverse language and cultural environment, said Marcus Reinders, the New Zealand-born general manager of the W Midtown. American expertise also is valued in hotels abroad.
When he worked in Australia, Americans on his staff helped show others the proper way to make coffee for U.S. residents. Australians, like the British, prefer coffee espresso-based, while Americans drink it filtered.
"That sounds small, but it helps," he said.
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