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by Dr. Peter Tarlow

No matter what our political positions are or how we want to view these past few days, most people would agree that these have not been easy days for the tourism industry.  From customer service problems to continual low-grade acts of terrorism in Europe, the tourism industry has felt the impact. 

Tourism is a composite industry and from the customer’s perspective what occurs in what part of the industry may well impact other parts of the industry.  People who work within tourism, however, often tend to see their section of the tourism industry as independent of other components within the industry.  Thus, airline personnel often forget that they are in more than mere transportation providers, but destination creators, and hoteliers often overlook the fact that most visitors choose to visit a location rather than to a specific hotel.  These past few days have proven once again that tourism is interconnected and each component eventually may well impact other components.

In reality, there are two main themes that stand out from the events of the last few days. The first is the ongoing struggle to create safe tourism environments.  Too many people simply look at raw numbers and believe that visitors will come no matter what the security situation may be.  Often this bean counting mentality leads to ignoring a situation until it is too late.  Although tourism has tended to recover after terrorist attacks, or natural catastrophes such as earthquakes or floods, each attack places one more nail into the heart of the industry.  If visitors do not feel safe, then eventually, they will not come.

The second theme, and perhaps just as difficult to recover from, is the lack of customer service enveloped in high levels of bureaucracy, as symbolized by the recent United Airlines debacle.  It is not the purpose of this article to assign guilt or innocence either to United Airlines or the Chicago Aviation police.  The assignment of guilt will be the job of the courts. Nevertheless, United Airlines has been already found guilty in the court of public opinion.  Not only has the public found United Airlines guilty but the airline has become symbolic of what is wrong both with the that industry and other forms of tourism.  This article is not about issues of legality, but rather it has everything to do with issues of customer service and hospitality,

Tourism commentators and annalists will spend a great amount of time second-guessing what United Airlines might have done differently or better.  What is essential, from the tourism perspective, is that the more uncomfortable travel becomes, the more dangerous it is perceived, then the more likely that slowly the joy of travel will erode and revert to its original French root, travail meaning “work” rather than pleasure.  Both the tourism and travel industries will fact major problems when to travel no longer means the joy of adventure, and instead it transforms itself into the less than pleasant uncertainties of the tired road warrier.  The travel and tourism industry need to put the joy back into travel.  To do tourism and travel officials need to do some major soul searching and consider what changes they need to make.  Here are some changes they might consider:

1)  Create a change in attitude.  All too often customers are made to feel that they are the enemy rather than the paying guest.  This change in attitude does not mean that the customer is always right nor does it mean that the customer has the right to abuse verbally the travel professional or front line personnel, It does mean, however that the customer deserves a smile, a fair hearing, and the fact that the customer may indeed be right. Often it is not what is said but how it is said.

2)  Greater flexibility. There is often the feeling among those who travel, that large travel corporations have become so bureaucratic and rules oriented that the idea of hospitality has been sacrificed on the altar of corporate policies. It is essential that customer service be taught and re-taught on a regular basis, It is equally essential that travel and tourism employees have the ability when necessary to override these regulations and remember that without customers tourism and travel dies

3)  Create better cooperation between components of the travel and tourism industry.  Hotels often do not permit check-ins before 3 or 4 pm and demand checkout times of 11:00 am or 12:00 noon.  There is absolutely no coordination between air travel and hotel check-in or check out time. The results the joy of especially long distance travel becomes the hassle of travel.

4)  Be creative in solving problems.  Travel and tourism officials need to go beyond marketing and create pleasant product development.  This means that lines must be staggered at attractions, human being must be around to answer questions, and the realization that computers simply do not build relationships nor do they offer customer service with a smile

5)  Problem solving means knowing when to be flexible.  Things do go wrong and that is when travel professionals need to find creative solutions to unexpected problems.  Creative problem solving can turn a tourism-marketing crisis into a marketing success. Often spending a few dollars can save many more dollars and create the good will needed to get travelers to turn frowns into smiles

6)  Create more than the feeling of safety and security, create safe and secure environments. Each low cost and low-tech terrorism attack goes toward creating a sense of tourism unease.  Police and private security need to be integrated into your overall tourism plan. The old notion that security officials require a great deal of brawn but few brains is no longer valid.  In a world threatened by anything from cyber crimes to bio-chemical attacks, from pandemics to insects boarding airplanes along with passengers, the travel and tourism industry can ill afford to close its eyes to current realities. 

7)  Work with other parts of the tourism industry. If a flight is cancelled then do everything possible to find another way to get the passenger to his or her destination..  If a baby needs a special formula have the hotel kitchen work with the parent, and if a visitor is not well make sure that you have a connection to a local hospital.

United Airlines is not the only part of the travel and tourism industry to have suffered a customer relation’s crisis, and many of the errors made by its employees might have occurred at numerous other tourism and travel businesses.  If we can remember that most people want to be treated with respect and a sense of caring, then the travel and tourism industry can go from one based not on mere travail and become the center of hospitality that it is meant to be.

About Dr. Peter Tarlow

Dr. Peter E. Tarlow is a world-renowned speaker and expert specializing in the impact of crime and terrorism on the tourism industry, event and tourism risk management, and economic development. 

Contact: Dr. Peter Tarlow

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