Service is an often overlooked factor that, if done right, would drive change and gain the tourism industry recognition as a genuine force for social and economic good.
In Australia, tourism already generates nearly twice as many jobs as mining according to Tourism Research Australia. And tourism has just been identified as one of Deloitte Access Economics 'Fantastic Five' – one of the sectors that will keep Australia high in the world's global prosperity league as the mining boom cools.
Tourism Builds Social Capital
Tourism builds social capital as it spreads jobs across the economy from students to highly paid tourism CEOs. It connects people from different cultures with one another through service interactions.
But this last role requires a quality interaction. It should be an interaction that leaves the visitor feeling enriched or engaged with the place they are visiting. In an age of instant social media, it is now even more important. A dissatisfied customer tells between 9 and 15 people on average says a consumer affairs study from America. But if they tell TripAdvisor, that can become tens of thousands very quickly.
In our research, Southeast Asian nations are consistently seen as leaders in service. The Singapore Girl is an icon of service. But Anglophone cultures such as Australia with our egalitarian tradition often struggle to deliver a high quality service experience.
Service Is A Barrier To Australians Taking Domestic Holidays
Indeed, at the press launch for the TNS Domesticate study service quality was noted as a barrier to Australians taking more holidays at home. The need to understand the impact of service quality on international visitor's experience has led to a satisfaction question being added to the International Visitor Survey.
My own service experience in this area on a recent weekend away very much confirms that service is a challenge for Australia. At a golf resort on the New South Wales Central Coast I waited 40 minutes for two slices of toast, which then arrived without butter, which I then had to seek.
But I don't think Australian culture is at odds with a great service. My NSW breakfast was in stark contrast to the service experience I received shortly before in Canada (where service was universally excellent). For example, staff at the Blue Water Cafe in Vancouver pointed us to a fantastic artisan sake maker. We wouldn't have made this discovery without the staff taking time to chat to understand us and volunteering relevant information.
Then there's money. Does tipping help or hinder service? One theory is that if you know that you'll earn more money you're likely to give better service. I am sure money does play a role, but only up to a point. For example, the cabin crew on our Air Canada flight into Vancouver changed their service rotation to make sure that anyone who didn't have a choice for dinner got served first at breakfast. As air stewards, they certainly weren't expecting tips.
I also saw a few elements that other destinations could learn from Canada and apply to service situations in Australia.
An important factor is the element of process and structure. In work I did for Tourism Queensland on service, we interviewed service leaders and saw a remarkably consistent pattern of behavior. Pulling this together with the published literature on service quality, we developed a nine-step process that any business could apply to improve its service.
Although, Singapore Airlines is famous for friendly and patient service, it actually builds that service around a series of well-drilled protocolson how to interact with guests.
Tourism Vancouver also has processes such as service quality awards that recognise individual contributions to help.
Using Culture To Create Service Style
Another thing any destination can do is to use elements of its personality or own culture to create a service style that is unique and helps create memorable interactions. The style that Canada uses is unobtrusive, but effective care for the customer. It was never about them and how great they were. It was always about how we were feeling.
Australians in the tourism industry have already considered what makes Australia unique as a country: qualities of warmth, positivity and energy. It is a genuine and spontaneous service style with energetic engagement at the behest of the customer.
(An Indian friend recently remarked that Angus Houston, spokesperson for the search for MH370, personifies many of those qualities.)
But this approach could apply to any culture. For example, German style is often about quiet efficiency that provides peace of mind when travelling.
Apart from service, we need to remember practical measures: Chinese food snacks in the hotel room, signage in multiple languages at airports, ensuring that a prayer room is always available for Muslim guests.
But the combination of these with a style that authentically matches perceptions of the destination should ensure that any destination can be a 'force for good' in building economic gain and social capital.
That said, I still wonder if visitors to Paris would feel that they missed out if they didn't experience an exotic combination of high culture and rude service...
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