Campaign promotes warmer welcomes in Miami

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You can't get away with just being hip and trendy. In today's ultracompetitive tourism market, a world-class destination requires world-class service.

That's the message the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau is hoping to get across to Miami's hospitality workers in a new campaign aimed at erasing the destination's reputation for indifferent customer service.

Dubbed "Miami Begins With Me," the program aims to educate frontline employees like waiters, bellmen, front-desk staff, airport workers and taxi drivers about the importance of making visitors feel welcome.

"The long-term growth and viability of our destination is dependent on meeting and exceeding the expectations of visitors," said William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The bureau hired "secret shoppers" to visit about 60 tourism-related businesses -- including hotels, restaurants, shops and the Miami airport -- to gauge how helpful and friendly employees were. The bureau even spied on itself to see if it was putting its money where its mouth is.

"Overall, we all did OK, but OK doesn't cut it when you're striving to be a five-star destination for the high-end customer," Talbert said.

Among the shoppers' findings: Hospitality workers in the Miami area often failed to say the first hello, make eye contact or smile when approached by the secret shoppers. Many also failed to tell customers their names when engaged in conversation.

Babel no barrier

Among the area's hotels, high-end properties generally scored better in customer service than their midscale counterparts, although charging top dollar for a hotel room didn't always equate with providing top service, the secret shoppers found.

Interestingly, the industry's large number of foreign-born workers, who are often cited as a barrier to good communication between tourists and hospitality employees, fared well, according to the CVB's Talbert.

"We have some 87 languages spoken in our public schools, which gives you an idea of how rich and mobile our workforce is," Talbert said.

"But our top-performing hotels also employ a diverse workforce, so it just goes to show how far we've moved the needle during the last few years, although we need to do better."

Rolando Aedo, the bureau's vice president of marketing, said the CVB has set aside an initial budget of $200,000 this year to kick off the campaign with a series of ads promoting the "Miami Begins With Me" slogan on buses and billboards and in print media.

The bureau is also seeking private and public funds to cosponsor training sessions with frontline hospitality workers using existing programs like those offered by Florida International University.

Aedo said by the first quarter of next year, the bureau plans to expand the program and roll out a dedicated Web site, Miamibeginswithme.com, which will contain material that co-op partners will be able to integrate into their own training programs.

The CVB will also cosponsor a customer-service recognition program with the taxi industry and is developing programs with the Miami airport and seaport.

"The bureau is not trying to reinvent the wheel and replace the very good training programs that our hospitality partners currently have, but we'd like to help give the entire industry a boost with this new campaign," Aedo said.

To contact reporter Jorge Sidron, send e-mail to [email protected].

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