Tourism officials launch program to improve customer service
By Charlotte Libov
Flush with success in attracting wealthy visitors, Miami-Dade County tourism officials are investing in a program to raise the level of customer service and friendliness.
"High-end guests bring high expectations," Maria Sastre, chairwoman of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, told an audience of about 1,000 at the bureau's annual meeting Monday at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
She said that while the bureau has succeeded in its goal of attracting these "coveted customers," it is faced with the challenge of not taking them for granted. So officials have decided to spend $150,000 to fund a campaign to elevate the level of customer service among tourism workers. Eventually, the plan involves signing up sponsors as well — including Miami TV station WTVJ CBS-4, which was kicking off the campaign with a promotional spot taped by CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
Shown at the meeting, the spot had Ms. Couric, seated at her news desk, opening with a cheery "Hola" and then reminiscing about her days as a Miami newscaster for WTVJ.
"I love Miami. I spent two of my most important years here. It was here that I learned to think on my feet. I also got a glimpse of what the town would become. But when I was here, South Beach was just a little collection of hotels for little old ladies and little old men," Ms. Couric says in the spot.
After the meeting, Ms. Sastre, who is starting her second term as chairwoman, discussed the program. She said it is important that the hospitality sector find ways to keep increasing the daily rate that tourists spend here.
However, no matter how good the facilities are, if tourists have an unfriendly experience, it could sour them on their whole experience, she cautioned.
"We've made a lot of our dreams come true here. We have world-class hotels, we have a world-class airport and we have the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. We now need to focus on the soft-sell market," she said.
"It's all about being engaging, about making eye contact. Even if a person's language skills are not great, body language is important. A smile can go a long way," she added.
During the meeting, Ms. Sastre told the audience that the bureau is rededicating itself to help forge a plan to renovate and upgrade the Miami Beach Convention Center. "It's frustrating for all of us that today a decision and a plan has not been approved but we will continue to work towards it," she said.
In 2004, Miami-Dade County voters approved a $55 million plan to upgrade the convention center, but that had stalled when other issues took priority, such as the fate of the 2,700-seat Jackie Gleason Theater. Recently, though, that issue was resolved, with the Miami Beach City Commission voting to negotiate with Live Nation, a large concert promoter, to lease the facility. So, with that decided it is time to turn attention to the convention center, which is outdated and puts the bureau at a disadvantage in attracting lucrative convention business, she said.
"The competition that we face to get conferences is fierce. Several cities have already opened new convention centers, including Orlando, San Francisco, Branson, MO, and Tacoma, WA," she said.
Accompanied by a slide presentation, she showed facilities in other cities — including Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Jacksonville — that were being constructed or upgraded or where feasibility studies have been launched.
"It is important that we have a convention center that we can be proud of," she said.
In addition, she contended that there is a myth that Miami's high hotel prices have priced it out of the convention business. She said room rates have climbed in Boston, Oahu, HI, and Chicago, "which helps dispel the myth that our success has priced us out of the convention business but many of these other cities have high day rates," she said. "The Carnival Center symbolizes what we have become. Now imagine what we could be if we had a revitalized Miami Beach Convention Center."