South Fla. officials hope to make politeness pay

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

May 01, 1994|By Anthony Faiola | Anthony Faiola,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- John Macchi, a cross between George Patton and Miss Manners, is looming before an army of bellhops, maids and bartenders at the Sheraton Bal Harbour. He's barking orders as if World War III had just broken out.

"Smile, smile, SMILE TILL IT HURTS!" bellows the portly Mr. Macchi, dressed in an impeccable navy suit and red tie. "They're going to judge the way you look and the way you act. Always behave as if the president of the United States and the pope were staying in your hotel at the same time."

In Miami -- the town Conde Nast Traveler ranked as the rudest on Earth -- tourism officials are launching one of the largest crash courses in politeness in South Florida history.

In 15 of Dade County's biggest and best resorts, hospitality consultants such as Mr. Macchi are on a mission to teach everyone from general managers to valets the importance of being gracious.

The reason: Gunned-down tourists aren't Miami's biggest problem. Rather, rudeness, poor service and questionable quality are considered by experts to be the biggest long-term problem facing South Florida tourism, an industry that employs 170,000 people and generates $13.85 billion in revenues in Dade and Broward counties alone.

"Consistently, hotels in South Florida rank in the bottom half of consumer satisfaction surveys," said Scott D. Berman, managing associate for Coopers & Lybrand's hospitality consulting group in Miami. "Now, we're facing a service crisis, and the tourism leaders are turning to drastic measures."

Manners mania washes over South Florida as the region's huge hospitality machine is readying for its most important tourism event of a decade: Pow-Wow '94.

Pow Wow, the single largest gathering of the most powerful names in the international tourism business, will lure more than 5,000 delegates to the Miami Beach Convention Center from May 21 to May 25 -- including tour operators and travel agents who book 90 percent of the international visitors to the United States each year.

"All it's going to take is one bell man in a bad mood, and it's a bad check mark for a city which simply can't afford bad check marks anymore," said Donald Lefton, vice chairman of the Continental Cos., a Miami-based hotel management company, and chairman of Dade County's Pow Wow '94 host committee.

"We need to explain to our hotel staff, and everyone in the hospitality industry, that these are probably the most important five days in their careers," he said.

Complaints about quality of Dade County's hotels have been the bane of the region's tourism industry for a decade. During South Florida's last three big conventions, talk of impolite staff, poor rooms and service was rampant.

Besides the politeness seminars, individual hotels are taking their own special measures. Among them: The Eden Roc in Miami Beach plans to greet guests at the door with champagne. At the Omni International Hotel, soon to be the renamed the Crowne Plaza Miami, the concierge desk will be staffed by hotel managers.

This is not the first time tourism leaders have tried to instill manners in Miami.

Unlike New York and Los Angeles, many South Florida hotels, including the largest resorts, still operate seasonally. During the busy winter season, about 20 percent of a hotel's staff is made up of temporary employees, who are often less motivated to provide quality service to guests.

Experts also point to the high number of hotel staff members whose first language is not English, often providing difficulties 00 for domestic and some foreign visitors. However, the high number of Spanish speakers employed by hotels is a plus, since the largest single group of visitors to Dade County now comes from Latin America.

"We're working to ensure that everything is in place and that everyone is on the best behavior during Pow Wow," Mr. Lefton said. "If things don't go well, it's going to be devastating for this city, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves."

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