Tourism curriculum offers the lessons of hospitality

Classes aim to help workers give visitors a reason to return

January 12, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When the people who decide where thousands of meetings and conventions are held each year say something, tourism officials listen ... especially when it's something negative.

That's what happened when the Meeting Professionals International convention came to Baltimore in 1997 and raised concerns about everything from taxis and public transportation to restaurants, hotels and security.

The state's Office of Tourism Development responded to the disappointing evaluations from meeting planners by creating a hospitality training program. Using $175,000 from work force training funds, the tourism office hired a new staff member to develop seminars.

Since March, about 95 people have completed classes, including a four-hour minisession and 20- and 24-hour versions spread across several weeks, according to Karen S. Justice, coordinator for Maryland Workforce Training and Development.

In one lively class, an Abbott and Costello videotape, a couple of duck decoys and free samples of chocolate mints were a few of the props that instructor Mitch Shank used to get his students thinking about how to do their hospitality jobs better.

"If someone asks you what there is to do, just tell them, `We've got America in miniature,'" Shank told the group of employees from area hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions. "Give them the experience. Let them feel it. Let them taste it."

Shank, an instructor at Harford Community College, is one of three people who have taught hospitality courses under the state program. An experienced tour guide, Shank has planned events in Havre de Grace and worked with the decoy museum there.

He is also a dedicated hospitality industry watcher. A huge Disney fan (he's been to Disney World 15 times and Disneyland twice), Shank even admits to planting a crumpled drink cup or some other trash at Disney World just to see how long it takes to disappear. He's even timed it: 1 1/2 to two minutes.

Disney's premium on customer service should be a lesson to everyone in the industry, Shank said.

"Create a memory," he told his students during a four-hour session this week, called "Baltimore Smiles," at the Baltimore Hilton and Towers. "Create an impression that will bring people back."

Shank used the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine to teach the importance of listening and speaking clearly, the duck decoys to tell students they should be experts on their restaurant, hotel or attraction just as he is an expert on the duck decoys his grandfather carved. He used the mints to demonstrate the importance of having firsthand knowledge that can be shared with guests.

Hospitality seminars include everyone from front-line employees who meet the public to top managers. Employers pay for the classes, which cost from $50 to $109 a person for the longer versions. This week's condensed class cost $12.50 a person.

Despite the industry's acknowledged shortcomings and the minimal cost of the seminars, Justice has struggled to fill the classes. Familiarizing people with the program and getting people to commit the time to the classes has proven challenging, she said. Those factors, in part, led to the abbreviated version of the class.

Edward H. Meerholz, director of operations for the Babe Ruth Museum, took this week's class to see what he might learn and maybe help boost attendance at the museum, which attracts about 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year.

"It raises consciousness," he said. "From time to time, you slip into the daily routine. You need to remind people about how to present themselves."

In the hospitality industry, good service must be a constant focus, industry experts say.

"The key thing is to increase people's understanding of the importance of their role," said Justice, the training coordinator. "In addition to making a bed, or selling a ticket or taking a credit card, they're also representing their community as a host. They're the make or break cog in the industry."

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