Things you should never say to tourists . . .
. . . if you want them to stay longer, spend more and come back. Now straighten up and smile!
From left: Edward Meade of Failte Ireland, student Ciara McGrath, Mary Mahon of Longbowe Self-catering, Marty Dwan of Framewell, local resident Marianne Kelly, Laura Mahon of Team Dynamics and community worker Ken Kirwan at the Kilkenny Tourism Ambassador meeting at Rothe House.Photograpph: Dylan Vaughan.
‘Never say no. Only: No problem,” Eddie Meade tells the group in front of him at Rothe House in Kilkenny. Meade, a trainer working for Fáilte Ireland, is talking about the things you should never say to tourists, even if you don’t know the answers to their questions.
The 30 or so people in the room are all involved in some way with tourism in Kilkenny city and county. They range in age, from students who have volunteered to work with the Kilkenny Arts Festival, to guides, retail workers, hotel staff and those owning small tourism-focused businesses.
“I’m probably the oldest dog in the room,” jokes Frank Kavanagh, a longtime tour guide at Kilkenny Castle. “But this old dog can learn new tricks.”
The group are attending a free three-hour workshop, the final one in a pilot series run by various business and tourism interests under the umbrella of Destination Kilkenny, and supported by Fáilte Ireland, among other bodies. They’re being encouraged to visit their local attractions, familiarise themselves with opening hours and try to see their surroundings from the perspective of a tourist. Above all, they’re being coached in the importance of being welcoming.
The goal is that participants will then be “Welcome Ambassadors” for Kilkenny, all set to offer information, greetings, directions, etc to tourists, both domestic and international.
Meade’s co-trainer is Fiona Candon. She is frank and direct as to the importance of interaction between the erstwhile ambassadors and the visiting public. “We want tourists to stay longer, spend more and to come back,” she says. The words “spend more” are repeated a lot throughout the workshop.
Various tourism statistics flash up on the Powerpoint presentation. “How many visitors did we [Ireland] get in 2011?” Candon asks. The answer is 6.3 million, a figure participant Marty Dwan already knows. Dwan and his wife have been hosting foreign-language students for many years. “We’re always looking for things to do with the kids, and for their parents, when they visit.”
Candon dwells on the figure of 6.3 million for some time. “We have farm news every day,” she says. “We should have tourism news too. It should have its own slot every night. Look at the money it brings in.” The workshop, Candon says, is “about showcasing your local knowledge and experience to visitors”.
Compared with some other counties, Kilkenny receives a high number of tourists: in 2011, it had 219,000 foreign visitors and 650,000 domestic. “Some destinations have to work really hard, but you have it all here,” she says. There are more stats: the most popular attraction for visitors is a cultural or heritage landmark.
Given Kilkenny’s popularity as a destination for highly visible hen and stag parties, it’s surprising that no time is given to the topic of how Welcome Ambassadors deal with the many visitors who have no interest in culture or heritage.
Meade suggests various ways ambassadors can make themselves look approachable to visitors in need of directions or information. Smile. Stand up straight. Don’t slouch. Don’t fold your arms. Make eye contact. Don’t stare, though: that might freak out the visitor.
Look them in the eye, and then look “at the bridge of their nose” for the rest of the time you’re talking to them. And keep smiling. Even if all you can think about are the Anglo Irish tapes. “You all have a responsibility to make sure visitor experience to Kilkenny is a positive one, whether you are involved directly in tourism or not,” he stresses.
He shows a short video that demonstrates a guide listening to two tourists at a Dublin Viking attraction. One tourist mentions her small child’s name at one point. The guide then recommends a book for her son, Steven, available in the gift shop.
“He was being observant,” Meade says. “He’s making a sale, and Mammy will buy the book for Steven, and then the next thing, Steven will want to come visit the attraction for himself, and he’ll want to bring a friend with him, and Mammy will come back with them, and all because the guide was paying attention.”
The group digests this seamless chain of commercial transactions. “Do you not think it’s creepy the guide remembered Steven’s name?” one woman says eventually, and the room explodes.
What the workshop unconsciously highlights is that it’s hard to teach people to do what we’re supposed to do naturally in Ireland: be welcoming, polite, and spare some time for our visitors.
The message in the room could not be clearer: there is a direct monetary relationship between tourists and the quality of our interaction with them. “We excel in visitor engagement,” Meade says, and while it’s mostly true, it just sounds a little discomfiting to hear this expressed quite so bluntly.
Participants in the workshops were each given a “Visitor Welcome Ambassador Passport”, and invited to visit a minimum of 10 attractions in the city and county. Those committed Welcome Ambassadors who do so will receive a specially commissioned Rudolf Heltzel pin.
But even if you’re not a Kilkenny Welcome Ambassador, at least you know now how to encourage visitor engagement. Stand up straight, don’t fold your arms, and above all, keep your gaze firmly focused on the bridge of the visitor’s nose after making that initial eye contact.