Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A,B,C, Tourist Info, 1,2,3.

I went to a lot of tourist information offices in the Czech Republic this year, and developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. Some were absolutely wonderful, other times getting an answer to even the simplest of questions was like getting commonsense from a bureaucrat.

The thing that bothers me most about the mediocre places is that they don’t understand what an opportunity they’re passing up.

The opportunity to create a good impression of their city and country, the opportunity to deepen visitors’ appreciation for their locations, and the opportunity to encourage their visitors to stay longer. Or at least to provide them with the information they need to make the decision to stay longer.

I say that because I think, even though foreign tourists have been coming here freely for almost 20 years, the Czech Republic remains drastically underrated and underappreciated. Most people only go to Prague. Some will make a daytrip to Kutná Hora or Karlštejn. Others might go to Český Krumlov or Karlovy Vary as well, but for 90% of foreign visitors that’s it. That’s all they think is worth seeing.

I think the misconception is caused mostly by lack of information or reassurance. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been to Litomyšl”, “Olomouc, never heard of it, why would I go there?”, “I don’t think Liberec is in my guidebook”.

And it’s reinforced every time travellers talk to each other, because nobody wants to think they missed out. Someone who spends one night in a place will always say “one night is enough”, someone who spends two will always say “two nights is ideal”, someone who only goes to Prague will say “just go to Prague and do a daytrip to the bone church”.

Assuming most other places would like to attract more visitors, how should they go about it? The traditional way is by going to travel expos, directing print or television ads towards a target audience, and inviting travel journalists in for all-expenses-paid weekends. But who takes notice of glossy ads and expense account journos anymore? People are much more likely to listen to friends or acquaintances, sometimes even random strangers.

And there’s the opportunity. The goal of a tourist information office should be to do everything possible to make sure their visitors, however few or many, have such a wonderful stay that they want to go away and spread the word without being asked.

So when a tourist does somehow wander in to a tourist information office in an underappreciated destination, the opportunity that presents itself is tremendous.

It's an opportunity not only to give visitors the information they need, but also information they didn’t know they needed, and anything and everything else they might use to enhance their stay. An opportunity to send visitors away surprised and delighted about the place they’ve ‘discovered’ and just itching to tell everyone they meet and all their friends at home. An opportunity to create willing and able voluntary ambassadors.

Once a tourist information office comprehends that opportunity, what can they do to seize it? Easy. Pay attention to three things. Staff, surroundings and information. Every Czech tourist information office I’ve ever been to (expect one) could improve at least two of those.

Here’s what they should do.

Hire staff capable of realizing that tourists and other visitors are their clients.
The same staff should also be capable of showing interest in their clients, without coming across as shallow. The staff shouldn’t only have answers for clients but also a few questions like “What would you like to see and do while you are here? How long will you be in town? Where have you just come from? Where are you going next? Do you know that the second oldest/tallest/deepest/weirdest…in Europe is 10km from here? Do you know about the concert at the university tomorrow night? Have you ever taken a boat ride along an underground river?

Provide lots and lots of information. Provide all the information and when that’s done, seek out more. But organize it and make it easy to get to. Clients shouldn’t have to line up to ask for it. Have it in folders or on posters, or use modern technology; big screen slideshows of local attractions, especially the lesser known ones and the interiors of prominent buildings, use computers and have digital databases of everything searchable by category. Smoking, non-smoking, vegetarian, kosher, wheelchair access, ruined, restored, open on Mondays, child friendly, suitable for rainy days….and so on. And a printer.

Turn the tourist information office into a tourist information lounge; encourage visitors/clients to linger long enough to absorb all this information they didn’t know they were missing out on. Free tea and coffee would be good. Local music, documentaries, films playing gently in the background. Sofas, armchairs and some tables to sit at, write and make notes too, if space permits. If space doesn’t permit, find more space. Internet access and baggage lockers would bring extra clients through the doors. So might a travellers’ bulletin board of upcoming events. Maybe even a Laundromat? Free walking tours. A taste of the local specialty, anyone?

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Or doesn’t it? Are there actually good reasons I don’t know about for tourist information offices not to do things this way? I thought about cost and space, but you’d save on all those expensive ads, and getting rid of those unsellable souvenirs and those big desks that the current staff hide behind would free up some floorspace…

If tourist information in your town, state or country suddenly became your responsibility, what changes would you make…?

Related posts:
Top ten destinations in the Czech Republic
Bohemia's most underrated town


Anonymous said...

This just reflects the general customer service in Czech Republic. Employees despise customers because they make them work. Like TICs hate vistors because they need to "do something" instead of Web surfing.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Yes, I guess that's true in some cases, francois. When staff anywhere get snappy with people who don't deserve it, it's time to move out of customer service.

I'm not sure it's really any better though in Poland, Austria, France, or England, is it? The rudest information window I've ever been to was in a train station in Vienna, and the time I struggled most to ask directions from strangers was in London...

Mostly, the things Tourist info could do better are the responsibility of management, not staff.

Current TI's are the equivalent of the Model T ford. They answer questions that people come in with and the Model T has wheels and gets you from A to B. Fairly basic stuff.

Car makers (nudged along by potential earnings and competition) innovated and improved, but 21st century Tourist Info is still just filling the gaps left by foreign guidebooks...

Ian Transue said...

Poland is a bit up and down as well. There are 3 information offices here in the centre of Kraków: One circular booth (that you might mistake for a public toilet) as soon as you cross under the street from the train station (probably the best and friendliest as they are visited by the most people), the second on the main square in the cloth hall (which has unfortunately shrunk to half its size over the past few years and is more a souvenir shop than anything else), and the third is on a side street just off the main square (actually, this is more of an information centre for concerts, theatre performances and events). Most have good relations with tourists, though I cannot say they are set up for any lounging. Quick processing type places. The rest of the southern part of Poland falls into what you have described in your blog. An occasional gem here and there ... if they even exist at all outside of the main tourist cities!

Mags said...

Captain, You're right on with this. Of course, I've had the same frustrations in Slovakia. Once I went into the main tourist information office in Old Town Bratislava and the woman behind the desk was so hostile, as if I was bothering her for asking a few questions, it made me wonder why she wanted the job in the first place.
Anyway, there are people in government positions who might be interested in your comments because they are constructive and give some concrete advice. I'd write a little note to someone in the Czech Ministry of Culture or the main tourism bureau and forward them your post.
Some things are obvious to one group of people and a mystery to others.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Mags, thanks for the suggestion and compliment, but I don't think there's much chance of anyone in Czech officialdom taking notice of any unqualified outsider; and a dirty foreigner who can't even match his socks no less...;-)

If Tourist Info was a private enterprise whose livelihood depended on doing a good job, it'd be different. If this stuff wasn't obvious to them already I could probably hire myself out as a consultant for some exorbitant amount.

But government officials...let's just say I'd be surprised to see 'receptive to change' or 'open to new ideas' on any of their CV's. Or in any of their job descriptions, which is probably closer to the core of the matter.

If any of them are, let's trust they have a google alert set and have read this post already.

Ian, what replaced the foregone hall of the cloth hall Infocentre? It's such a lovely big building, surely there's something in there that could hypothetically be moved off the square to make way for a decent sized Tourist Info lounge.

On the other hand, whether Krakow really needs more visitors or not is I guess debatable these days...?

I think I know now why the people at the big round public toilet outside the Krakow train station were so angry with me that time...;-) (just kidding)

Cheers guys, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

Michael said...

If only...
Sofas and staff who actually seem to enjoy their job would be a start. Cultural listings, not just out-of-date leaflets, internet access for sure (and not blocked to just the in-house site), free tea and coffee instead of crappy souvenirs at tourist office mark-ups.