for National Geographic Traveler
Travel to the United States is the lowest it's been in a decade, reports the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Many blame the sluggish economy and terrorist threats for the four percent decline. But there's more to it. U.S. travel companies are earning a reputation for delivering poor customer service, says National Geographic Traveler editor Keith Bellows. Want better service on your next trip? Start here.
How do you define good customer service in travel?
Good customer service is about servicing the customer's best interests. More often, American travel companies are servicing their best interests. Of course there are exceptions. Hotel chains such as the Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com) and the Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com) go out of their way to record their customers' preferences. By the time you visit any of their properties a second time, they'll know whether you prefer orchids or roses in your room, what kind of coffee you like in the morning, and whether you want The New York Times or The Boston Globe.
What's the key problem with customer service in the U.S.?
Travel companies nickel and dime people at every corner. Take hotels, for instance. Rather than discounting rates only to charge for extras like morning coffee service, hotel chains should maintain their price points or even raise their rates. And use that money to make staying at their hotel a unique experience. Customers are also likely to pay more if they know their money will benefit a good cause. For example Fairmont Hotels and Resorts recently launched their "Fairmont Rooms From the Heart" program (www.fairmont.com/heart). For every room reservation made online through the end of December, the hotel group will donate [U.S.] $10 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Through 2006, Fairmont will donate an additional [U.S.] $75,000 annually to grant an estimated 200 wishes each year.
Is it expensive for hotels to offer free perks?
These services actually [require a greater investment in innovative] thinking than in money. Fifteen years ago, people were flagging a good bed, decent room service, and cable TV as the most important things to them when choosing a hotel. Ten years later, a gym was on that list. Now more people want to be online while they're away. So many hotels have set up high-speed Internet access in their rooms or common areas. While some of these services might be pricey to set up, hotels will save in the long run because they won't lose customers.
Is there a cultural connection to our poor service?
You may experience better customer service in so-called friendly pockets of the U.S., like the South or the Midwest. But for the U.S. travel industry to be successful, every travel company must deliver customer service on par with destinations that already get it right. Here's an example. At a luxury hotel in the U.S., it's typical for someone to greet you when you arrive and offer to take your bags for you. You fill out a ticket, check in, and 10 minutes later, the bags are brought to your room. On a recent trip to Tokyo my experience was completely different. We stayed at a nice hotel but not a luxury one. As we pulled up to the front door, four guys appeared. Before our car even rolled to a stop, the car doors were opened and our bags were whisked away. Someone else escorted us inside to check-in. By the time we got to our room, just a few minutes after we arrived, our bags were already there. It was unbelievable.
Many companies have switched to digital reservation services to help cut costs. Is this trend partly to blame?
Yes. That's the number one complaint, in fact, when it comes to service. Hotels, airlines, cruise companies, tour operatorsyou name it, most are relying on digital systems. But this is something that's easy for companies to fix. By shunning the digital trend, U.S. travel companies can actually market themselves as offering good, personal service. Because that's no longer routine.
What can travelers do to make sure they get the kind of service they want?
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