Tourism and the fine art of impressionism

Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002

Understanding the level of service that customers both desire and expect is just one of the many fundamental components necessary for any successful business.

Whether it is the visitor services industry, retail industry or any field that deals with the public on a daily basis, we often forget that we create lasting impressions every time a customer walks through the door. The way a visitor feels once they leave your establishment, combined with the quality of service they receive, often helps shape their overall impression of your business, your community and, ultimately, of Alaska.

This past weekend, I observed this principle in practice during a four-hour whale-watching cruise aboard the 54-foot Viewfinder from Renown Charters and Tours in Seward. Our captain, Steve Clausen, applied his 20-plus years of Alaska marine experience and knowledge in describing and narrating our tour and was able to answer historical and ecological questions with relative ease.

Based on reports received over the marine radio, he also managed to locate three camera-shy gray whales that unfortunately were more interested in pursuing their own activities from the relative safety of the deep water, away from our intruding telephoto lenses. Brent Whitmore, the deckhand, summed it up rather nicely when he described how, in locating marine wildlife, rival businesses might "compete on the beach, but cooperate on the water."

It's a good feeling knowing that the customer's interests come first and that the spirit of cooperation between companies can shine through.

Although I wasn't able to stand 20 feet away from a gray whale or get any great snapshots, I still walked away fulfilled. Why? Because, the crew was knowledgeable, answered questions accurately, provided interesting commentary and seemed to generally enjoy what they were doing.

Although I can't speak for the other 21 people on board, everyone seemed to have a great time. However, halfway through the trip, I was struck by a conversation I had with a gentleman from Austin, Texas, that really gave me something to think about.

We were discussing the differences between Texas and Alaska and the culture shock that he experienced while here on business. He described the differences in a postcard to a relative back home that said "there's too much daylight, it's freezing cold, and there's moose walking down the sidewalk" but the lady at (major fast food chain) still snubbed me and "treated me just like they do back at home."

This statement made me realize that a visit to the Kenai Peninsula is not just about watching whales, king salmon fishing, or even participating in recreational activities. Rather, we are providing an experience. Sure, people come here to specifically catch a trophy king salmon or to view bears in their natural surroundings. But, we all have a role to play. From the service station attendant giving directions, to the fast-food worker taking your order, or to the clerk at your local supermarket, we all have a stake in the tourism industry whether we realize it or not.

With all the talk going on about what effect 9-11 will have on our summer tourism season, we are provided with a tremendous opportunity to showcase, in my opinion, the "best Alaska has to offer." We should be congratulating the visitors who will be arriving shortly in search of their dream vacation.

Many people who would normally be visiting Europe or Asia have altered their plans to come to Alaska. While they may not be coming to Alaska or the Kenai Peninsula in record numbers this summer, the reduction in volume may provide business owners with more opportunity to really take some time to offer personalized service and quality experiences.

This summer, we should also realize that many people will be visiting Alaska to find some relief from their own personal struggles. People directly affected by the World Trade Center bombings or the Enron fiasco will arrive. Parents and siblings of U.S. servicemen fighting abroad will come. International visitors from all over the world and affected by many crises will also be here.

So, next time you encounter an irate or angry customer, take it all in stride. The world is changing as we speak and so are the rules. Let's work together this summer to show our visitors that we are ready and willing to meet the challenge and can rise up to it. And remember -- in the few seconds it takes to smile, you can create a lasting impression for life.

Dru Garson is the acting executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. He can be reached at

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