Much of what we do in life, travel and tourism is about expectations. About twenty years ago, I was leading an ecotour in Belize. I had two very unhappy ladies at a four-star resort, who could not believe there was no bathmat in their room. The food was great, the rooms were beautiful, the beds comfortable, the service was spectacular and the location was perfect on a gorgeous jungle river – but no bathmats. They expected a bathmat. I was taking them to the Jaguar Reserve the next night to sleep on cots in a concrete block building with scorpions hanging from the ceiling. The pit toilet was fifty feet behind the building in total darkness at night in jaguar and venomous snake country. I painted such a bleak picture of the next night’s venue, that on arrival, they commented kindly, “This is really much nicer than we expected.” Whew, I was glad I underpromised and overdelivered.
David Ausubel wrote about advance organizers in 1960. They help people understand what will happen next so that they are more likely to pay attention. In a presentation, the theme statement at the beginning is an advance organizer. If it is thought provoking and telegraphs the essence of the talk, my audience will stay tuned. If it is vague and topical, they do not know what to expect.
At a resort or in a community, the signs, brochures, Internet websites and advice from a travel consultant are advance organizers. If they are accurate or even suggest a little less than what we discover on arrival, it is good. If they set up an experience as world class and it’s not, we are disappointed.
Nametags on staff are advance organizers. Even uniforms that telegraph a worker’s role give advance information to visitors and make it easier for visitors to find the right person to talk to.
Many of us use TripAdvisor.com as our advance organizer. It does not give the company line about a tourism or community experience. It is the voice of other travelers telling us what we will find or may not find. Not all of us have the same experience at a place so the high and low scores may be suspect but a good strong 4 bubble score average tells me the place was pretty good by all accounts. And when a destination or attraction has fifty or sixty reviews, I have more confidence than when only three reviewers tell me glowing things or how the experience lacks in charm. I especially like the feature on TripAdvisor.com that allows the reviewer to give personal advice about which cabin or room to select at a hotel or resort. Nuanced decisions can make or break an experience.
In a seminar, training event or on a tour, the itinerary or agenda suggests what will happen and when. It is good to make the advance organizer as helpful as possible without being too specific. If you promise the morning break at 10:30 AM, some people will be unhappy with a 10:40 break. If you say “mid-morning break for coffee and snacks,” you have some wiggle room on when the break will occur.
A lot of what we call “culture shock” is the way advance organizers vary from nation to nation and community to community. Some cultures have very few cues about what will happen in a park or community experience. Attracting American or European guests may require a destination to work at some details as advance organizers. And, of course, not every American or European is the same. We live in sub-cultures that are slow in some geographic areas and fast in others. We have varied expectations, based on where we grew up or have spent most of our lives.
Great experiences are planned and executed by people who understand cultural competencies and know who their guests are likely to be. We can start to make more of our guests happy by providing a great Internet site that explains options and gives thoughtful advance information. We can greet guests with advance emails, appropriate signs, and excellent reception services and orientation. I love the fruit juice and warm wet towel offerings in East Africa on arrival at a hotel or safari lodge. It starts the conversation and experience in just the right way.
Advance organizers help people relax and enjoy an experience. They keep us from running away when we simply fear what will happen next at a place. Planning and training your staff to prepare for guests/visitors/tourists can make a big difference. If you need help in determining what your best advance organizers might be, let us know. We can help you improve your visitor experience and encourage guests to write that five bubble review at TripAdvisor.com.
– Tim Merriman