The faintest of salty breezes is wafting over the blue-green sea, with sunshine peeking out from behind a procession of fair-weather clouds—a perfect day in the Caribbean. A waitress stands idly at the entrance to a seaside resort restaurant, and she barely looks up as a guest approaches. "Wherever you want to sit," she mutters indifferently, gesturing vaguely at an empty table. Is there a note of hostility in her voice?She walks away abruptly.
The guest hesitates, frowning. "Actually," she calls after the waitress, "I think I’m going to go sit on the beach." The waitress shrugs. The guest turns to leave.
"Hold on," interrupts a third woman, addressing the guest. "And tell me how you feel right now." This is Trem Quinlan, a Canadian with short-cropped blond hair, and this is a training session meant to teach hotel and restaurant workers at the Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos how to deliver better service. The role-playing game for these dozen or so staff members is designed to elicit empathy: What does bad service feel like?Earlier in the session, Quinlan had her students pin pieces of paper to the backs of their shirts and then write compliments on them. After they took turns reading the comments, she asked, "What does it feel like to say nice things and share them with other people?" No one responded. "It feels good, doesn’t it?" The class nodded. "That’s what the service experience is about."
It’s common enough in the luxury travel business for people to ruminate about what constitutes the essence of excellent service. You hear a lot about empathy and intuition, discretion, a knack for improvisation, and the importance of warmth without overfamiliarity. In the Caribbean, meanwhile, you tend to hear a lot about how the service is lacking: it’s brusque, it’s unreliable, it’s not happening at the snap of a finger, it’s happening on "island time." But recently, in an attempt to turn their reputations around, individual hotels have started ramping up internal training programs, while broad initiatives are under way at both the national and regional levels.
Indeed, a telling microcosm of the region’s evolution can be found in Turks and Caicos, a tiny archipelago of 32,000 people southeast of the Bahamas. Fifteen years ago, these islands had virtually no tourism industry and no expertise in hospitality. Today, 200,000 visitors reach the archipelago every year, and hotels are popping up all over. With jobs plentiful, many locals see no need to take a position they consider beneath them. Those who do take the jobs often aren’t particularly committed to them.
"To be honest, most of us servers, we just want to chat with our friends," Stephanie, a waitress at Grace Bay, told me, laughing.
And thus the stage is set for a culture clash. Hotel managers complain that Caribbean staff are forgetful, overly sensitive, and lack the ability to maintain a professional attitude. To local ears, such complaints sound condescending, colonialist, even racist: training people to conform to foreign standards seems a betrayal of authenticity. "What must come through is the true nature of the Caribbean people," says Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourist Office. "That’s the whole reason you go on vacation in the first place. We don’t want to have a level of efficiency that’s devoid of the charismatic appeal of the people of the Caribbean. It would be the worst thing that could happen to us."
Nevertheless, the issue of service is pressing enough in Turks and Caicos that the government has hired Texas-based hospitality consultant Bill Freeman to implement a national action plan. Freeman has worked with numerous Caribbean governments, and says the impact of his program is real. "Aruba has invested a lot of money in both training and in measuring the training," Freeman says. "And they have one of the highest return ratios in the region."