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Improving Service Standards in Turks and Caicos

Tara Donne A butler at the Grace Bay Club, in Turks and Caicos.

Photo: Tara Donne

Step one—which is currently under way—involves "mystery shoppers," who fan out across the island and record their impressions not only of service in hotels, but also of government officials and even people on the street. Freeman’s undercover observers file detailed reports on about 25 interactions per day, rating the degree to which each islander met such standards as "Appearance creates a positive impression" and "Customers are greeted with a smile, eye contact, and positive body language." These reports are then grist for step two: Armed with the knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses, the islands will kick off a national service improvement program. Freeman’s team trains teachers who then fan out and conduct classes for hotel staff throughout the country. Simultaneously, an aggressive marketing campaign spreads the word about how important tourism is for the economy and what citizens can do to help. Among other things, the ministry of tourism plans to produce an informational video to be broadcast on TV and shown in schools before class each day.

Teaching kids service?There is something either ludicrous or terrifying about all this. Or both.

In any event, convincing islanders to renounce "island time," to look customers in the eye and smile, and all the rest will be a significant challenge, but success won’t be nearly enough. What Turks and Caicos is experiencing is not just a boom in tourism, but in tourism of the super-over-the-top, we’re-going-to-blow-your-mind-with-luxury variety. Amanresorts opened its property here in 2006; later this year the country’s first Ritz-Carlton makes its debut. In 2009, it’s Mandarin Oriental’s turn, with a property it promises will provide "one of the most comprehensive luxury living experiences anywhere on earth."

Eliminating rudeness will be a good start, but these resorts’ guests are going to expect more. If Freeman’s efforts are like a grassroots literacy program, serving these people will require a Ph.D. So island hotels are looking for their own solutions. Grace Bay has ramped up its training program. Parrot Cay, an exclusive hideaway founded by Christina Ong, has bypassed the issue by importing large numbers of staff from Asia. We live in a global service economy, after all. Still, as Bill Freeman says: "I think it’s really weird to go to a place like Turks and Caicos and have an Asian butler."

Not surprisingly, importing foreign workers is not a particularly popular practice with many locals. Nor is the idea that foreigners need to come in to teach the islanders a new style of behavior. "It’s patently silly," says Vanderpool Wallace. "For a long time now, we’ve been trying to out-Swiss the Swiss. We can’t do that. We cannot bring that kind of service into a cultural environment that’s completely different."

As part of his agency’s own service-standards project, Vanderpool Wallace wants not only to train islanders, but also to educate visitors about the cultural norms of the countries they’re coming to see, perhaps through leaflets distributed in airport arrival halls. If travelers to the region understand the mind-set of the people serving them, he reasons, perhaps they’ll enjoy the experience more.

Most of us who go to the Caribbean confront what seems to be a pretty simple picture. We want good service, and we don’t get it. But maybe things are more complicated than that. Maybe part of the problem is that we’re looking at things the wrong way. "In America, we’re all results driven," points out Grace Bay’s general manager Nikheel Advani. "You pay a little bit more, people work harder. In Turks and Caicos, that system doesn’t work at all. What matters here is relationships. And if you connect with the staff on a relationship basis, they will do anything for you—not because a manager is telling them to do it, but because they bonded with you."

To some, he admits, that kind of personal connection might seem like an invasion of privacy. "But that’s what the Caribbean is about. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad; it’s just typical. My staff is very friendly, and they mean well. Some guests don’t like it. But can you change that?" Advani shrugs. "To be honest, I don’t know."

Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.

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