Hospitality ambassadors 'polish' Rochester's apple

Posted 03/27/2015
by Jeff Kiger

While Rochester is known for its hospitals, hospitality is key to supporting the patients and visitors that stream into the city every year for Mayo Clinic.

The importance of serving those visitors, who are often sick or distressed, is what drove the launch of Rochester's Certified Tourism Ambassador program in 2011, the local version of the nationally recognized certification program created by the Tourism Ambassador Institute. The Rochester Visitors and Convention Bureau manages the local training.

Dan Nelson, a 40-year hospitality veteran with 20 years of experience in Rochester hotels, explained the CTA program at a gathering of the local chapter of the Performance Excellence Network on Tuesday. Nelson, the general manager of the new Homewood Suites by Hilton in the shadow of Saint Marys Hospital, spoke at his hotel in front of window with a view of the hospital.

While he's a great supporter of Rochester and Mayo Clinic, Nelson described the CTA program as training the "front-line" employees at hotels, restaurants, transportation companies and others, to "polish the apple a little bit."

More than 1,200 people have graduated from the program so far. They need to renew their certification on an annual basis and the programs keeps the graduates connected through networking events.

Rochester has more hotel rooms per capita than any other U.S. cities except the tourist destinations Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., he told the room full of local business leaders and Mayo Clinic executives. Olmsted County has about 400 restaurants.

All of those hotel rooms and restaurant tables add up to tens of thousands of opportunities to make someone's trip to Rochester better.

The official CTA goal is "to increase regional tourism by inspiring frontline hospitality employees and volunteers to run every patient and visitor encounter into a positive experience."

That translates simply to being nice to people and making every effort possible to make things better for them, he explained.

"You see guests come in with high anxiety and stress about getting to their appointments. We want to get that off their plate," said Nelson. "Our job is to get them to the 'church' on time."

That means understanding the workings of Mayo Clinic as well as the layout of Rochester and keeping up-to-date on local events.

"You wouldn't believe how many local people have never been to our airport," he said. Places like the airport and Pill Hill are included in the city tour for CTA students. They also tour Mayo Clinic.

Most of the touches needed to make "positive experiences" are simple, but important ones. Nelson recalled calling guests to remind them to take pills or bringing a cold washcloth to someone too sick to get out of bed.

When Homewood opened last last year, some of the first guests were a mother and her 12-year-old daughter. The girl arrived in wheelchair racked with pain, remembered Nelson. She was soon treated at Mayo Clinic's Pain Rehabilitation Center. The girl quickly became healthier, moving from a wheelchair to crutches to walking on her own.

"She went from dipping her feet in the pool with help from her mom to playing like a 12-year-old," he said. "We get to be part of the magic they (Mayo Clinic) are doing over there."

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