PALMETTO -- Manatee County tourism officials will partner with the University of Central Florida and South Florida University to develop a program to improve the county's hospitality industry's offerings.
On Tuesday, the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau unveiled a Certified Destination Ambassador Program that will be the first of its kind in Florida. The program offers hospitality professionals a non-degree certification program to sharpen their skills, provide better customer service and point tourists toward Manatee County destinations.
The first phase discussed at the National Tourism Week luncheon will focus on the hotel and lodging industry.
The visitors bureau and universities have not yet determined a cost for the program, although the CVB is looking to create scholarships for those interested.
"There's never an end to guest service learning, even for us," said Cihan Cobanoglu, professor and dean of the USF's College of Hospitality & Technology Leadership. "It's always great to refresh all the tactics and techniques that go along with a great guest service."
Tourism officials hope to capitalize on return visitors, as 2.8 million people visited Manatee County in 2012, up 3.9 percent from 2011. More than 19,800 jobs in Manatee County are directly supported by tourism, according to the CVB.
University of Central Florida's Dick Pope Senior Institute for Tourism Studies, housed in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, will be integral in developing the ambassador program while USF's College of Hospitality will focus on making sure its students broaden their experiences through the ambassador program developed by UCF.
"We see this as an opportunity to train the trainer for our students," Cobanoglu said. "We will integrate this into our curriculum, and once our students go through this and go out and work, they'll be able to multiply this knowledge to their staff members."
Additional phases will reach out to attractions, students, residences, tour operators and transportation segments, said Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the CVB.
"There's not one segment of the tourism industry we will not reach with this ambassador program," she said.
In an ideal setting, hospitality workers will be able to share with visitors what's going on in "all four corners of the county," said Elliot Falcione, executive director of the CVB.
Paul Blackketter, president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, is excited to hear about the program and what it could do for the rowing venue at Nathan Benderson Park, south of the Manatee County line.
"Having that consistent message is important because it's all about getting it across in a way for visitors to understand what it's all about," he said. "Once it's developed, people will certainly be able to explain and articulate how this will serve their community and help spread the word."
Hotelier David Teitelbaum, president of Anna Maria Island Resorts, knows how important it is to let people know what they can do during their stay.
"A lot of people are staying longer and longer and they want to know what they can do," he said. "We do our very best to tell them that there's so much activity going on in Bradenton. It gives our tourists a reason to come back."
After all, there's only so much surf, swim and sun to absorb."The favorite thing for people to do at our resort is that they do nothing," he said. "But, how much of that can you do? We're very involved with helping them with their activities."
In exchange for participating, ambassadors will have window clings for their storefronts.
Ambassadors will be encouraged to continue with professional development by being asked to seek higher education or affiliations with professional associations and to join in marketing efforts.
"We really want to engage them to become certified in the field," Meihls said.
Ambassadors will have access to advertising discounts, public relations opportunities and can be promoted on YouTube and social media channels through the CVB, Meihls said.
As good as the perks are for the ambassadors, the real benefit will be creating return visits from customers thanks to quality customer service.
"I think one of the driving factors for future growth has to be dependent on the experience of visitors," said Youcheng Wang, professor and associate dean of Academic Affairs and Research at Rosen College. "If they have a good experience, they'll come back."
The program must monitor visitor satisfaction and figure out better products and business models to capture those customers, he said.
Nothing is more effective than word out mouth, which is what the program is built on.
It's services like Tripadvisor.com that pull visitors into the local tourism market, area business leaders acknowledged, because a top rating earned through public trust is key.
Arts & Eats in the Village of the Arts hands out a card to each diner asking them to review and rate their experience on Tripadvisor, helping the business climb to the No. 1 spot for Bradenton restaurants, co-owner Donna Slawsky told the Herald,
"This particular restaurant owner knows the importance of word of mouth. That's why she's encouraging her guests to do that," Cobanoglu said.
Other than Tripadvisor, a solid, reliable study measuring the quality of customer service doesn't exist for the Bradenton/Manatee County market, Wang said, because its costly for consultants to do such a study.
International markets like China have created a Destination Satisfaction Index, Wang said, to figure out which tourist spots are doing well and which need improvement. The ambassador program can help do its part in measuring that area, he said.
"That requires a lot of proprietary research, and I think that will be our role as researchers and scholars in this field," Wang said.
Teitlebaum's resorts surveys each of their guests and encourages patrons to rate the good and bad online, too, to develop a better experience.
"The reason why Anna Maria Island was selected as the fourth best (U.S.. island on Tripadvisor) is the extent of the criticism we received from our Tripadvisor clients," he said. "If you love something, you'll tell 10 of your friends. If you hate something, you're going to tell 50 of your friends, so it kills you. You live and die everyday from the experience your visitor has."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.