When a convention of meeting planners came to town two years ago, their evaluations of the service they received here yielded troubling results.
The concerns of the members of the Meeting Professionals International covered everything from taxis and transportation to restaurants, hotels, the Convention Center and security.
These are the people who decide where the thousands of meetings and conventions in the nation are held each year, and they were saying that the state had some work to do.
"It gave us a wake-up call that we needed to do a better job of greeting our guests," said Marcia S. Harris, president and chief executive officer of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "The good news is that the study done as a result shows that Baltimore and the state rank well. But we are determined to do better."
That follow-up study, by Deloitte & Touche LLP, of convention and leisure travelers who visited Baltimore from January 1997 to June 1998, found that the majority of those surveyed had a good experience, would return and would recommend that others visit.
However, concerns about parking, panhandlers, safety and convention food were among the targets of criticism, with the level of service.
Food problems at the Convention Center were addressed quickly, and groups across the tourism industry met shortly after the study's release to evaluate the results and tailor solutions to service problems that had surfaced.
Better service would encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more, and could boost the state's $6.5 billion tourism business by $300 million to $350 million a year, said George Williams, the state's director of tourism.
Williams estimates that better service could mean $50 million to $75 million annually in increased tips and wages for Maryland workers.
"We're really saying enough is enough," Williams said. "The standards of service, across the board, across this country have declined in the past 10 years. We want to try to turn that around."
'In need of employees'
At least as serious a problem as the quality of service is the shortage of labor, experts say.
It's a national problem. Across the country, there aren't enough employees to go around.
Locally, the problem has been evident as restaurants and attractions have opened at the Inner Harbor and managers have struggled to hire adequate staff with appropriate job skills.
When employees don't know the basics of the business, service is diluted until those new employees can be brought up to speed. For instance, a restaurant employee might have to be schooled in the varieties of wines and how to pair them with foods. In the meantime, service can suffer.
"I think more than any other industry, the tourism industry is desperately in need of employees," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association.
A large part of the challenge is convincing people that the jobs are not dead-end positions, McCulloch said.
"These jobs are entry-level, but they can become anything you want them to be," she said, noting restaurant owners or hotel managers who started in the trenches. "Those jobs can be six figures."
To address the problem, the state's Office of Tourism Development has hired a staff member to evaluate work force training programs and design one for Maryland. This is the first time the agency has been able to secure work force training funds, $175,000 to last until June 30, 2001.
The first group targeted for training in Baltimore will be taxi drivers, Williams said.
Maryland has obtained an 80-hour training program used successfully by New York City for that purpose. "There's a noticeable difference in the service in New York City taxis," Williams said. "That whole city has been focused on improvement. It's showing up in their numbers."
The training Williams envisions would include teaching employees to sell other area attractions when they talk to customers, possibly inducing them to stay longer. "It makes it difficult for people to leave without making one more stop," he said. "That's the ultimate goal, to get people to stay longer."
Visitors to Maryland generally travel in parties of two, stay an average of 2.3 nights and spend about $277 on the trip. Nationwide, the average trip lasts more than three days and expenditures are $442.
'Value of service'
Williams' goal is to have 10,000 workers across the tourism industry trained or being trained by the end of the next fiscal year in programs customized for each type of service. Baltimore Community College and Goodwill Industries are talking about possible roles in the training, he said.
"It's pretty ambitious, but it's the only way we can get the success we want," Williams said. "If we can make the work force more appealing, maybe we can start reinstating in the American's eyes the value of service and to make it a priority issue in all the service areas."
Williams hopes that employers and perhaps employees will help finance the training. He does not intend for the state to offer it for free.
Service was the subject of the keynote address at last week's Maryland Governor's Tourism Industry Conference in Solomons. Nancy Friedman, a St. Louis consultant on customer service, told the 360 conference attendees, "More business is lost to poor service and poor treatment than poor product."
"The Deloitte & Touche study said Baltimore came across well, but we're clearly not perfect," McCulloch said. "We want to be remembered as a warm, hospitable city and state. Without that level of service, we're leaving a lot of dollars on the table. People might stay for that extra glass of wine, that appetizer or stay the extra day in the hotel if they're receiving good service."