Israelis Have Learned That Service Means Tourism Dollars

February 15, 2012  

The proud Israeli sabra – sharp on the outside but sweet if you manage to get in – is slowly giving in to the undeniable Western business wisdom that “service with a smile” brings in more tourism dollars than that traditional “prickly” exterior attitude.

In Jerusalem’s Zion Square, in Tel Aviv, and even in small towns,  business owners are learning foreign tourists are slowly losing patience with the notorious brusque Israeli attitude they sometimes encounter when making their purchases. Consumers today are able to walk away and find what they want, whenever they want it, elsewhere if they choose, and Israeli business owners are taking note.

The new attitude was especially evident this week at the Ein Gedi Hotel, where Reservation Department Manager Helen Annau faced the delicate task of explaining to an irate guest why she could not accept a shekel payment for a room in lieu of charging a credit card that had already been debited online. Annau guided the guest with a list of complaints to a comfortable sofa in the lobby and took notes on every single problem, responding to each one. At the end, a soothing remark, a sincere apology, an honest explanation of what she could not repair, and a credit in the form of dinner for four went a long way toward pouring oil on troubled waters.

“Paying attention to the needs of our guests is our number one priority,” she told Arutz Sheva in an interview Wednesday afternoon after settling matters with the guest. “If we can’t deal with that basic issue, the rest isn’t going to help.”

But the involvement of a third-party booking service made the difficulties raised by the guest even more complicated to resolve. Although the guest believed the credit card had been used only to secure the reservation, in fact the booking service had already debited the charge for the room through the site, all without the guest’s knowledge. “I had no idea that I had not reached the hotel’s website,” the guest told Arutz Sheva on condition of anonymity. “I didn’t realize it was a third-party site, and it’s very upsetting because I didn’t want to use my credit card, which I had just paid off.”

For its part, the hotel does not even receive the payment for at least 30 days, Annau noted. “We have our own website, of course, and everything would have been much easier,” she said. “The guest would have been able to pay however they wanted upon arrival and we would have received the money immediately.” This particular upcoming weekend, for example, the hotel is offering a 40 percent discount to Israeli citizens – but to get it, an Israeli has to reach the website of the hotel itself; not a simple feat. (The discount, commemorating the annual Dead Sea marathon to be held in a week, honors two late members of the kibbutz, brothers Giora and Tomer Ron, an IDF soldier who died in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and a worker who fell to his death while working in the date plantation, both loved running.)

The problem of misleading booking sites online is one that faces not only the Ein Gedi Hotel but many other hotels in Israel as well, because the booking sites are more savvy about grabbing market share through the Internet. If someone is looking for a hotel in a specific place, and they simply enter that phrase into the Google search engine or any other site that looks for hotels, most of the time a booking site will come up. The reason is simple – booking companies pay search engines to place their websites at the top of the page. The customer never knows the difference, and believes it is the hotel’s reservation desk.

The problem with this arrangement is that in the end, everyone loses except the booking agent. The guest becomes angry at the deception and sometimes ends up with an unplanned charge on a credit card. The hotel ends up with an angry, disillusioned guest, not to mention the delayed payment on the room and possibly the loss of a return customer. Equally problematic is the potential financial loss to the State of Israel in terms of lost tourism dollars.

To deal with these issues, the skills needed to provide customer service to stressed-out tourists by tour guides, hotel staff and anyone else working in the hospitality industry are no longer optional.

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