On separate occasions over two weekends at two different casinos, I got to experience Atlantic City as a visitor does. It wasn't a pretty picture. For a town that wants to diversify away from gaming income into broader hospitality revenue bases, it would behoove Atlantic City to learn hospitality.
Tourism and gambling are the region's top industries and among the top industries statewide. But if my recent experience is any indication, tourism revenue, like gambling revenue, is in jeopardy as a result of increasing competition elsewhere.
In the first instance, I was out with relatives for happy hour. After paying the $48.75 bill, I saw a sign that said if I had spent $50 I was entitled to free show tickets. It would have been nice if the waitress had been trained to alert me to the $50 perk before I paid, but that's just the beginning of the story.
I wasn't allowed to add a drink to the already paid bill, so I went to the ticket counter assuming and experiencing the worst, but not before spending another $20 for chocolates at the casino candy shop. I showed the young ticket cashier both receipts, and she confirmed that the $50 had to be on one receipt at the same retailer. Understanding, I immediately offered to pay an additional $1.25 in cash in addition to the $48.75 and was again told "no." Those were the rules. The cashier squirmed when I asked for a supervisor, who was already off duty, and admitted she feared for her job. With local unemployment high enough, I quietly retreated.
But there's more to the story. I went back to the original retailer and spent more money on drinks, only to find the show had already started, and even with a $50 receipt, I was out of luck. The manager went to bat for me the next day, and only after a front-desk manager appeared was I given tickets for a future date. It took determination and two motivated managers to overcome several front-desk clerks to get tickets to an otherwise half-empty show. The experience didn't leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
This would have been bad enough, but just one week later I had a similar experience at a property totally across town.
There, I was entertaining out-of-town guests who wanted lunch food at 2 p.m. We were informed by the hostess and waitress that the lunch menu was done, and we could only order from the more expensive dinner menu. After asking for a sandwich and being told "no" more than three times, my friend remarked, "This would never happen at Disney."
That's when it hit me. She was right in so many ways.
Years ago, I attended an executive conference at Disney University where Disney management explained its commitment to training, hospitality and gratitude for consumer loyalty - all clearly lacking in Atlantic City. Disney employees, regardless of position, are trained to be actors at all times - putting on smiles, answering questions no matter how trivial, and making dreams come true, even if the dream is just a sandwich at 2 p.m.
Disney isn't the only model for hospitality. There's Jet Blue for making customers smile before takeoff, Zappo's for screening employees for their happiness quotients, and Stew Leonard's grocery store in New York for teaching employees that the customer is always right.
Atlantic City heavily supports hospitality education defined locally as culinary arts and hotel management. This schooling is valuable but just basic to what's needed to become a best-in-class resort. To succeed, Atlantic City needs to adopt a deeper understanding of the word "hospitality" and invest in much broader training from true hospitality experts. The gurus surround us if we're only smart enough to learn from them before it's too late.
Atlantic City doesn't need Mickey or Minnie, parades or fireworks, although all can be helpful. We need Emily Post for tourism - someone to train us in making people feel welcomed and happy to be at our party, teach us to be thankful that guests spent time with us, and school us in how to give white-gloved treatment. Until we have that, we shouldn't be surprised that people don't want to stay longer or return sooner.
Why would they? We keep saying "no" to their requests when we should be dedicated to making their dreams come true. After all, isn't that what gambling is about anyway? The ever-present hope that the future can be brighter, starting right here, right now?
Rhona Bronson, of Ventnor, is director of marketing for The Press of Atlantic City Media Group.