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Monday, September 25, 2023

Mystery guest shopper’s scheme – vital insight


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By Lamin Saho

In this day and age global tourism is undergoing tremendous transformation due to a range of factors, key among which include the changing taste of the modern tourist, fueled by rapid technological development as well as the emergence of new trends in travel and tourism such as emphasis on new holiday ideas tailored to suit an individual as opposed to the mass. Thus there is more focus on experiences to conform to the taste and craving of the modern traveler. In this dynamic mix destinations need to employ a range of innovative strategies to keep pace with these changing trends. Thus the need to mainstream quality in service delivery cannot be overemphasized. The modern tourist pays a lot more attention to quality service delivery and products as never before. Tourists’ expectations with regard to the standards of resort facilities, infrastructure, hygiene and other variables such as environmental upkeep and general safety and security that impact on their stay in the destination are growing. To be competitive it is necessary to meet these demands in terms of quality standards and services that meet the changing taste of the discerning tourist.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that although the concentration and consolidation of the accommodation sector is not always viewed in a positive light, the quality, diversity and innovative nature of the accommodation product, and corresponding quality of staff training and development have done much to raise the profile of the broader industry. Invariably various destinations are in the forefront of rethinking accommodation and resort design as a result of changing consumer taste and the needs of the discerning traveler. This has resulted to the emergence of a new stock of trendy hospitality outfits in the tourism development area, including the branded exquisite villas at the Sand Beach Holiday Resort in Kotu. These trendy properties feature monkey, crocodile, dolphin, antelope and kingfisher villas including well appointed standard rooms all designed to taste and to serve the needs of the discerning guests… It is not uncommon to come across such comments in the guest questionnaire “perfect place to be. We like it, near by the beach and quiet.”

In view of the foregoing, destinations are using various approaches to monitor and assess service delivery across the broad spectrum of the hospitality industry all geared toward raising standards and quality services at resort level, and these range from instituting a classification programme in line with internationally acceptable standards, instituting a rigorous inspection regime to ensure compliance to standard operating procedures in terms of service delivery and luxury offerings both functional and technical, health and hygiene. In line with best practice, mystery guest shopper’s programme is also usually deployed to maximum effect in hospitality establishments with a view to assessing product efficacy and service delivery at resort level.
The mystery guest shoppe’s approach is vital as it enables a “neutral” but informed individual to visit a hospitality establishment disguised as a guest, but the overall objective is to gather facts and assess the standards in terms of service and certain complementary facilities in a hospitality setting such as cleanliness and personal hygiene, toilet facilities, furniture, service at restaurant, human capacity, comfort and décor, amongst others.

The purpose of this article is to share vital insight acquired during more than two years stint as tourism consultant for broad range of tourism outfits including serving as executive producer of the GT Board newsletter The Tourist, and tourism linchpin for the Sand Beach Holiday Resort in Kotu Point. Due to the nature of the task, I acted occasionally as a mystery guest from a vantage point to help improve service delivery in the hotel. The salient points and conclusions gathered dovetail neatly with perspectives of Triple M – a Dutch hospitality training outfit, which organises tailor-made training programme for Gambian hotels on an annual basis and submit reports on findings of the mystery guest shopper’s component for participating hotels. Humble suggestions were also proffered for the way forward.

Given my background as former director of marketing at the GTA/GT Board and director of planning at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, I found this experience at operational level to be exciting, but routine and mechanical at best as opposed to the rigorous strategic drills and stimulating brainstorming sessions that was the order of the day at policy and regulatory levels of the tourism chain. Sand Beach Holiday Resort is a trendy family run hotel located on the serene Kotu point beach front. This idyllic hotel set on immaculate garden range has a very special touch, and features 31 trendy bungalows each designed to taste to suit the needs of the discerning traveler. There are also well appointed standard rooms to suit all the needs for a relaxing holiday supported by a friendly and welcoming staff.

The Bantaba Restaurant is another ultimate relaxing environment and for those who treasure their privacy in the context of an African inspired environment, the Bantaba Restaurant is the place to chill out. The Bantaba is also ideal for all small corporate functions such as focused discussions, meetings and workshop. This is also true for the Ocean View Restaurant which can be arranged in a way to suit banqueting and conferencing needs as well.

As a starting point, I acted as mystery guest to have a good insight and to advise management accordingly, and found the décor, cleanliness of facilities and overall staff comportment and hospitality especially the reception service to be far above average. There is high standard of cleanliness of the rooms and vital areas including toilets, lobby and the garden setting and the reception staff very diligent and efficient and these constitute the unique selling point of this hotel.

In terms of service delivery, this is work in progress and according to one guest “the hotel has great potential, but needs to work on several things”. Mention was made of the need to maintain the “nice garden, create more ambience in the hotel to keep the guests and improve the range and variety of food to include African dishes so that guests can stay and spend”. The proprietors pay great attention to such guest feedbacks, and did invest huge resources to upgrade the main restaurant to become very functional and these restaurant features a range of dishes including African kitchen and a range of continental dishes to suit various culinary needs of resident guests mainly Europeans, Africans, Chinese and Indians.

However, due to high staff attrition rate, an undesirable trend has been detected given that staff recruitment is not based on any structured approach, but based on the urging of the proprietors. This evidently has impacted on overall service delivery particularly in the area of general maintenance – a vital area and in the main restaurant, where professionalism of the food and beverage staff is highly compromised, perhaps due to lack of effective supervision at technical and functional levels and the mediocre calibre of the workforce. The breakfast service in particular has been the weakest link and is usually given unsatisfactory ratings in terms of service and product variety despite the best efforts of management and my humble self to redress these shortcomings, but thanks to ongoing efforts ratings now fluctuate from good to very good.

Animation (entertainment) and general ambience of the hotel has also not been satisfactory and guests do complain about this and perhaps explains the reason why they usually vote with their feet to patronise nearby restaurants, thus depriving the hotel of much needed income through sales of food and beverage.
In terms of structure and design, I can safely say that this three-star hotel is sound based on my layman’s knowledge of physical planning as the hotel boasts well-ventilated villas and standard rooms all located within a very spacious lush garden setting to the delight of the guests as it offers a standard reminiscent of European landscape. In terms of cleanliness and hygiene, this three-star hotel scores highly as evidenced by the guest comments, which I review on daily basis. Commendation goes to the rooms division/housekeeping staff, who toil daily to keep the various areas of the hotel including the toilets, reception area and the various rooms clean. In terms of general service and as these relate to food and beverage, there is room for improvement given the comments and ratings by the many guests who often complain about lack of quality, variety and creativity in menu design.

To address the identified shortcomings, I used to organise interactive sessions with staff across all departments such as the reception/front office, housekeeping, and the food and beverage department to induct these staff on vital aspects of hospitality, latest tourism trends – focus on the individual (guest) and preference for personalized attention, motivations of travel, push and pull factors, types of tourists, tourist profile – this is critical because Sand Beach hosts a mix of tourists on leisure, business both from Europe, Asia and the African sub-region and a range of other thematic issues as these relate to guest relations and service delivery for different segments of both leisure and business tourists. I particularly stress that tourism is colour blind and the tourist from Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria should be accorded the same care and attention as the British, German or Dutch. Invariably, African tourists are generally very demanding and pay attention to small detail, whereas the European leisure tourists by virtue of the pull factors (why tourist decide to visit a particular destination or resort) tend to be flexible with emphasis on exotic experiences, without compromising on high levels of hygiene and customer care commensurate with the standards of the three star facility.

I also regularly engage the proprietors who have been exposed to high standards given their experience in Scandinavia and invariably very receptive to innovative ideas, but the hospitality sector is a very service intensive industry and very dynamic thus the need to acquire certain skills set including people management skills. Invariably at the macro level, there is need for management overhaul of some hotels to improve the day-to-day running and also to improve service offering through recruitment of more technically minded and experienced hands to manage all the vital departments and to handle the vital aspects of food and beverage service in a more professional way. Perhaps frequent and unexpected inspection visits by the Quality and Inspectorate Unit of the GT Board would have made a big difference. The upgraded tourism and hospitality Institute – as centre of excellence in tourism human resource development should also proactively engage these hotels to influence their recruitment policy and also work hand in glove with the human resources unit of these hotels to identify skills gaps which could be addressed through tailor made trainings on the short term and incorporation in the curriculum.

Invariably, the Gambia Hotel Association can also play a lead role in engaging some of the three-star hotels to see how best to advise on human resource needs of the hotels to ensure that professionalism and experience in vital aspects of hospitality are always given pride of place in the recruitment process. I am aware that this is consistent with the lofty goals of the reconstituted Gambia Hotel Association, which seeks to enhance quality service delivery of its members through constant human resources development programmes and to ensure that member hotels institute key service standards as a matter of priority. The defunct GTA had a tourism human resource department tasked with the vital role of training the tourism workforce and liaising with hospitality establishments to assess the vital human resource needs and identify capacity gaps and how to address these holistically. Perhaps this best practice should be revived in the scheme of things.

On a general note the issues raised herein might not be peculiar or specific to the Sand Beach Holiday Resort, given that three star hotels constitute a sizeable chunk in The Gambia hotel stock and it has been observed in one authoritative report that “customer care and service provision is seen as a particular weakness within the hospitality industry and its inclusion within the classification system would help raise standards”. As we embark on strategies to enhance the scope and variety of tourism, it is imperative to pay attention to overall quality issues in our various hospitality outfits and by extension human resources issues, as “it is no gainsaying that the tourism and hospitality workforce constitute an essential component for quality service delivery”. This is very critical because I can authoritatively say that there is no shortage of beds in Gambia tourism, but there is shortage of quality beds and proficient and well trained hospitality workforce. Some years ago I was privileged to attend a tourism training programme in Cyprus with the current deputy director general of the GTHI. We were all impressed with the range and quality of the hotel stock in Aya Napa, Paphos, Lanaca and other resorts.

In order for Destination Gambia to survive in this turbulent and competitive global tourism, attract and retain more high spending tourists we need to pay extra attention to quality issues and be a bit more customer-focused and at the same time institute quality control – a programme which focuses on improving both the technical quality across the broad spectrum of the tourism and hospitality industry (the standards associated with what the customer receives) and the functional quality (the standards associated with how the customer receives). It is therefore very pertinent that critical segments, if not all of our employees who come in to contact with our coveted guests receive hospitality training. Here the role of the Gambia Tourism and Hospitality Institute cannot be overemphasised.
The author is a tourism and marketing consultant and served as director of marketing at the defunct GTA and GT Board and director of planning at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

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