by Barbara Kalkis | September 28, 2016
As meeting planners, we are so accustomed to controlling every aspect of travel, accommodations, and venue standards of excellence that we may forget what it's like when we do not have influence over our event destiny. I re-learned this lesson recently as a friend and I traveled through southern Italy and Sicily with a well-known, long-established tour company. I had chosen a tour that let us cover the long distances of our journey in comfort and safety with local experts who knew the roads. And I chose the tour company for my prior positive experiences with them, their talented staff, and because they offered the route, schedule, pace, and level of service that best fit our holiday goals.

While wonderful in most ways, the trip was a jolting reminder that real estate may be about "location, location, location," but event planning is about details, details, details. Marketing brochure text must be defined and interpreted as carefully as a contract; venue ratings are not an exact science; and terms like "elegant" and "regional" cuisine do not necessarily translate to food quality or taste.

Our trip took us from Rome to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast across Italy to the Adriatic and back across Italy's 'boot' to Sicily. This is a lot of magnificent territory to cover and the touring company paced the trip quite well. We enjoyed the kinds of experiences that add flavor -- literally and figuratively -- to a vacation: excellent regional cuisine and explorations with local experts who conveyed and carried vibrant details about archaeology, history, customs, and traditions at their mental finger tips -- as well as tips about the best places for a gelato, dessert, and restroom.

Early in the trip, I began noticing that similar hotel ratings of four or more stars did not translate to similar levels of service. In virtually every hotel and café, tourists are carrying and reading their cell phones and iPads, yet, some hotels allowed free Wi-Fi only in their lobbies. Fee-based Wi-Fi is a revenue generator, but in this day and age, it is a qualifier that requires noting.

Hotels face a major challenge accommodating the vast array of savvy international tourists arriving from every point on the globe. The challenge is magnified by the fact that today's travelers have thousands of airline miles under their belt and even first-time tourists have vetted their trip through TV travel shows, videos, magazines, online research, and friends. However, all travelers require some of the same basic services. When a property looks to expand their customer base and build its reputation as an international destination, the level of service must grow as well.

There are four key areas where I found raising the quality of service was essential:

Front-desk service must be impeccable. Welcome staff must speak English (because English has become the global language) and be endlessly courteous and efficient in responding to even mundane requests. In one hotel, our requests for two early wake-up calls were ignored. The calls were just a back-up, so we were lucky that we weren't relying on them.

As the front line of a property's image, desk staff must handle customer complaints and know how to fix them. The air conditioning and plumbing in our room in Rome didn't work. After several failed attempts at speaking to the desk staff, I informed the manager. He put us in another room and gave us a drink voucher. It was a simple solution and prevented us from giving a bad review.

Room accommodations must be clean and above reproach -- and provide for two travelers. With "two" as the operative word, that means tissues, shampoo, conditioner, and other amenities should be provided and refreshed for two people every day. Other mandatories: two sturdy luggage racks and armoires holding enough hangers for two people. Mattress comfort is a personal opinion, but each bed should include at least two pillows.

Single travelers pay high premiums, so they should enjoy the same quality as two travelers. In one location, our single companions were assigned rooms in an annex building with no special security.

Wi-Fi in every room. Period. Connectivity isn't just for business folks. Everyone is a reporter, journalist, photographer, and commentator on their experiences.

Food service quality must be high. A joy of international travel is sampling local cuisine. The mark of an exceptional venue is one that offers the best of a country's cuisine in local, fresh flavors, as well as a sampling of foods from travelers' home cuisines. This is especially true at breakfast, when tour groups are on tight schedules, rushing to eat and move on to their next destination. Italy offers some of the best breakfast cuisine in the world, with a dizzying array of meats, breads, rolls, tortes, cakes created with almonds, basil, thyme, pistachio, olives, and ricotta cheese. Every hotel featured fresh fruit, yogurts, and meats and cheeses that were a feast for the eyes and waistlines. 

Our venues excelled at including scrambled and fried eggs, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, and other treats that weren't part of the typical Italian breakfast.

Dinners were trickier. In one mountain resort perched high over the Mediterranean coast, we found service lacking. Waitstaff had difficulty answering questions about the menu preparation and remembering orders. Food quality was poor and made our group wish that we had opted for a pizza place for dinner instead of the resort -- even with its spectacular view. 

While breakfast is the functional meal to get a day started in good humor, suppers are where hotels win high ratings or get removed from the A-list. It is this time of day when guests want to relax, enjoy a good meal, and review the day's highlights. While a dining area's view and ambience are key, food makes or breaks the magic spell.

Every venue on our schedule had high marks as properties. The differences in our enjoyment could be found in three areas:

1) Desk staff who were trained and qualified in their language skills and temperament to deal with high numbers of visitors.

2) Room appointments that created a sense of comfort, as well as function.

3) Delicious meals that captured the freshest regional foods and tastes along with a sampling of international dishes.

Resorts looking to expand their clientele can compete internationally by giving travelers the best experience of the region and country they are visiting. That means offering the exotic as well as a touch of the familiar.

For meeting planners, traveling as a client offers the best insight into how to do our jobs better.

Barbara Kalkis is owner of Maestro Marketing & Public Relations, a consultancy dedicated to building brand awareness and better business practices.