Tourists are the perfect candidates for consumer abuse. I mean, we don’t know what we are doing, and our knowledge of the local environment is far less than the locals’ knowledge of us. We generally travel in packs or hordes to predictable destinations (walled cities and waterfalls seem to be favourite destinations) and we are often burdened with strange languages, customs, and currencies. If you overlay these issues by electing to travel to less wealthy parts of the world, you can see how we might be seen as perfect pickings for all that is wrong in business and life.
And it happens, though I expect the problem is more the tourists than the local scalpers. When three or four mega cruise ships dock in a place like Dubrovnik, Croatia, the town’s population can increase by 50 per cent or more — and virtually all the tourists head for the same walled city destinations.
I won’t moralize too much about this stuff. If you want a genuine travel (rather than tourist) experience, you need to travel independently and away from the maddening crowds. Some years ago, my friend Brian Schwartz did that, after leaving an organized trans-African expedition. He spent years exploring villages and cities, and the real world in Africa and Asia. (I didn’t dare to explore so widely, but thankfully enjoyed an intense expatriate experience by living and working for 18 months in Rhodesia turning Zimbabwe.) These daring days have passed now, and the Hilton, with its swimming pool, fitness area and business centre, has its simple but expensive allure.
Nevertheless, I noticed a few things that educated me and may be a reminder of best practices for our own businesses.
Supply and demand and local rules determine prices, not our own bargaining brilliance — the airport taxi story.
Several “Tripadvisor” postings warned of taxi gouging at Zagreb, warning of rip-off fares three times what they should be. I was prepared and, quoted the higher-than-‘right‘ fare, declined. The second taxi driver tried to ask for even more. By the time the third quoted the same high price, I realized that I had no control over the local market. If you wanted a taxi from the airport at that time of night, you would pay the higher fare, or walk (or as one driver pointed out, “come back tomorrow or take the bus”.)
We arrived at our hotel. The night clerk said he would have no trouble booking a return taxi at 5:30 in the morning for 1/3 the outbound fare.
But were we gouged for the first fare? Maybe not. Many airport authorities have restricted access arrangements for taxi-pickups, and the drivers or cab companies need to pay special fees or taxes. If you want to take the train downtown from Vancouver airport, the fare is several dollars greater than the reverse (or any stop outside of the airport pickup). So the higher fare, in the context, was “fair”.
Exceptional generosity and positive surprise create wonderful business opportunities.
We sailed on a small cruise boat (only 31 passengers). This did not entirely free us from the mass hordes — there are only so many authorized ports of entry, and the big boats dock at these places as well. But for one excursion, we saw what the experience could be when you go away from the crowds. Our bus pulled into a small rural business on Crete in Greece that sells local wines and olive oil. The norm at these sorts of excursion stops is to have a small sampling of wine and food, and lots of opportunity to purchase stuff. Generally, you feel you are herded around like sheep and I fear the site owners pay kickbacks or fees to the travel companies to bring the suckers on site.
But this place was different. We weren’t rushed. Instead of thimbleful glasses, the organizers gave us our own full-size glasses, and then brought out large carafes of wine and snacks. We could each have two, three or more glasses — I’m sure they would have brought out more if we asked. We were feeling quite good after a half hour in the warm Greek sunshine. No one pushed nor directed us to the sales area, but one by one, we went in, and bought stuff — much more, I think than we would have if we had been treated like suckers whose money needed to be extracted. But could this type of business be scaled to handle dozens of tour buses arriving at the same time? I think probably not.
Normal can be exceptional, and exceptional can be normal, depending on context.
During a break in Croatia, a major client (not knowing I was away) sent an email asking for a meeting. I explained I would be away for a few weeks because I was in Dubrovnik. He responded: “Isn’t that a bit dangerous — isn’t there a war there?” Of course, not too many Canadians visit the Balkans, and many of us remember our somewhat unfortunate military involvement as peacekeepers during the 1990s wars. Europeans, however, know that things are peaceful now and the Adriatic beaches, for them, are just a few hours away by plane. So our great adventure really is a routine trip. It depends on how you see things.
I can’t claim great insights or brilliant understandings after visiting (albeit briefly in some cases) four countries in three weeks. Thankfully, there are healthy aspects to this experience. If you are overseeing a business, the ability to take a proper vacation indicates it is functioning reasonably well. However, I’ll be happy to leave the “tourist economy” behind for a while and return to regular programming. (Though in two weeks, I’ll be combining some travel with business by visiting San Antonio for the annual Society for Marketing Professionals (SMPS) Build Business conference.)