By Isaac Gritz
As the only student in the course not majoring in tourism or hospitality, my original thought that I would not have as much to gain from this course couldn't have been further from the truth. Through this course I was exposed to a new industry and new way of thought beyond just an enjoyable trip over Winter Break. Looking back, the three main takeaways I gained from this course were the importance and nuances of building a customer experience, insights into eco-tourism, and the importance of a quantified and multi-faceted approach to evaluation.
Building a Customer Experience
From the course readings beforehand, to the interviews I conducted with international tourists, to the first hand experiences with the hotels and attractions, I really learned the importance of building a customer experience. By examining each of the attractions with a critical eye, it became clear when something became more than just a sum of its parts to become a genuinely enjoyable experience. Once all of the minor things and service issues were taken care of, attractions like the Tabacon Hot Springs and Sunset Sail became an surreal experience and I couldn't help but personally promise to come back or even retire one day in Costa Rica. This certainly wasn't the case with all of the attractions, let alone the hotels, but through the experiential learning process and having the opportunity to hear the sounds, see the sights, and feel the atmosphere, I realized that building a customer experience and connecting with customers on an emotional level is one of the most important aspects of any tourism product.
Having little background in the tourism industry, I was pleasantly surprised to see how important Eco-Tourism and sustainability are for Costa Rica. As one of the most expensive countries in Central America, the strong eco-tourism market is a clear differentiator and area of growth for a country that recently promised to be carbon neutral by 2020. "70% of Costa Rica is powered by hydro-electric power," we were told on the trip. This is no small feat. However, what I found the most fascinating our the conversation with the hotel manager at the Monteverde Country Lodge, an eco-friendly hotel that earned 3 leaves out of 5 for sustainability. While at times recognizing how it brings in tourists and some of his customers, the manager seemed overwhelmed by overly-bureaucratic processes, changing demands, and a lack of clear standards that brought high costs and high labor demands for the hotel that fits 60 guests. He made it clear that while there were others doing the same, these sustainability measures were not being universally adopted or collaborated on in a way that would bring down costs. We faced similar pessimism from locals who called the carbon neutral goal unrealistic. After seeing this, it became clear to me that while this is a great opportunity for Costa Rica, there are processes that need updating, a change in mentality, and the introduction of internationally recognized sustainability standards that need to be put in place before Costa Rica will be able to advance these efforts further.
It is one thing to go on a tour, see the sights, and generate personal feedback. It is another to review social media platforms and see what others are saying. And it's yet another to do both of those, interview people during the event, generate and assess attractions through 100+ element forms, and bring it all together in an objective and data-driven manner. From the start of the trip, we learned certain methodologies and processes that we would be using: participant observation (mystery shop), social media monitoring, critical incidence analysis, and importance-performance analysis. Not only were these techniques useful to visualize and formalize our findings for the presentation, they provided us with objective insights that we used to find overlap and discrepancies and generate in-depth insights. As a future data-scientist-in-training, I was glad to see a statistical and data driven method taken to an industry not typically known for data analytics: tourism. While it may not have been perfect, gathering as much data as we did and using a multi-faceted evaluation approach allowed us to present our results with a level of confidence and verification that wouldn't come from a purely qualitative approach.
Thank you professor Levy, Sharon, and everyone who made this incredible learning experience possible!