Tourism Ambassador Program Aims to Improve Columbia Visits

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COLUMBIA - The city's convention and visitors bureau is celebrating the one-year mark of buying into a program which promises to increase visitor satisfaction with the city. Last year, the bureau bought a national program called Certified Tourism Ambassadors (CTA) to the city. The CTA program works toward certifying anyone the city with the skills necessary to leave every visitor they come in contact with with a lasting positive impression.

The Columbia Convention and Visitor Bureau started looking into the program a few years ago. Bureau Communications Manager Megan McConachie said there's nothing else like this program, so it was an obvious choice. "We noticed Columbia was increasingly becoming a tourist town through the various attractions we host every year and this was a program was created to make the town as visitor friendly as possible."

The program has a $30,000 start up fee and then cost $4,500 annually to renew. The costs include training programs, curriculum specific to Columbia and annual updates.

The classes are available to anyone in the city who is interested in learning more about Columbia as a destination city and what the city has to offer. McConachie said most people don't see Columbia as a destination city, but the variety of festivals and sporting events that take place here make it fall under the "destination" category for visitors.

Events like the Roots N' Blues N' BBQ Festival and True/False Film Fest bring in thousands of people from around the country and even internationally. While those people are in town, it is up to the locals with whom they come into contact to make the trip a positive experience. The program emphasizes the importance of small interactions. For example, those with a taxi driver, locals in line at a coffee shop or a police officer directing traffic. For this reason, the entire community is encouraged to take the classes, not only customer service representatives like hotel and restaurant staff.

Hampton Inn & Suites manager Susan Bell said she doesn't require her staff to take the class but it does better equip them to help guests.

Bell said, "There is no program like it. It gives people an inside to Columbia that they could never get on there own."

It costs $25 to register for the course, which is a four-class series leading to a CTA certificate. The classes are called modules and each focus on a different part of customer service and awareness. The classes also focus on equipping community members with the tools they need to effectively answer guests' questions, but does not directly give them the answers.

McConachie said, "We really try to direct the way visitor-ambassador interactions go by providing techniques and a format, but we don't tell them what to recommend to the visitors. We give them options but not a certain place so each interaction is unique."

Another reason the class is not too specific is so it can apply to everyone in the community who wants to become CTA certified. Columbia Police Sergeant Joe Bernhard said, "Most of the police department has been certified and those who haven't are working toward it."

The CTA program requires participants to complete the four modules, pass an assessment and finish volunteer hours before they receive certification. 

When the program started, Columbia Convention and Visitor's Bureau staff had a goal of 150 ambassadors in the first year. The program has now been in place for a year and has more than 400 Columbia CTA certified ambassadors.

In the next few years, city officials will start measuring the success of the program with what they call visitor profile studies. The measurement will come from a survey distributed to visitors which asks about the friendliness of citizens they encounter and their knowledge about the city.

To find out more about the CTA program and how to register visit the website and click on "Sign Up For A Class."



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