June 6, 2024

Red Carpet Service program focuses on community awareness, tourist attraction

A woman serves ice cream to two boys.
Russell Shaffer | Rural Prosperity Nebraska

Russell Shaffer | Rural Prosperity Nebraska
A woman serves ice cream to two boys at the Sandhills Art and Metal Gallery in Valentine. Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s Red Carpet Service program teaches participants how to help visitors and showcase their community’s best qualities.

Anyone who has worked a service job has likely been asked these questions: How do I get to this place? Where is the best place to eat? What is something I must see before I leave town? These questions and more are addressed in Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s Red Carpet Service program, a workshop that teaches participants how to help visitors and showcase their community’s best qualities.

“It’s as much a community appreciation program as it is a tourist appreciation program,” said Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, the Extension specialist with Rural Prosperity Nebraska who recently taught the workshop in Sidney. “Those who participate walk away with an appreciation of their frontline role, which contributes to the economy of their community. When visitors come to town, the cashiers, the receptionists, the waiters and waitresses — they’re the first impression of not only the business, but the city.”

The 2.5-hour workshop is tailor made for employees of tourist attractions, service stations, convenience stores, restaurants, retail shops, lodging venues and other places where interactions with tourists might occur. The activities and discussions center on the importance of tourism as an economic boon to communities and how quality service can bolster that.

“It definitely knocks your customer service up a couple of notches,” said Kendra Mitchell, who has participated in the program multiple times, both as an employee in Potter and as the current director of tourism for Cheyenne County. “You do these things that just get your employees comfortable speaking with an outsider, starting to engage with an outsider and find out what they’re into and what they’re looking for while they’re visiting.”

Mitchell and her employees attended the program when she owned The Potter Sundry restaurant. She found it so valuable that she has organized three different sessions across Cheyenne County since she became the director of tourism two years ago, the most recent session in April.

On top of learning from both success stories and “not-so-successful” stories of interactions with visitors from the program attendees, Mitchell said the most valuable activity is the brainstorm. In rapid-fire stints, attendees list as many unique aspects of their community that they can and compare lists.

“That’s the crux,” Burkhart-Kriesel said. “Wherever you live, unique amenities fade over time into the background, and we sometimes forget about them. But when we share our experiences with each other, we learn and gain a greater appreciation for what’s around us.”

For Mitchell, the workshop is about learning about the community and experiencing it, which is why she promotes it personally and has it catered by local restaurants or food trucks.

“When I’m handing out brochures and stuff at businesses and hotels, I go talk to all the managers and staff, letting them know a session is coming up and telling them we’re going to have the best snacks, because I go pretty heavy on the food,” Mitchell said.

If customer service is about shaping a community’s reputation, then collaborating among businesses is key to creating a holistic positive experience for tourists. At the April session, attendees ranged from employees of the Cheyenne County Museum in Sidney to those of the Wildeflour Baking Company in Lodgepole (both of which are Nebraska Passport stops in 2024). Collaborating on ideas and becoming aware of each other’s businesses increases attendees’ knowledge about their communities and gives them personal insight to be able to give directions, make recommendations and meet the needs of passing tourists.

Mitchell said she has seen increased pride in community members sharing what’s going on in their towns.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Hi, what can I get you?’” she said, “it’s like, ‘Hi, how are you doing today? What brings you to town? Have you thought about checking out the new park? You know, we have a concert Friday night, if you’re going to be in town.’”

It is not about putting on a show, Burkhart-Kriesel said, but about showing what your community has to offer.