Perspectives Online

Reservation tourism industry training program includes traditional Cherokee values

This statue near the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians could symbolize the historic work ethic incorporated in the Qualla-T project.
Photo by Art Latham

North Carolina Cooperative Extension is participating in a partnership to improve educational access and economic development in our state's seven westernmost counties and the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The project, called the Qualla-T Customer Service Program, is partially funded by a $20,000 planning grant from the independent Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which funnels some tribal gaming revenues to tribal improvement projects. Sponsors of Qualla-T met at Harrah's on the Boundary for a March project roll-out.

Extension and IntraCultural Advantage, a Waynesville-based consultancy, developed the program (previously called Front Line/Bottom Line) along with the EBCI and three community colleges cooperating under the Western Carolina Partnership banner.

Initial Qualla-T pilot program graduates also include ECBI Travel and Tourism Department, Museum of the Cherokee, Qualla Arts Cooperative, Cherokee Community Health, Cherokee Home Health and the tribal weekly newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather. The project will continue to deal with predominantly Cherokee-owned, public-contact small enterprises such as gas stations, convenience stores, motels, restaurants and attractions by drawing on traditional EBCI values, such as perseverance and group harmony, to help train employees who deal with the demands of the traveling public.

One such business owner is Brian Owle, an enrolled EBCI member, who coordinates the efforts of InterCultural Advantage, owned by Michael Caudill.

"Our goal with Qualla-T is to raise the bar on customer service to a whole new level," Owle said. "Our customers and residents often are global travelers who've seen what service excellence is all about and now expect it. In an increasingly competitive travel and tourism industry, we must exceed our visitors' expectations to ensure their loyalty."

Cooperative research on and evaluation of customer- service education needs of small tourism-based business on the Boundary, including close work with the WCP team and N.C. Cooperative Extension tourism specialists, aided development of customized curricula. Those curricula's elements - two-hour employer and five-hour employee workshops - include increased professionalism, effective communication, complaint handling and stress management.

"We want to teach that there's a difference between service and servitude," Caudill said.

Mary Ferguson, who as hotel operations manager helped open Harrah's Hotel, couldn't agree more with Caudill's assessment. Ferguson, an EBCI member and a tribal elder, directs the tribe's marketing and promotion programs.

"We view customer service training as a very critical piece of our success in Cherokee," she says. "After all, it's not easy maintaining positive customer eye contact when you're cleaning up a messy table and holding a tray of dirty dishes.

"Good customer service is like going back to the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' " says Ferguson, whose employees participated in the program's first training phase. "It's good for us and other tribal departments to attend trainings, because we have internal customers as well. And we're encouraging our people to take the next phase of the training when it becomes available."

The Qualla-T Project postulates that the front-line service workers directly and substantially impact their businesses' bottom lines. The related training concept evolved after EBCI, Advantage West (the western North Carolina regional development council), area chambers of commerce and local business associations indicated to the Cherokee County Cooperative Extension office and others that front-line workers need customer service training. Such training will enhance visitors' positive experiences, increase their all-important return visits, and encourage them to spread the word about their positive experiences.

Says Dr. Harvey Fouts, Cooperative Extension's Western District director, "The Qualla-T project has increased the collaboration, relationships and systems to process community change between area community colleges and Cooperative Extension on important issues to the region. When this project is completed, I hope we'll continue to seek opportunities to combine the resources of a large land grant university such as N.C. State and the local access of community colleges to enhance educational opportunities to make a positive difference for people."

The WCP's cooperating community colleges - Southwestern (Sylva), Haywood (Waynesville) and Tri-County (Murphy) - work with state universities such as N.C. State under the Rural Community College Initiative's umbrella. RCCI, a national Ford Foundation-funded project, helps rural community and tribal colleges in economically distressed regions move communities toward prosperity through access to education.

In addition to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation grant, the EBCI, the three community colleges, the Ford Foundation and the Southern Rural Development Center fund the pilot training program. After the pilot project, WCP will extend the program to other regional businesses.

WCP's team reflects the support and leadership of the member college presidents and the commitment of its team leaders, says Cooperative Extension's Fouts.

"The project shows the importance of the land-grant university system and the community colleges' roles in community and economic development in North Carolina," he says.

Those activities include project co-directors Laura Leatherwood, Haywood CC's development director; Dr. Connie Haire, Southwestern CC's vice president for student and institutional development; and team leader Bo Gray, Tri-County CC's public information officer.

Cooperative Extension coaches include Fouts, Doug Clement, Extension's director for Cherokee County and a community and economic development expert and Bill Skelton, Extension director for Haywood County.

-Art Latham