In the very funny film Office Space, Jennifer Anniston plays a waitress working in a T.G.I. Friday’s type of franchise food… thing. Anniston’s character is pressured by her overbearing supervisor to wear “more pieces of flair.” The supervisor, clearly defined by the film’s dialogue as a tool for the corporate owners of the restaurant, criticizes Anniston’s character because she doesn’t have enough inane ‘wacky’ buttons and blinking LED-type tschotkes on her otherwise drab uniform. The supervisor’s theory is that the more banal crap she wears on her person, the more she’ll personally contribute to the “fun” feeling of the restaurant.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with encouraging your employees to work toward what in corporate-speak is termed “excellence” – the kind of “excellence” that hopefully results in a better customer experience. In the case of our own city as a vacation and tourism destination, you’d want hospitality workers to download to their brains as much relatable information about Santa Monica as they could. And you’d want that info to correlate to the city’s official destination “brand.”
A “unique program” of “destination brand/service excellence” called “I Am Santa Monica” is now being offered to many of the very same hotel workers who just a few years ago were told in no uncertain terms by the owners of our town’s biggest hotels that their work didn’t deserve a living wage. But I get ahead of myself…
The Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau is offering “I Am Santa Monica” so that hospitality workers and those who might want to become hospitality workers can “continue their education in the industry.” The experience includes a two-hour classroom course with “attendees learning about the Santa Monica brand, info about city laws that could impact the tourism industry, destination fun facts [flair facts…?], and a one-hour city bus tour.” Right now it’s not clear if current hospitality employees will be paid for their time at the program, but they will receive a lapel pin and a certificate.
What they may never get is a shot at actually living in the city for which they are being asked to become brand “ambassadors.” In a document from SMCVB entitled “Destination Brand Blueprint Update” comes this possibly dichotomous nugget: “The tourism industry in Santa Monica supports over 12,000 jobs. Many of the people who work in Santa Monica in the hospitality industry do not live or ‘play’ in Santa Monica, and they are the biggest and best part of the destination brand.” Then a few lines later…”Every hospitality employee, from a waiter to a front desk person at a hotel, to a lifeguard to a taxi driver should be a Santa Monica destination brand ambassador.”
What might have held the “I Am Santa Monica” program back a few years was the steely determination of large corporate hotels in Santa Monica to do everything they could afford to defeat the living wage proposal. There was a disconnect then, and there’s clearly one now when a “blueprint” doesn’t even recognize the gaffe of underscoring that the very people they want to enlist to tout the city can’t possibly afford to live in it.
I’d like to be there when those hands go up in the “I Am Santa Monica” classroom. “Let me see if I have this: The hotel spends huge amounts of money to keep my pay as low as possible so that I can barely afford my apartment in Culver (maybe), but I’m supposed to proselytize for what a great town this is because I want to help brand the fantastic lifestyle — Gosh, sorry, dude, could you start over? And can I take some of these sandwiches with me…?”
From the “blueprint”: “For Santa Monica to compete effectively in the future, the destination must seize control of its destination brand, own it, live it, protect it, and distinguish it in order to maintain and expand the city’s visitor market share.”
I was reminded of the “flair” scene in Office Space when I recently visited a real T.G.I. Friday’s… if “real T.G.I. Friday’s” isn’t an oxymoron. The entire wait staff was being made to wear t-shirts advertising a food special. The shirts weren’t clever or interesting in any way; they were just all-cotton billboards. This extra duty the staff was being asked to perform made the employees look more like serfs than, well, let’s say onion ring ambassadors. What if the shirts, rather than touting Fiesta Shrimp-a-ritoes or whatever, read: “This company provides excellent health care and a decent wage, so I’m delighted to bring you your food and drink.” Then I awoke from my daydream, and the bartender resumed hitting on me to try the new Shrimp-a-ritoes.