Being Better Hosts: How communities can offer a warm welcome by Amy Camp

welcome sign in front of blue sky

Imagine two B&Bs located near the same active rail line. One habitually puts earplugs on her guests’ nightstands to get out ahead of complaints, while the other snidely responds to an online business review with, “What do you expect – earplugs?”

The owner of the first B&B is not just trying to avoid negative reviews. She genuinely wants to ensure a positive guest experience. You know the type: the outfitter that gives you a lift to the laundromat, the innkeeper that stocks the fridge with local beers and also leaves out a plate of fudge, the coffee shop guy who keeps innertubes on hand “just in case,” and the chef who brings over some samples as you’re waiting for your meal. These are all real examples.

Exceptional customer service like this is what you might think of as a “super service” – the extra care and attention to detail, the going out of the way that makes all the difference in an experience. Businesses are well-positioned to provide great hospitality, but how can our communities do the same?

The savviest communities recognize the link between pride of place and hospitality. People who love their places typically want others to discover and enjoy them, too. They want visitors to feel welcome. With a little effort, we can create a visitor-friendly culture, one in which people remember that sweet small-town experience and the ultra-friendly people.

Here are some ways in which communities anyplace can extend a warm welcome:

Lean on your built community to offer the first signs of “welcome.” Before a visitor ever interacts with a member of your community, they pick up on the physical cues and signs of “welcome” that your town puts in place. They are picking up on the personality of your community. When someone is standing at a community gateway (or even scrolling through Instagram), a “welcome” sign is an invitation. A business directory is an invitation. Sidewalk chalk and “share the road” stencils are invitations. Physical infrastructure – even when temporary – can go a long way in expressing that visitors are welcome.

Public art can be particularly effective. Art is a vibrancy indicator, plain and simple. A community that creates and displays art has a pulse to it, a story to tell. Visitors will take note. This is why I worked with Connellsville, Pennsylvania, a town along the Great Allegheny Passage, to organize “Chalking up Connellsville” and other placemaking projects last summer. Residents covered the trail and downtown sidewalks with welcoming, upbeat messages. It was a way of saying, “We’re excited about our community and about you being here.”

chalk drawing of the earth on pavement that says welome to Connellsville

Share your community story.

Sometimes being hospitable includes conveying what’s special about our communities. We should be able to express what we love about our places and what makes them unique. Be careful not to give a full history lesson (unless requested). As my friend, Jenny Rigby, of Acorn Naturalists says, “The point isn’t to open the heads of visitors and pour information into them, but rather, to present themes that resonate.” This can be done at every turn: with interpretive signs, your town website, public art, and in casual conversations. Getting everyone on the same page about your community story will take some work, but it’s worth the effort.

Invite and include everyone.

Let’s treat every person who interacts with our communities, whether they’re from across the globe or they live just down the street, as our guest. It’s important to extend a warm welcome to out-of-town visitors, but if we’re not doing our best to help local residents feel included, we’re missing the point entirely. Local residents should feel utterly at home before we ever start to think about outside visitors.

people sitting outside talking

At this resort in Ontario, the business collaborates with the high school to host a career day (some students go on to work there). They move throughout the property absorbing local history, working with the chef, and learning from housekeeping how to “turn a room.”

Don’t let it be all about the money.

It’s easy to make the leap between exceptional hospitality and improved business prospects. Those businesses and communities that are most hospitable are inviting return visits and positive word of mouth referrals. But if your community’s primary success measure is the cash register moment, you are setting the stage for a transactional economy. Instead, when we welcome people because we’re totally jazzed about our place in the world and want to share it with others, we are in the realm of genuine hospitality. Besides, treat hospitality as a community-wide job that can be felt in every personal interaction and economic benefit is likely to follow.

Strive for an atmosphere of belonging.

As a visitor, it’s one thing to feel welcome and another thing altogether to experience a sense of belonging. Brené Brown says that “true belonging” doesn’t require you to change who you are but, rather, requires you to be who you are. How radical would it be if people could step into your community and bring their most authentic selves and be celebrated for that? This reminds me of a time I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana to lead a workshop. While I was there, my hosts brought some of their closest friends together for a social evening. We connected so deeply that I’ll always remember that night. It was my hosts who set the table for that experience. I may have been passing through, but I belonged in Fort Wayne that night. It would have been impossible to feel like an outsider with that group. (Thank you, Amy and Maureen.) How can your community strive for an atmosphere of belonging?

outdoor table setting

How does your community “set the table” for positive experiences?

I hope this gives you some new insights as to how to make both your visitors and your neighbors feel welcome to your communities. Whether through physical cues or human encounters, the message you want to shout from the rooftops is “You’re welcome here! There’s a place for you!”

And if you run a B&B, go ahead and give your guests those earplugs.

To read more from Amy Camp click here. To learn about Cycle Forward and trail tourism best practices click the button below