Ambassador Programs Give Cities a Diplomatic Edge

By Erin Caslavka Deinzer, November 11, 2014

In preparation for one of the world’s biggest events, the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District—a state-legislated, not-for-profit organization—set up the Ambassador Force, a 501(c)(3) funded by commercial property taxes with a mission to keep downtown Atlanta safe, clean and hospitable.

Eighteen years later, the program is still going strong. Focused on enhancing the city’s public safety and public works services within the 220-block downtown district, Atlanta’s Ambassador Force—made up of paid personnel including off-duty police, park and public space managers and attendants, and a 20-person Clean Team staff—provide public safety and customer service to a downtown constituency of 200,000 and an additional 13 million annual convention and special events visitors, ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 people daily. The ambassadors wear distinct uniforms that make them more approachable than law enforcement, says David Wardell, vice president of operations and public safety for Atlanta’s ambassadors.

“The ROI in terms of investment in a training program is indisputable: It serves as a community pride booster and helps the local workforce do their jobs better.” —Alison Best, Visit Oakland

Atlanta was one of the first cities to implement an ambassador team, but the programs continue to grow in popularity nationwide. The Certified Tourism Ambassador Network, which provides training programs for frontline hospitality workers and volunteers, runs 21 programs across the United States. More than 100 DMOs have gone through CTA’s training program. Taxi drivers, innkeepers, business development coordinators and parking lot attendants are some of the individuals who have participated in the program, which results in a certification upon completion. Meanwhile, CVBs from Galveston Island, Texas, to Stockton, California, have also had their employees receive CTA training. Experience Grand Rapids (Michigan) has certified more than 1,000 ambassadors through CTA since August 2013, making it one of the fastest growing ambassador programs in the country.

While ambassador teams are trained to have the knowledge and friendliness of a concierge, their skills in public safety are a big reason planners utilize their services. At a recent Rodan & Fields convention in Atlanta, one event ran until midnight, meaning more than 8,500 attendees were out after dark. The convention planner enlisted the ambassadors to escort the women from the event safely back to their downtown hotels. Because downtown hotels pay for ambassador services as part of their property taxes, they’re able to ask the group for help whenever they need it.

In addition to ensuring the safety of groups, many ambassador programs, such as that of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, are available to staff an information table, assist with registration, stuff registration materials, print and distribute welcome signs, and take on other tasks to ensure guests have a positive experience in their city.

Oakland, California, is another city introducing an ambassador program. The Downtown Oakland Association has contracted with Block-by-Block (a national provider of security services) as well as a city-based nonprofit to assist with its maintenance efforts. Beyond that, Oakland has recently committed to instituting an ambassador program under its “I Am Oakland” campaign to educate its frontline hospitality staff.

For its inaugural program in August 2014, Visit Oakland sent personnel on chartered buses with approximately 150 staff members and volunteer docents from the Oakland Museum of California for a 90-minute tour of the city and a multimedia presentation in the museum’s James Moore Theater. The response from their first group of trainees via a post-training questionnaire was overwhelmingly positive, and Visit Oakland is now planning to work with five area hotels to provide ambassador training for their employees.

“Oakland’s workforce needs to be able to deliver information and destination highlights to our visitors,” says Alison Best, president and CEO of Visit Oakland. “The ROI in terms of investment in a training program is indisputable: It serves as a community pride booster and helps the local workforce do their jobs better.”

Photo credit: Atlanta Downtown

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