Newscom file
People walk along the Harbor at Newport, on Block Island Sound in Rhode Island. As a premium tourist destination, Newport officials are concentrating on keeping guests happy — and coming back.
updated 5/2/2007 12:36:05 PM ET 2007-05-02T16:36:05

Luxurious mansions built as summer homes for the fabulously rich share a ZIP code here with the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which sits mere minutes from the church where John F. Kennedy got married and crystal blue waters that wrap around the city.

Newport has long embraced its status as a premium tourist destination, drawing more than 3 million visitors a year. But facing growing competition from other cities for limited tourist dollars, and amid a downturn in visitors, officials are concentrating on keeping guests happy — and coming back.

A new hospitality training program in the city aims to do that by taking shopkeepers back to basics, teaching them how to help tourists locate hard-to-find public bathrooms and parking, and reinforcing the importance of attending to customers' needs.

"You can't control gas prices, war in Iraq," said Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading the initiative. "Those are things that you really can't focus on. What you can focus on, what you can improve, is the positive visitor experience."

It may sound elementary, but it also underscores the importance of hospitality in a city whose attractions include Gilded Age mansions once inhabited by the Vanderbilt and Astor clans; Touro, the oldest synagogue in the nation and heralded summertime music festivals dedicated to folk, jazz and other genres.

Several of the indexes used to measure the health of the tourism and hospitality industry, such as admission to attractions, have declined as destinations around the nation wrestle for their share of the market.

City Councilman Charles Duncan said he's concerned that certain employees in Newport, especially younger ones, aren't as courteous to customers as they should be.

"I don't think they understand that tourism is one of our biggest commodities here — and Rhode Island's biggest commodity," said Duncan, who sponsored a City Council resolution supporting the program.

"You don't have to be toothy nice, you know what I'm saying?" he said. "You just be polite, for heaven's sake."

Businesses and city staffers that regularly encounter tourists will be coached on providing basic information about the city, like where to find parking, lunch spots and public bathrooms, which often lack adequate signs.

While year-round Newporters generally know answers to those questions, the city's shops and restaurants depend heavily on seasonal workers, often out-of-town students or people from overseas who may be almost as new to the city as day-trippers.

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Officials say the initiative isn't about fixing any major problems with Newport. Stokes said the city doesn't receive any more complaints than it used to or than other cities get.

"I don't perceive anything to be broken," said Evan Smith, president of the Newport County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "I just think we have room to be better."

Business owners say they appreciate the importance of customer service and already practice what the chamber preaches. Several merchants said they liked the concept of the program, even if they weren't sure it was for them.

"Every city employee should be well-versed in giving directions and helping people," said Bill Rommel, owner of the Arnold Art Store and Gallery.

Bob and Cindy Wernicki, of Griswold, Conn., had one of their first dates in Newport more than 20 years ago and still make regular visits. They said they enjoy their jaunts here — even though parking is occasionally atrocious, and even if some restaurants have jacked up prices.

"They've kept it quaint," said Bob Wernicki.

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