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Training frontline staff in Mandarin would put Whistler in 'competitive position' says TW

Demand for Mandarin class outpaces Spanish, French at Tamwood's Whistler campus



With Chinese visits to British Columbia increasing at an astonishing rate, the resort's business community is starting to think about how to most effectively cater to the rapidly growing market.

Between January and September 2014, Chinese arrivals to B.C. rose 27 per cent, fuelled by a quickly expanding middle class with an appetite for international travel and luxury pastimes, like skiing.

So how can a community like Whistler, which prides itself on delivering top-notch customer service, prepare for the influx of outbound Chinese tourists that some predict will reach 200 million annually in the next five years?

Language is key, explained Tourism Whistler's (TW) director of market development Shawna Lang.

"Having frontline staff (that) speak Mandarin will be a huge benefit for us, and we need to really start thinking about how we can help with that because we know it's a need for the growing Chinese market," she said.

"Other places in the world are very focused on getting frontline Mandarin speakers... To put us in a competitive position, this would be of benefit to us."

Tamwood International College began offering a Mandarin course last month at its Whistler location for the first time in two years, and demand has already outpaced its French and Spanish classes. Emanuela Bertoia, owner of Farfalla Hair & Esthetics, is one of the students in the class.

"I've had this interest in language for a long time, and I'm only realizing now that this can affect my business and the maturing of my staff," she said, adding that she would cover the costs if any of her staff wanted to pick up a new skill that would benefit the business, and already employs a Spanish and French speaker at the salon.

"I'm just coming to terms with how much benefit there is (to learning Mandarin), not only to be able to speak another language, but how it can contribute to us as a ski resort with a driving force of people who want to give the best quality service."

Tamwood instructor Katharina Steiger is leading the class, and has seen how even the most basic Mandarin skills can benefit in a customer service-oriented job.

"I work at Black Tusk Gallery, and we have quite a lot of Chinese tourists, especially in the summer," she said. "It's completely different when you start to speak Chinese with them, because otherwise they may just walk around and leave again. But if you start speaking Chinese... then they start buying stuff and asking questions."

Learning a new language is also a window into another's culture, explained Tamwood's Whistler campus manager Shelley Quinn, which can help bridge the gap between frontline staff and international visitors.

"It makes you warm up to the whole culture when you start to learn the characters, how old the language is and its origins," she said. "Foreign language study also helps you to understand and be a lot more patient and empathetic with tourists, because you realize they are in the same boat you were in sitting in that Mandarin class not understanding anything."

While the Whistler Chamber of Commerce's CEO, Val Litwin, said speakers of other languages still outnumber Chinese visitors to the resort, any preparations the service sector can make to make any guest feel more welcome is a benefit.

"Whenever we can speak in the native tongue of one of our visiting guests, it scores us points," he said. "Do people need to go out tomorrow and learn Mandarin? Probably not, but I think as a part of a medium and long-term strategy, we should always look at how we can better serve our guests."

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