At Your Service

Two schools use hospitality programs to improve customer service in very different industries.
At Your Service main

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg


AS ONE WAY of strengthening connections between academia and industry, two business schools with hospitality programs have developed innovative partnerships with new industries—or whole towns. Here’s a look at how they’re expanding the reach of their programs and providing essential services to their communities.


Fewer than 12,000 people live in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, but more than 3 million visit the town every year to enjoy its skiing slopes and hiking trails. Since tourism is the primary driver of the economy, hospitality skills are in high demand—a fact recognized by city officials in 2013 when they decided to overhaul the town’s 30-year-old service training program.

The Whistler Chamber of Commerce reached out to the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, also in British Columbia, for help in creating an updated training program that would result in consistent levels of service throughout every business in town.

“The goal was to make sure that visitors to Whistler would the see the same level of customer service whether they were checking into their accommodations, visiting coffee shops, or scanning their lift passes at ski resort gondolas,” says Mark Colgate, a Gustavson professor in service excellence who spearheaded the design of the new program. “The idea was that the program would turn Whistler’s customer service into a serious destination differentiator.”

The revamped customer-service training program, dubbed the Whistler Experience, was launched in 2014 with the input of the Chamber of Commerce. The program stresses the 3Rs of service: Be reliable, be responsive, and build relationships. It’s delivered both on-site and online, with participants receiving about 70 percent of their training virtually. Since 2014, more than 16,000 people have attended Whistler Experience courses. Many of them were seasonal workers who don’t normally live in the town, or commuters from nearby cities.

Most of the training consists of three-hour workshops delivered by Colgate and other Gustavson professors. Participants earn Certificates of Completion when they attend the foundational sessions called “Moments of Power 1–4.” They can earn Service Leadership Certificates if they attend at least three leadership courses on topics such as creating a powerful service culture and being an impactful leader.

Colgate notes that the Whistler Experience doesn’t just help business owners build their brands by improving customer service; it also helps them retain employees by providing training to those who are looking to upgrade their skills. In addition, business owners can opt for the Secret Shopper Program, which allows them to see how well their employees have mastered their new customer service skills and offers suggestions for improvement.

Says Colgate, “The program has also taught managers and supervisors to be better leaders through train-the-trainer materials and coaching tools that enable them to develop their teams.”

Not only that, the Whistler Experience has had a measurable impact on the community. In the inaugural year of the program, city officials noted a significant increase in customer satisfaction over the previous year, as measured by 5,000 visitor surveys. And as of June 2017, according to Tourism Whistler, more than 82 percent of visitors said they were satisfied in all of the 3R categories, a 2 percent increase over the previous season. Outside organizations have taken notice: The Whistler Experience was a finalist for a World Chamber Award for Best Education and Training project at the International Chamber of Commerce Congress held in Sydney, Australia, last September.

Just as important, workers in Whistler are realizing that “having the Whistler Experience on a résumé is an investment in future employment opportunities,” says Colgate. He notes that people who intern at Google are prized throughout the tech industry, and he’d like to see a similar recognition for people who have been employed in this tiny town. “Working in Whistler should reflect having a world-class customer service skill set.”


As anyone who’s ever been to the hospital knows, enduring any kind of medical procedure can be a grueling experience. But Christiana Care Health System (CCHS), a healthcare provider based in Wilmington, Delaware, wanted to improve its customer service for patients. So Shawn Smith, vice president of patient experience at CCHS, turned for help to Ali Poorani, an associate professor at the Lerner College of Business at the University of Delaware in Newark.

“A few years ago, I had delivered a customer service program called Hospitality Academy for casinos in Atlantic City,” says Poorani, the director of Hospitality Associates for Research and Training at the school. He presented the casino program to Smith, who agreed that many aspects could be repackaged for the healthcare field. Soon after, the Patient Experience Academy (PXA) was born.

To deliver the new PXA, Poorani recruited William Sullivan, an adjunct professor; Sheryl Kline, deputy dean and professor of hospitality management; and Kathy Smith, former vice president of HR for the Ritz Carlton Hotels. He also asked theater professor Allan Carlsen to create role-playing exercises for CCHS participants. Carlsen runs UD’s Healthcare Theatre program, which helps healthcare professionals and health sciences students develop communication skills by participating in skits with theater students who portray patients and family members.

The program started with participants attending five two-hour sessions on different topics; participants returned for follow-up sessions at 60-day and 90-day intervals. Participants were expected to put their learning into action, create new programs, and measure results so they could share information during the 90-day follow-up.

“The teaching methods we used were mainly adult learning methods—interactive and hands-on learning, storytelling, action learning projects, and role-playing exercises with pre- and post-assessments,” says Poorani. “During follow-up sessions, participants shared their achievements in storytelling formats.”

The core of the program consisted of modules on leading expectations, listening and showing empathy, delivering customer service, resolving conflict, handling service recovery, and managing change. Some classes were held at the university and some at Christiana Care’s teaching rooms in various locations around Delaware.

Since the program began, more than 1,000 CCHS employees have taken part. Attendees have included doctors, nurses, nurse assistants, office assistants, and call center staff. Participants earn a Patient Experience Academy certificate sponsored by the Lerner College and CCHS.

The payoff has been significant. Since the program’s inception in July 2015, CCHS has seen a sizable increase in its scores on the Clinician and Group Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, a standardized tool used to measure patients’ assessment of care. The company’s previous scores had typically been in the high 80s; since the program began, scores have moved above 90 percent based on 8,000 customer evaluations. The most noticeable improvement came in areas of teamwork, respect, and helpfulness, all of which are elements of PXA.

Poorani believes many other industries could benefit by seeking hospitality training from business school programs. He says, “Customer experience is a key for success in any field, so hospitality training could be useful for banks, sports facilities that attract fans, travel and entertainment vendors, retail stores—almost any business that deals face-to-face with customers.”