Language: USP or Barrier?

In the hospitality and tourism industry we all try to push our unique selling points (USP’s) and differentiate our products and services. Yet, how many have considered the edge language can have on the bottom line? asks Charlene Nieuwoudt.

“Your are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid,”
– Sign in a Japanese hotel –

According to Dr Nico Nortjé, CEO of Language Inc., a South African language services company that translates 57 languages, understanding and acting on the cultural and linguistic diversity across the world is key for exceptional tourism marketing.

Linguistic ability has indeed become a valuable asset in the tourism industry – both in terms of the content of marketing material and in the creation and upkeep of a relationship with the client. The ability of staff to communicate with customers in their own languages is vital if the industry wants to flourish as customer satisfaction – and consequent positive word of mouth and return visits – very much depends on the interaction between customer and service provider. We all know how a simple ‘hello, how are you’ in your mother tongue can bring a smile to your face when in a foreign country.

Language is still a major barrier especially for Chinese travellers to South Africa. Their experience is that the country is ill equipped to provide tour services in their own language which forces them to bring their own tour guides. “Most of the Chinese tourists who head to Africa are not that well-versed in English,” Dai Bin, President of the China Tourism Academy, was quoted as saying in a Chinese newspaper. “Unlike Europe and the US where there are lots of Chinese tourist guides and signs written in Chinese, it is rare to see Chinese signs in Africa. The language obstacle deters many Chinese customers from visiting the continent.”

Tourism is an information intensive industry in which organisations rely heavily on communication with tourists through various channels to market and promote their products and build customer relationships. But surely English is the universal language of business, you say! Research will have it differently. According to Lior Cohen, vice president of Net-Translators Ltd only about 15% of the global population speaks English as a first or second language. Apparently most people around the world surf the Internet in their mother tongue. And we know that a customer’s travel experience often begins online.

Which brings us to your website.

Did you know that around three quarters of the content on the Internet is in languages other than English? According to Dr Nico Nortjé additional languages take your website and consequently your reach to the next level.

“Naturally you cannot accommodate the world’s 7,106 languages, but you can target certain countries based on your market research and then communicate to those prospective tourist markets in their own language,” he says.

“Companies can begin by not only translating their website, but by localising the content (making sure the content is also culturally relevant and respectful) to provide well-translated descriptions, reviews and localised payment options.”

English evidently still dominates other languages when it comes to public signs and promotional publications. Foreign languages are increasingly used by tour operations and travel agencies but the hospitality sector, including accommodation and eateries, mostly rely on English.

“While an incorrect or out of context translation – like the Japanese hotel sign – can sometimes elicit nothing more than a chuckle, such errors can have significant communication and even financial consequences for a tourist service provider,” says Dr Nortjé. “The ideal is to keep language in mind when employing staff, when developing your marketing material and when conversing with your guests – even a few choice phrases will go a long way in creating a memorable experience for your guests.”

About the author: Charlene Nieuwoudt Communications represents Language Inc. – an international language service company that is fully compliant with the EN15038 code – the world’s only internationally acknowledged quality standard for translators. Language Inc. provides translation and localisation services in some 57 languages, and recently celebrated its 10th year of existence.

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