Forget 100% pure - just give me free wi-fi

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2013
mod's daughters
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HOWDY PARDNER: Mike O'Donnell's daughters, Sierra and Talullah, in the Gun Room in Red Lodge Montana, with hosts Griz and Dave.

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OPINION: My family and I are still adjusting to the local time zone after our trip to America over Christmas. As a result my beloved and I wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5am. About 5 minutes later our two youngsters catapult themselves into bed with us, ready to go.

Last Saturday we decided to seize the day by going for an early morning walk along the fabulous Petone foreshore and then breakfasting at one of the eateries in Jackson St.

Petone has undergone a massive reinvigoration over the last decade or so. No longer the poor relation of central Wellington, it's a hip and vibrant place where you can score a great coffee, buy cool retro clothes or catch art house cinema. And despite what provocateurs tell you, the foreshore is still a 100% experience.

We found an inviting looking Jackson St cafe and sat down with some breakfast menus and waited. And waited. And waited. Four minutes later none of the staff had come to take our order or even given us any eye contact. We looked at one another and our 7-year-old- who speaks little, but makes up for it in grit - said: "So are we out of here or what?" We got up and left, and I doubt the staff even noticed.

There's a reason places like Drexels in Christchurch and L'Affare in Wellington have done so well and for so long. It's because the managers know service is everything, and these places run a tight customer-centric operation. It's also the reason so many others have gone under during the same period.

Our Petone experience would be funny if it wasn't so common in Godzone. We may have killer coffee, terrific geography, vibrant arts and easily accessible natural wonders but we've also got some pretty crappy customer service across much of the hospitality and retail sectors.

Normally we'd have waited quietly to get noticed at the cafe, but having just returned from the United States, our expectations around customer service had gone north.

And it's not as if our environs in the US were known for sophistication - we're talking the frontier states of Montana and Wyoming, famous for being the homes of Buffalo Bill and the Unabomber.

But no matter where we went, from small town diner to rural supply depot or gun store, the customer service was prompt and focused. In fact some of the best service was in a cowboy gun store at the entrance to Beartooth Mountains.

Within minutes of entering the Gun Room at the Red Lodge Antique Mall we were offered coffee and cake, and my daughters were being told tall stories of the old West and being fitted up for cowboy boots.

The hosts - Dave and Grizz - were as customer-centric as I've found anywhere.

When they couldn't find the perfect fit of boots for our 7-year-old, they rang around the community until they sourced some used numbers. They truly made their customers feel like the centre of the universe, which I reckon is the definition of a customer-focused approach.

Likewise the diners and small town restaurants were nothing short of instant in their service, with coffees refilled if the beverage level got anywhere near half full and staff who seemed to anticipate your needs. Yes, this is an employment sector that survives on gratuities, but man you are always happy to pay for great service.

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The other little big thing that stood out was how much you'd pay for wi-fi in the US. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Unlimited free and fast wi-fi has become the default Stateside.

It didn't matter if it was a cabin in a Cheyenne campground or a Best Western or something flasher, they all came with gratis (and mainly automatic) access to wireless internet.

Heck, even the museums and the bars had wi-fi - making it easy for visitors to stay up-to-date with their online lives, but also to instantly broadcast where they were to all the folks back home. In essence they were converting customers to promoters.

This is a far cry from New Zealand, where accommodators charge mind-numbing amounts for wi-fi access.

Some of the American wi-fi deals I used were cunning joint ventures, where the connection was paid for by another party. Examples included San Francisco Airport, where in return for downloading a freemium game you got 24 hours of wi-fi, and Delta Airlines where eBay has enabled free wi-fi so passengers can browse and buy while in the air. And with 1000 flights a day carrying around 160 passengers that's up to 160,000 additional browsers a day hitting eBay servers.

There's a heap of people spending a lot of time and resources trying to pick apart Tourism NZ's "100% Pure New Zealand" campaign at the moment. Too bad the same resources can't be spent on lifting customer service and enabling free wi-fi.

They say it's the little things that make the biggest difference, and from my recent experience these are the two areas where we fall down the most as a tourist destination, not the majesty of our landscape.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta. He owns three pairs of cowboy boots but is not a member of the NRA.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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