Before we start, I’d like to apologize to all the French and Spanish speaking people of the world. For I have done your accents a cruel and shameful disservice. But it was all in the name of Entente Cordiale.
More of that later…
A Saturday morning in July. On every street corner in town you can hear the myriad tongues of western Europe, eastern Europe, the Far East, Saint Helens. It’s like the scoring bit of the Eurovision, only slightly less humbling. And it’s heartening proof that Liverpool is a city with international appeal.
But just how welcoming are we to foreign visitors? Because, for all our world class attractions, if our service and welcome aren’t equally world class – if competing cities go the extra mile to say ‘Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome’ we really shouldn’t be calling ourselves an international city at all. Not every visitor is keen to snap up a ‘Learn to Speak Scouse’ book from Waterstones.
Which is why, last weekend, I spent a couple of hours on the phone – with an accent oscillating wildly between René Artois from Allo Allo and Manuel from that hotel in Torquay. And I did it to see whether, five years after our European Capital of Culture party, we’re any more European – and welcoming – than we were. And the results, well, they speak for themselves.
The largest percentage of Liverpool’s visitors come from Western Europe – where French is the most-spoken first or second language. Travellers from Eastern Europe, too, are more likely to speak French (those all important Ryanair destinations) as a second language than English.
Spanish, too, is a widely spoken language – especially with visitors from Europe and Latin America. So you’d figure any city with ambitions to be at the top tourist table would place great value on ensuring visitors are offered a welcome, at initial point of contact, in their language, should their English be as rusty as our Latvian.
And that’s not just our take on it, it’s a widely accepted selbstgänger (German for ‘no-brainer’) in the tourism industry.
So what would happen if a tour guide from France, or Spain, phoned our leading hotels and visitor attractions, offering a booking for a group of tourists eager to spend money in our city but who spoke little or no English. What sort of welcome would they receive?
SevenStreets (starting off René, ending Manuel): Hello, Parlez-vous français? Hablas español? Do you speak French or Spanish? I would like to make a booking of the party of French and Spanish speakers?
Hard Day’s Night: No we don’t, thank you, goodbye. (puts phone down before we can reply)
Hotel Indigo: No, not here. Sorry (is heard asking around ‘Does anyone here speak French or Spanish?’ – muffled grunting noises). No, sorry. No-one.
Radisson: No we don’t speak French at reception. What’s that? Spanish? Oh no…
Adelphi: Yes, we have a French speaker, but they’re busy at the moment. Can you call back in a bit? (We do. They do.)
Crowne Plaza: (abrupt and curt) No sir, we only speak English here. (receiver replaced)
Hilton: (sounding offended that we’d asked) No, we’re an English speaking hotel.
World Museum Liverpool: (Friendly) No unfortunately we don’t. This comes up a lot, we should have really. (When asked if they have French or Spanish audio guides, or any way for tourists to access information about the ‘world’ galleries) No, sorry, we only have English guides. We have some printed information in Spanish, but not French… (About half of the 225,000 overseas visitors who come to Liverpool visit National Museums Liverpool venues…)
Beatles Story (Attraction of the year): Yes we do, wait there, we’ll just get her… (rustling, phone is handed over)… Bonjour? (oh bugger. SevenStreets doesn’t speak French. Oh, the irony…We brush up our accent and ask about French audio guides)... Yes, the museum has French and Spanish audio guides…(We love them. Oui, Oui, Oui.)
Tourist information Office: Not really, sorry. Maybe a little. (We ask about foreign language guides to the city) Sorry, we stopped printing our foreign language leaflets about a year ago. But I can give you the name of a French speaking, and Spanish speaking guide….(Overall, we were impressed…)
Tate Gallery: No, sorry. Only English here.(We ask about French or Spanish audio guides to the Monet/Tate exhibition. What with Monet being, y’know, French an’ all)… No, as I said, only English. Sorry, bye.
Liverpool ONE Information Office (Tourism award winner): We have Spanish and German speakers, but can I speak to you in English? Your English sounds very good… (Bugger it. Rumbled. Cranks up ridiculous accent. Insists, almost angrily, for a French guide) Why don’t you give us your email, and I’m sure we can sort one out for you, no problem. (Go to the top of the class, Liverpool ONE).
Liverpool Cathedral: No we can’t offer a full guide, but we can happily arrange for someone to welcome visitors in French and Spanish, and we have full French and Spanish audio guides…(bless them)
Yeah, I know. This isn’t scientific. But it is, I think, telling. Some of our tourist attractions really are making the effort and offering a service befitting a top flight tourist destination – and for that we should be proud. Others, sadly, need a good talking to.
Our hotels – save for the venerable Adelphi (and who’d have thought that?!) are letting the side down, which is a real shame: as these are so often the first point of contact for our visitors. And, while some of us may think the world is contained within our boundaries, not everyone speaks Sefton and, by and large, the reception staff we spoke to seemed at best mildly put out to listen to a bumbling French tour guide.
“Though a lot of visitors to the UK speak English, there is a growing awareness in Britain that we could do more to welcome tourists if staff across the leisure and hospitality industry had better language skills,” says Dan Hartman from the British Council. “Increasingly, top city destinations are ensuring that key personnel have at least enough language to offer a welcome to tourists in French, Spanish or whatever languages their visitor surveys show are most likely to be spoken by guests.”
“Increasingly, it’s considered rude and sometimes counter-productive of us to assume that everyone understands English when travelling abroad,” he adds.
Liverpool City Region’s Visitor Economy is a thriving industry which generates visitor spend of £3billion a year and is estimated to support 42,300 jobs. Figures show that in 2010, an estimated 54.5 million visitor trips were made to Liverpool City Region – with 2,000,000 overnight stays in Liverpool alone.
But we’re a city competing in a global market. And, for all the back-slapping awards fests, we’re in no position to rest on our laurels.
We’re not saying that these fine places don’t offer a warm welcome – they most definitely do – but, as many of our city’s tourist institutions have just received their Council grants, and set about refurbing, we’d suggest they save a few quid for a crash course in a couple of European languages for their front of house staff.
Our greatest attraction has never been our buildings but our intangible cultural assets – and first impressions go a long, long way.