DAVENPORT — Michael Eckersley proudly wears that yellow shirt with him whenever he’s working or out in the community, conducting business.
The yellow t-shirt, he said, is quite comfortable in the Florida sunshine, but the truth is, that fairly average and plain shirt isn’t intended solely to feel good when he’s outdoors in a hot state, or meant to be a fashion statement. Eckerlsey, who came to Central Florida from England to start a business here, no longer much cares about that.
His interest in wearing the shirt, which his employees also wear, is about something else entirely: his promotion of a business image.
“It doesn’t matter what clothing it goes on,” Eckerlsey said. “You could put it on any clothing.”
On the left corner of his shirt is the logo of his business: Sunsplash Vacation Homes. It’s the company that Eckersley started a decade ago in Davenport, Florida. As a property manager, he oversees houses that are rented to tourists on a short term basis. And creating a positive image for his company, he said, starts with the appearance that he and his workers project when a guest first walks through the door, ready to start their Central Florida vacation.
Those first impressions, Eckersley said, are critical, which is why he decided to put his business logo on the shirts in the first place.
“It makes you look part of the team – and that you are legitimate,” he said. “And that’s what you’re looking for, isn’t it?”
If it sounds simple and straightforward, particularly for the tourism industry – well, often times, it’s not, Eckersley said.
Tourism is, along with citrus farming and health care, among the top industries in the state of Florida, and this is a one that’s managed to weather the national recession more successfully than other fields like real estate and home construction. Tourism remains a $28 billion industry, and the Orlando destination attracted an estimated $50 million visitors in 2010, making tourism the number one industry in Central Florida, according to estimates by the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents many of the hotels, resorts and time shares that bring so many visitors to this region.
The CFHLA also represents vacation homes, and there are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 vacation rental homes in Central Florida. These properties appeal to families that want to stay in a house with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, a game room and a private pool, rather than crowding everyone into a hotel room, during their extended vacation stay here.
It’s the business that Eckersley has been in for 10 years, and he’s done so well that he started raising his rates in the spring of 2011.
Image, then, would seem like one of the top concerns for those in the hospitality industry, and for a businessman like Eckerlsey — who took the time to get his shirts designed with his logo — it just seems like a practical, common sense decision.
An Flamand is one of them. She runs USA Vacation Homes in Davenport, a property management firm that oversees homes that are rented to tourists. USA Vacation Homes decided in October 2011 to introduce uniforms for the staff working at the vacation homes that Flamand manages. Although her company has been in busy more than a decade, Flamand acknowledges she was slow to come to the realization of how important uniforms are – but she’s now making up for lost time.
“I think name recognition or logo recognition is definitely a very important thing in any marketing,” Flamand said. “I have not really succeeded as well in that, because I have changed my logo a couple of times — which is not very good.”
But in the fall of 2011, Flamand decided it was time to take a more serious look at image branding. She did her homework, and decided that a strong look begins with uniforms.
“I have all my staff that work outside have logo wear, and all the trucks are wrapped so they have our logo and slogans on them,” she said. “Name branding is very important for us. I am going to go into the spa resort field now, offering spa services, and with that comes uniforms. Our personnel will have to wear something more like the hotel industry uniforms, where they wear a short shirt with a logo on it — where it’s less laid back and more professional. It’s something that I’ve been working pretty hard on.”
The bottom line, she said, is she wants customers to remember the image her company is trying so hard to project.
“I think it is very important how you come across to your customers, and your logo is very important, too.”
Not everyone in the hospitality industry, though, is smart enough to take even small measures such as stitching a logo to an otherwise ordinary shirt, Eckersley. This is particularly true in his home county, Polk County, where tourism is also a big part of the local economy, from the vacation homes in the northeast part of the county to the lakes that attract lovers of outdoor recreation, and attractions like Legoland Florida and Fantasy of Flight.
Despite all that, Eckerlsey said the county really doesn’t think much about the positive impact of creating a lasting visual image to enhance not just a product or service, but also the people delivering it.
“I don’t think we’re good enough at branding,” Eckersley said. “I’ve got my logo on my shirt, and it didn’t cost me much to take this shirt to a stitching company.”
Tourism officials in Polk County may not put a strong emphasis on branding, but plenty of others within the hospitality industry do, said Angie Michael.
“Every hotel has a uniform,” said Michael, an image consultant based in Nevada. “Even the uniforms are a sign to the public. The bellman’s uniform is one, food and beverage is another one, and the front desk is another one. There is a very clear uniform for difference decisions.”
On one hand, think of it as making the hotel more user-friendly for the guests – the uniform worn by each employee helps signify what they do.
“When you go to a hotel and look for the housekeeper, they will all have a distinct uniform so the guest won’t be confused,” said Michael, who operates the Image Resource Group. “It is a part of several things. One is the principle is the same – why do we wear uniforms? Basically, we wear uniforms to help identify and get consistency to the viewer. It’s an element of the first impression process, and also to support the image and the branding of any first impression.”
Michael has spent a lot of time working with people in the hospitality industry on why they need to consider employing uniforms as a way to literally put themselves ahead of the competition. Working under the concept that first impressions are critical, Michael has been dispensing advice
to managers, team leaders and company presidents for decades on how to give their employees that unique look – the professional appearance that includes their clothing, grooming, body language, business etiquette, and, of course, uniform.
She even wrote a book on this subject, “Best Impressions in Hospitality,“ which was published in 2000 by Delmar Thomson Learning book publishers. The reason hotels and resorts make a serious investment in this, she said, is obvious: a professional appearance is critical in a competitive business environment.
“They know that the way the bellman looks is important when you go to a hotel,” she said, noting that when guests arrive at the resort, “You don’t see the general manager, you see the bellman. That’s why they spend a fortune on uniforms. They want to make sure there is someone there to fill those needs.”
But imaging doesn’t begin and end with tourism or hospitality, she added. A lot of corporations are starting to consider whether there’s an image they want to project, and if so, how best to achieve it.
“I work with fields that have uniforms, but I work with a lot of companies around the country that don’t have uniforms,” she said. “A lot has changed in recent years. Before it was about color, and style, and makeup, and now you find a lot of corporate image work. We do branding and training and international image protocol.”
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