On Not Being Vanilla

A few weeks ago, I read an interview in the local newspaper with the CEO of the Wicaninnish Inn, a world-class hotel on Long Beach, Vancouver Island’s West Coast. To describe how he approaches marketing, Charles McDiarmid said, “People don’t want vanilla … today, it’s evolved. People want surprises … if one person out of 100 notices a single touch, it makes it worth it to incorporate it.”

I’ve been thinking about that image ever since … about how NOT to give my customers vanilla service. Or, for that matter, how not to BE vanilla in a business world that seems to be offering only ‘vanilla’ services. And half-baked, at that.

There are several ways I try to offer double-fudge maple walnut service to clients in my boat charter business. It doesn’t hurt, for starters, that the Wind Walker is solid handcrafted Philippine mahogany wood, while the other charter boats in the area are manufactured fiberglass. And having been built in 1965, she’s a classic beauty. These are non-vanilla details with which we began when we bought the boat, and we’ve been building our service in the same manner since.

From the moment our clients come aboard, they know this is no ordinary boat. As I’m giving the ‘tour,’ before we ever leave the dock, I make a point of weaving in details about the history of Chris Craft, the manufacturer who built this legend. The fine, detailed craftsmanship is evident throughout the vessel, and by the time folks are seated on the upper bridge for our departure, they understand, perhaps, a little more about an era of first-class boat-building that no longer exists.

After we are certain everyone is comfortable (and if that means finding the softest seats for the elderly, producing crayons for the young and restless, serving up nachos and dip for the teens, so be it!), I serve coffee. And this is no vanilla coffee – I’ve ground the fresh dark roast French beans moments before our guests arrive. The finger foods we provide have come, not from the local corner store, but for only a few dollars more, from the local exotic deli. And the serviettes are those ‘silk-textured’ones you can only buy in specialty stores.

As Michael, my co-captain, begins to maneuver the Wind Walker away from her berth, I become a Tour Guide, explaining the folklore, history and culture of the area around us … going all the way back to the Native Canadian Coast Salish inhabitants of over 5000 years ago. Sometimes other charter boats are leaving the dock at the same time – revving their motors, cracking open the 6-pack of beer, skippers shouting obscenities at the seals in the water. Being vanilla.

Meanwhile, I am calmly explaining the medical and safety features available to our guests during our cruise – the Wind Walker more than complies with Coast Guard regulations in every category, ensuring that we instill confidence in even the most skittish of the people who come aboard. Once, when we were on the dock at a neighboring resort and our clients had gone ashore for a walk, another charter boat came flying in to the berth next to us – there were probably 20 people aboard, and neither a life jacket nor lifeboat could be seen. Another vanilla service.

Throughout our cruise, I am on my feet … serving coffee, making sure they see the porpoise in the bay, tidying up after children who don’t even know they’ve left a trail of crumbs, explaining what a nudibranch is, pointing out the bald eagle overhead.

By the time we arrive back on the dock at the end of a cruise, our clients are relaxed, refreshed and perhaps a little more knowledgeable about the marine environment — thanks to our ‘put-your-feet-up-we-are-here-to-wait-on-you’ attitude, and first-class food and beverage service (which doesn’t include alcohol, by the way – that would be a vanilla thing to do)!

Add to that our respect for the world around us (“No, please don’t throw that overboard – here is a trash receptacle”), for the wildlife that shares this water (“Let’s not get too close to that sea lion, we don’t want to startle it”), and for the human beings who have honored us with their presence on our bridge deck — what we’ve done is provided a double- fudge maple walnut experience, in a vanilla world.

Did I say ‘honored?’ Yes, that’s how we try to treat the people who pay to come aboard the Wind Walker — like the honored guests they are. THAT’S how not be vanilla!

What do you do, how do you approach service, what single ‘touches’ do you add, or can you add to your business to NOT be ‘vanilla?’
Author Marilyn Guille owns Comprehensive Virtual Editing (CoVE) Services, which provides press release writing and distribution, general and business writing, editing, and ghostwriting services. Guille has been a professional freelance writer for two decades, and lives on a classic boat on which she and her husband do sightseeing charters. You can check out her website at http://www.coveservices.net