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Jared Koger, left, helps Emory Glass check into the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Glass was visiting the city with his wife, Anne. Staff Photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Check out a video about the Chattanooga experience shown during the hospitality session here.

Few conventions attract both hotel managers and members of a police SWAT team, but on Monday police officers sat side by side with Delta Queen workers, both hoping to get fired up.

As the 2011 summer season kicked off, about 1,500 workers involved directly or indirectly with the tourism industry squeezed into the Chattanooga Choo-Choo's Centennial Theatre during three sessions hosted by Molly Catron, who made her living for two decades consulting on customer service with corporate clients.

"They'll remember the aquarium, they'll remember Ruby Falls, they'll remember Rock City, but most of all they'll remember you," Catron told a packed house.

More than 3 million visitors come to Chattanooga each year, and that number is growing, tourism officials say. The key to retaining them is "your demeanor," Catron said. "They can sense it when you scoop an ice cream cone or when you're changing linens - they can feel it."

Nearly all businesses tell their employees to be nice to customers, she said, but fewer encourage or empower employees to go above and beyond, anticipating clients' unstated needs.

That level of service is rare these days, to a large extent because of apathy, she said.

"If you've got this feeling that the customer is an absolute pain, it's going to affect the whole business," she said. "It's all in those underlying beliefs."

The highest level of service - helping customers before they even realize they need help - can only be achieved if the culture of service goes all the way to the top, and if individual employees cultivate empathy inside themselves, she said.

Companies that treat customers poorly in today's economic climate don't stand a chance of competing, as consumers with the ability instantly to review a business using tools from Google, Yahoo and even Urbanspoon can make or break a reputation.

Luckily, Chattanooga's service employees know how to treat customers properly, in Catron's experience.

"These people don't need training, they just need inspiration," she said. "I have some groups where they need to learn how to use a person's name or smile, but that's not the case here."

In fact, Chattanooga has won accolades from organizations and publications across the country, including Disney, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Parade, Southern Living and even Meetings & Conventions magazine, which awarded Chattanooga its "Gold Service Award," according to Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It just really is an exciting time when you can see 1,500 people ready to go serve our guests," Doak said. "A happy visitor will tell their friends and have a high propensity to return if they're treated very well."

As for why the police officers were invited to attend alongside the bellhops and waiters, Doak said that training every worker who has contact with tourists pays dividends.

"In Walt Disney World, the guys with the brooms and dustpans in their hand are more trained than most people in the park because people always come up to those guys asking 'where is this' and 'where is that,'" Doak said.

"Police officers always get questions, and we are of the philosophy that if you take a little bit more time to explain where something is and what it's about, once you do that to a visitor, you've got 'em," he said.

Contact Ellis Smith at or 423-757-6315.