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Pura Vida: 7 Marketing Lessons From Costa Rica

  |  December 23, 2011   |  Comments

A strong ethos for customer service and a passion for the good life are a recipe for success.

Just returned from a week in Costa Rica. This Central American nation possesses stunning scenery (beaches, rain forests, volcanoes) with lots of outdoor activities (hiking, surfing, and zipline canopy tours). Which explains why it's such a popular travel destination, attracting 700,000 Americans each year.

costarica-sunsetIn Costa Rica's tourism industry, workers strive for top-notch customer service and understand the importance of positive word-of-mouth. While tourist destinations typically have a motive to treat visitors well – they want them and their friends to return; not all succeed because workers aren't properly trained or don't really care. Excellence in customer service is part of Costa Rica's DNA.

This country's stellar reputation, which in turn fuels its successful macromarketing, inspired me to cull these lessons for marketers:

Lesson 1: Love your job. While visiting northern Costa Rica, I arranged for a tour service to take my husband and me on a half-day "safari" rubber raft ride along the Peñas Blancas River. Our guide, Danny Vega, was clearly passionate about his job. Each time we drifted past a crocodile, monkey, lizard, or bird, Danny's eyes lit up and his voice bubbled with enthusiasm. Although Danny has been navigating this river since he was a young boy, he didn't display the slightest hint of boredom. His love of nature was obvious, ensuring that he excelled at work - and providing a good experience for his guests.

Lesson 2: Strive for excellence, but not perfection. Danny Vega, our guide, is fluent in Spanish and English. But he warned us upfront: "I am not perfect in Spanish. I am not perfect in English. President Obama is not [a perfect person] either. So I do the best that I can and don't give up," he said. If he aimed for perfection, he might be paralyzed and avoid talking to us and other English-speaking visitors.

Lesson 3: Listen to your customers. Once the raft ride was finished, a driver picked us up in a van and brought Danny and us back into town. On the trip back, Danny handed us a survey, asking us to rate his performance and the excursion. This gave the tour operator, Sunset Tours, an opportunity to learn what customers had to say before they said it on review sites and elsewhere online. (One drawback: We were still in the van when we handed back our survey. If our guide deserved a negative rating, would he be tempted to rip up our review or leave us on the side of the road?)

Lesson 4: To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Throughout our travels in Costa Rica, we were frequently reminded to protect ourselves against theft. When we rented a car, for instance, we were given a gear shift lock and were instructed to remove the car radio. While we received more warnings than other places I've visited, including Panama, I don't think Costa Rica is more dangerous. It's just more cautious about protecting the safety of visitors - and its reputation.

Lesson 5: Marketing matters. From May through November, it rains a lot in Costa Rica and Panama. Panamanians call that period their "rainy season," but Costa Ricans take another approach: they refer to it as the "green season." And while it may be risky for a tourist destination to whitewash a gloomy weather outlook, Costa Rica's approach works because it's consistent with its emphasis on eco-tourism - and a green environment.


Lesson 6: Good copy writing matters too. Costa Rica's slogan is "pura vida," which means "pure life," but translates to something between "no worries" and "don't sweat the small stuff." Costa Rica's tourist board reinforces that theme in a promotion on its website, VisitCostaRica.com, and Facebook page. In coming months, it is giving people a chance to win trips in Costa Rica if they agree to sign into the "Gift of Happiness" app on Facebook.

Lesson 7: Embrace "pura vida." And have a happy new year!


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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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