I’ve spent the better part of a month in the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten/Saint-Maarten over the past year. The small island is actually shared by two countries. Sint Maarten is a constituent country of the Netherlands, and Saint-Martin is a territory (technically an ‘overseas collective’) of France.
It’s remarkable how an island, roughly the size of Orlando Florida, can have two such dramatically different cultures. While both share the same distinctive Caribbean overtones, the influence of the French and Dutch are instantly apparent the moment you cross from one side to the other. From the visceral, emotive attitudes on the French side to the more practical, blunt approaches on the Dutch side.
Most of my time has been spent on the Dutch side in the capital city of Philipsburg. Like so many Caribbean islands, tourism on St. Maarten is really their only industry of significance. My hotel looks out over the harbour and the never-ending procession of cruise ships and their passengers. The numbers of tourists in the high season are staggering. I’ve seen as many as 5 cruise ships docked, but have heard that the number can be as high as nine. That would be over 30,000 people descending on the island – close to a 50% increase in population.
With the importance of tourism to the economy, customer service, one would think, would be at the top of everyone’s to-do list. So you can understand my surprise to discover how very inconsistent it is here.
The best places for customer service on the island appear to be the tourist hubs of Maho and Simpsons Bay in St. Maarten. On the French side, it’s the waterfront at Marigot and the restaurant strip in Grand-Case. Generally speaking, the French have a very very large edge when it comes to customer service here.
Philipsburg, the capital city, is where the cruise ships dock. It features a long beach, and a boardwalk lined with restaurants, Segway rentals and beach chairs. Paralleling it is Front St., with endless jewellery stores, Duty Free stores and general tourist stuff. One would expect some pretty exceptional customer experiences here too, but alas, they are few and far between.
With the exception of a couple of larger restaurants, such as Greenhouse,Chesterfields and the Hard Rock Cafe; and a couple of hotels like the Sonesta Beach Club and Holland House (there is a server here named Jessie who is oustanding), it is a pretty dismal customer experience. There seemed to be two extremes. On the one hand, there were the hyper-aggressive salespeople in the jewellery stores who made you afraid to even glance at an item for fear they would notice and start thrusting it in your hand. On the other hand and, more commonly, there were the bored, disinterested and uncaring employees working the restaurants and bars. Oh, sure, there were occasional exceptions, but for the most part you got the feeling that you were more of an intruder than a customer. One waitress actually rolled her eyes at us twice. Once when I asked to see a food menu, and again when my wife asked if they had lemonade or iced tea.
This two km stretch of beach is a case study in customer service. The places that are the busiest are also the ones with markedly better customer service. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.