IN CONVERSATION WITH …. amazing women:
“LESS TAKING, MORE GIVING – CONNECTION WITH OTHER CULTURES, RATHER THAN OBSERVING THEM – AND MORE AWARENESS OF WHAT WE DO AND WHAT EFFECT IT HAS ON THE PLANET”
My next conversation is with Jeannette Biesbroeck, a friend, a fearless global traveller, a hospitality professional and trainer, an author, and I am pretty sure her list of excellence and achievements will continue to grow and evolve.
Over a decade ago I met Jeannette along the beautiful waterways of Europe and the words that come to mind when I think of her are kindness and friendliness. An exemplary professional in the hospitality industry, and she has taught me so much.
Jeannette is from The Hague in the Netherlands, the city of peace and justice. However, she feels at home anywhere in the world. In this interview we talk about how the lockdown has stimulated her creativeness, about her training missions in developing countries like Sierra Leone, Zambia, Tanzania and Myanmar, where Jeannette trains people who don’t have access to institutional education.
Jeannette also shares with us how she sees the future of tourism and who and what inspires her.
Her latest project is her recently launched book about Customer Friendliness, which has already been published in the Netherlands and will soon also be available in English. In the book Jeannette talks about the importance of friendliness and how it has the power to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty, and how it can increment the sales of your business. While busy with her writing she also launched a hospitality training business and she lectures at various institutions as well as private companies in the Netherlands and around the world.
I FEEL AT HOME WHEREVER I AM
You are a global citizen. The travel and hospitality industry takes you around the world, offering you the chance to see all the beauty there is. Could you share with us what place in the world made you feel most at home and why?
I usually feel at home wherever I am, but somehow I have always felt a special connection with Africa. I experience Africa with all my senses. The moment I get off the plane and hear the sounds of Africa, see the multitude of people and feel the warm air, I get a sensation of homecoming. In Africa, I have, besides going there as a tourist, conducted several hospitality trainings that gave me the chance to really connect with people. This might be one of the main reasons why I feel so much at home there. I heard someone say ‘Whoever felt the dust of Africa under his feet, will always return’. This describes best what I feel.
SUDDEN DETOUR – FINDING BETTY
As a Tour and Cruise Director, you have guided and escorted guests all around the world exploring sensational landscapes and cultures. What was your most touching experience in this role’?
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D-day, in 1994, I was leading a group of Canadian war veterans on a tour of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. On the landing beaches of Normandy the war veterans were received and distinguished by the late President Mitterrand. This time the beaches were filled with journalists and camera crews instead of military equipment. Just as a TV-camera zoomed in on a French writer who was also invited, one of my veterans recognized the writer as his old war buddy. The recognition was mutual and while the camera kept rolling, they fell into each other’s arms. It suddenly gave the whole ceremony a very human touch. From there we followed the liberation route through Belgium into the Netherlands, where the veterans had been stationed as well. As we approached the Dutch border, one of the veterans fumbled in his wallet to fish out an old black and white picture of a girl: Betty, his Dutch wartime sweetheart. ‘Do you think we could find her?’ was the simple question. I realized this man had come to Europe to relive the emotions related to his personal stories of the wartime, rather than recalling the historical facts or attending official ceremonies. We got the whole group involved in the story and everyone agreed we should try to find Betty; one dream coming true would count for all of them, they said. We deviated from the official itinerary and went to the village where Betty used to live. We found a young man with the same last name who helped us find his great aunt in the next village. An emotional reunion followed and many a tear ran down the cheeks of the war veterans and myself. Betty spoke no English and her wartime boyfriend spoke no Dutch, but that didn’t matter: they talked and talked, each in their own language. The memories and emotions, stored away for so long, had to come out. ‘Betty Day’ was the best day of the tour and all said it had been worth crossing the ocean for.
MAKING A CONNECTION ON A PERSONAL LEVEL
What always inspired me from our talks, were the missions you went on to train people in developing countries. From Sierra Leone, Zambia and Tanzania in Africa to Myanmar in Asia. You do this as a volunteer through an institution called PUM Netherlands Senior Experts. How would you define this experience? What exactly do you do there?
On those missions I share my expertise with people that have no access to institutional trainings. The aim is to help a company grow and create more jobs, which combats poverty. We, as an organization, also focus on corporate social responsibility. We never train in a finger-pointing way; we ask where our support is needed.
We bring up topics like work contracts, child labour and sustainability and together we try to find the best way forward. Each training starts with making a connection on a personal level to build trust. This connection is often a lasting one. I am still in regular contact with people from all over the world who update me on their lives and ask me for further advice. Those missions have added incredible value to my life. The people I train do not only learn from me, I also learn from them. Problems that we in Europe solve with modern techniques are often solved in a simple but effective way by people in developing countries. Having modern techniques at hand makes us tend to forget to look for a simple solution. I also learned to step back and look at the rat race we live in in Western Europe. When I get stressed over my to-do list, I think of my first PUM-mission, in Zambia. On the last day of my stay, I needed to make 25 photocopies on thick paper. These would be the certificates for all who completed the training. I only carried one master copy, thinking the lodge where I was going to work and stay would have a photocopier (I still had a lot to learn!). It took up the larger part of my day to get the photocopies done, somewhere in town. I felt a bit guilty for being so ‘unproductive’ that day; I had only taken care of the photocopies and there was no time for a last bit of training. When I shared my thoughts with the owner of the lodge, she looked at me with big eyes and said ‘Unproductive? But you got the photocopies done!’ She knew what a complex task that could be in her world. Since then, whenever I cannot get all my planned tasks done in one day, I think ‘photocopies done’ and I smile and relax.
Any particular story you would share from your missions with PUM? How did this experience enrich you?
Not long ago I went to Myanmar (also known as Burma) three times in a row. My first trip to Myanmar was a private one, the second and third trips were PUM-missions. I had fallen in love with the country and the people and was very happy to train the staff of two hotels, owned and managed by the same family. It felt like I had become part of the family and together we managed to bring the staff to a higher, more international level of expertise. When we all said goodbye to each other for a second time, we were sure we’d meet again in the not too distant future. I saw a bright future for both hotels and wanted to come back to witness that with my own eyes. Not much later the military junta took over the government and everything changed. The thought that I might never be able to go back breaks my heart. My friends there try to be brave and they are amazingly flexible and even manage to keep their sense of humor, but they often feel desperate. They wonder what future their children are facing and how the business can survive. We stay in touch via WhatsApp. I try to give them mental support, but the helpless feeling of the people there is my own feeling too when I think of them. My gratefulness for living in a peaceful part of the world has been very much strengthened by this experience.
It enriched me in my drive to always keep a critical eye on what is going on in politics and to see what I can do with my personal choices and actions to support our democracy and keep it healthy. Democracy is not something we can take for granted.
The Hague is your home, the city is referred to as The City of Peace and Justice. In The Hague, close to the Peace Palace, a statue of Nelson Mandela was erected, his face is turned in the direction of the palace. On several occasions, you have told me how every time you pass by the Nelson Mandela statue, you greet him. If you had been able to talk to Nelson Mandela, what would you tell him?
I am proud to live in the city of peace and justice, where a lot of justice has been done. I remember important trials taking place in our city. I remember, of course, the Yugoslavia tribunal, which lasted from 1993 until 2017 and changed the landscape of international humanitarian law. Mandela also worked on humanitarian law. He gave black people in South Africa a voice and a face. He paid for that with 18 years of his life in a tiny little cell where he slept on a mat on the floor. He was a man with a strong will and a clear mission. He never gave up and made no concessions, nobody could break his spirit. If I had been able to talk to him, I would have told him how much he inspired me, and most likely many other people, to strive for justice and never give up and how I hope and believe that the next generations will keep his legacy alive.
A BOOK ABOUT CUSTOMER FRIENDLINESS
Global lockdowns have given us time to do new things, to get creative. Does this apply to you as well?
Well, I had to be creative indeed, because I worked in tourism and all of a sudden there was not such a thing as international tourism anymore. All my assignments for the tourist season were cancelled within a few weeks. Before getting creative, I had to be reflective. It was a good opportunity to ask myself what I really wanted to do in the next stage of my life. What was my expertise, what were my talents, what was my drive, what would be fulfilling, what would give me and the people around me positive energy? I soon realized my strong point was conducting hospitality trainings, through which I motivate and empower people. I also had a life-long wish: writing a book. So why not write a book about hospitality, based on my experiences? After having done some research, I came to the conclusion that I should focus on one aspect of hospitality, a very important one: customer friendliness. I started writing and during the process I developed my own mission and vision which I could feel deep inside. I am currently working on the English edition of my book, which will come out soon. The title will be ‘How customer-friendly am I really?’ I speak of customer friendliness rather than customer service. The difference is the human touch. Customer friendliness is so much more than a smile, although a smile certainly helps. My career in tourism taught me how to lead a journey and produce happy customers. Is this any different from leading a customer journey? It shouldn’t be. If you care for your customer in any business the way you care for a traveller on tour, you understand the essence of customer friendliness and you are sitting on gold. It enhances your sales, your customer satisfaction, your customer loyalty and not in the last place your pleasure at work. This is what I love to convey to others, to students and entrepreneurs. From an expert in tourism I became an expert in customer friendliness and an author. Although I hope to carry out many more missions as a volunteer PUM senior expert, I have now launched my trainings on a commercial level as well. Since all my trainings take place on the work floor of the people that want to be trained, I can offer my trainings worldwide. Each training is unique because each business is unique. A business is a legal entity and has a personality, just like all people have a unique personality. I listen and look and provide tailor-made training. That is what I learned on my PUM-missions: improvise and adapt to the local situation. It guarantees the best and most lasting result.
LESS TAKING & MORE GIVING
Having worked in tourism for so many years, how do you see the future of tourism? Will it be different in post-Covid times?
Tourism will definitely change. It may seem like a drastic change, but it is not. It has been a process which will now be accelerated and become more visible. From the beginning of this century there has been more attention for connection with local people. On the river cruise ships where I worked this was facilitated by home-hosted dinners and workshops of local handicrafts. We also started buying bread at the local bakeries and some of our fruits and vegetables at the open-air markets to support the local economies. There is a focus on sustainability: instead of made-in-China plastic Eiffel towers, tourists rather buy locally made handicrafts of sustainable material. Plastic water bottles are now making place for refillable bottles and water containers on cruise ships and in hotels, miniature amenities are replaced by refillable dispensers. Covid has accelerated the disappearance of paper information sheets in hotels, restaurants and on cruise ships – it’s mostly digital now – and reinforced the importance of hygiene. In countries with wildlife animal rights have become more prevalent. Tourists will now think twice before riding an elephant or a camel for fun. Do these animals have a good life? How are they treated? There is also a large demand for working holidays. People don’t only want to take, to consume, they also want to give. And more recently CO2-emission has become the big topic. The future will bring low-emission or emission-free motor coaches, cruise ships and aircraft, we are making progress, step by step. Keywords for modern tourism are, in my opinion: less taking, more giving, more personal connection – connection with other cultures rather than observing them – and more awareness of what we do and what effect it has on the planet and the economy.
INSPIRED BY PEOPLE, ART AND NATURE
Who and what inspire you?
The first person that comes to my mind, after Mandela but on the same continent, is Jane Goodall: another person that has a clear mission and never gives up. From studying and caring for chimpanzees in Tanzania she broadened her mission by creating a worldwide movement for saving the planet. Through her Institute and lectures, she makes people aware of the beauty of nature and the necessity to care for our planet and all the living creatures on it. Jane Goodall never took the easy way. She struggled to be accepted by scientists and many others, but she found her place with grace and excellence. She is sometimes criticized for constantly flying all over the planet and leaving a considerable carbon footprint. In her case, I think worldwide travels are still justified and necessary. With her charismatic presence she inspires people to continue what she started. People want to see HER, they want to hear HER voice and stories. People feel the fire that she has inside her when they meet her personally. They get motivated to think about our planet, make donations or join Jane Goodall’s international program as a volunteer.
I am inspired by nature, by the vastness of the African plains with its mighty wildlife, by the desert in Australia where I saw my first big red kangaroo, the desert of northern Mexico where I saw my first huge cactus, big as a tree, the desert of Oman where I camped under the stars, the desert of Jordan where I learned how soon the temperature drops after (a breathtaking) sunset, a rainforest in Guatemala where I saw my first colourful tropical birds, but also the dunes near my home where I love to walk and look out over the sea. I come from a flat country with a lot of waterways, lakes and the North Sea. I like flat landscapes and water. I can get emotional by being in a desert, not by climbing a mountain. I love the sea and the rivers that all have such a personality of their own: the dramatic lower Danube, the tranquil river Main, the enchanting Irrawaddy, the Zambezi where I learned to tell a tree trunk from a hippo and where I heard magical African stories by a campfire on the embankment. African people are amazing storytellers. Besides the wonders of nature I am inspired by literature, visual arts and classical music. I have often conducted classical music tours and cruises and in that position I was able to hear some of the world’s best musicians perform and even meet them personally. Such encounters make my life extra special and I am grateful for that.
You have seen a big part of the world. Is there still any destination on your “places-to-see and things-to-do list”?
Yes, high on my list are Kazakhstan, Oezbekistan, Mongolia, Namibia and French Polynesia – for the first three countries, no flights involved, all of it by train. The train journeys will appeal to my romantic soul and give me the feeling that I am travelling through a historic novel. According to the same romantic idea, I want to sleep in a yurt at least once. And wherever possible I like to ride a bike. Being Dutch, I grew up on a bicycle. I have one strict rule: if the distance is less than 15 kilometers from home, I ride my bike instead of driving my car or hopping on a tram or train. That is how I pass Mandela’s statue almost every day: by bike. I can recommend bike riding to everyone: it keeps you fit, you see more than in a car, you can stop wherever you like and it’s emission free. Everywhere I go I pick up new ideas for my trainings, be it on a train in Mongolia or at my favourite lunch place around the corner from home.
For hospitality trainings anywhere in the world, from small to medium-sized and larger companies, readers can contact Jeannette.
was established in 1978 as PUM (Programma Uitzending Managers) by the Dutch employers association (VNO-)NCW. Since then, PUM has supported over 45,000 entrepreneurs. This was made possible in part with financial support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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Photos: Jeannette with her book: Photo by Brian Mul; other photos: private collection Jeannette Biesbroeck