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Are changes always for the better?

Di Antonio Caneva, 26 settembre 2013

Facilities age, times change and sometimes we wonder about the adequacy of our businesses, subject as they are to the wear and tear of time and the epochal changes we are undergoing.
The current economic crisis is pressing us towards product innovation on the one hand, and caution on the other. Torn by doubts, it is difficult for us to choose and implement innovation projects, even when we regard them as essential. The values at stake are numerous, including product repositioning, economic and financial implications, the capability to manage change, the reference market – important choices that can heavily condition the future of our businesses.
Let me use a few lines to tell you two true stories, which can help us to reflect, though not providing any exhaustive answers (indeed, not even ponderous books by distinguished scholars often do).
A few years ago, in a mountain village in the Alps which has lately become an icon of winter tourism, there used to be a family guest house, a detached cottage that had been built at the beginning of the tourist boom. The owners worked in it, and used to conduct their business with the good-natured care of the village people; there was a wine bar frequented by local customers, a public phone in the pre-cellular age (I remember the phone books of the entire country heaped up near the phones) and a few simple bedrooms which were, however, always occupied. The owners perceived that times were changing (or was it just ambition?) and therefore made a large investment, demolished the house and built a much more attractive hotel, with shops, a large restaurant and a fine bar, no longer public. The accounts, however, did not square up, and they were forced to sell the business; local rumours have it that the family came apart in the midst of increasing difficulties.
In Via Paolo Sarpi, at the heart of Milan’s Chinatown, among the few Italian shops left there is a bottle store and wine bar; the shop is long and narrow, with one opening for the entrance, a wooden counter and old cheap shelves all over the walls, untidily loaded up to the ceiling with wine bottles from the most diverse origins, identified by hand-written notes reporting the price. Here and there, stuck to the shelving edges with pieces of tape, there are cuttings of notebook paper, cardboard and what have you, proposing important poems written in a childlike hand, and flower drawings like those of elementary school children. Over the counter are displayed bottles of all the Sauternes and single-vine grappa vintages, while resting on the counter are small plates of very plain snacks. What strikes you most, however, are the people: lots of people, all the time. Young people coming together, highly refined customers, elderly patrons, all enjoying glasses of wine poured out of bottles just opened, from the most diverse places, which don’t have the time to go off. It is a confusing place, where you don’t easily find a seat, and the customers – almost all Italian – sit down in the street on blue plastic chairs that have nothing to envy to the inelegance of the interior. But there is something of a family atmosphere, with the owner dispensing well-natured advice and the lady at the till asking if you enjoyed the wine. This shop has simply never changed, and this has been the key to its incredible success. The greatest of changes has been the introduction of a Chinese worker (might it be a marketing action?)
Two experiences: in one, change has caused the ruin of a business, in the other, immobilism has been the key to success.
Of course this is not always the case; on the contrary, these may well be exceptions, as there is no shortage of cases where change has been the true engine of significant success; these examples, however, show us that there are no absolute rules, and each action is to be assessed with care and caution, considering all the variables at stake.

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