How to Woo Foreign Business

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Steve McCrea, owner of a language school in Fort Lauderdale can “get by” speaking or reading five languages. But when visiting Lisbon, Portugal, he was stumped. He walked up to a door with a sign that said “Puxe” and he pushed.

McCrea assumed “puxe” meant “push,” but in Portuguese, it means “pull.”

That’s when he got the idea that South Florida businesses could be more welcoming to their world visitors.

“We’re the United Nations of tourist destinations,” McCrea says.

At Talk International School of Languages in Fort Lauderdale, where McCrea is a co-owner, instructors teach English to executives, among others.

To make the school look friendly, signs in several languages are posted in the lobby. You would expect that from a language school. But a small store or business could take similar actions to welcome visitors from Montreal; Buenos Aires, Argentina; or Munich, Germany.

Other ideas to attract business from foreign visitors:

Post a Welcome sign in several languages, such as the French Bienvenue, Spanish Bienvenido, or German Wilkommen.

Make note with signs or decorations of international holidays such as Liberte on July 14, which is Bastille Day in France, or the Chinese New Year.

Make local maps available. Be ready for visitors who need directions, showing them where they are and where they need to go. South Florida maps and information can be printed off This is the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau’s site, which, incidentally, has its press releases in English, Spanish and German.

Keep an international translator sheet available. These have symbols of common items, such as coffee, gas or a cash machine, that speakers of other languages can point to when trying to communicate. One international translator sheet is available through

Put typical greetings near your telephone and teach staff members basic words for “hello,” such as bonjour, guten tag and buenos dias.

Teach your workers that certain gestures are offensive in some cultures. One to avoid, McCrea advises, is the “OK” sign, which is confusing or offensive in some countries.

Roberta Nedry, president of Hospitality Excellence Inc., a consultancy that advises companies on customer service, says business owners need to communicate with diverse customers, whether they are foreign visitors or residents. “Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and evaluate how you would want to be treated.”

Foreign visitors to South Florida often act intimidated or uncertain in their actions. “If you see someone behaving `differently,’ consider the fact that the behavior may be cultural,” she says.

“Assume there’s probably confusion. They may not understand,” says Nedry, who once gave tours in French, German, Spanish and English at Disneyland. “Speak slowly and repeat things, not in a way that’s offensive.”

Nedry trains business owners on serving foreign customers in the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau’s “Sunsational Service” program. Still, she says, “There does need to be a lot more awareness and sensitivity. Maybe it’s the world circumstances. I’ve seen so many visitors left confused, intimidated or left unserved for this very reason.”

Business owners who don’t reach out to foreign visitors are ignoring a large market. “The more you can relate to these people the more they’ll feel comfortable spending money in your store. It’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s a profitable thing to do.”

Marcia Heroux Pounds can be reached at or 561-243-6650.