Prof Surveys Tourist Experience of Oktoberfest

Results help organizers improve festival

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Prof. Stephen Smith

Prof. Stephen Smith

The annual Oktoberfest event in Kitchener-Waterloo draws large crowds of enthusiastic visitors. But are those visitors satisfied with their festival experience? That’s the question new U of G tourism professor Stephen Smith is seeking to answer.

“We’re interviewing festival visitors to ask them what they are coming to Oktoberfest for: is it the beer, the food, the music, the partying?” says Smith. “Then we ask if they are satisfied with what they got, as well as asking about parking, cleanliness and other factors that affect the visitors’ experience.” The organizers of the event and the managers of the 19 approved “Festhallen” will also be surveyed.

He hopes the analysis of the data will provide some helpful information to organizers and Festhallen managers. The Festhallen are independently-run facilities serving German food and beer and providing appropriate music for guests to dance; each must be approved by the Oktoberfest committee.

“We hope to be able to tell them, ‘Here’s where you are doing well, here’s where you could improve, and here’s the area that you probably can pay less attention to, because people are not interested in that,’” Smith says.

Prior to joining U of G, Smith taught at the University of Waterloo for 38 years. “I had a good career there,” he says. “I wrote a number of books, did some consulting and was able to explore many different interests. I was also part of the University Senate.”

Smith was born in Dayton, Ohio, and says, “Engineering and science are in the water there.” The community became famous as the home of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Neil Armstrong and other inventors and pioneers. Growing up with that influential background, Smith attended Ohio State University to study math and chemistry, but switched majors in third year.

“I was in the library trying to figure out what I wanted to do because I had realized math and chemistry were wrong for me, and I came across some books on early explorers. My reaction was, ‘You can study this?’” When Smith learned the answer was yes, he decided to get his degree in geography. He eventually went on to get his PhD in geography at Texas A & M.

After graduation, he began teaching in the parks and recreation department at Michigan State University. He had already made some friends at the University of Waterloo and was pleased to move there when an opportunity came up. Now he has accepted a half-time appointment at U of G and says he feels very much at home. “The school is friendly, and there are interesting people doing good work. I feel I can make a real contribution here in a setting where I am a member of a strong community.”

Smith says that he has never had a single research plan or program, but prefers to tackle various topics as they strike his interest. His most recent book, Trust, Tourism Development and Planning, was co-edited by Robin Nunkoo of the University of Mauritius. Smith explains: “A fundamental factor in tourism planning is that typically the local community does not trust the developers, investors or the government. The locals often have little or no money or power, while these other groups have lots of both. The book discusses how trust can be built and how it can be regained if it is lost, using case studies from several different countries.”

Smith is also working on an article about the concept of place within tourism. Place, he explains, is communicated through a story, and using that story in marketing is a good way to bring in tourists. “I use Stratford as an example,” he says. “It’s known primarily as a theatre town, but the community would like to add culinary tourism, shopping, sports and music – they have a big music festival now – as part of the attraction for visitors. Their challenge is to add those elements to the story.”

This fall, Smith is teaching a course called “Research Methods for Managers,” a topic that has been of great interest to him. “Many managers are afraid of research and statistics,” he says, “but this course helps them see how research can help them make better business decisions. Often managers rely on intuition, and that can get them into hot water.”

In his free time, Smith, perhaps not surprisingly, enjoys travel. Bali is a favourite spot; he describes it as a “beautiful, spiritual country.” He also loves culinary tourism and discovering local ingredients and dishes wherever he goes.