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Sydney Makes a Good First Impression

by Alf Nucifora

I've preached constantly in this column about the value of the "threshold factor" as it applies to a brand, whether it's a soft drink, a detergent, a political candidate or a city. The threshold factor is that immediate imagery or aura that is felt or absorbed, almost osmotically, as the consumer crosses the portal or touches the brand. Works great in restaurants, hotels and retail environments.

I recently returned to Australia, the place of my birth. I've been gone 27 years, but try to revisit every 3-4 years. Among the reasons for going back this time was to see how the place had changed and how Sydney was preparing for its September Olympic Games. The following observations are classic threshold opinions, specifically from the viewpoint of what the Olympic visitor will probably experience.

Sydney Gets an A+

I was blown away by what I saw. Sydney's never looked better. It's part New York, part San Francisco, only cleaner and more beautiful. What was once a cultural backwater is now one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities with superb wines, succulent seafood and an abundance of the finest food. The lifestyles and cuisines of all nationalities are freely represented... a testament to the value of immigration and countervailing argument against nativism and xenophobia. And, the people are genuinely friendly. Where else would a bus driver stop his bus in mid-route, open the doors and ask to provide directions simply because I was standing on a street corner looking obviously lost.

Sydney is unquestionably one of the world's great cities. Its Opera House rivals Bilbao's Guggenheim and, unlike many a U.S. city, it has dispensed with race as an issue, is now showing an appreciation of its history and its culture, and is exhibiting the vision, pride, imagination and experimentation of a city that aspires to greatness for itself and for the quality of life of its people.

...But, There Are Vulnerabilities

Transportation will be Sydney's Achilles heel, as in Atlanta in 1996. Traffic jams are rampant and I predict that the incoming visitor in September will face a situation where gridlock is the norm rather than the exception.

To make matters worse, the transportation problem will rear its ugly head in the skies and at the airport as well as on the roads. As an example, Qantas, the major airline carrier to Australia, won't be able to handle the challenge based on current performance.

My experiences with Qantas, at least on their international routes, were cause for mutiny. I first flew the airline in 1970 and, for the intervening period, it has stood as a great, proud airline and worthy representative of the country whose flag it flies. But, sadly today, it operates as nothing more than a cattle car. No apology for a four-hour delay, last-minute seat assignment changes without explanation, cursory treatment from a brusque, almost rude ground crew, topped-off by uninvolved, uncaring flight attendants who would have been right at home at the old PanAm and Eastern. In every case, the cattle in coach were viewed as an annoyance to be tolerated. I can still hear the flight attendant referencing "Mr. Obnoxious in #75" who was complaining about the fact that his overhead light was out for the nine and a half hour flight. The nerve of the man! Pile on the atrocious food, the filthy bathrooms and the missed transfers and what's left is an airline in decline and a brand in demise.

The unfortunate experience with Qantas reaffirms the need to be obsessive, almost to the point of paranoia, about threshold opinion, particularly when it runs counter to prevailing belief. Say the word "Australia" to any American and the feedback is lavish and consistent... a laid-back country, friendly people who love Americans. If that's the preconceived notion, then Qantas, as the nation's representative in the air, and the Olympic organizers, as their counterparts on the ground, need to get it together and play to that opinion. Ninety-days out, there's still work to be done if brand "Australia" is to satisfy its threshold duties to the Olympic visitor.

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