I’m mystified, or should I say confused. Perhaps you can help me solve this conundrum…
In most annual budget processes, hotel managers go into immaculate detail on spreadsheets for such line items as capital for renovations, expense allocations for operations, personnel, and sales and marketing. Yet rarely is there a section, nay more than a single row devoted to training or any of its other more elaborate forms such as ‘service culture development’, ‘associate engagement’, ‘team improvement’ or ‘guest experience enhancement’. If we are truly in the hospitality industry, why do we neglect the fundamental service function that is our namesake?
Giving more thought to your internal service R&D also means you are working to substantially distinguish your hotel when more extravagant facility upgrades are far outside of budgetary scope. Through continuous technological installations and judicious procurement, most limited-service properties now have quiet HVAC, comfortable beds and ample bathroom facilities. With the gap in physical product presentation narrowing, service thus becomes the all-important critical business differentiator. This is good news for the property owner, as service improvements rarely require any form of extensive upfront capital and often have limited cost, mostly allocated to salary for proficient associate instructors and lost training time.
Understanding The Guest Experience Hierarchy
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his theory of the hierarchy of needs, and his psychology theory has profound applications to the hospitality industry. As his treatise identified five sets of specific individual needs, let’s apply each to how your guests approach an accommodation and how each subsequent level adds further needs that are only important once all predecessors have been satisfied.
Physiological Needs. This level denotes the physical accommodations your property delivers – a comfortable night’s sleep, a functioning washroom for proper hygiene, essential beverages like water and sustenance (note that this is different from ‘food’ and ‘cuisine’). Also included here would be housekeeping as it relates back to maintaining sanitary conditions, thus explaining why flaws in this area so easily draw the scorn of guests. Nowadays, free high-speed WiFi is teetering on being a part of these bare necessities given how reliant we all are on internet connectivity for communications, our jobs, information access, directions and even payments.
Safety Needs. More than just a doorlatch, safety means that you provide as stress-free an environment as possible. For instance, guests should not be woken by rowdy people in the room next door. They should not encounter unsavory characters in your lobby as the security presence is both apparent and effective. Guests should be reassured that their cars are not vandalized in the parking lot. Finally, living in the digital age means that their personal data and credit card information is not willingly shared with third parties and that you have done your due diligence to ward off hackers.
Social Needs. This is the first category where service really comes into play, especially when you take into account that the other common name for this level is ‘love and belonging’. The focus is the reassurance that the guest’s decision to choose your property was a wise one when compared to every other hotel in your comp set, whereby not only are you attending to visitors’ personal needs but providing for them in a friendly manner. Included here are operational line staff positions like the bellhop, valet parking attendants, concierge and front desk clerks – basically anyone whose primary function is to interact and help customers in any way that’s beyond the scope of physiological and safety needs. For many properties, the mandatory concept of service necessary to fulfill this level is specifically detailed in SOP manuals as well as an innate characteristic that is prescreened during the interview process. In any case, these skills are trainable and can be measured against quantifiable standards.
Esteem Needs. This fourth echelon of service is where personalization starts to play a part. A typical example of this is a loyalty program, where habitués are given a preferred status, often with separate check-in, upgraded amenities and additional onsite privileges. For example, your staff should address guests by name when they pick up the in-room phone to call for restaurant reservations. The general manager might also compose a handwritten note on arrival with a welcome refreshment. Recognition of a birthday, anniversary or major lifecycle event also falls in this category. Lastly, food rears its magnificent head again as providing a fine dining experience above and beyond merely refilling one’s energy stores is a sharp demonstration of respect for your patrons.
Self-Actualization Needs. Representing the pinnacle of service, this classification does not necessarily mean significant added expense for the operator, but it does require time for mastery. Self-actualization implies that our operations are delivering a memorable experience as well as one that enriches a guest’s life in some meaningful way. It could be as simple as providing the recipe for a dish that the guest remarked as exceptional in the restaurant – that is, education. Or likewise, it could mean providing a sample of the dry rub the chef uses for the main course so visitors can better understand how individual ingredients contribute to a greater whole. This could also be a facility tour of the property, an invitation to an event held on-property, passing along some information about a hard-to-secure local activity or simply having a lengthy discussion with a corporate group about what else the staff can do to make their retreat go off without a hitch.
Satisfying The Guest Experience Hierarchy
Self-actualization is where you want to be, delivery of which typically results in lifelong memories, extreme levels of positive sentiments and unswerving loyalty. Naturally, commentary on Yelp, TripAdvisor and other third-party review sites reflects these achievements with exuberant and exceptionally compelling appraisals which will definitely help to convert future guests.
Think of these levels as building blocks, though. Remember, focusing on any higher level within the hierarchy while letting any of the lower levels slip will result in failure. Your restaurant could be performing excellently, for instance, but if your housekeeping is sloppy, the front desk agents are surly or the air conditioning is noisy, all value-adds will be for naught.
The question then is how do you build your service program beyond what’s standardized to satisfy the top three levels of this pyramid? It starts by nurturing a culture of guest-focused service as well as the approach taken by your HR team in hiring. There is no such thing as a college course that motivates an individual to be oriented towards a life of service. In addition to this challenge, a good general manager must establish an identifiable service culture that is reinforced through an ongoing commitment to staff empowerment so that each little opportunity to deepen the guest experience is never lost.
Exemplifying The Guest Experience Hierarchy
Great examples of service are easy to recall because they are immensely memorable. They serve as beacons in a sea of hotel service mediocrity for you to learn from, though and so here are a dozen personal examples (presented alphabetically).
- Upon remarking positively to a waitress about a cocktail at the bar of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, I was given a copy of the recipe with additional handwritten note with specific instructions from one of the bartenders.
- Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland invited my wife to don an apron and learn how to prepare fish in several different ways. While she did not cook the night’s dinner, I am confident that that she has shared and embellished her experience with every one of her friends to the point where they likely now believe she was the sous-chef!
- At the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace in Budapest, we were looking for dinner reservations and were invited to a private wine tasting dinner taking place that evening. Understanding nothing in Hungarian, the staff quickly printed an English version of the tasting menu. Given the strength of the pours, I am glad we only had to go upstairs to retire.
- The boutique Hazelton Hotel in my hometown of Toronto offered a curated tour of its extensive in-house art collection. They also have an art concierge program that assists with visits to museums and local art galleries.
- When I asked the doorman for a taxi one rainy night at The Lanesborough in London, he instead summoned a standby car service to take us to the theatre and the same car was waiting for me when the play ended with the driver cheerily offering an umbrella.
- Arriving early at the Montage Kapalua Bay in Maui, we joined a lei making class with the property’s resident Hawaiian ambassador, spending about an hour learning this art form as well as capitalizing upon her extensive local knowledge, all while boozy drinks were served.
- For many years, Ojai Valley Inn & Spa near Santa Barbara ran a monthly learning program for guests with examples of curriculum including tea tasting, readings by local authors, hands-on flower arrangements and annotated back-of-house tours.
- When I failed to make a reservation for high tea at The Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong, the receptionist sensed my disappointment and took us to a second level balcony bar that normally does not provide this beverage service. The traditional wait staff from the tea room then served us without any additional delay, all while we soaked in the spectacular view of the city.
- The signature restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Toronto, called TOCA, has its own cheese cave and encourages guests to participate in tastings of its delectable house-aged fromage. While guests expand their cheese vocabulary, the restaurant in turn boosts its revenue per cover.
- Not having a restaurant, The Spectator Hotel in Charleston provides breakfast room service. Rather than just having the expected delivery cart, the waiter personally serves breakfast to you, providing butler-level attention to detail that also includes detailed assistance in planning your day’s itinerary.
- After I left my credit card at the St. Julian Hotel & Spa in Boulder, Colorado, I received a call on my cell phone while on route to the Denver airport. A member of their team was already driving out to meet me so that I could meet my scheduled flight departure without any delay.
- I casually let it slip that my wife and I were celebrating our anniversary while staying at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong and planning to dine at its main restaurant, Lung King Heen. Not only did we get a special complimentary dessert, but our selections for the evening were also printed into a folded card and presented to us at the end of the dinner with our names and the anniversary date. Many years later, we still cherish this keepsake.
Looking To The Future Of Guest Service
With few exceptions, these examples did not increase expenses in any significant way but in many cases they increased revenue and certainly loyalty. Guests do not necessarily expect self-actualization service to be free, though obviously, to avoid negative surprises, charges should be properly identified in advance.
The more you know about a guest, the better your service delivery and the more opportunities to incorporate self-actualizing opportunities. Start by taking advantage of the guest memorandum section of your PMS, denoted under the banner of customer relationship management (CRM). Encourage your staff to add information that can be used for future visits. If you are part of a loyalty program, review the additional customer data that is made available in advance. For those operating with higher ADRs, assign a staff member to review social media, in particular LinkedIn, to glean additional information and help build this database.
Another corollary of technological innovation is that alternative lodging providers (Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and so on) have made service delivery an even higher priority for hotels. More than ever, a guest’s ability to remember any property in particular is based less on physical facilities and more on personal staff interaction. It’s all about getting close to the customer.
In this regard, further technology upgrades can certainly help. Electronic advance check-in can be used as a platform to learn and anticipate your guests’ needs. As almost all your guests carry smartphones, cost-effective mobile apps can also be deployed to enhance your customers’ stay in various ways. Use your daily meetings to identify local activities that may be of interest and to discuss arriving guests’ individual requirements. Refer to data from your social media monitoring tools to reinforce successes and identify further opportunities.
Successful service delivery is still a hands-on, ongoing effort for all team members, though. Ignore it at your own peril, or embrace it and be rewarded by improved ADRs and occupancies.
(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in Today’s Hotelier on April 1, 2017)