First impressions…

In the modern era of hospitality, the buzz is all about measuring pipeline velocity, plotting trends and analysing guest behaviour.

As we hand more of the decisions over to the finance and marketing departments it seems that if you can’t measure it then it probably doesn’t matter. Surveys are a great way to measure guest satisfaction. In the current environment, any marketer that isn’t all about the survey, is probably eating lunch on their own. Much value is attributed to the Net Promotor Score and a range of questions that, in my opinion, rarely give the guest the opportunity to really express their experience accurately but possibly look great on a pivot chart. Yes, there were an adequate number of hooks on the bathroom door but that didn’t help when the people in the room next door partied all night and no one did anything about it.

The question I would really like to see on a survey I responded to would be more like, “When you arrived at the property, did the staff make you feel like you had come home”.

Let me tell you a story. It was the winter of ’95. My wife and I were running our accommodation business in the deep south of Victoria. We were heading off to Queensland on our first touring adventure with our new camper trailer. We had planned to leave bright and early on the Monday morning but on a whim it seemed a better idea to pack the three kids into the four-wheel drive and take off on Sunday afternoon just to get a head start on the trip. So, here we are late in the day driving into a dark and ominous horizon with the three girls under nine doing what young girls do when they are locked up together in a confined space for three hours. For the first time ever I am towing a campervan that unfolds like Optimus Prime from the Transformers and I’m wondering if I will remember all of the convoluted instructions provided at the dealership. It’s about now that I begin to question the sanity of our decision to drive half way up the country, which had seemed like such a good idea just a few hours ago.

It occurs to me that my pulse is racing and I am getting so stressed I am on the verge of a panic attack. We finally arrive at our intended stopover destination, which in the camping guide had looked like the ideal location but in reality was uninhabitable. I won’t go into the details but trust me I was never going to let my family stay there. At this stage all I want to do is turn around and go home and give this up as a learning experience.

A quick look in the guide and it seemed we had missed another campground around the corner to which we duly proceeded. I parked the rig and walked to reception to check in wondering how I got myself into this situation and vowing this would never happen again.

As I opened the door to the long narrow office I noticed a woman sitting at a desk at the back of the room. She was a larger, middle aged woman with a shock of blonde curls and a little too much eye makeup. It’s funny what you remember. As she looked up from whatever she was doing her eyes lit up, her mouth erupted into a smile from ear to ear and she welcomed me with a robust greeting, an enquiry into my health and questioned me on how she could help me. In those few seconds this warm, friendly people loving person had taken me from a dark foreboding place and delivered me “home”. All of my concerns instantly drifted away because I was at a place where I had absolutely no doubt that whatever happened I had someone who would help us through it.

For the next fourteen hours before we continued our journey I forgave a host of shortcomings about this campground because, at least in my head, it was a place run by someone who genuinely cared about our happiness.

This experience had a profound effect on my attitude regarding the importance of the first impression. Upon our return to the business some three weeks later we concentrated our efforts at redefining the initial experience of our guests when they arrived at our property. We took a fresh look at what our guests would see and feel when they came up the driveway. Signage, parking and topography were all improved. When someone came through the door I got into the habit of standing up and walking around the counter to meet them half way. I would greet them gregariously and thank them simply for walking through the door.

It’s worth remembering that according to Beyond Blue around 20% of the population experience anxiety of some kind. That means for one in every five of your guests the simple process of making an enquiry or checking in is challenging. More than anyone these people will appreciate a warm and gracious welcome.

Given the importance of peer review sites, such as TripAdvisor, to the travelling public a good first impression is vital. Here are my five suggestions for improving the first impression guests have of you and your property

1. Make it easy

It’s much easier to start a relationship off on the right foot when the other person is calm. Therefore, you don’t want to do anything that is going to raise the anxiety of a first time visitor. It can be very off putting if you’re not sure where to park, where the front door is or if you are even open. Take a fresh look at what your guest’s see when they arrive. Clearly delineate and sign where to park when checking in. Provide signage to indicate the location of the office and if it isn’t blatantly obvious indicate how to open the door – push or pull. Do whatever you can to create a welcoming atmosphere in the reception area. Big bulky reception desks create emotional barriers between you and the guest. Consider remodelling for a more interactive and less imposing guest experience.

2. Respond quickly

When a guest walks into your reception area they unconsciously trigger their internal stopwatch. The longer that watch goes before attention is received the more annoyed they become. The level of dissatisfaction increases disproportionately at an exponential rate as time passes. Leave someone waiting too long and the relationship may become unrecoverable. This becomes even worse if the guest can see you dealing with someone else in person or on the phone to their total exclusion. No matter what you are doing acknowledge the guest as they walk in. If you’re on the phone put the caller on hold and apologise to the guest. Learn to multitask. Call for help if you need to.

3. Be prepared

You get asked the same question every day of the year. Which bus do I catch for the city? Where is a good place to eat? Where can I catch a fish? Have the answers ready. Prepare fact sheets, maps and vouchers. Be aware of what’s going on in your area. Have lists of events such as markets, shows, tides, specials. Your guests expect you to be a virtual encyclopaedia of the district. An ambivalent answer to what they think is a simple question will cause them to doubt your ability or willingness to serve their needs.

4. Have something to look at

Despite your best intentions from time to time guests will be waiting while you process someone else. Having fun stuff to look at while they wait can mitigate their frustration. Good quality maps, regional artwork, interpretive signage, information on local events or even a quality fish tank can keep people amused for several minutes. I once waited at a counter where the host had provided a range of chrome nuts and bolts. The therapeutic effect of screwing nuts on and off a bolt should not be underestimated. It probably extended my frustration threshold by several minutes.

5. Employ people who like people

The best way to make a good first impression that will turn into a long term business relationship is to employ people who like people. Cold, officious and unfriendly people might do a great job in other parts of the property but at the front desk they will ruin your business. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it like people. It’s unlikely you will train someone to like people if it’s not their natural tendency. When recruiting or promoting staff to the front desk look for people who are naturally warm and friendly.

Rosie Clarke

Rosie Clarke is managing editor at Multimedia Publishing.

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