The heart of hospitality needed now more than ever

By focusing on what guests really want - warmth, welcome and genuine interactions - true leaders will rise above the challenges of this pandemic era.

Inarguably, the current pandemic era is the most challenging time in the modern era of hotel industry history.

Hotels are operating with reduced staff, many of whom are working out of position and/or covering two or more areas at once. Leaders are pushed to cut costs without negatively affecting guest service, all while meeting ever-changing local health ordinances. Guests are confused and often upset because of amenities and services that have been reduced, changed or eliminated. To top it off, most individuals are dealing with their own emotionally challenging situations in their personal lives.

Now more than ever, it is important to remember that we work in the “hospitality” industry, not the “room rental” business.

As always in life, it is during the most challenging and seemingly hopeless moments that true leaders reveal themselves.

Some hoteliers will walk into work tomorrow expecting the worst circumstances to play out. They will expect another day of being short-staffed while serving guests who are short-tempered. They will wear a thinly veiled contempt for guests who complain, allowing the negative vibe to spread like the Kudzu weed does when covering the entire tree canopy, blocking out the sunlight for all that grows below. They will wear an obviously fake smile when passing by guests in hallways and coworkers in corridors, uttering a heartless “hi” or asking “How are you, good?” in a way that shows they really do not care to know how a person is doing.

Others will see each new shift as an opportunity to bring out the best in everyone they encounter, which ironically will bring out the best in themselves. Even on their most challenging days at home, they will step into character as they enter the staff entrance, greeting their colleagues with a sincere and personalized welcome as they elbow bump instead of high-fiving. They will take time to listen reflexively when co-workers need to vent, whether about personal issues at home or a particularly challenging guest.

Likewise, when encountering grouchy, grumpy guests, these hospitality leaders will imagine that person as someone’s mother, father, sister, brother or special friend, rather than judging them as being rude, clueless or as a “refund-seeker.” They will defuse upset guests by first validating their emotional duress by saying something like “I can understand how you must feel and I can imagine I might feel the same way if it was me.”

In recent decades, the hospitality industry has become obsessed with achieving standards set by their hotel brand or some rating service. Too often, these standards have little or nothing to do with what real guests really want. For example, I sincerely doubt if any guests, other than an inspector, truly got excited that someone specifically used their name three times at registration, or that their room-service server asked permission to enter their guestroom before pushing a cart across the threshold.

What guests really notice is an authentic welcome genuinely delivered. They notice when someone asks how your travels are going on this day, then truly cares to hear how your travel drama played out.

They notice someone who takes a moment to greet your young children, your pet or elderly traveling companion in a wheelchair. They notice someone who notices you dining alone in a business suit, or waiting alone for an Uber at the door and takes a moment for brief small talk that makes a lonely business traveler feel a little more at home.

How do hotel leaders get their staff to deliver these momentous moments? By doing everything just listed when first encountering employees and co-workers each day. Perhaps the great Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels, said it best: “It has been, and continues to be, our responsibility to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.”

That is what this industry needs to focus on now, more than ever.

Certainly, the industry needs service standards and performance metrics. Surely we must adapt to emerging technologies that enhance efficiency. Yet in the end, it is the people who make the difference. In KTN’s “Heart of Hospitality” Certification program, we use the five fingers of the human hand to represent service components such as welcome/fond farewell, telephone standards, pro-active thinking and service recovery. However, in our program’s emblem, those five fingers lift the true heart of hospitality, which is human kindness especially to strangers. Without human kindness, such standards are meaningless communications techniques and we are all in the “room rental business.”

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