It’s all about your people

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We spoke with guest experience expert Minal Patel about his insights on guest experience and how it all has to do with having the right staff, in the right place, at the right time.

by Kate Viana

Atlanta hotelier Minal Patel is a hard man to get hold of. In between managing a $10-million hotel portfolio and overseeing the operation of three extremely successful Marco’s Pizza franchises, he is an AAHOA North Georgia Regional Ambassador and an active member of the Georgia State University Alumni Association (2006). Minal is also an AAHOA Certified Hotel Owner (CHO) and director at both MP Hospitality and MP Restaurant Group, both based in Atlanta. In 2010, he began a three-year career as director of sales in the Georgia/Alabama region for Verizon Wireless Premium Retailers, where he managed 14 locations, three district managers and an operations administrator.

As evidenced by his tremendous success in sales and hospitality, Minal knows that guests and customers aren’t just looking for a particular product or service; they’re looking for an experience – one they can’t get anywhere else. The key to providing that experience, he says, lies in finding and hiring staff who understand and can consistently execute your customer-service vision.

Compare your philosophy on providing an excellent guest experience now to when you first became a hotelier. How has your approach evolved?
Before, it was all about customer satisfaction. That is now a dated philosophy. Those who still use that method as acceptable will find their LTR scores below that of their competition. The approach has evolved significantly; today, the guest experience starts when they book their reservation online. Guest reviews already give the customer an idea of what to expect when they arrive. As an industry, we have to pay attention to what the guest sees before they even book their room then use that information to educate our teams. Having the team engaged in the brand is more important than ever.

From whom or what have you learned the most about providing a superior guest experience?
My career with Verizon Wireless allowed me to understand that change energizes us. You can see why they lead the industry in all tiers of the pyramid. Once you get comfortable, market share will start to slip. In our industry, the Smith Travel Accommodations Report (STAR) shows which brands continue to innovate and understand that the customer is not waiting for us. We must stay ahead of their expectations.

Modern hotel guests have come to want and expect a personalized experience, even from non-luxury hotels. How can hoteliers outside the luxury market accommodate this desire without breaking the bank?

Hire the right people. The days of just putting a warm body at the front desk are long gone. Invest in your people and hire right the first time, then keep them educated. Your general manager (GM) should be monitoring the development of every staff member. This costs nothing but a little time and energy.

What, in your opinion, is the single most important component of the overall guest experience? Why?
Friendly staff. Even a five-star hotel is not perfect and guests will be quick to call the front desk staff and let them know. If our staff is friendly and trained adequately, they will do what is right to correct the issue. Most of the time, the guest just wants to be heard. Friendly, understanding staff can help you avoid lost revenue and lost customers.

How do you find and recruit the right staff to execute your guest-experience vision?
Online tools and job boards have made it easy to quickly screen qualified applicants. The ones who take the time to find you are most likely the ones you want to hire. Use a phone call to filter out any unsuitable applicants, then call the rest for an in-person interview. Finally, make a decision based on your needs. The most experienced applicant is not necessarily always the best, so consider every aspect of the position before making an offer.

Among the millennial set, instant gratification – the need for things to happen now – is critically important for overall satisfaction. What steps should hoteliers take to ensure they’re meeting that need?
If the brand is not already providing the tools and resources to make this happen, it is the owner’s responsibility to hire staff who work with a sense of urgency and have a history of consistently achieving customer satisfaction. Your GM plays a critical role in this area. If he or she is not attuned to the available technology and resources, neither – most likely – are the rest of the team.

Data show that steadily increasing numbers of travelers expect their hotel to provide an experience that echoes the personality of the community at its doorstep. How can hoteliers create an atmosphere inside their property that celebrates the local culture without sacrificing what makes the hotel itself unique?

Your FFE (furniture, fixtures and equipment) package is critical to ensuring the guests feel as if they are in a particular part of town. Everything – from your property’s landscaping to the room décor – should “match” the area you’re in. I advise all owners to really take a step back and pay very close attention to detail when conducting a PIP for any future projects. You want the guest to remember your specific property over others; the extra touches will provide a customized experience that a traditional FFE package can’t deliver.

When it comes to guest experience and satisfaction, do you see companies like Airbnb as a threat, an opportunity or something else?
It’s an ongoing race, but also an opportunity to re-earn guest loyalty. Travelers today want different experiences depending on where they are traveling. As hoteliers, we must provide an experience that Airbnb cannot. We can offer something special because we have people – people who are trained, skilled and experienced in the art of hospitality. This goes back to hiring the right people; if you have subpar agents representing your property, you’ve lost that advantage.■

Kate Viana is communications manager at the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and can be reached at kate@aahoa.com.

Quick takes
Here are five things hoteliers can do right now to take a guest’s experience from good to great.

  1. Review your hiring practices. Do you truly have an in-depth understanding of your property’s personnel needs?
  2. Provide clean, fresh rooms. Are your housekeepers going the extra mile to ensure each room feels refreshed and welcoming?
  3. Sweat the small stuff. Look around your hotel. Where can you make small but meaningful tweaks?
  4. Keep it clean. Your property’s exterior is as important as the interior. Hire a quality landscaping firm to keep the outside looking groomed and polished.
  5. Emphasize professionalism. Technology (e.g., tweeting) makes it easy to be overly familiar and casual with guests, but all interactions with guests should be completely professional. (Hint: professional does not necessarily equal formal!)
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