5 service essentials to get right

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By Micah Solomon

Do you really know what today’s hotel guests looking for in terms of customer service and experience? While the basics of hospitality may seem timeless, the type of customer service demanded by modern travelers, including today’s hotel guests, is constantly changing.

I recently completed an expansive review of some of the most innovative and successful hotels, hoteliers and F&B professionals for my new book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets. I’ve identified five areas where the greats in our industry are adapting their customer service style to meet the needs, expectations and desires of today’s changing customers.

So here are five customer service trends you need to be on top of, with examples of how today’s greatest hotels and hoteliers are responding to them.

1. APPLY THE CONCEPT OF “TERROIR,” OR LOCALIZATION, TO THE HOSPITALITY CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE.
One signifier of an authentic customer experience is what can be called localization, or terroir, to use the French word for the convergence of factors – geography, climate and so forth – that go into making a local wine or produce. I find that applicable in a broader context as well. While 30 years ago it might have been okay for the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead to look like the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel or even the Ritz-Carlton Osaka, today, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company takes the opposite approach: its Kyoto property, for example, is designed so it couldn’t be placed anywhere else in the world but Kyoto. For example, the lighting fixtures are lanterns made by a small, local ninth-generation family business.

“It’s a business that handmade the parasols the geishas use, which is, as you can imagine, a dying market,” says Lisa Holladay, Ritz-Carlton’s vice president for global brand marketing. “This company said, ‘We need to reinvent ourselves.’ Now, they take what used to be handmade parasols and turn them into beautiful lanterns,” she adds. “All of that history and heritage now informs a simple furnishings detail that for us localizes our Kyoto property.”

Similarly, designer and architect David Rockwell’s Rockwell Group strives to incorporate local culture into the hotel projects it undertakes, making use of locally crafted design elements that can help connect guests to their surroundings. For example, at the Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a hotel based on the Nobu restaurant brand, the challenge was to create public spaces, a restaurant and guest rooms that reflected Chef Nobu’s philosophy and also acknowledged the inherent dazzle of the Strip.

“We developed a design language that combines Nobu’s rustic Japanese style with oversized elements and pops of color that reveal a touch of Vegas glamor,” Rockwell said.

2. SERVE YOUR GUESTS WITH AN AUTHENTIC, UNSCRIPTED CUSTOMER SERVICE STYLE.
Pretentious, white-glove customer service can be too stuffy for today’s hospitality customers, including the important millennial generation.

“We don’t want an imitation of a waiter; we want the genuine article,” says Patrick O’Connell, the double five-star, double five-diamond restaurateur and hotelier who helms The Inn at Little Washington. That style of service, O’Connell says, is archaic, silly and, worst of all, artificial.

Customers want employees who “put people at ease and make people comfortable in how [they]act and in the language that [they]use,” says O’Connell. Even at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which a decade ago was known as the bastion of scripted formality, the new rule is this: no scripting, no pretensions; just authentic service.

But delivering authentic, unscripted service is, in fact, much harder than a rote, script-based delivery. As Sara Kearney, SVP at Hyatt Hotel Corp., whose new, innovative Andaz luxury brand has also done away with scripting, says, “You have to practice an awful lot to come across as completely unscripted – but it’s worth it.”

3. EMBRACE EYE-LEVEL DESIGN AND FURNISHINGS.
Smart hoteliers and restaurateurs are moving toward an eye-level approach to design and furnishings that supports better customer engagement. Mark Harmon, CEO of Auberge Resorts (Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch, Esperanza), says: “Customers have a visceral Pavlovian reaction when they walk up to a high desk with employees lined up behind it. They instantly feel like they’re going to get hammered. So, get your people out from behind the counter! If you have to have a desk, bring it down to a normal desk height and really engage the customer directly – go to the customer (instead of the other way around), and make it personal.”

4. BE PREPARED TO ACCOMMODATE MULTI-GENERATIONAL AND SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP TRAVEL.
Customers are, more often than ever, coming together in groups – other than romantic couples and nuclear families – to consume travel, lodging and food services. The types of groups that travel together vary widely – from marathon runners and hunters, to religious groups or salsa dancers. Included in this variety is the impossible-to-overlook Red Hat Society, or as The Simpsons memorably renamed them, “The Last of the Red Hat Mamas.”

In addition, one in six Americans live in a multigenerational household, with this percentage being even higher within certain American subgroups: Asian Americans, 26 percent; African Americans, 23 percent; and Hispanic Americans, 22 percent. These multigenerational households are traveling together more and more. Part of the way to meet this challenge is in the design and configuration of hospitality environments. Take the newly opened (and exhaustingly named) Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which is the first non-Disney hotel on park property.

“Orlando is a market that many people visit, along with extended multigenerational families,” says Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts’ EVP of Global Products and Innovation Christopher Hunsberger. “We accommodate this with multiple room configurations. We can put two rooms together. We can put four rooms together. We can put a whole floor together. We can put a half a floor together. You can have a section of a hotel and have it feel very private and very secluded to you.”

But multigenerational travel doesn’t work when you force all of those generations to be together every second of the day, says Hunsberger.

“We know there are times when that multigenerational family wants to be together,” he says. “There are times when they want to be able to separate from one another. So we have to respond to this; we have, for example, three very distinctly designed pool areas to accommodate multigenerational travel during the times families want to be together, as well as the times they want to be apart.”

A family pool with a gradually sloping, beach-style entry is intended to be inviting to young swimmers, an adults-only pool offers a more spa-like atmosphere, and a splash-zone pool is exactly as you’d imagine it – a place to congregate when the youngsters are getting on the oldsters’ nerves.

5. BE READY FOR THE “ALONE TOGETHER,” LATTE-AND-LAPTOP TRAVELER.
One customer preference that hoteliers and restaurateurs are accommodating today is that of guests who want to be around other people, though not necessarily with them. It’s the desire of many customers, especially business travelers, to experience “alone together” time – the paradoxical desire for a communal setting in which to do private work.

As designer Rockwell puts it, today’s customers “want different options to work and socialize,” and “don’t want what they do to be predetermined by inflexible architecture,” preferring “flexible public spaces and open layouts.”

Many hotels, including Hotel Indigo, a boutique-like hotel on New York City’s bustling Lower East Side, are doing away with the sad, lonely, traditional business center, and instead building open, multi-purpose spaces where loose, ad-hoc congregations of “latte-and-laptop” travelers can work.          ■

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, keynote speaker and trainer focusing on customer service, the customer experience, consumer trends, hospitality and company culture. His latest book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets, brings together the customer service wisdom of the greatest hotel and restaurant leaders in the world. To learn more, visit www.micahsolomon.com.

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