by Doug Kennedy
As a conference speaker and hotel industry trainer, I spend a lot of time on the other side of the front desk and know all too well the many situations, circumstances and downright quandaries business travelers can find themselves facing from lost luggage, forgotten items, and challenges en route. As a father of two now teenage children, I also understand the challenges that even leisure travelers can come across when staying at hotel.
Over the many years I've worked in the hotel business I have grown to better-understand the "stories" our guests are living out every day on the other side of the front desk, at the other end of the phone line, and behind our guest room doors. As a guest I've attended weddings, graduations, anniversary parties, but also funerals, emergency rooms and memorial services. I have traveled to conduct interviews and also to be interviewed; to attend meetings and also as the meeting planner. I have traveled as a first time parent with a new born baby, and also as the primary care giver to an elderly parent with arthritic needs and special dietary concerns. Now I am so much better prepared than I was at age 20 when I got my first job outside of our family business to work in a hotel.
Back then I thought travel was always fun, adventurous and exciting. It took me years to understand the vast spectrum of reasons why guests travel that are far beyond "business" or "leisure." Now in my hotel industry conference presentations and private on-site hotel trainings, it is my job to help our frontline colleagues to better-understand the guest "stories" being lived out every day behind our guest room doors.
This month and next, I'm excited to be traveling to six different cities to present at the Choice Hotels 2013 regional conferences presented by the Choice Hotels Owners Council (CHOC) and have been speaking about the subject of fostering empathy for and an understanding of guest experiences to "unmask" and "re-humanize" our guests. One of my break-out activities is to ask participants to work in groups to share the details of a unique challenge, dilemma, or quandary that a guest was facing, along with what their hotel associates did to assist. I have to say it was so refreshing to hear an abundance of examples of how our industry's hospitality superstars have attended to the special needs of guests facing unusual circumstances. Here are but a few examples the owners and managers of the various Choice Hotels shared during my workshops so far.
- Associates got to know a guest who stayed two days every week when in town as a traveling nurse. They found out he lived in a remote area and had to travel for work as the breadwinner. They also found out he had two beloved young boys back home that he missed deeply. He even shared that his favorite routine at home was to eat Coco Puffs cereal each morning with them. They now stock a special box of Coco Puffs just for dad each week! Maybe he can go on Skype on his phone now and share a video breakfast with his boys before school!
- Another guest was in town every week for chemotherapy treatments. The team got to know him and he had shared that the treatments made him lose his appetite. One staffer asked "Is there anything you can think of that you do have an appetite for?" "Fudgesicles" said the guest. From that moment on the team always had a Fudgesicle ready for that guest on his treatment days during future visits.
- Several participants shared stories of having long-term guests who were displaced due to natural disasters such as tornados, hurricanes, and wild fires. One example was a woman who was staying several weeks and getting tired of ordering take-out from the three pizza chains, as the specialty full-service restaurants in the area had minimum orders to deliver. The staff started regularly including her in their own orders for take-out, thus meeting the minimum delivery fees.
- One participant shared a story that a woman was in town for an interview but did not have with her the right blouse to match her outfit. The front desk associate went home after work, washed, ironed and then delivered a "loaner" blouse of her own that was just perfect.
- Another participant shared that a regular guest liked to enjoy a nice shot of Cognac brandy with local friends each evening. I'm not a brandy drinker, but I can guess such high-end beverages are not available in "mini" size and that it is not practical for a business traveler to travel with large bottles. I also know this beverage can be quite expensive and you wouldn't want to purchase a new bottle each visit just for a few sips. This guest-focused hotel pro-actively offered to store the guest's Cognac in the manager's office between visits. (She did add that they marked the line on the bottle!)
- Several hotel owners in remote areas talked about how they had personally driven guests to the airport when there was an emergency or a lack of (timely) local taxi service in remote small towns. One story involved a 20 something young woman driving through a small town on the way to a wedding. The rental car broke down and she was going to miss the wedding. The only flight was from a small airport 45 minutes away, and the town of 1600 did not offer taxi service. Instead the owners drove her to the airport themselves. Another owner in a small town says his staff routinely awakens him at 5am when a distressed guest (just finding out there is no local taxi service) is in need of a ride to the regional airport.
- Another hotel manager in Texas had a child that had just graduated from the local University last May. At the breakfast buffet, she met a mom who was in town to help her student find housing at the same college as a freshman. The manager then offered to drive the mom and her student around to tour the housing options, along the way providing "insiders" tips.
- Yet another compelling story was about how an observant front desk associate remembered that the day before, a man and his teenage son mentioned how they were going to a remote local lake at a state park for some fishing. The next day she took note when the housekeeper mentioned that she had cleaned a room where the beds were not even used. She put two-and-two together and realized they were probably stranded and sent a local tow truck. Sure enough, their car was stuck in the mud and they were sure happy to be rescued.
- Just today a participant shared a story that a guest said her mother was having a panic attack. The associate immediately used her better judgment and called 911 even though she was not requested to do so. The mother later flat-lined in the ambulance as the result of a heart attack. Thankfully the first responders were able to revive her on the way and she lived to tell the story about a truly excellent hotel. She is fine now after heart bypass surgery.
As a result of these stories that my participants have shared, I am so looking forward to the last 3 of 6 Choice Hotels regional meetings. I wish more hotel brands had these types of conferences and asked for this type of training. The longest journey is from the head to the heart. It is easy to talk about hospitality but not so easy to live it daily. That is until you get the momentum started. Then it becomes not only easy but also joyful and reminds us why we do what we do in this business.
As a reader, I would love for you to email me with your own examples of how frontline associates of your hotel have gone above what is expected and required to meet the special needs of a fellow human being we routinely call a guest. All hotels are welcome to contribute regardless of brand, affiliation or property type. I will share more examples in "Part Two" of this article later this month.
October 1, 2013