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No Directions and NO KETCHUP! -  It's The People That Make The Difference

By Doug Kennedy
August 24, 2012

As a hotel industry trainer my life on the road is probably more cushy and comfortable than many of my fellow travelers, because the hotels that tend to invest money in outside training tend to have the best guest service to begin with.  However sometimes I am asked to conduct training for off-site call centers and sales offices, and during these trips I end up selecting my own hotels basically at random.

Although the brand people probably don’t want to hear this, the truth is that most hotel brands serving the same market appear pretty much the same to most of us hotel guests.   Honestly, if you blindfolded us frequent travelers, walked us into the hotel lobby, public areas, and guest rooms, most of us could tell very little difference from one hotel to another, so long as the brand logos were covered up!  

The trend toward the “vanillia-ization” of our hotel “product” is especially evident in the upper mid-scale hotel market.   Regardless of the flag out front, you’re pretty much assured of having a flat panel TV, a curved shower curtain, ergo-chair with a desk and lots of outlets, in-room coffee, iron, ironing board and hair dryer!  And when you check-in, you can bet on hearing the same scripted welcome message about the hours complimentary breakfast, the indoor pool you won’t have time to use on business, and the wake-up call you don’t need.   Even when one brand tries a new innovation, it’s only a short time until that feature or service is adapted by all the other competitors.

So how is a hotelier to differentiate his or her specific hotel’s “brand” from others in the neighborhood?  In the end it still comes down to the people.  Unfortunately today too many hotels focus mostly on their technology/systems and the physical product itself.  Others rely more on their brand’s reward points to foster guest loyalty, rather than making sure their hotel associates are prepared to give guests authentic, genuine and personalized service they really need while on the road.

All too often when I pick a hotel randomly online, I find the hotel staff ill prepared to handle even the most basic needs.  Take for example my most recent trip, which was to a small town just outside of Panama City, FL.  The hotel product itself was perfect; a newer property with all the aforementioned features expected in an upper mid-scale suburban property.  The staff was friendly and cordial; but their ability to meet my needs as a traveler left much to be desired. 

The first “teachable moment” occurred right after I got into my rental car at the Panama City airport, finding that the GPS I’ve come to rely on so much not working in the region.  When I called the front desk to ask for directions, the associate seemed as if she had never been asked that question before.  She hesitated a bit then placed me on hold for what seemed like a very long time while waiting in a hot parking lot, especially since I was three hours behind schedule due to flight delays. The funny thing was when she returned to the line, having asked directions from a co-worker, all that was involved was a left turn out of the airport and a right turn on a major state highway on which the hotel was located. 

Later that evening having finished my work I was ready to relax with a glass of wine.  Since there was no bar, I asked the front desk for the location of the nearest place to buy some wine.  She then sent me to a Super Walmart, which she said had a liquor store.  Although close by, it took a lot longer to park and walk into this massive store, and on the way back I saw there was a grocery store right next to the hotel which would have been much more convenient.  Finally, later that evening I found myself craving a carb snack, and nearby was a Wendy’s.  I could almost smell those new sea salt fries in my imagination, so about 9pm I could resist no longer.  As I re-entered the lobby of the hotel with my fries in hand, I realized I had forgotten the best part – the ketchup!  I am a self-admitted ketchup lover and just could not imagine fries without.   So I asked the front desk associate if she might have some extra left over ketchup packets in the back office, and the answer was flat out “no.”  Next morning when I came for my complimentary breakfast, I realized they had ketchup packages out at the breakfast bar and wished my front desk representative had thought to offer them.

That being said, there are definitely plenty of hotels that understand what it really takes to create longstanding guest loyalty.  One example that comes to mind is the Oxford Suites in Lancaster, CA.  Anyone from the Pacific Northwest will recognize the Oxford Suites brand as a very nice regional chain serving the upper mid-scale market.  Many of their properties are newly built, and all are very well maintained and continuously updated.  That being said, one of their top performing hotels also happens to be one of their oldest legacy properties.  It was built decades ago, and in recent years nearly every major mid-market hotel brand has opened a brand new property to compete directly.  Yet when you visit the TripAdvisor rankings for hotels in Lancaster, CA, as of this writing the Oxford Suites has been number one all year.   When you read all the comments about the staff in the reviews it’s to see why this hotel does so well; management understands that a hotel’s reputation relies mostly upon the people and not just the bricks and mortar. 

While the hotel industry moves towards the “vanilla-ization” of its physical product, the most successful hotels will be those who know it’s still the genuine, authentic hospitality delivered by the inspired, well cared for frontline associates that makes the most difference. 

Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of customized training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry.  Doug continues to be a fixture on the industry’s conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations, as he been for over two decades.  Visit KTN at:   Read his travel blog at ontheroad.kennedytrainingnetwork
or email him directly: 

Doug Kennedy
Kennedy Training Network, Inc.
1926 Hollywood Boulevard, Suite 203
Hollywood, FL  33020
Office: 954.981.7689
Mobile: 954.558.4777


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Train Your Hotel Team To Use The Language Of Hospitality: Part One / Doug Kennedy / March 2012

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