By Doug Kennedy

My job as a hospitality industry conference speaker and training facilitator affords opportunities to speak with lodging industry leaders from a broad spectrum of management companies, brands, and independents. Based on my observations, I think there are a lot of leaders, including some with decades of experience who work at top-tier companies, who do not fully understand the difference between “hospitality” and “guest service.”

I often hear these terms used interchangeably, yet while they are related, and while guest satisfaction requires both, they are fundamentally different concepts. Understanding the difference, and being able to convey this to frontline staff, are essential for taking both to the next level at your hotel, company or resort.

So What IS The Difference?

Providing “guest service” is more about delivering experiences that at least meet, and hopefully exceed, guests’ expectations. Foundationally, this requires providing safe, clean, updated, and comfortable accommodations. On top of that, excellent guest service requires using communications essentials that rise above merely being polite. A few examples would be:

  • Holding eye contact with guests long enough to exchange smiles.
  • Using open body language.
  • Excellence in telephone communications. (A positive opening greeting, asking permission to place them on hold, supervising call transfers, and ending the call by offering additional assistance, restating the caller’s name, and thanking them.)
  • Using guest names conversationally throughout their stay.
  • Using the language of hospitality such as saying “Allow me to check on that…” not “I’ll have to check on that…,” “May I suggest that you…” instead of “You’ll have to…,” and saying “You are most welcome” instead of “No problem.”
  • Expressing empathy and apologizing when things go wrong.

And yet I would argue that it is entirely possible for a hotel colleague to use all these communications techniques but completely fall short on delivering hospitality. In our daily lives, I’m sure we have all had customer service experiences where the associate said all of the right things, but who spoke in a way that felt scripted, robotic and disingenuous.

Specific to hotels, I often find that some hotels, most often in upscale and luxury sectors, become so obsessed with passing a FORBES, AAA, or brand inspection that they over-emphasize these “guest service techniques” to the point where it comes across as “scripted politeness” and feels obsequious to guests.

Guest Services Skills Are Demonstrative;

Heartfelt Hospitality Is Philosophical

Enlightened leaders know that hospitality is, at its core, a philosophy for living much more so than it is a script or list of “communications standards” to be checked-off in a mystery shopper’s inspection report.

To start, let’s look at the root of the word “hospitality” itself, which is derived from the Latin word hospes, which is a word having the diametric meanings of “guest” and “host.” Dictionary definitions of the word “hospitality” generally include some version of receiving guests in a way that is warm, generous, and friendly.

For decades now in my on-site hospitality training workshops, I often ask participants to work in small groups and to formulate one collective definition. Their results are always interesting and insightful, but the best one yet came out of a group many years ago that came up with this definition: “Hospitality means caring about, as well as for, others.”

In the hotel industry, when we care “for” others, we basically do our jobs and provide guest service. We clean the rooms, fix what is broken, and provide a room key in exchange for their credit card. Yet when we care “about” our guests, we understand that the person on the other side of the desk, counter, phone call, or email exchange is a real person going through a uniquely personal travel experience. We take time to imagine that they might be in town for a wedding, a birthday, or a vacation, but also it might be for a funeral, memorial service, or at the start or end of a hospital stay. They might be in town on business to entertain sales prospects at fancy restaurants, hire new staff, or attend company meetings, but also it might be to testify in a lawsuit, close a branch office or finalize a divorce proceeding.

Those who have enrolled their front desk staff in KTN’s “Certified in the Heart of Hospitality” program will recognize another definition of hospitality we use, which is “Hospitality is the delivery of human kindness, especially to strangers.”

However, perhaps the very best definition I have ever encountered was offered by a true industry icon, Howard Feiertag, who was my personal mentor and friend for 34 years until he passed away last March at age 93. Many readers will know Howard as a co-worker from the years he spent as a corporate-level hotelier or his years on the conference speaking circuit. Perhaps he is best known as Professor Feiertag, having joined Virginia Tech as an Adjunct Professor in 1990 and where he still taught classes at age 93.

In my opinion, Howard gave the best and certainly the pithiest definition ever, when he made this comment at a banquet in his honor: “Hospitality is making people feel good,” Howard said that night, adding, “and when we make them feel good it makes YOU feel good too!” Note: You can watch this segment of Howard’s speech at the 6:20 timestamp on this YouTube link

And so hotel leaders, at your next staff meeting, management conference, or executive committee gathering, take a few moments to ask your leaders to consider the true meaning of hospitality, making certain to differentiate it from the concept of guest service techniques.