By Doug Kennedy
Hoteliers in the upscale, luxury, and ultra-luxury segments of the lodging industry not only have to be concerned with the preferences of their actual guests, but also with the sometimes-ambiguous standards imposed on them by their brand, soft-brand, membership/affiliation, or by third party luxury hotel rating services. Indeed, achieving and maintaining those stars, diamonds or other merit-based symbols has never been easy and always represents a significant accomplishment.
Surely, meeting these standards is important, and therefore it is essential that all staff are well-versed in the requirements. However, too many hotel leaders simply train their staff to memorize and execute these standards as if they were a script. As a result, guests may experience insincere conversations which feel disingenuous and inauthentic, ironically, working against the objectives of a service style that is genuine, bespoke, and authentic.
Perhaps part of the problem is how the standards themselves are presented. As a hotel trainer, when I talk to the frontline staff about the in-house training they have previously received, most describe it as being a lecture format where they are drilled on memorizing a handout containing a list of standards.
I’ve worked with hotels of just about every luxury brand and affiliation group, and so I get to see those lists. Typically, there are at least 20, 30, or more for every department. For example, the standards set by one very popular rating service has well over 25 standards for arrival, more than 50 for dining, around 45 for bar, and over 40 for in-room dining.
Most of the time, the brand or rating service has all standards listed together. Too many leaders review the entire list during training, even though many are beyond the realm of the frontline staff and focus more on operational systems and/or the physical product. From what I hear from staff, this can be overwhelming.
I’m also hearing that when outside trainers from the brand or from the rating services are brought in, these sessions are also all about memorizing the standards, with very little discussion about how they allow guests to experience personalized, elegant service.
Consequently, staff members end up experiencing unnecessary anxiety as they try their best, without understanding the intention of these standards, and without any direction or practice on how to use them when engaging real guests daily.
As a result, guests encounter staff who nervously overuse certain words and phrases. For example, a standard focusing on using guests’ names often results in what I call being “Mr. Kennedy’ed to death.” Yes Mr. Kennedy, very good Mr. Kennedy, certainly Mr. Kennedy, have a wonderful day Mr. Kennedy.
One common standard that has crept into overuse is to determine if guests have food allergies. Now I get why this is important because my grandniece has an extreme allergy to peanuts. Personally, everyone I know who has a food allergy makes it a point to be the one to ask questions about ingredients, but I get that it’s polite for a server to proactively ask. Perhaps loss prevention people would say this also minimizes liabilities. Yet lately I find this question is being overused. Take the experience I recently had at the breakfast buffet at an ultra-luxury resort. First, the hostess asked if I had any allergies, then the busser asked when he served coffee and juice. The (same) server actually asked me two times, and on top of that the line attendant on the buffet parroted the question.
While most standards make sense, I personally feel that some sound ridiculous. For example, when traveling for business, I generally order room service. Typically, I always answer the door with a greeting and smile, then I turn around back into the room to clear space for the tray or table. A few years back I encountered a new standard for the first time when I looked back toward the door and found my server still standing outside mumbling something, which I eventually deciphered as a question: “Do I have permission to enter your room, Mr. Kennedy?” Honestly, at that hour, I had to restrain the cynic in me from saying “No. Just leave everything out there. I want to eat my room service meal in the hallway.”
Another example of a well-intended standard that has been overused is offering assistance with transportation and/or directions. This one is first asked when I call from my room, either to notify the desk that I’m leaving or to call for luggage assistance. If I stop by for a copy of my folio, they ask again. Then if there is a door or valet attendant, I am asked a third time.
I had a recent ultra-luxury hotel training client say they got “dinged” by their inspector for over-using this question, despite that it is one of their key rating standards. The inspector’s solution was to only have one of the three departments offer assistance, not all three. The problem here is that some guests do not call down; some do not stop by; and some do not have a car parked in valet, so if only one of these three departments offers assistance, many guests would not be offered at all. Also, practically speaking, most guests these days either hire an Uber, have a ride, or already have a car service set up, or if they are driving, use Maps or Waze direction apps.
Although I certainly hope those who write the standards for luxury brands and rating services read this and reconsider paring down their standards, I doubt anything is going to change anytime soon. Therefore, here are some training tips based on the heart of hospitality workshops we present to our luxury clients.
- Train your team on the “whys” behind the “what’s.” Why does our hotel brand want to uphold these standards and how does using them help us deliver an elegant, refined service style? Also, why does our hotel work so hard to achieve the highest ratings from the outside service and how does that benefit our marketing efforts?
- When training the team, focus only on the standards from the list that are within their realm of influence. Do not overwhelm them by reviewing standards and requirements that are related to the physical product and/or systems/processes.
- For each standard listed, provide several “conversational” examples of how it can be achieved and have the staff practice with role-playing.