How a trip to Budapest reignited my love of travel

By Alan E. Young, CEO, Puzzle Partner

Loyalty begins with a smile. It sounds simple enough however it can be a challenge to receive a smile in today’s hectic, overly self-indulgent environment. We focus on selfies, Facebook, Instagram and have slowly lost touch with what is most important, creating face to face relationships that can last the test of time.

The hotel industry faces this challenge daily. While reading an article on Skift titled, “Google Finds Customer Service Beats Loyalty Programs,” I saw this as such a basic point. Of course, great service will trump a loyalty program every time. In fact, Think from Google, the marketing data and research arm of Google, has revealed that the top three considerations when booking travel. The results showed that 60 percent of respondents cited customer service is the most critical factor. The problem is that finding great customer service has become increasingly harder as we, as a culture, are shying away from direct human communication.

Of course, loyalty programs have their place as an incentive for people to stay with a single brand, rent a car from one agency or fly on one airline. But do we have to sacrifice genuine human interaction, that includes a smile, for the sake of a loyalty program? In a perfect world, we should have both.

The entire bedrock of the hospitality industry is based on personal service. Though there are different levels of service, including self-service, invariably there is always a hotel employee sitting at the front desk that greets guests upon arrival. This person is the frontline ambassador of the hotel, brand and ultimately of our industry. If this person welcomes a guest with a frown or is looking down at a computer screen or ream of paper, the initial instinct of any guest is to feel unappreciated. It’s just human nature. On the other hand, when a guest is greeted with a smile and a sincere hello, there is a true sense of happiness. On a biochemical level, smiling releases endorphins, and serotonin. Endorphins are natural painkillers. The more endorphins your brain releases, the more your body can fight off symptoms of illness or depression. Similarly, serotonin is a brain chemical that acts as a natural anti-depressant. The power of a smile is quite incredible when you think about it. Smiling can even decrease one’s blood pressure.

Having just returned from a family vacation in Europe, it became evident to me the impact a smile can have. We spent ten days on a massive road trip traveling from Germany, thru Austria and then to Hungary. The experiences we had in each country and at each hotel were very different. Driving can be exhausting, (especially when you're focusing on not getting the family killed while on the Autobahn). When we pulled up to our hotel, the first thing we all really wanted was to feel at home. On this trip, I must say that the most welcoming country that we visited was Hungary. Yes, Hungary. We were in Budapest to attend the annual Formula 1 race held at the Hungaroring motorsport race track just outside the city. The Budapest hotel we stayed went above and beyond for us. Their staff members, from front desk to restaurant, always had friendly smiles on their faces. It was such pleasurable experience. This hotel has won our loyalty. We will never stay anywhere else while in Budapest, and we are planning to return next year.

I guess what I would like to emphasize is that our industry needs to get back to the basics. Training our employees to fully understand that without guests, we do not have hotels, and without hotels, they do not have jobs. And with that, the most simple, yet essential element of great guest service is the smile. Used as a relationship driver, a smile can do amazing things.

It’s time that we focus on driving true guest loyalty the old-fashioned way. Today’s pressures, technology, and distractions can make us all grumpy from time to time, but when a smile is given, a smile is most likely returned, and loyalty will follow.