By Richard Takach, Jr. President & CEO, Vesta Hospitality | April 18, 2021
At its most fundamental, the hospitality industry has always been about anticipating and responding to the needs of its guests. Treat guests as you would like to be treated and you will be rewarded with their patronage, genuine appreciation and loyalty. Operating revenues and profitability will follow.
However, in our modern era, this imperative has been complicated and challenged in several ways. For starters, even within individual brand platforms and asset classes, both leisure and business travelers are not necessarily looking to have as standardized a guest experience as in generations past. It's not "plug and play" anymore. The key is the ability to modify the experience at any given property to meet as many guest expectations as possible. Be flexible and always try to view any stay from the guest's perspective.
Guests want more choices in arrival and departure times; room location and, perhaps, furnishings; food and beverage offerings; in-room entertainment and broadband capabilities; fitness centers; office centers and so on. And as our industry matures, aided by technology, we should be able to customize the hotel experience in new and better ways, allowing the guest to further define her or his experience.
This development, coupled with new technologies, the advent and prevalence of social media, and ever-present labor pressures, has important implications that impact our hiring strategies, training protocols and everyday operations.
Some of these trends have been intensified and accelerated during the novel coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, direct bookings, keyless entry, self-check-in and other contactless services have continued to grow in preference, all of which reduces, or should reduce, demand on staff. On the other hand, hotels are receiving more pre-visit queries than ever before concerning mask policies, social distancing practices, housekeeping and sanitation standards and policies, or food and beverage availability. There's a lot to handle and our hospitality industry is doing a great job in informing guests about their prospective needs.
Great Guest Service Starts With Making the Right Hire
There are many challenging aspects to running a successful hospitality company. The headaches can come from the need for accurate budgeting and forecasting, revenue management, maximizing the value of our rooms inventory, raising equity or debt to continue to grow or simply managing the egos in the executive office or calming an angry guest.
Still, many hoteliers will say that the most stressful aspect of hospitality is not any of those, but, rather, the hiring process. Yes, guest service comes down to hiring people who understand and can embody our mission statement, guiding philosophies and organizational culture; and, most importantly, have a natural sentiment for caring for others and like working with them in a personal relationship. If you are not inclined to serve others, you are probably not in the right business.
The right person, when hired correctly using the tools available, can have a positive effect to the individual hotel or company. On the flip side, we must be cautious about hiring the "wrong" person who could have a deleterious impact. The lesson: every single hire is important to the success of a hospitality organization.
The entire hiring and onboarding journey begins with notices of job availability, made more expansive these days with the many job and career web sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Indeed or Monster Jobs, as well as the many hospitality specific job sites that now exist. The latter include HCareers, HotelCareer, Hospitality Online and major brand web portals. In addition to all of these, The organization or individual staff can post about available positions on their pages on social media sites like Facebook.
In particular, these newer online portals are clearly powerful and convenient at broadcasting open positions and building recognition for a hospitality entity. However, don't neglect traditional recruiting techniques like executive recruiting firms; working with counselors and career programs at local high schools, community colleges and universities; post-pandemic job fairs; as well as personal referrals. The most valuable of these is referrals from current employees.
Next comes the interview process, including any follow-up interviews; background checks; and the use of analytical and behavioral tools to help determine a candidate's aptitude for specific hospitality positions. The latter, in combination with benchmarking of top performers, is proving extremely useful in the hiring process.
The Predictive Index (PI) is one such useful tool. In measuring the four traits of Dominance, Extraversion, Patience and Formality, a job candidate is further benchmarked against top performers in an organization and what their traits are. In practice, these tools are proving quite valid in matching traits and personalities to qualities required of specific hospitality positions. Many hospitality organizations are finding it valuable to conduct these PI assessments all the way down to line level staff, another great example of investment in our people.
Also, there is a tendency to be lackadaisical about background checks and references. Always verify references, but remember that some references in today's business world may withhold valuable information due to legal concerns. Do conduct your own investigations. The most useful reference checks come from professional relationships and keeping one's ear to the ground.
Any hiring must be followed by quality training and continuing education programs, which is critical to guest service and retaining and grooming outstanding talent for the organization. This starts with brand training programs and building on with our comprehensive, organization-specific ones. The goals: give new hires the tools and confidence to perform their tasks well, which should be continually upgraded; and offer a path to career advancement for those so inclined. Here, as elsewhere, technology is allowing us to offer highly reliable, self-paced programs for team members, fully integrated with comprehensive human resources functions.
Empowering Staff is Essential to Modern Guest Service
Driven by advancements in technology, which has revolutionized how we interact with guests; driven by brand standards; and driven by guest expectations and the greater world of commerce, our ultimate goal is to empower team members with the authority to solve service issues at the lowest and quickest level possible. The simple fact is the higher up a chain of command the guest complaint rises, the less likely there will be a positive outcome.
Astute organizations take this a step further, by endorsing what we might call a "100 percent guarantee." Today's most useful service standard: don't argue, don't negotiate, don't try to be clever, just make things right. We will give you the tools to do this and have your back as you exercise your powers of discretion.
In some cases, this might be a room comp. In other cases, the guest will only be pleased in other ways. It is our job to figure that out and make it happen. Amazingly, the most effective solution to exceeding guest expectations may not even be a costly one. A favorite menu item or shampoo is unavailable. Pick it up and have it available for the guest as soon as possible. Guests visiting a graduating child at the local college? Present them with a small gift to share with the graduate. A couple is celebrating an anniversary? Thank them for choosing your property with a special remembrance.
Simple things that display appreciation and thoughtfulness can earn their weight in gold with customer loyalty. At the same time, many new desk agents don't understand that if a guest took the time to mention an issue, we must do something about it. Simply thinking the guest wasn't upset isn't reason to stop. If a guest bothered enough to bring something up, it is our duty to respond and "close the loop" in a positive way.
As already noted, this organizational commitment to empowering staff has served us well in the coronavirus pandemic. It hasn't always been easy. Guests are understandably concerned about their safety and that of their family, even with the ever-changing Covid policies and procedures we have put in place. A few have been confrontational, either ignoring local mask mandates or calling out the behavior of fellow guests.
Empowered staff has done an outstanding job during these challenging times, helping instill confidence in the traveling public and providing customized service to guests. In addition to empowerment, financial incentives are important motivators for guest service agents. Whether based on reservation accuracy, positive comments on guest surveys or achieving technology skills, this group of employees will compete to win!
Managing the Technology End-Around
In days past, you could easily pick that angry guest out of the crowd. These days, more and more guests check in through contactless services and, often, the "shouting' or angry stare comes through in the form of an email or text complaint. Often, out of the blue, even straight to a brand or social media before the guest has checked out! Our task is to be alert to these newer forms of "confrontation," as well as praise, ready to respond promptly, remembering to make things right as soon as possible.
These experiences will suggest new ways of getting ahead of issues, including using on-property text communication systems to stay in touch with guests throughout their stays. We must also continually monitor those online reviews and other social media comments and respond appropriately. The goal is always the same: nip any guest dissatisfaction in the bud and do everything possible to exceed expectations.
Be Willing to Experiment
The world of hospitality will continue to grow in complexity with new brands and independent platforms, new consumer behaviors, an evolving work force and new technologies at all levels of hospitality. Aided by technology and our people, inventive operators will research and imagine new ways of personalizing the guest experience and offer multiple forms of added value, both the expected and the pleasant surprise. One of the richest sources of ideas on how we can improve things for our guests come from the associates who are closest to them. We need to encourage their participation, listen to their suggestions, and take each one under consideration.
Our industry is blessed with creative and inquisitive individuals, helping to constantly reinvent our industry concepts of guest service, as they gradually evolve over time. Following their lead, the best hospitality organizations must be willing to experiment in the area of guest service, within established brand and organizational parameters.
For example, we may be able to extend the concept of a personal concierge throughout a guest's stay to a wider range of property types. Or there may be new ways, including through friendly competition, to build improved team work, sense of responsibility and problem-solving skills. Your staff member has a new idea for responding to guest surveys or partner with other businesses in your location? Many such initiatives are not costly. Let them have a go at it.
Hire carefully and train well. Challenge and empower team members. Listen closely to guests. Try out new strategies that keep hospitality fresh and exciting. Our guest service and, as a result our success and sense of fulfillment, will be all the better for it.