Most Full Service Airlines And Hotels Have Forgotten They’re In The Hospitality Business

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Here’s an interesting take I came across from the former owner of Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York, who came out with a book this fall Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect. He was able to create a ‘moment’ for diners one time by going outside to a hot dog cart and plating it for the guests. And that was the memory for them of the night.

One time I was having dinner at Tetsuya in Sydney. Now, my Aussie readers will know that their country isn’t known for service. This was many years ago, and the restaurant kitchen was known to be especially high tech. So I asked our server if it might be possible for my wife (a former restaurant chef herself) and I to see the kitchen. His immediate response wasn’t “let me check” it was “of course, it is your evening.”

And by the way one of the really nice touches at Tetsuya was their truffle butter. I think that butter is an oft-overlooked opportunity for a wow moment in a restaurant. Too often it’s an afterthought or add-on rather than something to do special.

It’s the little things that I appreciate most, and the attitude of someone who goes out of their way to accommodate a guest, that makes for hospitality. The first time I really thought about this was my sophomore year of high school. A bunch of us went out to dinner after a debate tournament. My debate partner (who would later go on to work in food and beverage in senior roles at MGM and as SVP of restaurants and bars at Kimpton before it was acquired by IHG) – at just 14 years old – commented that a good restaurant will serve you whatever you wish, not merely what’s on the menu.

Too many hotels, high end ones even (!), have forgotten hospitality. They’ve replaced single use toiletries with wall-mounted and won’t provide a bar of soap on request. If a $23,000+ per year customer (a Marriott Ambassador, say) has their flight cancelled and their luggage lost and they show up without deodorant or a toothbrush the hotel will point to where they can buy these travel-sized items rather than taking care of their guest. Or while they may no longer deliver newspapers to each room they no longer have one – and won’t get one – for a guest.

At a W hotel one time I hit the “Wherever Whenever” line, which is their button for service and meant to suggest that they’ll take care of any need or request, and asked for something simple: a pot of coffee, albeit at 5 o’clock in the morning (on the West Coast those of us from the East Coast will tend to get up early). The Wherever, Whenever line told me they couldn’t help me.

Ritz-Carlton supposedly gave each staff member license to spend on surprise and delight for guests when they noticed an opportunity but in many Ritz stays this is not something I ever experienced, though I did once arrive at a room to find an unmade bed with a used condom in it.

Randy Petersen taught me an important lesson. I visited his office for the first time two decades ago, a building with an address of Frequent Flyer Point in Colorado Springs. He had a training room for new employees and a note was up on the board. It instructed staff to never say no. Instead they should offer, “what I can do for you is.”

That’s the same thing as no! But it also listens to and understands the need of the customer, and offers them a solution. It may not even be the solution they wanted, but it shows a willingness to go out of your way. Do your job!

Former Starwood CEO Adam Aron came up as a loyalty marketing executive. He worked at Pan Am. He launched Hyatt Gold Passport. And he was a Senior Vice President at United. He once told me that airline customer service is bad because of their focus on safety. I don’t think he’s right, though it’s clear that a focus on safety doesn’t filter down throughout the company in the form of sweating the small details.

  • When Aron started at Pan Am he was taken into a dark room and put in front of a screen where he was shown a two hour documentary on the runway collision of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife in 1977, known as the deadliest accident in aviation history.

  • A KLM flight tried to take off while Pan Am’s 747 was on the runway. Everyone onboard the KLM 747 was killed, and 335 people onboard the Pan Am aircraft lost their lives.

  • As the video ended his colleague walked into the room, and told him that every decision at the airline matters. Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.

  • And that to him is the difference between airlines and hotels. Airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience.

But hotels are losing their edge in hospitality and some airlines even provide it!

I once forgot my camera at my seat on a Singapore Airlines flight inbound from Bali. An employee met me on the jet bridge of my connecting flight to Hong Kong with my camera in hand.

Singapore Airlines sweats all the small details, not just the mechanical ones. They built a model Airbus A380 using manila envelopes and the seats inside the plane even reclined. Tag line: “It’s the small details that make giants in the sky.” Bingo.

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