Personal thoughts on hospitality

by Graham Vercoe, Resort News Reporter 31st of January, 2018

Personal thoughts on hospitality
As editor emeritus of this wonderful magazine I have spent the first two years of my retirement visiting all the places I desire strictly for enjoyment.

The best bit is that I get to do it as a guest rather than an industry insider. The erstwhile editor of Resort News, Rosie Clarke, thought it would be helpful if I reflected on those visits.

As a septuagenarian, my needs are somewhat different to those of a millennial but, in talking to many fellow travellers of all ages, I have found what is regularly desired in accommodation seems to apply to all ages. 

It’s all about personalisation

Once a month at least, my wife and I go somewhere different. Totally independently.

I always book with the property direct and, as a result, I usually get the best available room for a generally very good rate and usually end up with a few perks on the side. Wherever I stay, there are a few basic expectations: breakky on-site (preferably included in the rate), free parking, a balcony and a view (not of another building!).

The variety of properties has ranged from five-star resorts, metropolitan hotels, strata title apartments, B&Bs, boutiques, ecolodges, motels and holiday parks. Other than two-out-of-four holiday parks that were certainly substandard, I have been disappointed only once and that was at a historic boutique in Toowoomba that certainly did not live up to the “luxurious” boasts on its website and was rather let down by the lacking people skills of its owner.

As a traveller, I classify an accommodation house into one of two categories: one that provides a night’s sleep and you spend as little possible time in; and one that becomes part of the destination itself and is as enjoyable as all other parts of the trip. I have learned to avoid the former, as for the few extra bucks you can turn the egalitarian into an evocative experience.

The booking process

Avoiding booking through an OTA is not an easy experience. For most hotel/resort websites are swamped by half-a-dozen booking agencies with enticing come-ons (based on cost) about the very property you wish to stay at. Care needs to be taken that you actually do get through to the property’s own page.

As a general rule, when you finally arrive at the web page, you are confronted immediately with check in/out dates. Great for the hotel but not for the potential guest. The first things a looker needs to know are: what types of accommodation does the hotel offer; at what rate; and what are the facilities.

Accommodation providers first need to sell their properties. Then (you hope) the looker becomes a booker. The first page needs to overwhelm the looker into dreams of ecstasy about what your property promises.

But, beware, ensure what you promise is what you deliver. Many times, for example, I have wondered how the view on the website was arrived at as only a drone could have taken that image.

Make the booking process easy – too often the looker has to go back and forward to find out details about the room (you might know what your ‘superior suite’ offers but the looker has no idea). Or a superb bed cover with heaps of cushions, neatly crossed rolled up towels, a flower and after-dinner mints… only to find just a normal bed and duvet! And the use of that word luxury.

Ensure any confirmation is instant and followed up by a welcoming email that can also provide an opportunity for gentle upselling. The more personalised these communications are, the more likely they will have the desired effect and response.

Direct phone bookings are important. Many questions potential guests have are not answered or easily found on websites. Yet in many cases, accommodation provider websites don’t show (or hide) email addresses or phone numbers. Those that do answer phone or email inquiries need to be clued up on the property and the destination. This is one area that small hotels/resorts do seem to prevail over chains.

One aspect that most accommodation providers overlook is what incentive is there to book direct. I do it out of respect for the provider’s bottom-line, but I could often get it for less $ from an OTA, albeit acknowledging I could get a lesser room.

The staff

Your property may have the best facilities, location and structure, but if your staff are not well trained, genuinely friendly, service orientated and happy, your guests will leave dissatisfied. It is unbelievably obvious to a guest how well any staff member has been trained.

Top employees radiate charisma. Passion for their job is obvious. There is nothing ‘plastic’ about their outgoingness.

These criteria apply to all staff a guest is likely to meet – front office personnel, concièrge, housekeepers, restaurant team… even groundsmen and security. 

Of course, in smaller properties, all of those roles could well be performed by the same individual!

Staff are never a necessity. They are a special feature of your business.

And a selling doyen. So many times, a tip from a housemaid has led to me dining at the in-house restaurant rather than at a local eatery that I first fancied.

The manager

One of the most engaging moments I had at a large chain hotel was a phone call midway through a six-night stay from the manager asking if I was enjoying my visit, liked my room and was there anything I needed. It is not uncommon to have managerial contact in smaller properties but, in a large hotel that is part of an international chain (Shangri-La), it made me feel special, even though I know every other guest probably got a similar call.

Contact with the manager is icing on the cake and should never be underestimated. Some managers do walk among guests and engage in conversation. Others hold welcome cocktails as ice breakers for guests. To me it shows that guest care comes from the top.

However, I have sadly found that the larger the property, the more likely the manager is merely a phantom that must exist somewhere but is never seen.

The facilities

Not being a millennial, gen-Xer or even a mid-lifer but a devoted spending-the-kids-inheritance baby boomer, I don’t often pump iron in the gym, take advantage of discounted paragliding, nor am I in desperate need of an Instagram butler but the provision of a wide range of facilities is the way one accommodation house can stand above another.

One convenience I do look for when selecting accommodation is sustenance. ‘Eating’ is a necessary function, whereas ‘dining’ is experiential and should be an enjoyable and memorable event. It is also important for guest engagement. The average time spent in a restaurant interacting with your staff can be an hour or more, maybe a couple of times per day. Many lasting friendships with other guests are made during breakfast encounters. There is no better way to get to know your guests and instill an enormous amount of  loyalty than in this kind of environment.

The food component is important too. I am a dedicated carnivore, but my wife is a vegetarian. I generally get heaps of choices, but my wife has one or two and almost always these are pasta or salads. Why can’t restaurants offer vegetarian (there are more than two million vegetarians in Australia) examples in the same way as they cater for food allergies such as gluten-free options?

I have to say that I do go out of my way to try and get a spa suite whenever I can. Soaking in hot bubbles after over indulging in a fine repast with a glass of wine before retiring is really a wonderfully romantic way to cap off a great day.

The room

This is where my personal classification comes to the fore: a bed for the night or a room to enjoy. I personally would rather spend two nights in the latter as opposed to five nights in the former for the same price.

I know I have chosen well when my wife’s first reaction is “wow”!

Cleanliness is paramount. Rarely does a guest notice how clean a room is – that is expected. But they will instantly notice a blemish on a mirror, hair in the wash basin, stain on the bed cover or smudge on a wine glass!

A room needs first to be comfortable. The bed needs to be super comfortable. Seating, other than the bed, is very welcome, especially if it is a bit posh. Having to sit on the bed to imbibe some refreshment, devour brochures on the district or ponder the photos you’ve taken that day is not what is expected of a classy hotel.

Amenities are the differential point between three and five-star accommodation. Exasperating to scrub one’s hair with a salivating-sounding shampoo only to find out the result has turned one’s tresses into wire. That’s three-star. More salubrious to find your strands become silky like never before. That’s five-star.

Personally, I find dispensers annoying. Pumping a generous amount of body wash into one’s hand and then find it has disappeared before it reaches its intended body parts is frustrating. I understand the economics for the accommodation provider but, bear this in mind, by the time one has got enough soap to the appropriate regions, one has slopped a fair amount of your savings down the plug hole.

Pillows. Now there is a problem. I like two pillows but some of the new ones are so full… massive… beds unto themselves. Others are wafer thin. Two are never enough, but only two are provided, so you use your clothing as ballast underneath.

I know there are such things as ‘pillow menus’ but not once have I been offered this facility in advance of kipping down.

The technology

I first used computers in the early 1970s when the mainframe took up two floors of Thomson House in London. Now you hold in one hand a device that has umpty-two times the speed and capacity. No wonder, nowadays, I find that the speed of new technology adaptation far exceeds the capacity my brain cells have of keeping pace.

One only needs to observe fellow breakfasters to understand how technology rules our lives: baby boomers on their iPads keeping the kids/grandkids updated; millennials frantically letting all in sundry know on social media of their latest exploits on their smart phones; and the overseas visitors taking long-range selfies while trying to eat a fruit feast brekky with the help of the local lorikeets. It is inescapable. And accommodation providers need to excel in this area with multi-device functional features easily accessible 24/7. And free. I do think that most accommodation providers do score well here, even if I find in many cases the TV remote has been devilishly devised to stress me out in order to watch a morning news channel.

The experience

Aaahhh! What it is all about! Every experience is different, and so it should be. Which makes the task for smaller accommodation providers so much easier than for the great chains… but not always. Three chain experiences (Shangri-La, Peppers and Spicers) stand out for me while others are, at best, simply ordinary. B&Bs have the luxury of easily and invariably providing an evocative experience. Boutiques likewise.

An experience is the emotion one feels before, during and after one’s stay – hopefully long after. It is natural to talk of one’s holiday memories with friends and it is surprising how often those conversations lead to others following in our paths.

To me, I get as much enjoyment from my chosen accommodation as I do from the destination itself, which is why I make the choices I do.

Enjoying one’s accommodation should be easy… high on excellence, low on stress.

The follow-up

I am astounded at how few times one gets a genuine, personal follow up from a hotel. Plenty of computer-generated ‘hope you liked your stay, please put something nice on Facebook about us’ emails and ‘it’s really time you joined our loyalty club’. And one gets plenty of deals from time to time. But rarely a personal thank you.

I am not an ecstatic fan of social media so don’t post my thoughts on TripAdvisor, embarrassing photos on Instagram or lengthy blogs on Chatbox but I do send my opinions to the manager directly, almost always positive, especially of staff excellence. Most times this evokes some response from someone in an organisation though a lot don’t bother acknowledging my effort. No matter, I’ve had my say. Often, I do mention an individual staff member that has given exceptional service by name.

In the course of travelling it is inevitable that one encounters a large number of others and it is natural to share one another’s experiences. A large number of travellers one meets are obsessed, it seems, with getting bargains. A $10 saving per night is seen by these people as a huge victory but then they are peeved that they have to pay for breakfast or parking when another that pays a bit more gets it for free. There is an expectation that you get what you pay for shouldn’t apply to them!

Far more frequently nowadays, people I talk to expect value. The outright cost is less important than the experience they receive – increasingly so with the older generation. 

When it comes down to the final analysis, it is the degree of personalisation that is the point of difference between an average accommodation experience and an outstanding one. Never underestimate the power of using a guest’s name or remembering a special occasion, favourite drink or preferred table at breakfast. You have access to all manner of information gathered on each of your guests with today’s personalisation technology. Use it but don’t destroy the ‘personal’ touch by just churning out computer-generated propaganda.

Personalisation is not a buzzword. It is what today’s traveller wants and expects.

By treating your guests as the unique individuals they are, rather than a credit card on two legs, you generate greater loyalty by creating authentic and memorable moments for them while forging a positive brand identity for your property. 

Tags: accommodation travel tourism accom properties hotel motel bed and breakfast pms booking hotel manager management rights holiday

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