The central gravitational force for the business of hotels is, unarguably, the guests. The reason why mega monies were paid to renowned architects and builders to create those magnificent edifices, bundles of bucks are put into defining and presenting the perfect branding, pretty pennies paid to hire the right mix of staff, all kinds of material are brought in – from Italian marble to mood lighting, expensive crystal to candles, special ingredients to spa treatments, many man hours put into presenting differentiating experiences is single fold. It is the guests that are at the heart of hoteliering. It is the guests we put out our services to, who come and spend their income with us, ensuring that we keep our bottom-line healthy and stay afloat in the marketplace.
Yet, so many times and in so many ways we as hoteliers lose focus of this important entity; falling below our own expectations and standards by failing to live up to our guests’ requirements.
In this part of the Case Study, let us look at the remaining four points that can spell doom and bring in our nemesis. Our painful tryst with Spaghetti Kitchen was such a culinary disaster that it urged us to look at the realm of restaurateuring with a lens. Here are some more learnings -
1. Sizing up guests
It started with our steward of the evening trying to tell us what a Margherita pizza was and ended with the lady at the next table loudly ordering her wait staff to get a Baou-al (vernacular rendition of bowl) of water for “hand washing” while dining at an Italian restaurant. With such beginning and end, how could I have wished for a pleasant dinner outing!
I think since we refrained from ordering any wine, our first waiter, I presume, thought we were some jungle folk that needed culinary education more than a fine dining experience. And what can you say about his training or the lack of it when he expects to be instructed three times for every request we made. He continued to smirk and throw attitude as we dashed straight into our choice of courses - with pizza as our antipasto and pasta as our secondo. But not before telling us in his broken use of language and improper tone what a ‘Margherita’ in the selection of pizza was. You see my reason for always diving for a Margherita is three-fold - I don’t consume non-vegetarian food, I don’t like strange toppings like Spinach, Baby Corn, Arugula, Zucchini etc. on my pizza and I am quite a cheese addict. I am certain the Server was digging his heels because a basic cheese pizza is often the cheapest fare on the menu unless and until one opts for a Double-cheese or a Quattro Formaggi. I am sure the bloke had the honourable intention to urge us to order upwardly but at the cost of becoming cheap and completely non-customer-oriented it was a sore loss for him and his workplace.
Five Star hotels too, all over, have such a chip on their shoulder. I have seen hotel staff size up guests on the basis of clothes or jewellery they wear, the cars they alight from, the kind of luggage they carry, the choice of food and beverage they order and so on. A lot of people working in starred hotels up the hierarchy thrive on such affectations. But at the bottom of the day, it is actually a training thing and a decision made by the mandarins early enough on what the ethos of their brand philosophy should be.
Underlining what I state above, there are these two distinct anecdotes I love to share as tall examples of both kinds of attitudes – guest attentive and respecting on one end and not even self-respecting on the other!
I once had this well-established and feared food critic share her exasperation on how the Doormen made her feel small each time she came to the hotel in a tuk-tuk / auto rickshaw. The disdainful behaviour of one team member made her feel spiteful of the hotel at large.
On the other hand, I fondly recall the spotlessly liveried Doorman of The Pierre (then a Four Seasons Hotel) who was such a joy to have the first interface with as I got down from a public transport that was carrying me from around Newark Airport to the heart of Manhattan. The wise, well-behaved, thoroughly groomed Gent set the tone for one of the best hotel stays in my life.
It is only when we let the strange people at Spaghetti Kitchen know that we were "industry folk," that some sense of respect was brought forward and the erring waiter quickly replaced by the Manager and the Maitre'd.
In today’s times when the guests are spoiled for choice with the restaurant business having bloomed so much as to bring in the best to even one’s door step, it is professional hara-kiri for staff and establishments to size up guests, make small talk about diners at different tables and generally be offensive in their attitude towards the guests.
The staff in the near empty Spaghetti Kitchen would have done wisely to be attentive to each guest (whether there were only five that evening or when the restaurant may be running to a packed house) and their overall experience.
With the resurgence of the social media, every guest is a potential food critic, with the power to put out a good vibe on the web or destroy a brand with an acerbic comment that has the propensity to snowball into a major issue.
However, regardless of the Draconian sword of the social media / traditional media, service industry has a moral obligation to serve the guests with honesty, respect and enthusiasm. Otherwise they are definitely in the wrong game.
2. When up-selling ends up in short-selling
I remember ordering only Spaghetti at a rather fine restaurant run by an immigrant Italian in the heart of Engelberg, the tiny sleepy town in Switzerland. We were accorded as much respect and attention as they would have given to someone ordering a six-course meal, with the Owner stopping by to ask after us. Now that is what is called immaculate attitude and perfect training. The ambience, the attitude, the food, the concentration on guests was such that we returned the next evening and the next to try out their menu. They had made quite an impression on us with their complete package of good food and hospitality standards of the highest order.
On the contrary, Spaghetti Kitchen, by being so aggressive about all that up-selling – from pushing heavily taxed bottled water to diners who do not drink water with their meals, to openly snickering at our small two-course order for the late, late-night quick meal we went for, to pushing desserts to a table that was disinclined towards them, to at least try to shove overrated coffee to the couple that wished to finish the meal with a simple tiramisu – managed to short sell their reputation and image, pushing the guests even farther from their brand.
Up-sell by all means but first and foremost understand what the guest really wants and then move around that parameter; scooping in and pulling out with finesse, élan and refinement. And drop the hard sell like the proverbial hot potato; it is known to dispel guests far, far away.
The business of restaurateuring has to be about grace and decorum, subtle hints and subliminal suggestions leaving the guest as the main orchestrator of the experience that you double up to deliver on a silver platter of fine food and finer service.
3. Not being nice to guests
Should I even be talking about this? Should the Food & Beverage business have such a void where the providers fall short of basic standards of civility and politeness? In the arena of hospitality, service should speak not of servility but of substantive, sensitive stimulation of a sublime, sensory experience.
Yet, guest books, comment cards, TripAdvisor responses and Company website feedback are replete with examples of staff not being genuinely nice to guests, or being nice only when they see a hefty tip coming their way.
In fact, Jacob Tomsky, an erstwhile waiter who couldn’t handle the diversity of guests and their basic demands, became a celebrity of sorts by peddling his questionable views on hoteliering in his autobiographical tome aptly titled ‘Heads in Beds – A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.’ The book lists out despicable examples of service and puts forth ideas that rely more on sensationalism and sordidness. It is astonishing to see that somebody actually wrote it.
Not being nice to guests is against the very grain of hoteliering. Forget about innumerable hours of training, huge amount of monies put into defining brand standards and the sinful number of trees cut down to produce those sacrosanct manuals; if you are not basically nice and inherently service-oriented then you are in the wrong line of business. You may as well be shovelling up soil or working in solitary confinement at a Space Station.
4. Half an Apology
Once restaurants have goofed up with guests they tend to resort to the easiest trick in the trade. As a half-hearted apology they shove a cup of free coffee under the diner’s nose or perhaps a slice of cheesecake or whatever else is cheapest on the menu.
Once we let our displeasure known at SK, the Manager, quite expectedly, offered to get us a dessert: "Tiramisu from my side please or have coffee at least." We had to insist that we were in a no-dolce mood and coffee was being consciously avoided before he let go; without perhaps realizing that we simply wanted the right service orientation and attitude to be in place with his team.
Because our evening went wrong on so many levels, we kicked up a bit of a fuss and wrote about our discontent on a food forum, only to get a quick, standard, thoughtless response from the PR Representative. “Sorry that you had such an experience. We have spoken to the headquarters, somebody will get in touch with you.” Because PR is non-operations, or are too centred on jargon or because they are known for their superfluous paint job, not too many people believe that they will do justice to bring an issue to a positive closure. But when they are late in responding and do not manage to work well with the team to revert to the guest promptly, the trenches dug are deep and difficult to fill.
In the case of Spaghetti Kitchen, the PR Reps., who call themselves PR Pundits, picked up the rant on the Food Forum and came back with too little, too late and too dispassionately. I gave the PR lady a reminder (reminders are sacrilege in the PR world of work); she gave me a passing apology perhaps only to go back to write her nth note to the restaurant management. The Management eventually wrote to me with the standard invite to ‘come try them again “on the house”’ without realizing that faith is never won with a free meal.
If you really are apologetic about things that go wrong with a diner; be real, genuine, caring enough for your brand, the guest and your line of work. Display a sense of rectitude in your tone and behaviour, truly seek out guests and put in your best foot forward to correct the wrong. Guests can see actual steps taken to make amends as against a sham put up by so many hotel people who fail to attach importance to guest satisfaction and guest retention.
In the present times when the written word has the power to travel all over the globe with just a click of a button and the guest feedback can garner quite a momentum in the virtual world with strong repercussions in real life, guest focus and guest orientation are paramount like never before!
But more importantly, you must learn to be sincere in your service to guests for your own good and for your own sake!
Note - Picture Courtesy - Google Images