Using Hospitality as a Disguise: Are you Delivering Your Promises?

It was a dark, scary night. The wind was howling and the lights were flickering. The hotel sign noted “friendly service” so we ventured in, hoping to find a reassuring face. Our overworked and traveled souls were craving a super comfortable bed and we remembered an ad for this hotel that promised sweet dreams and a relaxing experience. The word “welcome” appeared everywhere. Unfortunately, it was all a disguise to get us in the door. Our hopes for sweet dreams turned to instant nightmares before our heads even hit the bed. Someone had called in sick so one frenzied employee grunted at us from behind the desk. His disposition became more ghoulish and less welcoming with each question we asked. Frustrated, he just assigned us a room that appeared to be tortured by rather than cleaned by housekeeping. The smell of stale smoke filled the air and bed sheets and the mattress seemed a bit haunted with each squeak. We called to complain and were told we would have to speak to the manager about it..in the MORNING!

It sounded good. It looked good. But did it really end up being good? Misleading hospitality messages turn potentially loyal guests into untrusting souls and those who won’t come back. And since one bad story usually gets retold 10-20 times, each time with a bit more horror and drama (we all love to exaggerate and tell the bad stories), the long term impact and deterrent marketing can be powerfully disturbing.

As the Halloween season winds down, make sure using disguises is not a year round event relative to service delivery. Consider evaluating if your messages simply lure guests in or if they really deliver what the message promised. When hotels or other organizations promise hospitality on a variety of levels and the guest signs on, excuses and problems are not an option.

When a guest chooses a hotel, they have chosen based on the hospitality promise that the hotel makes. In Conde Naste Traveler’s recent Business Traveler Readers’ poll (October 2006), the top five things ranked by respondents were: location; comfortable bed; price; security; and SERVICE. How is each of these top five categories being positioned and how are they actually delivered? Have they been disguised or does the real thing show up?

One interesting trend in some hotels is the “outsourcing” of concierge and other services. While potentially advantageous to a hotel’s immediate bottom line, the result can be disastrous from a long term guest loyalty and profitability point of view. If an outside source is not seamlessly integrated in the hotel service promise, relationships can turn sour. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (September 8, 2006, by Hannah Karp), this issue is front row and center as some hotels are signing on to save money as competition grows. But, most of the time, the guest does not know as outsourced employees dress in hotel uniforms and of course do not identify that they are actually employed by those other than the hotel. Aha..a disguise!

In this case, the concierge, known for their professionalism and training in delivering ultimate and personalized service, is not really the hotel’s concierge yet is THE inside relationship upon which guests depend. Ms. Karp points out that the concierge; a hotel’s core position, can indeed make or break a guest’s experience. If that’s the case, why would a hotel consider presenting a disguise of service by farming duties out to those who may not share the same commitment and understanding of guests? How will other guest service employees refer to these outside resources and will the team work as a whole to present a consistent service delivery standard? And, if loyal guests get disenchanted with this lack of commitment or understanding, does this disguise really save money or instead harm the long term reputation and profitability by creating skeptical and untrusting guests?

Another interesting disguise is the “Guest Services Hotline” or the “at your service” button on the phone. When it first showed up, the concept was to offer guests a direct connection with a real person to address immediate needs, concerns or questions. In some cases, other buttons like “front desk” and “housekeeping” have even disappeared. The problem is that many times, it still often takes at least 10 rings to get an answer, and even more frequently it’s the same operator that answers regular phone lines. And then, the guest is transferred anyway! Just this past week, a guest in Philadelphia vented to me about this exact issue. Aha.another disguise! This time it’s a button that makes a promise, gets the guest excited and then offers even more distractions and frustrations as before.

Vendors can also masquerade as key hotel resources that end up fooling the guests. One reader shared a scary story about a hotel business center run by outsiders. When there was a problem on the bill, the guest went to the hotel front desk manager to resolve the situation. Guess what? He said he could do nothing as the “business center was run by an outside vendor.” The guest encountered a disguised effort of who was really there to serve them and they, the guests, in fact, were not served. Why would a hotel allow this vendor, masked to the guest, to hold such power? The hotel and the guest seemed under a spell of “no service” and the vender led the hoax.

Valet services are another area where good intentions can lead to bad inventions. Contracted valet services may care more about numbers than people and their cars. While hotels provide valet services as an extra convenience to guests, many guests can relate to the inconvenience of complete chaos when delivering or retrieving a car and the abrupt transition at the point of entry or departure. The welcoming spirit promised by the hotel may not be part of the contracted valet company’s training and therefore becomes invisible to the guest. Hotel staff must then begin first impressions anew to get guests back on board and in the flow of a good experience. Unfortunately, those departing may not have that chance.

Is anything disguised in your hotel? Have you taken a close look at hospitality messages or services that may not be delivering the seamless continuity of service excellence?

It is so easy to get excited and devastating to be disappointed. Beware of using hospitality and service as a disguise to get guests in the door or to use additional services. Your guests will catch you in the act and they won’t repeat the performance. Try to score with guests, not scare them. They may keep coming back to you, in this life and the next. and that’s worth eternal service success.