The secrets of great hospitality

13 January 2012
The secrets of great hospitality

Leading experts and respected critics provide advice for hospitality operators seeking to take their businesses forward. Janet Harmer and Kerstin Kühn report

At times of economic uncertainty it is essential, more than ever, for hospitality operators to ensure that they stand out from competitors. This means not only having all the basic requisites of a welcoming environment, top-notch product and exceptional service in place, but also taking steps to innovate and create something extra special.

Staying in hotels and eating in restaurants is not always a necessity, therefore businesses need to consider that, while the bottom line profit is vitally important, they must also generate special emotions and memories for their guests and customers, which will encourage them to come back time and time again. Such things can be difficult to quantify, but talking to clients and understanding and taking on board their desires is the starting point.

Here, some of the leading experts involved in training the future hospitality stars of tomorrow and the most respected critics of the industry, highlight how establishments can move their businesses forward. Some of their advice at times may seem obvious, but includes much that many operations often fail to deliver. So much can often be achieved by the smallest of things, which are achievable, affordable and will ultimately transform a hotel and restaurant into a must-visit destination.

The key elements which make a huge difference to the guests' experience of a hotel or restaurant visit are centred on finding ways of exceeding their expectations, according to Geoff Booth, assistant principal at Westminster Kingsway College. "To do this you have to really understand what these expectations are in the first place," he explains. "This can be done by building up information on your guests if they stay with you on a regular basis or have stayed before, talking to them, listening to them, keeping guest records on what they like and dislike."

What's more, Booth adds, is that this must be genuine. "You have to come across to the guest in a way which says, ‘we aren't doing this for money or a tip, we are doing this because we genuinely want to provide an exceptional and memorable service'."

Hotels and restaurants should identify every point of a guest's experience to establish how they can exceed expectations. Ian Scarth, professor of food and beverage management at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, advises hotels to ask how many times guests say "wow" before they arrive at their bedroom door for the first time.

"Breaking the experience down into small chunks will allow hotels and restaurants to focus on building experiences," he says.

"The experience has three phrases - pre-experience, live experience and post-experience. All three are critical to our customer's satisfaction and hotels and restaurants need to explore ways of turning each phase into a more impressive experience so that memories, emotions and sensations result. Set up innovation teams with specific goals to improve the customer experience."

Customers want to feel special; they want to feel that they are genuinely cared for by a hospitality business. "It's key to keep it personal," advises Booth. "You need to make the guest feel as if you are only dealing with them, that they are the centre of your universe."

This is echoed by Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor of the Good Food Guide. "Dining out is all about placing customers at the centre of the experience and ensuring they are well looked after and that means personable, professional service."

Fernando Peire, managing director of the Ivy and the Ivy Club and the star of Channel 5's Restaurant Inspector, advises addressing customers by name. "Use a customer's surname if you know it and you have the opportunity to slip it in naturally. For me, this makes the biggest difference as it makes customers feel special," he says.

However, it's important to get the balance right, adds Booth. "You have to be discreet and not too obvious in your attention. Too much service is as bad as no service at all.

"Timing is everything, and if we are slow in delivering the product, we need to ensure we keep them informed of progress. We need to read their body language, their signals and respond to them."

"Non-verbal communication and body language play a huge part in how our customer judges what we truly think of them - whether we really care about their experience of our business," comments Booth. "Negative body language, or facial expression, or not acknowledging the guest in the right way, will all draw the same conclusion - we don't care."

He adds that this has to extend all the way through the business, including staff not always in the front line of customer service such as room attendants or maintenance and staff working away from the guest-facing areas. "Chance encounters will still shape what a customer thinks of us as they are often an indication of the culture of the organisations," Booth says.

"Staff should be trained to be natural and not false. Customers appreciate authenticity," says Peire.

Philippe Rossiter, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, suggests that you can tell the minute you walk into a well-run establishment. "The staff make eye contact and go about their tasks with the inner confidence and pride that comes from being true professionals," he says.

Customers are increasingly demanding an experience from their visits to hotels and restaurants, in addition to a quality product and service. "The result of this means hotels and restaurants really need to start understanding: a) what experiences are and how they work and b) how to manage the innovation that is driving the experience," says Scarth.

"Companies that are doing well have added that extra element of experience, just look at restaurants like the Fat Duck and Noma."

To provide an exceptional guest experience, staff education and training - plus the benchmarking of customer service - are essential. Carter says she cannot stress enough the importance of having good service in place. "It is a source of amazement to me that an operator will spend a fortune on the building, kitchen and chef, then allow an unsupervised, untrained 18-year old with a poor command of English to greet and serve the guests," she says. "Train your front-of-house staff properly and make sure there is a senior person on the premises and in charge at each service."

While it may seem obvious, ensuring your staff have a good command of the English language is one of the most important aspects regarding good service. "You have to ensure that your staff speak good English - there is little more frustrating than not being sure if you are being understood in your own country," says Peire.

Defining, quantifying and benchmarking service levels are also essential to the achievement of outstanding service. Compare your business against competitors and what you were doing last year, as well as analyse guest feedback and mystery shopper visits.

"The complexity of hospitality operations means a systematic and continuous process that measures performance across all facets of the business is recommended," says Rossiter, who highlights the Institute of Hospitality's Hospitality Assured customer service programme which encourages businesses to look at their operations from the customer's perspective to see where improvements may be made.

"Concierges will be judged on the quality of their local knowledge of key places to visit and attractions and methods of getting around town. Local knowledge of the happening restaurants and bars - all matched to the personality of the guest, too - being able to read the expectations of the guest is obviously a big bonus here," says Booth.

"In the restaurant, it will be menu knowledge, wine matching, recommended dishes, a knowledge of culinary processes, seasonal ingredients, dietary recommendations - as well as selling skills to enable guests to make better informed menu choices."

Carter adds that staff should know each dish on the menu so that they can answer questions without running off to ask the kitchen. "Also, so they can be very clear if side orders of vegetables are necessary, and equally clear if they are not. This is one area where diners can feel ripped off - pressured into ordering food they don't need," she says.

"More than ever, people want to feel that they get value for money - so the most important thing is to deliver what they expect," says Simon Wright, broadcaster, restaurateur and author. "It all depends on what area of the market you are in, but whatever your promise is you'd better be true to it - nobody wants to feel they wasted their money in times like these."

According to Carter, operators must never underestimate their customers and avoid penny pinching. "Things like turning down the heating, offering poor quality, bought-in products like bread, terrines, sauces and desserts will be spotted and passed on by word of mouth and your customers will desert you," she warns. "In these hard times, generosity and honesty will keep your customers loyal."

She adds: "Aim to showcase well-sourced materials and good cooking skills at a price that is acceptable to ordinary people. And on the wine list offer several choices that are of good quality but not expensive."

In every business things are bound to go wrong at some point but it's the way problems are dealt with that make all the difference. "Explain unexpected delays, whether table availability or a delay during the meal, and offer a drink/something off the bill where those delays occur," said Carter. "Everyone accepts that delays can happen, it's when they're not kept informed that tempers boil over."

the critics: what they look for

Two of the UK's most respected reviewers who benchmark their experiences in hotels and restaurants with a professional eye, share their thoughts on the key factors which ensure the exceptional stands out from the humdrum.

Simon Numphud
Simon Numphud
Simon Numphud, hotel service manager, AA Hotel Services.Stays overnight in hotels about 60 nights and eats 100 or so meals in restaurants, annually.

Hospitality businesses which want to be noticed for all the right reasons should:
â- Stand up when greeting guests on arrival - a small gesture which has a huge impact.
â- Make the service delivery as seamless as possible, ensuring all departments take full ownership of the guest experience and not just their specific department's responsibilities.
â- Ensuring all staff acknowledge and interact with guests where appropriate - one of the biggest missed opportunities we find during inspections.
â- Personalise satisfaction checks to the actual experience as opposed to generic statements, that can often seem not genuine.

Examples of great customer care, easily achievable and with minimal cost: â- Ashdown Park, Forest Row, East Sussex - Doorman used his initiative to communicate to reception the need to change bedroom from a third to first floor when a guest arrived on crutches.
â- Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh - offering to carry luggage to car in car park on departure.
â- Scraping the ice off car windscreens in winter or washing bugs off in the summer costs very little, but makes an impact.
â- Doris - long-serving member of the breakfast staff at Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey, knows most guests' names and engages everyone she serves.
â- The Savoy, London - once checked in, guests are not asked to sign individual bills as they go through different experiences in the restaurants and bars.
â- Shire Hotels - their "Small Details, Big Difference" programme focuses on going the extra mile, for example, offering to take unfinished mineral water to the bedroom after dinner.
â- Red Carnation Hotels - their commitment to staff is reflected in the way their staff interact with guests with a nothing is too much trouble attitude.

Sally Shalam
Sally Shalam
Sally Shalam, hotel critic for the Guardian, and writer of blog.Stays in hotels 50 nights of the year and eats out about 100 times annually.

Key areas for improvements:Sleeping arrangements A good night's sleep is the number one thing which has to happen in a hotel, yet it still amazes me that a hotel can get any stars and not provide decent pillows or adequate bedding. Mattress should be sink-into sumptuous. The more I struggle to leave a bed, the more marks the hotel gets.

Wardrobe department The thief-proof clothes hanger is the bÁªte noir of the frequent traveller and a very poor brand ambassador for your hotel, which suggests the management regard a guest as a light-fingered tealeaf. Not only do they mean that I struggle to hang my dress, but they prevent me hanging my clothes in the bathroom to steam out creases.

In-room refreshment Surely your carefully selected tea and coffee deserve fresh milk - or a note to say it is available? And a biscuit? Or a chocolate? Loose tea and a pot are best of course, but at least provide a little dish to put used teabags in.

Bathroom First, shower curtains have no place in the modern hotel and second, offer the best toiletries you can. Just last month I had to persuade a London hotelier that hair conditioner is not an optional extra.

Bar and restaurant Something which will cost you nothing, but will always get you extra marks is staff who take extra care of the lone guest. Female travellers often feel daunted in hotel bars (and not without good reason). How about glossy magazines and a manicure menu to peruse over a cocktail? Is there a drinks list in the residents' library, or a cosy part of the lobby to sit in instead?

Free Wi-Fi This is now a must. If you expect us to pay for broadband, brand-wise you are simply consigning yourself to the Dark Ages.

key factors to ensure your business stands out
â- Make an impact by washing a guest's car or scraping the ice off in winter
â- A red carpet welcome starts from the moment a guest walks through the door - stand up, smile and provide good eye contact
â- Use guests' history to anticipate needs and personalise a stay
â- Extra special touches can be provided by embroidering a guest's pillow or personalising stationery
â- Create experiences by offering cookery classes, wine tastings or specially prepared picnics
â- Ensure smokers are well looked after in a space that is comfortable and warm
â- Make the most of a stunning location by offering al fresco dining with a wood burning stove
â- Nurture a lone women diner - offer magazines or a manicure menu to peruse over a cocktail
â- Beds should be so sink-in sumptuous with gorgeous linens and duvets that a guest will never want to leave
â- Full-length hanging space with removable hangers is a must
â- Offer discounted or free spa treatments for weary or delayed travellers
â- Sparkling clean bathrooms with generous, quality toiletries are non-negotiable

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