Service After COVID
It is impossible to remember a time in my life not spent around the hotel business, often manning the front desk or even cleaning rooms in my grandparents and parents numerous hotels, some of which I am happy to say still thrive today. Those properties were small, twenty to thirty rooms, a couple of bars and a restaurant and many with limited banquet space. As a boy, I vividly remember frustrations my father complained about; a lack of competent staff, a lack of qualified applicants and their consistent difficulty in providing good service. It was only natural to follow in my family footsteps and pursue my own hotel career which began in the early seventies, holding several senior positions within properties in the UK and US, both operationally and corporately.
My lifetime of experiences in these operations has highlighted two constant patterns of business behavior, which continue to gravely impact our industry and could stand in the way as we recover in this COVID environment.
- First, in most operational meetings that I have attended, be it at a corporate or property level, some consistent topics are prevalent: Budgets, Reforecasting of Budgets, Revenue Management, Sales and Marketing Strategies, VIP’s in house, Amenities and so on. These discussions are not irrelevant, far from it; but these conversations lack awareness or connection to preparing and supporting teammates.
- Secondly, we continue to struggle with the same issues my Dad dealt with sixty years ago. We cannot seem to attract the right people to this industry nor effectively orientate, train or retain those people, resulting in a lack of consistency in service delivery.
How does this industry continue to struggle with the same issues over the last fifty to sixty years? How can we learn from our past and strategize for a more successful future? I think part of the answer lies in how and who is included when the financial, conceptual, operational and marketing strategies are laid out. It isn’t just about talking about hiring, onboarding and training in these conversations, it’s about giving the Restaurant Managers, Executive Housekeepers and Operational Department Heads a seat at the table in these strategic meetings to validate the reality of the service vision in practical terms.
Absent of that happening, and I don’t see anything changing. A much more strategic form of operational management needs to be adopted, placing the operation first and asking the business to conform and mold the financial, marketing and conceptual vision of senior leadership to it. I feel strongly this reimagination of corporate planning will work to solve the puzzle of service consistency, labor turnover, attracting the right applicants and achieving overall efficiencies.
These struggles will not disappear, and the COVID-19 environment will continue to change this industry forever. In my estimation, until a vaccine is produced and effectively made available to us all, there will be a concern within all travelers, business or otherwise, as to the possibility of contracting this virus. The secret to a successful re-launch will only be to think strategically about how to make our guests feel safe within each hotel, resort, casino and rented accommodation such as Airbnb.
I can say with confidence that there is not one single job within a hotel that is not going change. Organizations need to look at every position, performing dramatic makeovers to what and how team member perform their day to day tasks. Management needs to identify probable protocols which reflect the attitudes of how team members interact with guests and each other; the knowledge they will need to ensure the protection of guests and each other; and the skills they need to apply the required attitude and knowledge in their altered everyday work environment.
I believe the way forward for the immediate future of a gradual re-opening of the hospitality industry (exclusive of a distributed vaccine) lies in the following approach:
- As I have shared in previous articles about other divisions of the industry (aviation, tourism, healthcare), senior leaders need to apply the same guidance on salary cuts, corporate efficiencies and an overall refocus on operative team members.
- For every job function, establish protocols that protect the guests and colleagues.
- Require that every returning team member attend an extended COVID19 session. On completion of that session, protocols need to be put in place to hold them accountable for the new personal and corporate procedures that are in place.
- Train, practice, re-train and provide feedback on the behavioral skills necessary in this new environment. Our team members must understand how their own behaviors and standard of communication with guests is vital to business. (How do you deal with a guest or colleague who is not social distancing for example or perhaps a guest who is sneezing?)
- Ensure that the hotel has a clinician or medically qualified professional available on a permanent basis to assist in training and monitoring of overall day-to-day performance, in regard to these new protocols.
- Share safety protocols with guests on arrival and establish the relationship early by communicating that procedures will be a little different. Service may take a little longer, certain services may not be available at all and housekeeping, for instance, may be offered less frequently. (I spoke to an executive recently who was reconsidering the whole Room Service function for instance). Set the new expectations early and often!
- All leaders (corporately or locally) should strategically market the updated protocols in place and widely communicate the steps taken on an ongoing basis to ensure guest and team member safety. In other words, the operations themselves now become the strategic initiative and the marketing and sales teams become the tactical support.
- All sales and marketing managers should take an operational shift on the floor to truly understand the effectiveness of the processes in place. This will ensure they can better communicate to potential guests the true picture of the property environment, but most importantly understand how every role has completely changed.
I have always admired The Wynn Organization, ever since we assisted in the opening of The Mirage many years ago. The Mirage was the first casino of it’s kind in the Las Vegas market. Wynn was first to market with that property and since that time has always remained ahead of the curve in respect of quality, service, overall efficiency and response to critical national and local events. Their response after 9/11 was informative and dealt with the safety concerns that their guests had in the immediacy. After the Las Vegas mass shooting event, they made decisive and immediate changes in respect of guest security. Now (no surprise to me!) they are first to market by releasing their new protocols in response to the COVID environment, compiling and releasing a 23-page document.
This is their marketing approach. They aren’t waiting for government, they aren’t asking when, they are telling the world how. Judging by the immediate reaction on social media, they have already garnered mass attention and positive support for potential returning guests. This messaging is clearly a strategic move to ensure guests are prepared for and aware of impending changes in their experience across the Wynn Organization to ensure their health safety. Knowing Wynn Resorts as I do, I am sure they have a very robust and effective process of training in place for their returning team members, who incidentally have remained, and still remain, on full pay through May 15th (tip aggregates included).
I have never subscribed to have all the answers to service generally and the COVID19 environment in particular; I truly don’t believe anyone has. I can say with a degree of certainty though that when the hospitality industry returns to some level of normal, the most successful organizations will be those who firstly focused and continue to focus their whole attention on the well-being of the team members and secondly those who ensured, and continue to ensure that those same team members were, and continue to be supplied with the right equipment, supplies and, most importantly, training to deal with guests and each other. Organizations that keep the operational teams top of mind will thrive and survive, even in this difficult environment. They will also retain the loyalty of their guests and their employees over the long term, because although we are adjusting to this reality now, the effects of this crisis will be long lasting, long term and possibly permanently embedded.
Regardless if you have grown up in this industry like I have or are looking to continue to explore what it can offer you, I hope we all make the same commitment to show care, concern and compassion for everyone around us. How we make our friends, families, co-workers and complete strangers feel, will be remembered forever. After all, we are all, in a way, in the hospitality business right now aren’t we?