Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Environmentally Friendly Bathroom Amenities

What ever happened to the push to move towards amenity dispensers in hotel guestroom bathrooms?

I can remember being with two hotel companies, at different times in my hotel career, that were at one time exploring the possibility of installing dispensers into the shower/bath area in their guestrooms.

In both cases, we actually installed dispensers into a select number of guestrooms as well as having created specific guest comment cards for those rooms, in order to solicit specific feedback and to gauge how well guests accepted this environmentally friendly option.

That was over 10 years ago, and it occurred to me today, as I was reflecting on recent trips that I have taken, which have for the last year or so been confined to the United States, that I have not seen a dispensing system in any of the hotels that I have stayed in, and they have ranged from 3 star to 4.5 star and represented the major industry brands.

The same can be said of hotels that I have stayed in, within the last 5 years, within Europe.  All major branded facilities, both urban and resort locations, and all still using those tiny little amenity bottles.

So, what happened, and how did this seemingly pressing need suddenly fall off the radar?

Are you aware of any hotels that have successfully moved away from individual amenity bottles to a more environmentally friendly alternative?

If so, please let me know.

I recognize that the industry has continued to move forward with the recycling of left-over amenities, and with the use of more environmentally friendly amenity bottles and wrappers, but is that it?  Is that as good as it gets?

I’d be the first to admit that some of the dispensers that I saw, at the time when we were doing testing, about 10 years ago, were both unattractive and problematic, but I would have thought, in the same way that we have made so many advances in virtually every other field, that someone, arguably smarter and more creative than I am, would have invented a “better mousetrap” and then convinced one of the industry leaders to be the guinea pig and away we go.

So again, what happened?

If you were involved in testing of amenity dispensers at your hotel, or, you have any other insight in why this seemingly good idea never took off, please share your comments with the rest of us.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Free Coffee - Yes Please

First of all, can we all agree that the majority of guests have now come to expect that there will be an in-room coffee maker in their hotel room, regardless of the brand?

That’s my belief. 

I think guests now associate in-room coffee as just another room amenity, like shampoo and soap.  They assume when they walk in their room that they will find some sort of coffee maker waiting for them, and that, depending on the brand, it may be anything from basic to extravagant, with the simplest of coffees or the addition of potentially elaborate offerings of various teas and other hot drinks.

Unfortunately, I also think the same is true of the coffee provider.  That is to say that there is a wide range of the level of attention or importance, or lack thereof, that this in-room amenity receives from hoteliers depending on whether they see this as an opportunity to elevate the level of guest service and guest loyalty, or, if it is simply viewed as an unnecessary and irritating expense.

This is apparent in many ways, not the least of which is the type and brand of coffees being offered out there in the hotel world.  As a guest, I myself have experienced everything from brown coloured water masquerading as coffee to Starbucks (which I admit to being a fan of).

You can tell a lot about the level of importance placed on the coffee service by the type and condition of the coffee maker and the coffee “caddie” and its contents.

I stayed in a hotel not long ago that offered a simple basic in-room coffee service.  Being the organizational freak that I am, (according to friends and co-workers over the years), I like to prep my coffee before I go to bed, so that I can simply push the “on” button as I stumble by on my way to the shower.  I did so in this instance as well.

When I got up, en route to the shower, I pushed the button as usual, and off I went.  When I returned to the coffee maker about 10 minutes later, there was about a half a cup of coffee in the pot, where there should have been 2 cups.  I checked the reservoir and it was empty.  I carefully pulled out the filter basket to find it filled to the rim with boiling hot water.  Obviously it was clogged or blocked in some way.

I was running behind by now, and I decided I would mention this problem to the concierge on my way out, unfortunately, when I entered the lobby, there were line-ups everywhere, so I left for my meetings, thinking I would call the hotel later, during a break.  The day got away on me, as did the evening, and I never called before returning to the hotel quite late that night.

Before bed, I gave my coffee maker the once over, I couldn’t tell if it had been replaced or not, but obviously the room attendant would have seen what happened and had it fixed or replaced, so I prepped my coffee and slid between the sheets.

Next morning, push button, have shower.  Return to check the state of my much-needed coffee.  Too bad for me, half a cup in the coffee maker, probably another half a cup spilled over onto the counter, and a basket full of boiling water.

Needless to say, I was disappointed, but what was most apparent to me, and the greater source of my disappointment, was that my room attendant obviously saw in-room coffee service as a pain in the rear, and as such was not even slightly concerned that my in-room coffee maker was malfunctioning, which left me to question both the commitment to guest service at this hotel, but also, to question what message had been passed on through the ranks with respect to the importance of providing this guest amenity with a level of commitment and professionalism that mirrored the brand commitments of this hotel.

Bottom line, if you’re going to provide a service, then it should be reflective of your commitment to your guests, and be viewed and treated with a level of commitment from you that demonstrates to your employees that EVERY aspect of a guests’ stay has the potential to create a defining moment and nothing should be left to chance when it comes to creating and providing that which has an impact on your guests experience.

There are no second chances to create a great first impression.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bed Linen – Do Your Guests Really Know the Difference?

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to San Francisco, during which I had occasion to stay at a couple of different hotels, in different price categories, in order to be close to the conference that I was attending on leadership.

Both hotels were clean and comfortable, and both had similar amenities and services, both within my room, and, as it relates to the additional services and facilities to be found within the hotel properties themselves, but, as you may have guessed, there was a substantial difference in the room rate.

(As an aside, ironically, as I find more and more often, it was in fact the 3.5 star hotel that included free internet access, although I was paying a significantly lower rate than at the other property, and at the 4.5 star hotel there was a significant daily charge for access to the internet).

There was one notable difference between the two hotels – one featured Egyptian cotton sheets from a major supplier of high quality linens, and the other did not.

Now, I am as you know a hotelier that has been in the business for more than 25 years, during which time I have purchased my share of linens, as well as having participated in and facilitated blind comparisons of linens, so I recognize certain names and identifying marks when I see them, and, I’d like to think that I can also tell the difference between Egyptian cotton linens, and those of a slightly lesser caliber, but can your guests?

Before you get all excited and think to yourself; “of course my guests can tell the difference,” I’d like to reiterate that I am not talking about comparing Egyptian cotton linens to those paper thin, see-through, thread bare sheets that we’ve all run into at one time or another in our career, but rather, as I said, Egyptian cotton sheets compared to those of a slightly lesser caliber.

The answer is no, so stop wasting your money.

Only the most discerning of guests can tell the difference, and even then, it is a very small percentage of those guests that can tell, and I would argue further that their recognition would largely be influenced by whether or not you are openly promoting that your hotel features Egyptian cotton linens in the first place.  If you didn’t give them a hint, they wouldn’t know the difference.

There are so many top quality linens available right now, that are not nearly as expensive as Egyptian cotton, that it is simply not necessary to spend the extra money, money that could be spent on other things – things that your guests do notice, such as higher quality towels and bath robes.  That, they do notice and can appreciate.

So spend your money where it will have the greatest impact, where your guests will both recognize and appreciate the investment that has been made on their behalf and in the interest of providing them with the highest level of comfort.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

A Great Server Creates an Equally Great Experience

Don’t you just love it when everything seems to come together in perfect harmony to create an exceptional experience?

It’s what we strive for, certainly, with every guest that walks through our doors, and I had just such an experience recently, thanks to a truly exceptional server.

A very good friend of mine contacted me a few weeks ago.  Told me she would be coming to town for a quick business trip – did I have time for dinner?

First of all, I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity for anything, she’s become one of my very best friends over the last several years, and her visits are a highlight for me, whenever I am fortunate enough that she pops into town.

We have had great meals and service in the past at a place called Joe Forte’s Seafood & Chop House, here in Vancouver, and, they happen to have the best Cobb Salad that either of us have ever had in our lives, as well as specializing in providing a good and diverse selection of raw oysters, which we also both enjoy, so there was no discussion about where we would go – we were destined for Joe Forte’s.

I won’t bore you with all the particulars of what we ordered, because that really isn’t the point here, although I will say that, as always, the oysters were exceptional, but what really made the difference in our experience, from the moment that we were first approached at our table, was our server, Cheryl.

If you looked up “perfect server” in the dictionary, Cheryl’s picture would be there, or it certainly should be, and as we went through the evening, I was struck by what an exceptional job she was doing, at every moment, and I might add, while managing a very busy section in what was, as always, a full restaurant.  We were certainly not her only table, although we were made to feel like we were.

Cheryl was knowledgeable of the menu, in every sense, and she was equally well versed on the wine list, and the all-important selection of raw oysters available that evening, and while those attributes certainly contributed to a successful dining experience, it was, more than anything, the way in which she adapted her service to perfectly suit what we wanted, from what I’ll call a time, attention and timing perspective, and if you’ve ever experienced this, you know exactly what I mean.

That seemingly uncanny ability to know when to approach the table, how often and when, to recognize that we were engaged in great conversation and not in a hurry, at which point she offered to delay our main courses after our oysters, to give us some additional time to chat and catch up, but again checking back with us enough to let us know that she had certainly not forgotten us, but without being annoying by checking in too often or at the wrong time.

I could say a lot more about what Cheryl did to make our evening enjoyable, but the point is this – it was apparent that she was a dedicated, engaged and empowered professional server.  Someone who takes pride in being of service and does not see serving in a restaurant as “something to do until I find a real job,” but rather the opportunity that it is – to provide exceptional service that creates an equally exceptional experience, time and time again, and I have no doubt that Cheryl leaves all of her guests with this impression.  Joe Forte’s is lucky to have her.

And I would be remiss if I did not extend credit to the owners and/or managers at Joe Forte’s because they have obviously created an environment where Cheryl can do what she does best.  She could not have done everything that she did for us that evening, both in the way of her service, and, the modifications that she managed for both of our entrées if she was not fully supported to do so.

A great leader empowers and enables his staff, provides them with the tools and support necessary to do their job, and then, once they have everything that they need, gets out of the way so that they can harness their own greatness, and pass that on to our guests, creating consistently exceptional guest experiences. 

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Executive Chef – Aint What It Used To Be

Used to be it was enough for an Executive Chef in a hotel to be a great cook, someone who could consistently put out attractive dishes, that tasted good, while also having the skills to deal with multiple outlets, potentially putting out different kinds of food, and a reception and banquet for 1,000, all at the same time, without losing your cool.

Well, truth is, lost of them did in fact lose their cool as well, but back in the day, everyone put up with that too for some inexplicable reason.   (I can still recall working in a hotel where I have to referee a battle between an angry executive chef and some poor underling who had inadvertently spoiled a sauce, at which point the executive chef had thrown a fair sized sauté pan at him, narrowly missing his head).

I can also still recall having a conversation about the situation with my general manager at the time and having her tell me to lighten up: “he’s a chef, if that’s the worst you’ve ever seen, then you haven’t seen anything.”

But that was many years ago, and the culinary playing field has changed along with every other discipline in hotels, (or any business for that matter), as people came to understand and value their employees and work to foster positive relations that would not tolerate those kinds of behaviours.

Aside from the issues of employee relations, there was a much greater influencer at work that has forever changed the role of the executive chef – the Food Network.

Along comes the Food Network showcasing all of these interesting and in some cases flamboyant chefs scurrying about in their respective kitchens in various cities around the world, and suddenly, those people that were responsible for putting beautiful and delicious food in front of us had a face, an identity, and now, we wanted to know more about them.

As a result, you suddenly had more patrons under the impression that there was some kind of a culinary magician at work behind the scenes, and, they also assumed that these same culinary geniuses were always to be found in their kitchen.  (It never occurred to them that someone initially crafts a menu, perfects the recipes, etc., then trains a series of line cooks to reproduce their masterpieces when they’re not there, which, when it comes to the celebrity chefs, is most of the time).

Regardless, for the mere mortal executive chef, his or her role had forever changed.  Now, you had guests asking to meet the chef, asking if perhaps he could come out into the dining room, so that he could be properly thanked for what had been an exquisite meal, and, at the same time, you had owners, or perhaps general managers, recognizing the value of this kind of a seemingly spontaneous appearance in the dining room, at which point someone decided this was now to become a nightly occurrence.

Now, the executive chef had a new role to add to his or her other duties – public relations, but there is no arguing that it has worked.  People love it when the chef puts on fresh whites and comes out of the kitchen and gracefully moves from table to table, inquiring about how everything has been proceeding so far, and asking if anyone has any comments or suggestions.  It makes them feel special, important.

Everyone has always appreciated a good server for their ability to take good care of the guests at their tables, adjust their service to the many different needs and moods of their clients, while also doing an awesome job describing the items coming out of the kitchen, but the guests know that he isn’t the one doing the cooking – that’s the guy that they want to meet.  Well, now, more and more often they’ll get to do just that.

And if you’re opening a new restaurant, who do you want making the circuit of morning news shows, cooking up little samples and tasters for the hosts of the show?

Executive chefs – now half culinary genius, half master of public relations, perfecting their recipes and their 30 second sound bites.   Hmmmmm, who’s hungry?

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Monday, April 11, 2011

What Does the Future Hold for Hotel Restaurants?

Not that long ago, I wrote that hotel dining is dead, (“Hotel Restaurants.  Put a Fork in the, “Cause They’re Done”), for all intents and purposes, as it has historically existed, and I haven’t changed my mind, but that leaves the question of what will fill the void?

Hoteliers have a number of issues that they’re going to need to deal with, if they want to successfully answer this question, and the answer will likely be largely affected by their various locations, and the answer is not going to come cheap.

A number of years ago I found myself faced with that question.  The hotel where I was working had a “fine dining room” and an all-day restaurant, as well as a lounge, room service and extensive catering facilities.

Catering did very well, and we had an enviable reputation in our market for putting out excellent banquet meals.  Similarly, we had an excellent reputation for our facilities and our service.

Both the fine dining room and the all-day restaurant put out very good food, and the service was exceptional, but both rooms only managed a modest capture ratio and it was clear that the majority of our guests were going out for lunch and dinner, and we were not attracting very many locals to eat and drink in our outlets.  

It was clear that a number of things had to be done to improve results, and I did take action that immediately improved the food and beverage departmental profitability, but it was equally clear that in order to produce the kind of results that we were looking for, we needed to produce an extensive food and beverage redevelopment plan.

While we worked to improve the food and beverage departmental results, with what we had, we worked to compile the necessary data to support the redevelopment plan and we came up with a price tag for the necessary renovations, as well as the costs of new menus, uniforms, glassware, dishes, and kitchen modifications.

Simultaneously, we set about to meet with all of the staff to find out what our guests had been saying for the last couple of years about what was missing in their dining experience at our hotel, and we paid particular attention to where the bellmen and concierge staff had been directing our guests, in response to their requests for other places to dine, locally, and armed with all of this we came up with our concept, followed by a contest amongst the staff to choose a name for our new restaurant.

I was fortunate to have a very supportive owner and he subsequently approved our plan, and the funds necessary to carry out what we proposed, and we set about to create a destination restaurant and bar in our hotel.  

One of the keys to its success, in my opinion, is that we based everything on opening and operating a free-standing restaurant, an independent restaurant that would be able to compete in the local marketplace, that just happened to be in a hotel, but it would not be a hotel restaurant in the traditional sense.  Not that we didn’t think of our hotel guests as important, quite the contrary, but we didn’t build the restaurant around them, but rather to include them.  We created a place where they would want to go even if they weren’t staying with us.

My owner was rewarded for his support.  As promised in our redevelopment proposal, we increased overall food and beverage revenue by over 25% over the next 3 years, and departmental profitability went from - 5% to + 18% during that same period.

Hoteliers are going to need to determine what would make their guests want to eat and drink in their restaurants and bars, and at the same time attract the locals as well, and that will take looking at things in the way that they have not traditionally done, and making some tough decisions about what works and what doesn’t.

Fundamental to this process will be the need for hoteliers to ask themselves; “what would I do if it was my hotel, my money, my business on the line?”  A question that should be at the forefront of every decision, but this is not always the case.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Boutique or Big Box Brand – What’s Your Preference?

Aside from some very aggressive growth from several of the major brands, whose growth is mostly being driven by greater opportunities in emerging markets around the world, like China and India, I think one of the fastest growing sectors in the Hotel business in North America must be the “boutique” hotel.

What was once a smattering of Mom and Pop operations that were one step up from a road-side motel, has blossomed into some of the most unique and specialized boutique properties located in every major city in North America.

Many of these boutique properties that have come on the market in the last decade have established enviable reputations for providing the finest level of service and amenities, rivaling the big box branded hotels in their market.  And, many of these same properties have attracted the “A List” from the social and entertainment fields, which has in turn only served to enhance their reputation as “must stay” locations in certain cities.

Not that I would include myself on any “A List” of any kind, and the people that I consider my friends are an eclectic mix of people from every socio economical level you can imagine, but suffice to say that they all enjoy travelling and do so for both business and pleasure on a regular basis.  So I conducted my own unofficial poll to see what the preference was – boutique or big box brand.

I wasn’t really that surprised to find that there was a preference to the big box brand, for business, and, the boutique style property for pleasure trips.

In the case of business travel, and the associated preference of the big box brand, it was primarily a factor of the business needs that might encompass the trip, and the propensity for the major brands to have a greater assortment of technology in-house, both in the guest room itself, and with in-house business centres, and of course, conference services personnel to assist with meeting and presentation needs and the like.  Fair enough.

In the case of leisure trips, and peoples’ preference for the boutique properties, the overwhelming sentiment that came up again and again was the enhanced level of intimacy of these hotels, as well as a genuine level of warmth and personalized attention that they felt when they stayed at the boutique properties.

One of my friends commented that she has been staying at the same property in Seattle, an average of once or twice a year, for the past five years, and they remember her and her partner every time they stay, and they feel like they are treated as much like friends as they are guests.  The environment is that much more personal and the pace is that much more relaxing, although prompt and attentive.

Another common occurrence I found amongst the boutique hotels, was that they were more prone to hosting special evenings for their in-house guests, such as evening wine and cheese get-togethers, or other small, intimate receptions, where the managers would mingle with the guests, and, guests could meet each other and get to know each other as well.  

It’s just a different kind of experience, and I think that no matter how great the service and facilities are of the major brands, you cannot help but have a more personalized, more intimate experience when you stay at a boutique property, where the focus may be on a maximum of 100 guests at any given time, compared to 1,000 potential guests or more in the big box branded hotel.  Their whole business model is built upon providing exceptional and unique experiences to each and every one of their guests, personalized to such a level to create the highest level of guest loyalty and repeat guests.

What’s your preference?  Let me know . . .

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Politics – A Vivid Demonstration of Everything that is Wrong with the World

If you’re a Canadian, you know that we are now in the midst of the latest political campaign, in an attempt to influence our vote for the upcoming Federal election in May 2011.

I know that we are fortunate, especially when compared to many other countries in political turmoil right now, that we have the democratic system that we do, the very right to vote, and on and on, and I am appreciative for where I live and the liberties that I enjoy, I really am.

That said, I would like to be “inspired” by my political leaders, not driven to choose where to cast my vote based on who I dislike the least, and I know that I am not alone.  I admitted to a friend recently, that, for the first time in my life, I did not vote in the last Federal election, because I was so disillusioned and disgusted with the campaigns of each of the candidates, I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for any of them, because I was not willing to use the formula that I just described – he who sucks the least wins.
And now, here we are again, being bombarded with images and messages of everything that is wrong with the “other” candidate.  Here’s a thought, how about, instead, you tell me about you, move me, inspire me, by demonstrating who you are and what you are committed to on my behalf and on behalf of my country.

What I see and hear in these negative ad campaigns is everything that is wrong in the world, manifested in the words and images broadcast across the televisions and radios throughout the Nation.

I see bullying, I see discrimination, I see unnecessary fighting and arguing, I see unfounded accusations, lies and defamation, I see initiatives designed to separate us, not bring us together, messages designed to create fear amongst us.  All of this from the people who want to lead us.

What is perhaps most astounding to me, is that all of this is somehow, inexplicably deemed as acceptable behavior, which hardly seems to raise an eyebrow from most people, or, people shrug it off with statements like; “it’s politics, what do you expect?”

But imagine if we ran our businesses like this, if we embraced this kind of leadership style as our own?  How long would we last?

Consider you open your newspaper tomorrow and there is a full-page ad, by say Fairmont Hotels, telling you how awful Four Seasons Hotels are.  It goes on to accuse Westin and Sheraton of being dirty, Marriott Hotels of having terrible service, and concludes with some negative caption under a photo-shopped photograph of Bill Marriott.  Would you think to yourself, wow, I want to stay with Fairmont Hotels; I am moved and inspired by their ad.  I think not.

What’s more, we would be disgusted and outraged, because it is simply unacceptable behavior, at any time, but perhaps even more so when it is seen to be spearheaded by those that would label themselves as leaders, pillars in our community.

That which was intended to drive us to one brand would instead send us running in the opposite direction.  Why then is this acceptable behavior from those that would lead us at the highest level, representing our country and our values to the world.

I admit, I don’t have the answer.  It is I confess one of those moments in life when I feel about as significant as a grain of sand on the beach.

But, it all starts with one voice.

Martin Luther King once said; “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

If you’d like to see a new era of politics in our country, add your voice.

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