The Oxford English Dictionary defines hospitality as:
“the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers”.
Lately, I feel as though the presence of “friendly” and “generous” has been somewhat lost in the hospitality industry. Friendliness has been replaced by strict guidelines that dictate behavior, forced satisfactory checks with the same robotic line, “was everything alright with your food” blurted out regardless of whether you have even eaten your first bite or not. Generosity is directly linked to the frequent visit programs, offering carefully calculated free items that you have already paid for either by loyally frequenting the brand, or by paying over the odds in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, we are all in businesses to make money, but I question whether three industries are forgetting their hospitality roots.
Airlines sell a highly commoditised service – transport from A to B. In the past, you had the traditional airlines that differentiated through service and brand, such as British Airways and Emirates, whereas budget airlines have made a name for being the cheapest. Now, the lines between the two camps are blurred.
At British Airways, rather than following the route of being better, you now pay for seats, phone reservation, and food. The service has become the same and sometimes worse than the likes of Easy Jet and recently I experienced this first hand. Having trouble reserving a seat ahead of check in, I had to call the British Airway’s customer service hotline. After 45 minutes, I was informed the issue was caused by a glitch in their system. Even worse was the fact that the staff were powerless to either overwrite the system to fix the issue or offer any alternative solution.
By taking any decision making power away from the staff, British Airways is likely to be losing loyal customers who might otherwise pay a premium to fly with them.
The same pattern is emerging in the hotel industry. Even though technology, especially Online Travel Agents and revenue management systems, have significantly challenged the hotel industry, the decision making process is distanced from employees, lowering the level of hospitality they can provide.
You used to be able to call a hotel for a reservation and they would try to win you as a client, by accommodating your demands or occasionally giving you a discount. Nowadays, you frequently find that the person you are speaking to is checking online, on the companies web site, to quote rates and availability.
Perhaps this leads to superior occupancy and lower staff costs, but is it hospitality?
There is a similar parallel with online booking systems such as OpenTable or Bookatable. Whilst this technology helps operators to manage their capacity, staff members have begun to rely on the computer to make decisions that would benefit from human intelligence.
There have been many times when I have been told no table is available only to find that half the tables are empty when I turn up, or had a hostess look at the computer to tell me whether there is space for me, without actually looking to see who is waiting to pay, who is ordering another bottle of wine or who is still waiting for their date to arrive.
This happens because softwares like these booking systems have a setting regarding how long people stay at a table. When you insert a reservation or seat a table, the system blocks off that set time away from the supply. What the system does not know is all the small variables that make service faster or slower at that specific time. I once changed this setting from 2 to 1.5 hours at a restaurant and there was an increase of 13% in sales with no effect on quality.
A computer cannot know that the Friday kitchen team deal with larger tables better that the Saturday team, only the employees can. Technology has done marvels for the hospitality industry, however, it works best in tandem with people and I am surprised to see the hospitality sector neglecting this. After all, people are what make hospitality.