Staffing hotels with employees who care creates impeccable hospitality

Recently, Tim Terceira, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was in the lobby of his downtown property when he noticed a guest loaded down with bags heading into the drizzly weather. Terceira asked the man if he could assist with transportation. Setting the bags down, the guest explained he was headed to the TD Centre and would appreciate directions. Terceira did better, offering the guest an umbrella and a ride in the hotel’s Cadillac Escalade. “All of this put a big smile on his face because it wasn’t something he was expecting,” says the GM, who went inside and encouraged his manager on duty to share the story with his team. “It’s not that they wouldn’t have done the same thing themselves,” he explains, “but these examples reinforce it, and attention to service at this level is essential.”

High-level service is increasingly important as hoteliers acknowledge the valuable role customer service has to play in differentiating their brand in an increasingly crowded hotel landscape. Luxury properties are constantly improving relevance from a design perspective, and there’s little doubt some brands accomplish this better than others. However, there’s much homogeneity across this spectrum of comparison, many agree, and winners regularly trade the lead position. Throughout it all, service prevails as the key discriminator. “Those who do it the best,” says Terceira succinctly, “will do the best.”

In Terceira’s mind, guests of the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto — or at least those fiercely loyal to the hotel — seek out the brand while making travel plans. The concept of engagement is a powerful force in the Ritz-Carlton’s brand-management efforts. It’s a force so strong it shapes a standard of service and builds customer loyalty.

Personnel Preoccupations

Ritz-Carlton staffers understand the expectation from the moment of first contact. In addition to a rigorous set of practices — including gold standards of the day, quotes of the day, an employee promise and the concept of six-diamond service — the company also initiated the employee motto “ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” Additionally, the Ritz has a very prescriptive selection process that includes online assessments and multiple in-person meetings. It’s not unusual for a prospective Ritz-Carlton employee to be interviewed our times prior to being selected. The goal is to match the potential hire’s DNA with the Ritz-Carlton brand.

Once hired, Ritz-Carlton employees attend a two-day orientation and embark on a certification process under the auspices of department head “learning coaches.” Additionally, every associate, each weekday, in every Ritz-Carlton property around the world, studies a particular service oriented subject through short education sessions. The theme, ‘service excellence’ runs throughout the facilitator-delivered sessions. Personnel are quizzed on their comprehension during the weekend.

Similarly, the Four Seasons, like many businesses today, hires candidates for attitude rather than skill. “It’s like a good meal,” says Craig Reid, Four Seasons’ president of Hotel Operations for the Americas. “You’ve got to start with the right ingredients.” As such, would-be staffers undergo a four-part hiring process. They’re interviewed by various levels of management and in the balance it’s about an individual’s personality and affinity with the hotel. “It’s easier for us to put them in a uniform than it is for us to inculcate a naturally friendly attitude,” says Reid.

Do Unto Others

It’s the same story at the new Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto, where immersing employees in an attentive atmosphere is key. “It’s about creating an unsurpassed and respectful environment for our associates. We start by wowing our team so they can then wow our guests,” explains Amit Dhanani, a training manager.

Specifically, it means management treats employees with respect and professionalism from the get-go, speaking to potential employees with “luxurious language” and taking the time to learn personal stories. Right off the bat, potential hires are impressed, says Dhanani. Through the entire recruitment process, whether or not a candidate gets the job, Trump staff treat them with respect. It shows how Trump management expects its team to treat others.

The same consideration extends to training, an exercise Trump management believes should be undertaken with attention to engaged participation. It’s why traditional lectures have been replaced with workbooks, role playing and several interactive tools. “They didn’t get a 300-page manual dropped in their laps,” says Dhanani, who explains that his company looks for passion, drive and enthusiasm among the 20,000 applications they received in 2011 — 19,950 more than they needed.

The discovery method of learning is nothing new to the instructors at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, a world renowned hotel college — the oldest hotel school in the world — located in Switzerland. Empirical research undertaken by EHL, says Anouck Weiss, director of Communications, suggests one of the tricks to great service is the development of a “service climate.” Several elements contribute to its creation, Weiss explains, including sophisticated HR systems that allow for the recognition of exceptional service performance and strong leadership that “shows the way.”

At Starwood, leadership has been assigned a position in the form of service culture trainers. Charged with modelling brand behaviour to subordinates, the individuals — no less than one at each property — are essentially brand champions. They’re responsible for promoting the qualities hundreds of hours of consumer interviews, meetings with general managers and executive surveys revealed as making Starwood “distinctively competitive.”

Mastering this feat didn’t happen overnight. “It’s been an eight-year journey in terms of understanding who we are as a brand and what we can do to support that from a service perspective,” says Trevor Bracher, director of Service Culture for Starwood’s North America division. “A bed is a bed is a bed, but the big umbrella over the whole thing is … do we care enough to do the very best?,” he asks rhetorically. “If you show me that you do care, I’ll come back.”

Starwood guest-experience scores have consistently improved over the last six years, as have associate scores. “Those two components show we’re on the right track.”

Enumerating Efforts

Quantifications are important, considering the investment of money and time this kind of undertaking demands. An exact cost is difficult to calculate, concedes Tamara Jovene, director of Brand Service Delivery for IHG Americas’ HR team. At her company, a full-time hourly employee receives an average of 85 hours of training per year, 75 per cent devoted to skill building and 25 per cent to personal development. The organization, enterprise-wide, spends $10 million annually on learning and performance. IHG has been measuring employee engagement since 2003, and recently recorded its highest scores (up 17 per cent from 2007). More than that, 94 per cent of staffers say they’re proud to work for the company, compared to the industry average of 73 per cent.

At the Ritz-Carlton, Terceira calls the cost of preparing good employees “significant,” but he won’t staff the hotel with employees who aren’t prepared to embody the service culture. “One could put dollars against activities, but then there’s revenues that aren’t lost because you have repeat guests,” he explains. The Four Seasons’ Reid agrees. “We don’t see these things as expenses; we see them as investments,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by most hoteliers, who prefer to measure success less by the numbers and more by guest feedback. “If our guests are happy, they’re going to come back and say good things about us,” says Pete Kangalee, director of Human Resources at Trump International Tower and Hotel, Toronto. “The guest experience is the big thing. Whatever it takes for our staff members to provide a memorable guest experience, we want them to be in a position to do so.”

Europe vs. North America

As is the case across most of Europe, École Hôtelière de Lausanne endorses an appreciation for über-fine service that’s generally regarded to be more evolved than in North America. Weiss, the school’s director of Communications, clarifies the differing approaches: “The service culture in North America is strongly centered around efficiency of service: reliable, on time, pragmatic, almost impersonal.

Of course we share the same ambition of excellence, but we also promote the fact that the Swiss
sense of hospitality is based on a subtle balance of rigour and style geared towards the pleasure of our guest.” Deeply rooted in the history of noble hôtellerie that was born in the 19th century on the shores of Lake Geneva when palaces flourished, the “Swiss sense of hospitality” is founded in the “savoir-faire and savoir-être around the mastery of operational skills, meticulous attention to detail and diplomatic poise.”

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