What Holiday Parties Teach about Hospitality

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Last week The Petrova Experience, like many companies, hosted our holiday party. In good customer experience fashion, we put significant effort into finding the perfect location. We agonized over the details of choosing the perfect food. And we made it an imperative to find a team that delivered excellent customer service. We train hospitality teams, and we foster hospitality mindsets for clients inside and outside of the hospitality industry. So, if we are celebrating our team at the end of a busy year, we are also looking to spend time with those unsung customer experience heroes who make moments memorable for guests all over New York City.

Because we know what it takes to create and sustain memorable experiences, we also knew we would have to commit to a real budget to make this holiday party one we were proud to raise a glass to. So, we paid a premium to close a private room in Manhattan. Dedicated planning, true commitment to our team and service industry colleagues. You are thinking yes, this is a recipe for absolute success. For flawless guest experience.

I wish that was the story we had to tell. Instead, what we have is a set of lessons in hospitality from our holiday party.

Build a Foundation for Hospitality Experiences

Unfortunately, despite paying that premium for a private space, and the expectation it would come with dedicated service, we did not receive private service. The waiter let us down on all hospitality standards, even those considered by the average guest. He did not greet any one of us and never smiled (not a single time!).

Keep in mind, I am a hospitality veteran, In fact, I fell in love with customer experience while serving diners in Atlantic City. I am not expecting (and certainly do not desire) performative shows of admiration to guests. What I and my team expect, and what we help successful teams build, is an authentic hospitality experience.

That means creating a space – and individual moments – in which a guest feels seen, heard, and cared for. The most fundamental way to do this is to cultivate and maintain human connections. First, with your employees, then, by empowering them to spread human connection out to your customers. And it starts with a smile.

Make Guests Feel Welcome and Wanted

Have you ever had the feeling restaurant staff would prefer you weren’t there? Like they have no desire to make you stay, feel comfortable, or enjoy your time in their space? Whether intentional or not, this is exactly the feeling hospitality teams convey to their guests when they do not deliver on basic expectations. And when they fail to make guests feel comfortable enough to relax and engage fully in the experience around them.

Yes, there are a variety of strategies for personalizing and enhancing guest experience. For creating Wow Moments. But none of those goals can be achieved if you are not meeting the minimum standard of guest expectations. This is the version of “hospitality” we encountered at our holiday party. Our waiter did not keep our glasses full. What we noticed even more personally, though, is that he never once asked how the food was. Whether we were enjoying ourselves. Who we were and why were celebrating.

Understand the Service-Brand Viability Connection

What happened later surprised us even more. When we decided to exercise our right to express our satisfaction level through the percentage of our tip, the waiter became angry and confrontational. He claimed he “has never worked harder in [his] life than for us.” My first thought was, if that is the most he can do, he definitely needs to change industries.

My next thought is, his leadership needs to radically change how they understand hospitality. And how they hire, train, and empower their staff. It is not easy to keep a restaurant open in the heart of New York City. According to Eater, “at least 4,500 food businesses have shuttered” in the past three years. Cornell University puts the first year in operation restaurant failure rate at 30%. Sixty percent will fail after the three-year mark. And that was before the pandemic.

Our server’s leadership needed to understand the connection between hospitality standards and brand viability. Then, leadership needed to make the commitment to create a culture of education, autonomy, and empowerment. If this individual truly was working harder than he ever had, that means he was never taught how to work in a way that was meaningful and positive for himself, his guest, and his employer.

He was failed far more deeply than we were. We will have better hospitality experiences elsewhere. But a leader knowingly deprived an employee of the opportunity to grow as an individual, to contribute positively to a team, and to create something positive and memorable for others. That leader deprived him of the opportunity to good. And to do good work.

Know What Hospitality Is, So You Can Live It

When you look up the definition of hospitality you read, “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” This is the essence of what hospitality should mean to everyone in the service industry. Disney calls their parks “the stage.” When you step on that stage, you are there to deliver for your audience. To welcome your guests generously and openly.

Is that always easy? Absolutely not. We all have personal lives that intrude on our work. We all have thoughts that occupy us, even when we are in front of our customers. And constantly being “on” for your guests is physically and psychologically taxing. No one is saying this work is easy. But it truly is worth it. Delivering happiness to customers, making someone’s day brighter, celebrating WITH them… that is the magic of hospitality.

And that is why, when we train hospitality teams, we get very real about what it takes to deliver true hospitality experiences. We are open about the toll it takes on everyone creating these experiences. We build skills, resilience, and provide tools that empower and strengthen employees to live out a hospitality mission and to support and empower each other. But not everyone gets that kind of training.

And just as it is becoming harder for hospitality teams to deliver on experience expectations, the expectations of visitors are becoming more and more important to them. Their tolerance for bad experiences is diminishing, and that motivates action. According to a Calabrio report, “60% of consumers have switched brands due to a negative [service] experience.”

Hospitality is Not Back Yet

We are wrapping up 2023, and we are still feeling the impact of the pandemic across industries. Although travel is back and we are seeing a renaissance of sorts there, the hospitality industry has not yet recovered. We lost an entire generation of seasoned professionals who in the pandemic found what were, at the time, more stable jobs, and did not return. The result? Vacations where guests spend 10K for terrible service, and our underwhelming holiday party in the middle of Manhattan.

Danny Meyers, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group says it is almost impossible to teach hospitality. That it is important to hire the right people. I believe that to some extent. However, I also know that people can be SHOWN hospitality. And by doing that, they can become inspired to deliver it. The hardest part of hospitality is making those who need to deliver it truly understand that serving and making others happy is not about you being under the other person, but rather it is about connecting with the other person and creating joy. Once that mindset shift happens, people become curious about the “how.” Their engagement increases. And experiences improve.

We all need to get ahead of the decay in the hospitality industry. Everyone can play a role reclaiming good service. For the guests and customers – ask for more. Do not settle. Let the size of the tip reflect the quality of the service. For the employers – realize that you have to pay for training. For a long time. The responsibility is on you to rebuild the know-how that the pandemic erased from our industry.

If you are ready to empower your hospitality teams, contact us.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Liliana Petrova
Liliana Petrova CCXP pioneered a new customer-centric culture that energized more than 15,000 JetBlue employees. Future Travel Experience & Popular Science awarded her for her JFK Lobby redesign & facial recognition program. Committed to creating seamless experiences for customers and greater value for brands, she founded The Petrova Experience, an international customer experience consulting firm that helps brands improve CX. To elevate the industry, she launched a membership program to help CX professionals grow their careers. Ms Petrova lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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