by L. Aruna Dhir, Columnist & Featured Contributor
Of Ambassadors and Appearances
IF YOU TAKE a spot survey with me and ask me to name my most favourite hotel then I am very likely to name the one with the impressive Doorman who swept me off my feet. Not only did he show commitment to his role but also imbued it with a lot of pride. And the least favourite! Well! one with the chauffeur who showed no class, no affiliation with the Brand he stood for and in whom the Company had failed to put the mandatory training hours. What a miserable failure he was and, through him, his Company.
Regardless of what the ‘badshahs’ (emperors) of Brand Management will have you believe, it is not the smooth-operating Marketing Head who has been perfecting his and his team’s moves to net the customer(s) or the pretty and saccharine pleasant Guest Relations Manager who is equipped to lay the honey trap. No! not the slicker of a Public Relations Director with all the slippery-savvy PR spiel with which to ensnare the guests, the flamboyantly suave Food & Beverage flapper-jabber who excels in pandering to all the senses with richly loaded platters of ethereal pleasure or even the Owner who aims to put his buck and bravado where his Company’s bottom line is.
The power to make or break your brand lies with a handful of F.O.T.H (Front of the House) and B.O.T.H (Back of the House) team members who cater to the basics of a guest’s experience with your brand; from the moment the guest arrives to the length of his stay and beyond.
Hotels are a vibrant industry – as temperamental, moody, fun, idiosyncratic, and eccentric – as the people who make the structure throb and come alive. And that presents a unique challenge to those who are responsible for ensuring that the brand personality seeps into each employee optimally for a cohesive representation of the brand. Ask the Training and Human Resource fellas and they will tell you how much sleep they lose over beating, shaping, moulding, clubbing a delightfully eclectic mix into a unified cookie-cutter, strait-jacketed, assembly line incarnations of the Brand.
So, let’s take a closer look at these folks who hold the power of the Hotel’s universe in their very able hands.
- THE WELCOMING PARTY
One of the most important Brand Ambassadors of your hotel is your hotel’s first contact with the guests – the Airport Representative. How the guest is accorded the ‘meet & greet’ service, how is he assisted, how comfortable are the lady travellers made, how smoothly, swiftly is the entire act of receiving, welcoming, escorting played out is at the centre of this preface. The guest is identified correctly, greeted by name, made to feel at ease on his first or nth visit, welcomed back warmly as extended family on his return visit, helped with passport, visa, disembarkation, extra baggage, customs formalities – the Airport Representative does all this and more; making the arrival a delightful touchdown after a tiresome long haul or annoying short haul flight.
It is the Airport Manager, with his excellent contacts within the Airports, enviable understanding of the goings on, change in policies, recent developments in the Airline industry and his training as a significant hotel-to-guest contact, who sets the tone for a great or grey stay for the guest.
Remember that avuncular, well-mannered, warm and friendly just-to-the-right-degree Chauffeur in Pretty Woman who extends the finest courtesy to Vivian Ward in spite of the way she is dressed? Do you recall how he stays completely non-judgemental and guest-focussed regardless of the known fact about Vivian’s trade and goes enthusiastically beyond the brief to seal the liaison between the two love birds? Well! he truly personified the finest Brand Ambassador a hotel can dream of or train and retain.
From my own experience, I have run the gamut from the pros in fine fettle to those failing to a fault with a few square pegs thrown in between. I have been driven royally from Manhattan to JFK Airport in a luxury sedan by a delightful man; asked about my choice of music, comfort with temperature within the car cabin, choice of magazine and a drink of Evian. I have found myself cooped amidst the flawed interiors that reeked of grime, sweat, socks and a very musty uniform with manners that jarred. Then there has been that brief association with the Driver who spoke nineteen to the dozen at the wee hour of the morning when he picked me up from the KTM station in KL with an overfriendly demeanour that tested my patience.
When hotels pay a lot of attention to the wheels they choose to represent their Brand – from the latest models of Mercedes, Ford, BMW, Honda CRV or even good old remodelled Ambassadors – equal attention must be paid to the captain who will steer the ship to success with the guest. From the spic and span crispness of the uniform to the perfect p’s and q’s of conduct, product knowledge, positive perspective that is eager to serve but is never servile and a zealous compliance with service standards, the hotel chauffeur can have the guest in turn doff his hat admirably at this fine example of a brand embodiment.
- THE SCINTILLATING SENTINEL
There is something really magical about the tall, turbaned Doormen of The Raffles in Singapore and The Oberoi and The Imperial in New Delhi, India. Not only are these Sikh gentlemen large, pillar like guards to the hotel but are also the most gregarious, charming, sincere and larger than life direct-guest-contact members of the team. They help to draw the guests in and create a friendly first impression. They pull the guests into a comfort zone of familiarity with a know-you-from-before effortless conversation that guests seem to strike with them with utter ease. Above all, they convey a sense of security with their bear-like burliness. Perhaps that is why these gentlemen have become brands in themselves; literally iconic figures that the hotel finds absolutely irreplaceable. They have been some of the most photographed by the visiting guests and have had their mugs framed in hotel postcards sold in the hotel’s souvenir shops or tucked away in the guest compendium.
The Doorman who stood guard at The Pierre – then a Four Seasons Hotel – in the summer of 2001 has made such a strong impression on me that I have written about him often and put him down as a case study in my training papers. While on a Rotary fellowship, I was travelling through the United States on a shoe-string budget; hence my transportation of choice from Newark Airport to the heart of Fifth Avenue was not expensive cabs but affordable public carrier. As I stepped down at The Pierre’s porch from a far less than perfect bus, I showed trepidation and an oversized hint of hesitation. But not the majestic Doorman as he extended his gloved hand to help me get down from the bus and whisked away my baggage ever so discreetly. He welcomed me with the most heart-warming smile and ushered me inside the hotel into the very hospitable and efficient hands of the Front Desk. His respect towards the guest and overall pleasantness stayed professional and un-shifting, whether he saw me alighting from a public transport or hobnobbing with his super boss – the dapper General Manager. I think that is class and highly evolved standards of service that his Brand has benchmarked and instilled in him.
In direct contrast have been Doormen of a clutch of hotels who size up the guests from the clothes they wear, the cars they come in and also whether they drive it themselves or are driven in. I once had a journalist friend complain sorely about one such Sentry who was a complete anti-worker to the Brand philosophy we were trying to espouse. He, with his ogre like bearing, displayed a condescending bias against the important guest only because she had decided to take an auto rickshaw to the hotel and walk up to the porch. This is such a big reason for the GM, RDM, Training Manager and Director – HR to get into a huddle and relook at the best practices blueprint with the biggest lens in hand.
- FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
The sparkling Bellboys with their trademark pillbox hats and spiffy uniforms at The Peninsula in Hong Kong are legendary.
The Imperial in New Delhi, when it repositioned and re-launched itself as one of the finest hotels in Asia, chalked out a template for its Bellgirls with the effort put into choosing the right profile, height (same height for aesthetic consistency), same features and remarkable disposition so that they could usher in a gust of positive chi into the hotel along with the guests. The formula turned out to be so successful that it became a conversation starter for the guests who just loved to be greeted by the bubbly bellgirls. It also became a great story pitch with the media for as long as the idea stayed novel.
The Bellboys and Bellgirls, as one of the first points of contact for the guest, should help seal the guest association with their strong information base, affability, easy approachability and a fine tuned frame of mind that is pegged at effortless devotion to duty.
- THE GOLDEN KEYS
The Concierge need not be Les Clefs d’Or decorated to be one of the luminary performers in the scheme of superlative service at hotels.
Two of the essential qualities that should be central to a Concierge’s role are charm and compassion – the first helps build a bridge with the guest and the second creates an indelible bond.
The Concierge team must be the right mix of friendly, charming, warm and pleasant such that any guest – Asian or African, Western or from the Indigenous tribes of the world – should find them accessible and forthcoming.
Not just the product awareness, the Concierge must know the City (and in many cases the Country) like the back of their hand.
I once worked with Steve, the Head Concierge at our Hotel who incidentally is also India’s first Concierge to be dressed with the Golden keys by the international Les Clefs d’Or. Steve was so zealous about his task that he was always eager to collaborate with me for putting out interesting information for the hotel guests in unique ways. With him, nay, for him, I began the weekly Concierge letter that he would come knocking on my office door for every Friday. He was so keen to over deliver and capture the A-ha moments with his guests that he was forever reading up on new information and looking up for any and every guest contact opportunity to learn just what would they want, what could they want and when.
Where to get the suit put together in a hurry, which seamstress can remake a Dior gown, where can a pink elephant be sourced for a kiddie party, which places are best to enjoy the local cuisine in, where do you get authentic pearls, jades and rubies, what’s the best antidote for a spot of seasonal allergy or a local insect bite and which store will stock it, who sells the best souvenirs and also gives the best deal, what are the local no-nos to watch out for, what is safe and what is just not worth the guest’s time, where to buy branded luggage, high-end watches or couture or where to shop for artisanal products or essential oils, is there a play, musical or movie that is highly recommended, how to pack more in a little time and what all little things to relish so as to fill out an extended stay most optimally – the Concierge is a store house and Mr. Know-it-all of all this information and much more.
From Agony Aunts, tour guide, confidante, to information Mnemonic and super fixer – the Concierge must play out these roles with élan and expertise.
In Part 2 of this article we will look at the remaining five superstars who infuse the hotel with their brilliant energy! Sadly, they also have the muscle to diffuse and squander away all the goodness and goodwill with a counter-productive mix of wrong training, dismal output and marred temperament towards their roles and the setting they are meant to deliver in.
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